India Faces Questions Over Its Handling Of A Militant Attack

By Shashank Bengali , Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW DELHI — As Indian forces worked for a fourth day to secure an air force base raided by Pakistan-based militants, the government faced growing questions Tuesday about its response to the attack, which left at least seven troops dead and 20 wounded.

The criticisms focused on India’s continued vulnerability to cross-border attacks and why the operation to clear the Pathankot Air Force station, about 30 miles from the Pakistani border, of a handful of heavily armed assailants was taking so long. Officials said six militants were killed in the incident.

“Pathankot should be a wake-up call,” said an editorial Tuesday in the Hindustan Times newspaper. “That the terrorists could easily intrude into and hold a major air force base hostage for a long period casts doubt on the security of our industrial infrastructure, cities and iconic locations.”

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, which began Saturday, but Indian officials say they have evidence that Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based militant group, was behind it.

Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said “combing operations” to clear the base were continuing and could last into Wednesday. He voiced the question on the minds of many Indians when he said later: “My worry was how they (terrorists) managed to come inside” the base.

India has suffered far deadlier terror attacks. But beyond causing embarrassment, the Pathankot raid and its aftermath have threatened to derail an upcoming round of talks between India and Pakistan and has given ammunition to critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to thaw relations with his country’s blood rival.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called Modi on Tuesday and said his government “would take prompt and decisive action” against the perpetrators of the attack, according to a statement from the Indian government. Indian officials have said they would wait for Pakistan’s response before deciding whether to proceed with the talks, scheduled for mid-January in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

“Their words are encouraging,” said a senior Indian official who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “But obviously if they don’t take serious action, that is not a conducive atmosphere for dialogue.”

Despite the bloodshed, the statements from both capitals have been conciliatory — a sign that neither government wants to be blamed for calling off the meeting in Islamabad. The top diplomats from both countries are due to resume a long-stalled dialogue on security and economic issues, an effort that gained momentum two weeks ago when Modi made an unannounced visit to Pakistan to greet Sharif on his birthday.

“If talks remain on track, it is because both sides have demonstrated unusual restraint,” Ajai Shukla, a retired army colonel, wrote in the Business Standard newspaper.

But the government’s response to the attack “transformed what should have been a short, intelligence-driven, counter-terrorist operation into something that increasingly seems like a debacle,” Shukla wrote.

Analysts expressed worry at how the militants likely crossed into India: from a vulnerable area along the Pakistani border that that is commonly used by drug smugglers. Officials in India’s northern Punjab state have long been accused of turning a blind eye to the cross-border drug trade — or covertly profiting off of it — despite concerns that it posed a security risk.

India’s Border Security Force this week acknowledged there were “gaping holes along the international border and malfunctioning of electronic surveillance equipment,” according to an internal government report cited by the Hindustan Times .

“The way the militants crossed such a sensitive border without much effort clearly shows there are problems in India’s border management,” said Sameer Patil, a security analyst with Gateway House, a think tank in Mumbai.

Questions also swirled around whether security officials responded adequately after learning Friday, the day before the raid, that militants had entered Punjab. Six months earlier, a similar militant raid in Punjab resulted in the deaths of four policemen and three civilians.

Analysts said security officials erred by not sending sufficient army troops to protect Pathankot, a 2,000-acre base that represented a major target. The responsibility for securing Pathankot was left largely to the Defense Security Corps, a force made up of retired military veterans who suffered most of the casualties, and other units ill-equipped for the operation, analysts said.

Although the militants were stopped before they could reach a secure area inside the base where warplanes are housed, Praveen Swami, a veteran national security correspondent at the Indian Express newspaper, said in an interview that the operation pointed to “poor training of security personnel.”

Defense officials said the militants were found with more than 100 pounds of bullets, grenades and other weapons, raising questions about how they managed to cross the border undetected and scale the base’s perimeter walls.

“It tells you something was badly wrong,” Swami said.

Many experts said officials should have expected such an attack, because in recent years, violence has nearly always followed signs of warming ties between India and Pakistan. The countries have fought four wars since 1947 and maintain one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders.

Indian officials say the violence has been directed by parts of Pakistan’s “deep state,” which opposes the peace process, although the Pakistani government denies the accusation.

Jaish-e-Mohammad, the militant group suspected in the attack, wants to drive India out of the disputed border territory of Kashmir. New Delhi said it has shared information about the attackers with Islamabad.

Some analysts in India say Modi has too much invested in dialogue with Pakistan, and that calling off talks would only embolden those elements of Pakistan’s government that oppose peace.

“Since Prime Minister Modi and his team have taken the gamble of engaging with Pakistan … it would not like to abandon this initiative midway,” Patil said.

(Los Angeles Times special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report from Mumbai, India.)

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A sign at the India-Pakistan border. tjollans via Flickr

Indian Court Rejects More Jail Time For Man Convicted As A Minor In 2012 Gang Rape

By Shashank Bengali and Parth M.N., Los Angeles Times (TNS)

MUMBAI, India — A day after a man convicted as a minor in a brutal 2012 gang rape and murder in New Delhi was released from detention, India’s Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals to extend his sentence in a case that has sparked a passionate debate over juvenile justice.

The man, who was shy of his 18th birthday when convicted, was released Sunday after completing a three-year term in a reform home, the maximum sentence allowed under Indian law.

On Monday, India’s highest court dismissed a petition filed by the Delhi Commission of Women, a government body, arguing that the man should be returned to custody. The court ruled that despite the emotions surrounding the case, which prompted international outrage and reforms that have expedited prosecutions of rape cases, it had no legal grounds to extend the man’s sentence.

“We cannot interpret the law to curtail his freedom without legislative sanction,” Justice U.U. Lalit said. “We share your concern, but we cannot go beyond the statute.”

The man, now 20, was the sole juvenile among six assailants convicted of the rape of a physiotherapy student aboard a moving bus in India’s capital in December 2012. The victim died from her injuries two days later. The other five perpetrators were sentenced to death.

The man who was convicted as a minor was released into the care of a nongovernmental aid agency because of fears that he would not be safe if he returned to his home. As part of his state-sanctioned rehabilitation, he is to receive about $150 and a sewing machine to set up a tailoring shop.

His release sparked protests in New Delhi on Sunday, with activists and some government officials calling for changes to India’s Juvenile Justice Act that would allow 16-year-olds to be tried as adults in serious crimes.

“Crime has won, we have lost,” the victim’s mother, Asha Devi, told reporters Monday. “The women of this country have always been betrayed and this has happened once again. Nobody is concerned about women’s safety.”

The outcry, which was fanned by nonstop coverage by India’s voluble television news channels, prompted lawmakers to schedule arguments on the Juvenile Justice Act for Tuesday, but that also drew scorn from some quarters. Lawyers called it a knee-jerk reaction by politicians aimed at appeasing the media, arguing there was little evidence to suggest that lowering the age of majority would deter such crimes.

