Archives For Iraq

Clashes between ISIL and Peshmerga forces in Sinjar

Taking stock of the conflagration in Iraq and Syria at year’s end, Wayne White sees the jihadist group on the defensive:

Despite the jitters many have concerning the sweep of Islamic State forces, the view from the IS capital of Raqqa is hardly rosy. Still stalled in front of embattled Kobani, IS could not stop a sweeping Iraqi Kurdish, Yazidi, and Iraqi Army drive across northern Iraq to take Sinjar Mountain (again rescuing Yazidi refugees) and wrest from IS much of the town of Sinjar by December 21. Back in mid-December, the Pentagon also confirmed that an air strike killed Haji Mutazz, a deputy to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as the IS military operations chief for Iraq, and the IS “governor” of Mosul. Meanwhile, daily coalition air strikes grind away at various targets within IS’s “caliphate” (now increasingly wracked by shortages).

The implications of ISIS’s retreat from Sinjar are significant; Khales Joumah reports that the group’s grip on Mosul may be weakening as a result:

In the city of Mosul itself it seems as though ISIS is at a loss. Members of ISIS are still on the city’s streets but most of the foreign fighters appear to have gone.

The ones left on the streets tend to be younger, local fighters some of whom don’t even seem to be 25 yet. Some of the fighters on the streets admit that they’ve been forced to withdraw from Sinjar but only very quietly.

“For the first time you can sense the feelings of fear and frustration in ISIS’s fighters,” one Mosul doctor, who had been seeing ISIS casualties come in, told NIQASH; he had to remain anonymous for security reasons. “As the number of dead and wounded from among their ranks increases, they look more and more like they’ve lost confidence in their leadership.”

Juan Cole also stresses the importance of Sinjar’s liberation:

Historians refer to polities that exist on both sides of a mountain range, united by passes, as a “saddlebag empire.” These were common in South Asia, where southern Afghanistan and Punjab were often part of the same kingdom despite the barrier of the Hindu Kush mountains. What I have called the ‘neo-Zangid’ state of the Daesh unites the area from Aleppo to Damascus, across Mt. Shinjar , just as had the medieval ruler `Imad al-Din Zangi. It is a sort of contemporary saddlebag empire.

But now not only have the Peshmerga taken the Mt. Shinjar area away from Daesh, helping rescue the besieged Yezidis but they have at the same time cut the supply routes between the terrorist group’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, and its Iraqi power base, Mosul. If you take shears to a saddlebag, it can’t straddle the horse’s back any more and will fall down.

Still, hold off on the celebrations for now. As Loveday Morris reports, the humanitarian situation in Iraq remains grim:

U.N. officials acknowledge that the assistance is insufficient. The U.N. response plan for displaced Iraqis remains only 31 percent funded, while the World Food Program has stopped procuring supplies for the displaced because of a lack of money. That means the distribution of boxes of food to families, the only assistance many get, will end by February unless emergency funding is found.

“It’s not that we can do more with less; it’s that we don’t have anything and the needs on the ground are immense,” said Barbara Manzi, the outgoing Iraq representative for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is overseeing the organization’s response to the displacement crisis.

(Photo: Smoke rises as Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) fighters burn tires to obstruct the sight of warcraft during clashes with Peshmerga forces in Sinjar district of Mosul, Iraq on December 22, 2014. Peshmerga forces stage attacks against ISIL to liberate ISIL occupied Sinjar. By Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

IRAQ-UNREST-RAMADI

Tom Ricks writes hauntingly of what the Iraq War did to him – and even more to to countless others:

Iraq and its aftermath ran my life for several more years. I wrote another book on the subject, titled “The Gamble.” I consumed too much alcohol, and still do. I think I was a bit numb at times. For several years, until about 2010, my nights were spent in a mental box. My dreams were almost always of confrontation and frustration. Then there were those “black dreams”—I would sometimes jolt awake at night, dripping in sweat, fingernails digging into my palms, yet never be able to remember the nightmare. I grew to hate being in the same room as a loud television, especially if it was playing cable news or reality shows—it just felt like having shit thrown at me from across the room. I had long loved watching baseball, but I stopped going to Major League Baseball games because I had begun to find the stadium din, especially the blare of the loudspeakers, to be exhausting. In fact, I was always exhausted. I craved bland food—mashed potatoes, pasta, yogurt—to calm my churning stomach.