“Please do not rush into stupidity due to vocal anchors,” tweeted Sanjay Hegde, a senior lawyer who argues before the Supreme Court.

“India’s rape problems are complex and can’t be solved by quick-fix harsh laws.”

The 2012 case triggered some changes to Indian laws aimed at improving protection of women, including the creation of fast-track courts to handle rape cases and harsher punishment for sexual harassment, stalking and other offenses.

Yet incidents of rape and sexual crimes cases continue far from the spotlight of major cities. Activists also point to comments by some elected officials who have suggested that victims provoke sexual crimes due to the way they dress or behave.

“Our young boys do not learn that rape is morally wrong and a crime followed surely by punishment,” said Kavita Krishnan, an activist. “Instead they learn that some rapists are animals who deserve to be punished, while most rape complainants are liars and most responsibility to prevent rape lies with women not with men.

“As long as our system and our society teaches these lessons, we cannot deter rape and sexual harassment.”

(Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Demonstrators listen to a speaker during a protest against the release of a juvenile rape convict, in New Delhi, India, December 20, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Sri Lanka Stuck With Former President’s White Elephants

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka — This remote coastal scrubland, a haven for wild elephants and migratory birds that is several hours away from the nearest city, seems like an odd place to attempt to create a major commercial hub.

Yet such was the whim of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a local son who, thanks to Chinese loans, poured immense sums into pet projects during the decade he held this island nation in his grip.

Since he was voted out of office in January, Rajapaksa’s extravagant spending in his home district, much of it named for himself, looks ever more like monuments to folly.

A giant Indian Ocean harbor being blasted out of the island’s southern shoreline is costing well over $1 billion, and officials say it is unlikely to break even for years. A $210 million international airport built two years ago has hundreds of employees but receives just a few passengers a day.

The 35,000-seat Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium and a new convention center are rarely used, as are miles of expansive new highways that get little traffic apart from the occasional herd of cattle.

“It’s a crying shame how much money was spent,” said Harsha de Silva, deputy minister for policy planning and economic affairs in Sri Lanka’s new government. “Why is an airport in the middle of nowhere? Why are you building a road to the middle of nowhere?”

It’s not as though Sri Lankans didn’t ask those questions before, but under Rajapaksa’s increasingly despotic administration, dissent was ignored or punished. After his narrow and surprising election defeat, the country of 20 million is waking up to the excesses of his rule.

SriLankan Airlines, the deeply indebted national carrier, announced that it would cease operating from Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in the town of Mattala, north of Hambantota. The twice-daily flights were losing the airline $8 million a year, company officials said.

The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, ordered a review of all of Rajapaksa’s projects — a long list. To cement the government’s victory in a 26-year civil war against northern Tamil rebels, Rajapaksa embarked on a $6 billion infrastructure spending binge starting in 2009.

More than two-thirds of the projects, including the port and airport at Hambantota, were financed by Chinese banks at interest rates as high as 6.3 percent annually, several times what other lenders offered, without open bidding, officials say.

Authorities are investigating whether contracts were padded to benefit members of Rajapaksa’s government, which included more than two dozen members of his extended family. No charges have been filed.

In the meantime, finance officials are exploring ways to restructure the Chinese loans. Government lawyers are poring over contracts, trying to scale back some projects that haven’t yet begun, such as a 500 acre development on reclaimed land in the capital, Colombo, where the Rajapaksa envisioned luxury high-rises and a Formula One racetrack.

Rajapaksa and members of his family did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview last month with the South China Morning Post, he defended his actions.

“I wanted development for Sri Lanka, and China was the only one which had the resources and the inclination to help me,” Rajapaksa said.

Opponents counter that he built by fiat, bypassing environmental studies and economic assessments, and that China, seeking to boost its influence on the doorstep of rival India, took advantage of his haste.

“They were vanity projects for Rajapaksa, plain and simple, and China was quite happy to nurture his vanity,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo.

Business leaders in Hambantota said they were never consulted about the giant structures that began proliferating in their district like mushrooms after a monsoon.

Rajapaksa inaugurated the country’s second international airport with fanfare in March 2013, with state media proclaiming it “an initiative that changed the face of global aviation.” By mid-2014, however, its financial state was already precarious: Under questioning from opposition lawmakers, aviation officials reported that the airport’s total revenue in one month was 16,000 rupees, or about $120.

With SriLankan Airlines having pulled out, only one commercial airline operates at Rajapaksa International: low-cost carrier Flydubai, which arrives every morning via Colombo, disgorging a few European tourists bound for the island’s southern beaches. An hour later, it returns to Dubai.

For the rest of the day, the fountains and air-conditioning are switched off to save costs and the airy, modern passenger terminal is vacant except for some of the 500-odd employees who remain on the payroll.

The 3-square-mile site has upended the local ecosystem. Wild elephants often roam up to the airport perimeter, which is ringed by an electric fence. Peacocks have occasionally flown into the runway area and collided with moving aircraft.

“It was not the most logical place for an airport,” said Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Center for Conservation and Research, an independent environmental group.

Aviation officials are reportedly considering marketing the airport as a transshipment hub for global couriers such as FedEx and UPS, or converting it into a flight school.

Officials seem more optimistic about the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, which was carved out of bedrock on a 4,000-acre site next to Hambantota town. Sri Lanka has long sought a second port to alleviate congestion in Colombo and take advantage of its position near shipping lanes connecting Southeast Asia with Africa and the Middle East.

But experts say Hambantota harbor requires near-constant dredging, possibly interfering with sea life. The better choice, they say, would have been a site on the eastern edge of the island, Trincomalee, one of the best natural deepwater harbors in the Indian Ocean.

According to a report in the Sunday Leader newspaper, a study showing the challenges at the Hambantota site was submitted to Rajapaksa in the early 2000s, when he was minister of ports and fisheries.

“He didn’t care,” Saravanamuttu said. “He thought that if he ruled long enough, from here to eternity, he could move the capital down there.”

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

Photo: The deserted international airport in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, constructed in 2013 as a vanity project by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now receives only one flight per day. (Shashank Bengali/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Sri Lanka Road Trip Finds North And South Still Divided After Civil War

By Shashank Bengali , Los Angeles Times (TNS)

ALONG THE A9 HIGHWAY, Sri Lanka — The road from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s graceful seaside capital in the south, to the northern town of Jaffna has rarely been a straight shot. Most of the 250-mile journey follows the A9 highway, which slices through palm groves and green carpets of farmland that were the main battlegrounds of the country’s three-decade civil war.

During the worst fighting between an army dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority and rebels from the mainly Tamil north, long stretches of A9 were closed to civilian traffic. As the main supply line for Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for an independent homeland, it held immense strategic value.

The highway was “the sole, fraying thread binding the north to the south, holding together the notion of an undivided Sri Lanka,” wrote journalist Samanth Subramanian in his 2014 book on the war, “This Divided Island.”

Since 2009, when the rebels finally succumbed to a ruthless army offensive, the highway has been refurbished by a government seeking to swiftly sew up the wounds of the conflict.

Sinhalese have begun to visit the Tamil region, their blue-striped tour buses visible at Buddhist shrines or hastily erected war memorials along the A9. Tamils observe the outsiders warily; relations between the two peoples, who share an island scarcely larger than West Virginia, are still marked by suspicion and mutual misunderstanding.

The authoritarian former President Mahinda Rajapaksa last year briefly barred foreigners from entering the north without permission, a panicky move before an election that he would eventually lose. With a new government having lifted the restriction, I set off recently along the A9 for the nine-hour ride from Colombo to the Jaffna peninsula, the Tamil’s historical heartland.

At the wheel was Nuwan, a young, solidly built Sinhalese whose slight mohawk gave his head the appearance of a bullet. Like most southerners who grew up in the war years, he had never been to the north.

We climbed above Colombo’s humid tropics into verdant hill country and then turned north onto the A9, which sloped gently into a flat, arid stretch of rice fields. Nuwan marveled at the smooth ribbon of road — I had to ask that he stop taking cellphone pictures of the landscape while driving — but then subtle markers of strife began to appear.

In the town of Tirappane, we were greeted by a giant election billboard showing a beaming Rajapaksa, clad as always in the gleaming white tunic that advertised him as a devout Sinhalese Buddhist.

The war had neatly cleaved Sri Lanka along confessional lines, between Sinhalese Buddhists and the multi-faith Tamils. In the south, the eggshell domes of Buddhist shrines seem to be the only religious sites, but now we began to see the trapezoidal towers of Hindu temples, studded with brightly painted gods, and more sober-looking mosques and churches.

We reached Omanthai, a dot on the map where government forces still maintain a checkpoint. During the war and for most of its aftermath, foreigners had to disembark here and duck into a shed to submit to army questioning. On this afternoon, bored-looking soldiers did not even look at me, and after Nuwan entered his license number in the army ledger we were back on our way.

Occasionally I would see the Sinhalese tour buses parked along the roadside, or Sinhalese families picnicking in the shade of a tree. In Kilinochchi, the Tigers’ former capital, several buses were stopped next to what looked like a giant funnel tipped onto its side.

It was a water tank that had been toppled during the fighting, the steel rebar reaching out from the concrete husk like tentacles. The government had turned it into a war memorial, planting a tidy garden with flowers and a large stone tablet declaring that the damage had been done by rebel “terrorists in the face of valiant troops.”

A few Sinhalese families milled about, staring gravely at the detritus. Some wandered into a gift shop where souvenir T-shirts and caps were for sale. I would later meet Tamils who deeply resented the monument, viewing it as a bid by Rajapaksa to rub their noses in the rebels’ defeat.

“They take pictures like they’ve never seen a water tank before,” said Christie Shanthni, an outspoken 50-year-old coordinator of a women’s cooperative in Kilinochchi. “We don’t mind if they come here, but I often wonder how they would feel if we went around in busloads celebrating the exploits of Tamil fighters.”

A few years after the fighting ended, with tens of thousands of war deaths, Shanthni visited the former bunker of the Tigers’ slain leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, which the government opened to visitors in the coastal area of Mullaitivu. She and her companion were the only Tamils there, she recalled, and they understood little because the tour guide spoke only Sinhalese.

The government reportedly destroyed the bunker in 2013, perhaps fearing that it would contribute to Prabhakaran’s cult-hero status.

Before I left Colombo, a friend advised me to visit a bank, saying, “You don’t want to get stuck in the north without cash.” That would have been difficult; every little town along A9 had multiple banks with ATMs, part of the economic development that Rajapaksa often boasted he brought to the north.

Yet Tamils saw that too in a darker light. The banks and lending companies offered easy financing for motorcycles, appliances, and other consumer goods that were suddenly available in this long-shuttered economy. Many families plunged into debt — another ploy by the south, in the eyes of some, to subjugate the Tamils.

The afternoon light melted into the horizon as we pulled into sleepy Jaffna and I alighted at my guesthouse. At breakfast, I met a Sinhalese man who had immigrated to Los Angeles and was visiting the north for the first time with his mother.

Jaffna was nice, he said, except he was surprised that almost no one spoke Sinhalese. I watched him struggle to communicate with the Tamil-speaking kitchen staff in English, just as I did. It suddenly struck me that he, a native Sri Lankan, and I, an American visiting for the first time, were almost equally foreign in this war-scarred place.

Photo: Shashank Bengali via Los Angeles Times/TNS

Search For Missing AirAsia Flight 8501 Expands Off Indonesian Coast

By Shashank Bengali and Ahmad Pathoni , Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The first full day of a growing, multi-nation hunt for an AirAsia passenger jet lost over Indonesian waters ended Monday with few clues to its disappearance and a grim acknowledgment by officials that “the worst may have happened.”

Helicopters and surveillance aircraft from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia returned to their bases, some after flying 10 hours or more over a choppy Java Sea, the focal point of the search for the airliner that was carrying 162 mostly Indonesian passengers.

The first tantalizing possible traces of the missing Airbus A320-200 – which lost contact with air-traffic control during a two-hour flight to Singapore from the Indonesian city of Surabaya on Sunday morning – were inconclusive or ultimately discounted.

Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto told The Times that searchers in a helicopter and C-130 plane had seen an oil slick about 105 nautical miles off Indonesia’s Belitung island near the Karimata Strait, which connects the archipelago nation to Singapore.

“We’re checking whether it’s jet fuel or fuel from a ship,” he said.

An Australian Orion aircraft spotted “suspicious objects” in the sea near Nangka island, northeast of the Belitung, about 700 miles from where the plane lost contact, prompting teams to rush toward the area under cloudy skies. But Bambang Soelistyo, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, which was leading the effort, said the weak signal detected by the Australian plane came from a personal locator beacon, not the missing jet’s emergency transmitter.

Bambang said that based on the coordinates of Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501’s last known location, investigators believed it had crashed into the Java Sea north of Jakarta.

“My goal is to locate it as soon as possible,” Bambang told a news conference in Jakarta. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said “bad weather” was hampering the search but expressed hope that the plane would be found.

“We don’t set deadlines. What is important is we find the plane and its passengers,” Kalla said.

Asked about the prospects of finding survivors more than 36 hours after the flight went missing, Kalla said: “We pray for them but we realize the worst may have happened.”

Bambang said teams searched an area comprising roughly 66,000 square miles in four sectors on Sunday, concentrating on a 250-mile-wide stretch of the Java Sea between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. On Monday the search expanded to the north to include the Karimata strait and the coasts of Belitung island and West Kalimantan province, he said.

Indonesia’s armed forces had deployed transport helicopters and naval ships while Malaysia and Singapore had each sent C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and three ships to help ferry teams to and from the search site. Early Monday, Australia’s Orion surveillance aircraft joined the effort.