Time came and went. I knew that my wife and two children, now adults, would pay a price for my changed behavior.

We sometimes allow ourselves to believe that the trauma of those years is now over. But for countless people, the night-sweats remain.

(Photo: A damaged car with blood trails is seen next to a crater at the site of twin suicide bombing the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, on April 16, 2014. The attacks targeted two checkpoints killing five people and injuring 12 according to police and medical reports. By Azhar Shallal AFP/Getty Images)

Let’s say you wanted to construct a narrative that perfectly fits the definition of mission creep. How could it improve on the following: at first you insist you are not going to be dragged into a new war in Iraq and Syria; then you rush military aid to avoid a humanitarian disaster; then you find that you need to make sure Kobani doesn’t fall; then you commit 1500 troops to “advise” the Iraqi “military”; and then you have the  Pentagon announce “that it had received authorization from Obama to send an additional 1,500 U.S. personnel to Iraq over the coming months”, which would double the number of American boots on the ground there. But no worries. Nothing to see here:

The new troops will be placed under the same noncombat restriction as those already deployed, but they will be moved closer to the front lines. … According to a senior administration official, 630 of the new troops will be performing an advise-and-assist mission — similar to the one being conducted today — primarily in Anbar in the west of the country. The Pentagon plans to establish “two expeditionary advise and assist operations centers, in locations outside of Baghdad and Erbil,” to provide support for the Iraqis at the brigade headquarters level and above. The remaining 870 troops will be doing a more traditional training mission at locations across the country, the senior administration official said. Both missions will move U.S. troops out of Iraq’s major cities and closer to where battles are currently being waged and where a likely counteroffensive would begin.

But no combat will be allowed! What if combat comes to them? What if one of them is killed? Are we not to respond and defend ourselves? One US soldier captured by the IS and we have a huge emotional story that could guarantee even more of a commitment. This is exactly how this operation with a few advisers becomes an unstoppable war in an unwinnable desert.

And then, as if to underline the fact that he could easily be ramping up for a third Iraq war (to be continued by the Clintons or by a neocon president), Obama stressed that he would “never say never” to more troops (video above). Juan Cole wants Obama to stop bullshitting about our presence in Iraq:

If ISIL really is a dire threat to US security, as administration officials maintain, then they should go to the US public with the news that they are going to have to put thousands of US forces on the ground in Iraq. So far they are trying to spin us, and to pretend that there are just some trainers and advisers. It is far more than that; US special operations forces will be operating in Iraq brigades, likely in part to paint lasers on targets for US warplanes to bomb.

Meanwhile, the counteroffensive may have already begun: an aide to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reportedly killed in an air strike Friday night, while Baghdadi himself may also have been injured or even killed, though the Pentagon can’t confirm that. The Iraqi army is also making gains against ISIS in the strategically important northern city of Beiji:

Exclusive images obtained by Al Jazeera on Monday showed government forces pushing ahead into the rebel-controlled city, with ISIL flag covered in an Iraqi security forces slogan. Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said clashes continue and the armed rebels are fighting back. He said the oil refinery, located about 50km from the city centre, is the next big target. ISIL fighters remain in control of parts of the facility. The military advance is seen as a significant victory for the government, as Beiji and its nearby oil refinery were one of the first territories swept by ISIL in June.