If wreckage isn’t found at the water’s surface, investigators likely would begin scouring the sea floor for the Airbus A330-200 — probably requiring contributions of advanced ships and equipment from other nations.

“If that’s the case, we’ll have difficulty determining the location because our equipment is not adequate,” Bambang said.

Singapore civil aviation officials said they were preparing to send two teams of specialists and underwater locator beacons to help find the missing jet’s flight data recorders.

China offered to send airlines and ships to join the search and rescue efforts, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing. South Korea said it would send a surveillance plane later this week, the Yonhap news agency reported.

In Washington, Pentagon officials said Sunday they were ready to assist but had not been asked.

AirAsia executive chief Tony Fernandes defended his airline’s safety record, saying it had carried 220 million passengers in 13 years and never had a fatal accident.

“Until we have a full investigation, we don’t want to speculate,” Fernandes told a news conference in Surabaya. “It’s premature to talk (about what went wrong) at the moment. We are confident in our ability to fly people. We’ll continue to be strong and continue to carry people who never fly before.”

Indonesian transportation ministry Ignasius Jonan said the government would review AirAsia’s operations “to ensure that in the future its activity will be better.” The low-cost carrier, which is based in Malaysia and operates mainly short flights across Southeast Asia, has a strong safety record and is widely regarded as one of the world’s most successful budget airlines.

It was the third air disaster this year involving a Malaysian airline. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished in March en route to Beijing with 239 people aboard and is still missing, while the same carrier’s Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

Investigators were hopeful that recovering the flight data recorder would offer clues into the AirAsia plane’s disappearance. The aircraft departed Surabaya roughly on schedule at 5:35 a.m. Sunday but apparently encountered heavy clouds during what is normally the wettest time of the year in Indonesia.

Indonesian transport authorities said the pilot communicated with air-traffic controllers at 6:12 a.m. asking permission to take a left turn off the scheduled flight path and climb from 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet to avoid clouds.

According to multiple reports, the request to raise altitude was denied due to other aircraft in the area. The plane disappeared from radar at 6:18 a.m.

Families of the 155 passengers and seven crew members gathered at Surabaya’s airport and Changi international airport in Singapore where AirAsia and government officials had set up crisis centers. Among those on board were 17 children and one infant, the airline said.

“AirAsia Indonesia’s primary focus remains on the families,” the airline said Monday. AirAsia Indonesia CEO Sunu Widyatmoko was in Surabaya meeting with families while other airline officials were doing the same in Singapore, it said.

A tearful Hartatik Sukorini told Indonesia’s TVOne news channel that her daughter Dona was on the plane and said she was hoping for “a miracle.”

“I pray to Allah that she is safe and protected,” she said. “She is a good daughter and never causes me any trouble.”

AFP Photo/ Juni Kriswanto

Thailand’s Military Rulers Accused Of Human Rights Abuses

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

MUMBAI, India — Thailand’s military rulers detained hundreds of people without charges, tortured some prisoners and systematically stifled dissent since seizing power in a May coup, a leading human rights watchdog reported Thursday.

Amnesty International said that although most prisoners were released within a week, they remain at risk of prosecution in military courts.

The crackdown has created a climate of fear in the Southeast Asian kingdom that shows no signs of easing as the Thai army has said it would keep power at least until the end of next year, the group said.

“The Thai authorities should end this disturbing pattern of repression, end human rights violations, respect its international human rights obligations and allow open debate and discussion — all of which are vital to the country’s future,” Richard Bennett, the group’s Asia-Pacific director, said in a statement.

The 68-page report offered one of the more detailed pictures of the political situation in Thailand to emerge since the military deposed an elected government and parliament, suspended the constitution and formed a rubber-stamp legislative assembly made up primarily of ex-members of the security services.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army’s commander-in-chief, who wields near-absolute power, ordered at least 571 people arrested in the days following the May 20 coup, the report found. Nearly 400 were affiliated with the political party of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, but 141 were academics, writers, journalists and activists, the report said, while another 78 people were arrested at peaceful demonstrations.

The junta has also charged civilians with breaking military laws, the group said, adding that at least 60 people face imminent trials before military courts where they would have no right to appeal.

The army has also sharply restricted free speech by blocking websites, establishing censorship panels to monitor media reports and threatening imprisonment for anyone posting information thought to be critical of the military online.

Gatherings of more than five people are banned, and Bennett said the junta has cracked down “on the smallest form of dissent” — including eating sandwiches in public, a form of silent protest against the military that activists organized on social media.

The report details the case of one political activist, Kritsuda Khunasen, who accused soldiers of beating her, blindfolding her for a week and suffocating her with a plastic bag during her detention beginning in late May.

When activists raised questions about her whereabouts, authorities announced that she was being held in order to “adjust (her) understanding” and later aired footage of her saying she was being well treated — a statement that the activist, who was later released, said was coerced.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Number Of Refugees Fleeing Syria War Tops 3 Million, U.N. Says

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

The number of refugees fleeing the war in Syria has surpassed 3 million, the United Nations reported Friday, an increase of 1 million over the last year.

The grim milestone means that one in every eight Syrians has fled across the border, with an additional 6.5 million displaced from their homes inside the country in what the U.N. refugee agency described as increasingly desperate conditions.

“These include cities where populations are surrounded, people are going hungry, and civilians are being indiscriminately killed,” the agency said.

Yet conditions are scarcely better for Syrians who escape. The U.N. found that refugees who have taken shelter in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are struggling to find jobs, affordable food, and adequate housing as the 3-year-old crisis takes a toll on neighboring economies.

A recent U.N. survey found that four in five Syrian refugees living in cities are struggling to make a living.

A recent surge in violence has forced out many civilians, particularly those living in the northern areas of Aleppo and Raqqa, where the extremist group known as the Islamic State controls swaths of territory as part of its self-styled caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq.

A U.N. commission investigating war crimes in Syria reported this week that the militant group was carrying out amputations, lashings, and executions in public squares in areas under its control. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for killing American journalist James Foley.

Refugees arriving in eastern Jordan report an increasingly arduous journey, with many saying they encountered armed checkpoints along the way and had to pay smugglers upward of $100 per person to shepherd them across the border, the U.N. said.

The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, said the Syrian crisis “has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them.”

Donor nations have contributed more than $4.1 billion since 2012, but the agency says that an additional $2 billion is needed by the end of the year as the refugee population swells and temperatures fall in winter.

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

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U.S. Embassy Worker Undaunted By Taliban Attack, Injuries

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Lying in a ditch, his head throbbing from the bomb blast, Abbas Kamwand wiggled his toes. He was shocked to discover that he still could.

An Afghan soldier grabbed his hand and helped him up. Around him, vehicles lay mangled, and dark smoke climbed to the sky. He noticed the body of a young State Department colleague splayed facedown in the dirt.

Kamwand limped over and placed his hands under her belly to lift her up. He raised her a few inches before realizing that her bloodied left leg still lay on the ground, apparently severed in the blast. Soldiers shouted at him to take cover, that another bomb could strike.

The April 6, 2013, suicide car bombing in the southern town of Qalat left three U.S. soldiers, a Pentagon interpreter, an Afghan doctor, and the 25-year-old diplomat, Anne Smedinghoff, dead.

Kamwand had joined the U.S. Embassy in Kabul just months earlier as its only native-born spokesman — the State Department’s Afghan face — after three decades in America. The 58-year-old was seriously wounded: an 8-inch gash on his left leg, a 5-inch wound on his right, with shrapnel piercing his eye, ear, and the nerves along his forehead.

After emergency treatment, he was evacuated home to the Kansas City area, where he and his wife, Hosnia, have lived since fleeing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He required seven surgeries and skin grafts to his leg, and doctors say he needs at least two more procedures to remove remaining shrapnel. Because of nerve damage, he has all but lost his sense of smell.

Yet seven months after the attack, Kamwand was back at his desk inside the fortresslike embassy compound in Kabul.

For a diplomatic corps still reeling from the loss of the only State Department officer to die in the Afghan war, his return in November was an emotional moment.

“My thought personally was that, yes, it’s a reality of life that you’ve been hard hit, you’ve fallen, but you’re not going to make that part of your life forever,” Kamwand said. “To me, coming back was a personal statement to the enemy that they tried, but they failed.”
The United States had been at war in Afghanistan for 11 years but never had a Dari-language spokesman in Kabul until Kamwand was hired in late 2012. With the Pentagon beginning to withdraw troops and hand over its bases to the Afghan government, the embassy was struggling to articulate America’s relationship with a country still mired in conflict.

Masha Hamilton, then the embassy’s director of public diplomacy, thought that appointing an Afghan-American to make media appearances would be more effective than the usual practice of translating a spokesman’s words from English. Ambassador James B. Cunningham lobbied the State Department to get the position approved.

Hamilton interviewed several candidates but found that few were willing to appear on television. Still others didn’t want to use their real names.

Then she met Kamwand, bald and bespectacled, with a bushy mustache, who was working as a communications analyst for a military contractor in Kabul.

“He showed courage that not everybody had, because not everybody wanted to be publicly associated with the U.S. Embassy and the Americans,” said Hamilton, who is now vice president for communications at Concern Worldwide, a humanitarian organization.

Kamwand had left Afghanistan in 1980 when Kabul was roiled by protests against the Soviet invasion. As a refugee in Pakistan, he launched a resistance periodical, the Voice of Freedom, published on a hand-crank copier with whatever cash he and friends could scrounge together, and wrote letters nearly every week to a pretty medical student he had met back home named Hosnia.

Hosnia had been jailed by the Soviets for seven months for participating in demonstrations and was already living in the United States, where she had gained asylum. She traveled to Pakistan to marry Kamwand, and together they settled in a suburb of Kansas City, where she worked in a medical lab and he drove a taxi. They had two children, a boy and a girl.

Kamwand became a U.S. citizen in 2003, earned a business degree from Emporia State University and in 2009 was hired by the contractor in Kabul. He had not been back to Afghanistan since the Taliban took power in 1996, and he found the country bore little resemblance to his memories.

Growing up, he had often traveled to Bamian province, northwest of Kabul, to picnic near famed sandstone statues of Buddha; the Taliban destroyed them in 2001. By 2009, the capital itself was a gray maze of blast walls and worsening poverty, dominated by coalition armored vehicles.

He saw an opportunity to help his homeland emerge from conflict. But for Hosnia, who hasn’t returned to Afghanistan in three decades, the separation was difficult.

She had lost dozens of relatives during the Soviet occupation, including her brother, who disappeared into military custody and was never found. Although her husband called daily from Kabul, Hosnia was left alone with their then-teenage daughter and son, who sometimes struggled with their father’s move.

“He’s trying to do good, to do something that helps his country,” she said. “It gives him that fulfillment. But the kids may not understand that. They have never been there. We told them some stories about our life, but they’re still kind of young to understand it.”

Then came the bombing in Qalat.
The Kamwand residence, on a meandering tree-lined street in Lenexa, Kan., is an attractive two-story tract home with a small garden in front. During his recovery, however, Hamwand says, it sometimes seemed like a prison.

His left leg wound had to be cleaned twice daily, the muscles regularly massaged and rubbed with lotion. There were countless stretches and exercises. As his strength returned, he could take walks with Hosnia around their neighborhood.

But when she went to work, he sat home alone, listless and impatient, plotting a way to return to Kabul.

At his wife’s insistence, he began seeing a psychiatrist, the two of them sometimes attending sessions together. He traveled to Washington to meet State Department doctors, who warned that if he went back to the embassy he would confront the periodic sirens that indicate a nearby bomb attack.

They thought Kamwand might suffer flashbacks to Qalat, where he and the others had traveled to showcase books donated by the U.S. government. The attack raised questions about whether officials had taken adequate security precautions for a mission that was little more than a photo opportunity.

Yet Kamwand was undaunted. “My statement, in not so many words, was that if the Taliban couldn’t kill me, you can’t kill me,” he said.

At that point, Hosnia realized that her husband needed to return to his homeland.

Kamwand hasn’t decided how long he will remain in Kabul. He knows his family wants him home. But U.S. officials who served with him said he has already made the toughest decision of his career.

“Abbas,” Hamilton said, “is absolutely a hero for coming back.”

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

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Iraqi Forces Battle Islamic State Militants In Tikrit

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFP Photo/Azhar Shallal

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India’s New Leader Accuses Pakistan Of Terrorism

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

MUMBAI — India’s new leader slammed Pakistan on Tuesday, accusing it of terrorism and saying its U.S.-backed military is too weak to fight a conventional war.

The comments by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his first visit to the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir were his harshest yet against Pakistan and set back hopes that an upcoming summit could bolster peace efforts between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

“The neighboring country has lost the strength to fight a conventional war, but continues to engage in the proxy war of terrorism,” Modi told soldiers in the town of Leh, according to a statement on his official website.

Modi’s words reflect the deep-seated animosity between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since each gained independence from Britain in 1947.

Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party has said it would “deal with cross-border terrorism with a firm hand,” a reference to attacks by militant groups that India accuses Pakistan of supporting. The groups include Lashkar-e-Taiba, which allegedly carried out a 2008 assault in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, that left 164 dead.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi in May, briefly raising hopes of detente. Later this month, diplomats from the two countries are due to meet in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, in a bid to jump-start peace efforts.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in New Delhi did not respond to a request for comment.

Modi’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir, a rugged Himalayan border region, was the first by an Indian leader in 15 years and was seen as highly symbolic, coming three days before the country commemorates its independence.

The territory is divided between India and Pakistan, although both claim it in full. Each has positioned several thousand troops along a 450-mile de facto border in often deadly alpine conditions.