The targeting of refineries like the one in Beiji is one reason why German intelligence believes the jihadist group’s oil revenues are much lower than previous estimates had calculated:

According to German English-language publication The Local, the BND (German equivalent of the CIA) estimate was obtained by several German news agencies. The BND estimate suggests that ISIS may make less than $100 million this year from oil — under $274,000 per day. Obviously, that’s still a lot, but it’s way lower than what most public estimates suggest. …

There are two big reasons the BND thinks most estimates are inflated. The first is coalition airstrikes: the United States and its allies have pounded the oil extraction rigs, which are after all right out in the open, and hit ISIS smuggling lines. As such, the BND believes that ISIS has gone from producing its highest oil production of 172,000 barrels per day to 28,000 in October. … The second reason the BND believes ISIS oil revenues are inflated has to do with ISIS governance itself.

But this is never enough. Now, the US has to fight the Iraqis’ fight for them – and somehow regain the territory lost to the IS. The goal will determine the forces. And whatever restraints this president tries to put on this will soon be busted – either by him or his successor.

This is exactly what we elected Obama to prevent, not to enable. But the war machine outlasts any president. And it has too easily coopted this one already.

A group of Iraqi Yazidi leaders came to Washington last week to meet with officials and plead for assistance in protecting their people and lands from a renewed assault by ISIS. Josh Rogin caught up with the visiting dignitaries and listened to what they had to say:

“Our hostages, children, women, and girls, between 4,000 and 5,000 of them, have been captured by ISIS and sent to other areas. We need help to rescue these hostages,” said Sameer Karto Babasheikh, the son of the Yazidi Supreme Religious Council leader. “In Mosul, they opened a market to sell Yazidi girls. Some of them ended up in Fallujah, some of them were taken to Saudi Arabia and Raqqa in Syria.”

On the mountain, between 6,000 and 7,000 civilians and between 2,000 and 3,000 Yazidi fighters are still trapped and struggling to stay alive, cut off from any supply routes, the Yazidi leaders said. Since the airstrikes trailed off to a trickle in October, ISIS has taken over the five remaining Yazidi towns near Mount Sinjar, killing hundreds of civilians and abducting hundreds more. Even the humanitarian airdrops have halted. The Iraqi government provided two helicopters to deliver aid, but they are old and fly only once or twice a week, Babasheikh said.

Reporting from Dohuk, Alice Su confirms that “there remains no open path for civilians to get out, or for aid to get in”, while the Yazidis blame the Kurdish Peshmerga for abandoning them:

Humanitarian agencies are ready to aid Sinjar as soon as military action opens a way. Around Zumar, for example, a town north of Mosul just recaptured from the Islamic State on Oct. 25, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) are already hard at work. “People in these risky areas are much more in need,” said ICRC spokesperson Dabbakeh Saleh. “They have been totally cut off from the rest of the world.”

A Peshmerga-led effort to liberate Sinjar would represent a reversal from the situation in August, when their retreat left the Yazidis exposed to the assault by the Islamic State. “There is no doubt that the Peshmerga not only did not fight in Sinjar, but they also did not evacuate people or tell the towns that IS had arrived in the south of the mountain,” said Iraq-based researcher Christine van den Toorn. “It was total abandonment.”

Previous Dish on the Yazidis here.

(Video: ISIS militants chat and joke about buying and selling Yazidi slaves on “slave market day”. Via Joel Wing.)

Our proxy war in Syria suffered a setback over the weekend when two of the main “moderate” rebel groups receiving arms from the West surrendered to the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra following an assault on their strongholds in Idlib province:

The US and its allies were relying on Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front to become part of a ground force that would attack the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). For the last six months the Hazm movement, and the SRF through them, had been receiving heavy weapons from the US-led coalition, including GRAD rockets and TOW anti-tank missiles. But on Saturday night Harakat Hazm surrendered military bases and weapons supplies to Jabhat al-Nusra, when the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria stormed villages they controlled in northern Idlib province. The development came a day after Jabhat al-Nusra dealt a final blow to the SRF, storming and capturing Deir Sinbal, home town of the group’s leader Jamal Marouf.