Pakistan, which has received $28 billion in U.S. military and economic aid since 2002 due to its support for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, denies supporting militant groups.

Both India and Pakistan regularly accuse the other of violating a cease-fire along the border, known as the Line of Control. On Monday, Pakistan summoned a senior Indian diplomat to lodge a protest against what it claimed was a cross-border firing incident by Indian soldiers that left a Pakistani civilian dead.

AFP Photo/Rouf Bhat

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Iraq’s al-Maliki Offers Amnesty To Opponents

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki offered amnesty Wednesday to tribes that fought his government, a conciliatory gesture as he struggles to keep the country from falling apart and secure a third term in office.

While the pardon did not extend to tribes that have “shed blood,” al-Maliki’s offer was seen as a bid to keep Sunni Muslims who oppose his government from supporting a violent Sunni insurgency that has declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, in lands it has seized in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

“All those who have been deceived, I ask them to come to their senses,” al-Maliki said in a weekly televised address.

It was unclear whether any Sunni Arab tribes — whose support was crucial in helping U.S. forces turn back al-Qaida insurgents during the Iraqi civil war — would immediately accept the amnesty offer. Many Sunnis have said they would not support a government led by al-Maliki, whom they accuse of running a pro-Shiite police state.

Al-Maliki’s announcement came a day after the Iraqi parliament deadlocked over forming a new government. Sunni and ethnic Kurdish lawmakers walked out of the chamber in protest over the majority Shiite bloc’s failure to nominate a replacement for al-Maliki.

The Shiite bloc is said to be divided over the prime ministerial position, with al-Maliki supporters saying it would be unwise to select a new leader while the country is battling an insurgency.

Osama Nujaifi, the Sunni former parliament speaker, signaled that his bloc would not budge on demands that al-Maliki be removed. The impasse could cause the formation of a new government to drag on for weeks, even as U.S. officials and top Iraqi clerics urge lawmakers to forge a united front against the extremists.

“We will not participate in the new government if there is no new policy and no new prime minister,” Nujaifi told reporters. “If things stay like this, the situation will go from bad to worse.”

Al-Maliki also denounced moves by officials in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region to distance themselves from Baghdad, which has raised the specter that Iraq could be partitioned into two or more states. Kurdish security forces have taken control of the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, and this week the Kurdish president told the BBC that he would seek a referendum on independence within months.

Al-Maliki said such a move would be illegal and could cause “trouble” for the Kurds.

“There is nothing in our constitution about having a referendum to decide to create a new state,” he said.

Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye via Flickr

Sunnis And Kurds Walk Out Of Iraq Parliament Session

BAGHDAD — Hopes that Iraqi lawmakers could swiftly agree on new political leadership and halt a slide back into civil war were set back Tuesday when the first parliamentary session ended in an impasse after less than two hours.

Sunni Muslim and Kurdish lawmakers walked out of the chaotic session, the first since April elections, at which a parliamentary speaker was due to be nominated. That is considered the first step in selecting a new government, including a prime minister. Deprived of a quorum, acting speaker Mahdi Hafidh adjourned parliament for at least a week.

Sunni leaders said before the session that they wanted to know whom the largest bloc, the Shiites, planned to nominate for prime minister. After days of meetings, Shiite lawmakers have failed to agree on whether to back the embattled Prime Minister Nouri Maliki for a third term or nominate another contender, such as former vice president Adel Abdel Mahdi or the onetime CIA ally, Ahmed Chalabi.

The delay leaves Maliki in power in a caretaker role despite opposition from Sunnis and Kurds, who want him to step aside. Sunnis have blamed Maliki for running a Shiite-led dictatorship that has fueled the insurgency.

“We have to have a change and to have our demands be met for our people,” Bafar Ani, a spokesman for the Sunni bloc, told reporters after the session.

Shiite lawmakers blamed the Sunni bloc for holding up the political process.

“They have made the session confused,” said Ali Fayadh, a Shiite lawmaker. “We don’t know what will happen next.”

U.S. officials and Iraq’s top cleric, Shiite Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have called on squabbling lawmakers to quickly form an inclusive government that shares power among all ethnic and religious groups in order to combat a raging Sunni insurgency that has wrested large chunks of the country from Iraqi government forces.

Underscoring the crisis, the United Nations said Tuesday that more than 2,400 Iraqis were killed in June — the vast majority of them civilians — making it the deadliest month since the height of the sectarian war in 2007.

Yet observers said the unruly opening of parliament — which featured lawmakers shouting at one another in scenes familiar from past years — did not match the urgency of Iraq’s political crisis.

“I never have high hopes for Iraqi politics, but today was honestly a new low,” said Fanar Haddad, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

“It was clear that the political elite don’t see what’s going on as a national emergency. They just see it as a new variable in their incessant political quarrels and the pursuit of their own political fortunes.”

Los Angeles Times special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/ Ahmad al-Rubaye

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U.N.: 2,400 Iraqis Killed In June, Most In 7 Years

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — More than 2,400 Iraqis were killed in June, the highest monthly death toll in seven years, as a fierce Sunni Muslim insurgency threatens to plunge the country back into civil war.
Figures released Tuesday by the United Nations showed that at least 2,417 Iraqis were killed and 2,287 injured across the country. More than 60 percent of the dead were civilians.

The U.N. said its statistics did not include casualties from the western province of Anbar, where insurgents led by the Islamic State, an al-Qaida splinter group, have seized key towns and border crossings and are locked in clashes with Iraqi security forces. At least 244 civilians were killed and 588 injured there, according to provincial health officials.

It marked the deadliest 30-day period in Iraq since mid-2007, the height of the country’s sectarian war, when well over 2,000 civilians were killed every month, according to statistics compiled by Iraq Body Count, an independent website.

“The staggering number of civilian casualties in one month points to the urgent need for all to ensure that civilians are protected,” said the ranking U.N. official in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov.
The worst affected area was Baghdad, where 375 civilians were killed and 715 injured, the U.N. said.

Fears of further violence grew Tuesday after Iraqi officials reported that mortar shells struck the perimeter of Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killing at least one person and wounding 14. The mosque is one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, and its destruction by Sunni insurgents in 2006 was the catalyst for the years of sectarian bloodletting that followed.

The golden-domed mosque was rebuilt, and thousands of Iraqi troops and volunteer Shiite militiamen are reportedly guarding the site. Last week the Iraqi army said it had full control of the highway from Baghdad to Samarra after a U.S.-supported operation to clear the area of insurgents.

The Islamic State seized the northern city of Mosul on June 9 and has since consolidated its hold over large parts of northern and western Iraq. The insurgency has crippled the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who was fighting to secure a third term as Iraqi lawmakers opened a new session of parliament Tuesday morning.

AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye

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In Iraq, Shiite Muslim Militia’s Re-Emergence Gives U.S. Pause

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — He looks more like a desk jockey now than a militant, his graying hair framed by rectangular glasses, his round belly protruding under a button-down shirt.

Ali Faris acknowledges that he got soft after the American troops he once fought withdrew from Iraq. He stored his weapons at home and became a receptionist. But the rise of a fearsome Sunni Muslim insurgency in Iraq and Syria has brought the 46-year-old Shiite Muslim father of four back to the front lines, into a transnational battle that is threatening to rip apart the Middle East.

Twice last year, Faris traveled to Syria with a team of Iraqis to help defend the golden-domed shrine to Sayyida Zainab, the prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, a revered site for Shiites and a target of the Sunni insurgent group that calls itself the Islamic State. Now in Baghdad, Faris has volunteered again, fighting alongside government security forces as they try to keep the insurgents from entering the Iraqi capital’s western suburbs.

The veteran militant’s journey illustrates how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have become profoundly intertwined as sectarian rivalries flare across a violent region and create fresh complications for U.S. policymakers. The Sunni group, which had called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, shortened its name over the weekend and declared that it had established a caliphate in the lands it controls in both countries.

The chaos also has enhanced the influence of Faris’ militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, an Iranian-backed organization that carried out some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. forces at the end of the Iraq war. It has re-emerged as an important ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he fights to stave off the insurgency and hang on to power. A new parliament was to convene Tuesday to begin selecting the next prime minister.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say that al-Maliki enlisted the militia, which was in the process of remaking itself into a political organization, in desperation after watching the Islamic State overrun government forces in western Iraq this year.

Last month, after the insurgents seized the second-largest city, Mosul, in a blitz through northern Iraq, the influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani called on Iraqis to defend the country. That prompted thousands more Asaib militants to volunteer for battle, including many who returned from Syria, the group says.

For many Shiites, the Sunni insurgents straddling Iraq and Syria represent an existential threat. An al-Qaida splinter group that regards Shiites as heretics, the Islamic State has attacked shrines and summarily executed Shiites in both countries, according to human rights groups.

The Islamic State said that its control of territory on both sides of the frontier in effect erased the Iraqi-Syrian border. For Asaib, that border already had lost some of its meaning.
“We are fighting the same insurgents, whether in Syria or Iraq,” Faris said. “Their leadership is the same. Our conflict with them is the same.”

Faris first traveled to Syria last July, three months after the Sunni group, then known as ISIS, declared its intention to establish a caliphate on Syrian soil. He declined to discuss details, but according to associates of other Asaib fighters, many journey to Syria via Iran, where they receive weapons and training reportedly sponsored by the elite Revolutionary Guard.

At the shrine in a southern suburb of Damascus, he joined the Abu Fadl al-Abbas brigade, made up of a rotating cast of tens of thousands of Shiite fighters from neighboring countries who have flocked to defend the ornate edifice of blue tile and mirrored glass.

Situated between the airport and central Damascus, the suburb also holds strategic importance for President Bashar Assad. Some scholars believe Assad has played up the shrine’s importance to attract Iranian-backed militant groups such as Asaib and the Lebanese group Hezbollah to help protect his capital.

Faris, however, described his monthlong stay as a religious duty. When he returned to Baghdad to a hero’s welcome, he treated his relatives to silver Shiite jewelry and showed countless pictures of himself at the shrine.

He returned to Damascus in October as Assad’s army mounted an offensive. Two mortar rounds fired by Sunni rebels nearly struck the shrine, one landing at a perimeter fence and another hitting a nearby hotel. An Asaib fighter was shot dead by rebels as he tried to bring ammunition to comrades caught in a firefight, Faris said.

“He told me the day before, ‘How can I go back to my mother alive?’ ” Faris recalled. “He wanted to sacrifice himself for God.”

Until recently, Asaib officials were reluctant to discuss their members’ role in Syria, perhaps fearing it would detract from their efforts to transition from militancy to politics. Even now, the black banners that appear in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhoods to announce a fighter’s death obscure the location if it occurred in Syria. It simply says he was killed “for the faith.”

As the insurgency in Iraq has intensified, Shiite militias here are advertising their presence again.

“It is the duty of all Muslims to defend the shrine,” Qassim Daraji, a member of Asaib’s political wing, said in an interview at a stone villa that serves as one of the group’s political offices in Baghdad. “So of course our members took part — because they are Muslims, not because they support Assad. This is something we are proud of.”

In and around Baghdad, residents say Asaib fighters are running checkpoints in Shiite neighborhoods, patrolling minority Sunni districts in white trucks and establishing security perimeters around key shrines. In the contested area of Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, they are distinguished by their black T-shirts or military camouflage with an eagle emblem on one shoulder and the Iraqi flag on the other.

Although military officials say Asaib is firmly under their command, the group’s resurgence is a source of grave concern for Sunnis, who accuse the group of kidnappings and killings during the darkest days of the sectarian civil war. Formed in 2006 when its leaders split with the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, experts believe Asaib has become Iran’s favorite proxy in Iraq and that its military role will only increase its influence.

For the Obama administration, which opposes Assad’s government in Syria but is sending up to 300 military advisers to help the Iraqi government combat the insurgency, Asaib’s role is particularly awkward. The group claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. and coalition forces from 2006 to 2011.

“In Syria these guys are fighting and killing U.S.-backed Sunni rebels. In Iraq we are deploying advisers alongside them,” said Michael Knights, a former U.S. government adviser in Iraq who is a Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There are a lot of strange contradictions in the U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria, but this is the starkest.”

AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye

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Militants Declare Islamic State In Iraq, Syria As Tikrit Battle Rages

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi military faltered Sunday in its push to retake the flash-point city of Tikrit from insurgents who declared that they had established a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the areas they control in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced in an audio recording posted online that it was re-branding itself as simply the Islamic State because it had broken down national boundaries by virtue of its quick seizure of land in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq over the last year.

“Congratulations on this clear victory, congratulations on this great triumph,” the organization’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad Adnani, said in the 34-minute speech. It was part of the group’s attempt to cement itself as the world’s leading organization for global Islamic militants, which has caused a rupture with al-Qaida’s main leadership.

The propaganda campaign came as the Sunni Muslim militants were fiercely contesting the Iraqi military’s push to retake Tikrit. The battle underscored the difficulties facing government forces as they attempt to wrest control of key areas back from the determined insurgency.

A day earlier, Iraqi officials claimed to have entered Tikrit, 80 miles north of the capital, Baghdad, but residents said Sunday that there was no sign of government troops or allied militias and that the city remained largely in insurgent hands.

Army commandos airlifted last week to a university on the city’s outskirts raised the Iraqi flag over the 200-acre campus in a symbolic boost to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is desperately trying to secure a third term amid growing opposition to his authoritarian government.

Lawmakers were due to convene Tuesday to begin the process of selecting a prime minister amid signs that al-Maliki’s support within his Shiite coalition was slipping.

Reached by phone, residents in the predominantly Sunni city of Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein and a center of the anti-American insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion, said at least two Iraqi army helicopters were damaged by militants as they transported troops to the university. Iraqi state television initially reported that commandos had regained control of the provincial headquarters building, but residents disputed that account.

The push into Tikrit is the first major counteroffensive by Iraqi forces since insurgents led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida offshoot, seized the northern city of Mosul and much of northern and western Iraq this month. The army operation began just as the first of up to 300 U.S. military advisers arrived in Baghdad to help combat the insurgency.

Three teams of about a dozen U.S. soldiers each have begun assessing Iraqi forces and established an operations center at the sprawling U.S. Embassy campus in central Baghdad. President Barack Obama is said to be weighing airstrikes, but any such action is likely to occur only after the assessment teams have had more time to study intelligence and observe the fighting in Iraq, officials have said.

Dozens of unarmed U.S. Global Hawk drones are flying over the country, collecting intelligence that is being shared with Iraqi forces. The information helped the Iraqi army and allied Shiite militias in recent days clear the highway connecting Baghdad and Tikrit, including the town of Samarra, home to a revered Shiite shrine that the insurgents have tried to attack.

American officials are urging Iraqi security forces not to rush into attempting to retake cities, which would risk bogging the army down in dangerous urban warfare, just as U.S. forces were a decade ago. Without such a push, however, analysts believe the insurgents are consolidating their hold on captured territory and plotting ways to strike Baghdad.

Iraqi army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta said government forces killed 142 terrorists in the last 24 hours and destroyed 51 vehicles. The claims could not be immediately verified.

AFP Photo/ Sabah Arar

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Leading Iraqi Cleric Demands Consensus On A Premier As Fighting Rages

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s most influential cleric demanded Friday that squabbling lawmakers agree on a prime ministerial candidate before parliament convenes next week as a fierce battle continued at a strategically located university north of Baghdad.

The call by Shiite Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in his weekly sermon came as Iraqi security forces appeared to be regaining ground in their effort to turn back an al-Qaida splinter group that has taken over much of the country in an offensive this month.

Al-Sistani, whose remarks were delivered by a spokesman in the holy city of Najaf, said Iraqi political parties should decide on candidates for prime minister, president, and parliament speaker before lawmakers meet for the first time on Tuesday. Two-term Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is fighting to hold on to power as Sunni Muslim insurgents try to topple his government, and many rival lawmakers demand that he step aside.

“We demand that the parliament members have an agreement on the three positions before” they meet, al-Sistani said through the spokesman.

The 83-year-old cleric’s call would be difficult to meet because al-Maliki has resisted efforts to deny him a third term. But some members of his Shiite Dawa party are said to be considering backing another candidate as opposition to his administration grows in Iraq as well as around the world.

Al-Sistani’s remarks carry weight not only because he’s the most revered religious figure for Iraq’s majority Shiite population, but because he is usually cautious in his political statements.

A call by al-Sistani two weeks ago for able-bodied Iraqis to volunteer to help Iraqi security forces beat back the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria insurgents resulted in hundreds of thousands of men reportedly turning up at recruitment centers across the country. Many of the volunteers have been dispatched to defend Shiite shrines that the insurgents have pledged to destroy, as well as to strategic sites around Baghdad, where Iraqi forces appear to be gathering some momentum.

A second day of clashes occurred Friday at Tikrit University, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, as Iraqi soldiers fought to hold the campus ahead of what appeared to be an assault on the city.

A day earlier, according to Iraqi news reports, army helicopters airlifted soldiers to a stadium inside the university grounds in a dramatic operation that drew anti-aircraft fire from insurgents. One helicopter was reportedly hit, but there was no immediate word on casualties.

Tikrit, best known as Saddam Hussein’s hometown, is a majority Sunni city that militants seized two weeks ago. The university is located on the main highway connecting Baiji — site of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, which militants and Iraqi forces have battled over for a week — and Samarra, home to a sacred Shiite mosque whose destruction by al-Qaida militants in 2006 set off Iraq’s sectarian civil war.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Friday that it had seen strong evidence that ISIS carried out mass killings after taking control of Tikrit on June 11. Analyzing photos and satellite imagery, the independent watchdog group said it believed that ISIS killed between 160 and 190 men in at least two locations in the city, but that the actual number of victims could be much higher.

Earlier, ISIS had boasted of executing as many as 1,700 Shiite soldiers in Tikrit and published photographs of men in civilian clothes lying in ditches. Human Rights Watch said its analysis strongly suggests that mass killings took place at the sites featured in the ISIS photos, but that it wasn’t possible to ascertain the number of victims without visiting the area.

“The photos and satellite images from Tikrit provide strong evidence of a horrible war crime that needs further investigation,” said Peter Bouckaert, the group’s emergencies director.

Special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Ali al-Saadi

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Faults U.S. In Crisis

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s parliament will meet next week to begin the process of forming a new government, officials said Thursday, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the United States for his army’s inability to stop Sunni Muslim insurgents who are threatening his grip on the country.

In an interview with the BBC’s Arabic-language service, al-Maliki said the Iraqi army would have been able to block the insurgents’ advance into northern and western Iraq if the United States had moved more quickly to deliver fighter planes that Baghdad had purchased.
Apparently referring to F-16 jets that U.S. officials have said would arrive no earlier than September, al-Maliki said Iraqi officials had bought 36 of the planes and thought they would have received them by now.

“I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract,” al-Maliki told the British broadcaster in his first interview with an international news organization since the insurgents seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, earlier this month.

“We should have sought to buy other jet fighters like British, French, and Russian, to secure the air cover for our forces,” he said. “If we had air cover, we would have averted what had happened.”

Iraq’s military, trained by the United States, suffers from an almost total lack of air power. It has two Caravan combat turboprop aircraft that are equipped to launch Hellfire missiles, but briefly ran out of the projectiles at the height of the crisis.

Separately, Iraq’s vice president, Khader Khuzai, issued a decree saying that the parliament would convene on Tuesday.

The announcement came amid growing pressure on Maliki, a Shiite, to share more political power with minority groups, including Sunnis and ethnic Kurds.

Al-Maliki, whom critics accuse of running a Shiite-dominated dictatorship, has said he is open to forming a coalition government including all religious and ethnic groups. But he has not signaled he would be willing to forgo a third term as prime minister.

Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition won a plurality of seats in the April parliamentary elections. But many Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers say he must step aside, blaming his leadership for fueling the insurgency.

Iraqi forces and insurgents — led by an al-Qaida offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — continued to battle Thursday on multiple fronts.

Private Iraqi media reported that the country’s forces airlifted commandos to a university in Tikrit, hometown of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, and the helicopters came under heavy fire from insurgents. The city about 100 miles north of the capital, Baghdad, was seized by insurgents two weeks ago in a dramatic offensive that has seen most Sunni-majority areas of northern and western Iraq fall out of government hands.

AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski

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