On top of the American weapons now in the hands of the radical Islamist militia, the defeat of these two groups means that the Free Syrian Army has been almost completely driven out of northern Syria:

Idlib was the last of the northern Syrian provinces where the Free Syrian Army maintained a significant presence, and groups there had banded together in January to eject the Islamic State in the first instance in which Syrians had turned against the extremist radicals. Most of the rest of northern Syria is controlled by the Islamic State, apart from a small strip of territory around the city of Aleppo. There the rebels are fighting to hold at bay both the Islamic State and the forces of the Assad government, and the defeat in Idlib will further isolate those fighters.

Juan Cole responds to the news that some members of Marouf’s group defected to Jabhat al-Nusra:

The incident is disturbing because the Obama administration plans to train and arm fighters of the Syria Revolutionaries Front sort, on the theory that they are “moderates.” But a present Syrian moderate is all too often a future al-Qaeda member; many of these affiliations are not particularly ideological, but have to do with who is winning and who has more money. Last July, the Daoud Brigade of the Free Syrian Army joined ISIL.

Jamal Marouf’s group in any case had sometimes fought alongside Syria’s al-Qaeda and last April said al-Qaeda was the West’s problem, not his. (Ouch!) He complained that aside from a one time payment some time ago of $250,000, he hadn’t received any appreciable aid from the West. The loyalties of fighters may also have to do with which group is seen as more indigenous and which as foreign agents.

Larison knew this would happen:

In a saner political culture, this would be extremely bad news for the members of Congress that voted in favor of the administration’s plan to arm and train “moderate” and “vetted” rebels. The loss of weapons to an Al Qaeda affiliate is exactly the worst-case scenario that opponents of arming the “moderate” Syrian opposition imagined could happen, and now it has. Following the large loss of weapons and equipment to ISIS in Iraq, it was inexcusable to approve sending more weapons into Syria where they could be and now have been seized by jihadists, but the measure overwhelmingly passed both houses. A failure of this magnitude would normally be an indictment of the terrible judgment of the policy’s supporters, but we can expect that interventionists will quickly tell us that this would never have happened if only we had listened to them sooner.

Totten shrugs:

They were bad proxies anyway. The Syrian Revolutionary Front was an Islamist organization. Less deranged than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, sure, but it was still an Islamist organization. Harakat Hazm is more secular, but it consists of a measly 5,000 fighters while the Islamic State has as many as 100,000.

Syria is gone. The only portions of that former country that may still be salvageable are the Kurdish scraps in the north. The Kurds are good fighters and they may be able to hold on with our help, but there is no chance they will ever destroy the Assad regime or the Islamic State. They don’t have the strength or the numbers. So unless the United States decides to invade outright with ground forces—and fat chance of that happening any time soon—we’re going to have to accept that the geographic abstraction once known as Syria will be a terrorist factory for the foreseeable future.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s gains in northern Syria weren’t the only bad news this weekend. In Iraq, ISIS militants perpetrated a massacre against a Sunni tribe in Anbar province that had attempted to resist them, murdering more than 300 people:

 The Albu Nimr, also Sunni, had put up fierce resistance against Islamic State for weeks but finally ran low on ammunition, food and fuel last week as Islamic State fighters closed in on their village Zauiyat Albu Nimr. “The number of people killed by Islamic State from Albu Nimr tribe is 322. The bodies of 50 women and children have also been discovered dumped in a well,” the country’s Human Rights Ministry said on Sunday. One of the leaders of the tribe, Sheik Naeem al-Ga’oud, told Reuters that he had repeatedly asked the central government and army to provide his men with arms but no action was taken.

Iraqi security forces are now planning a spring offensive to recapture the territory lost to ISIS, with American assistance, but the plan requires the training of three new army divisions and doesn’t foresee retaking the captured areas until the end of next year.

Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains arrive in Syria's Haseki

ISIS militants returned last week to further harass the hundreds of Yazidis who remain on Mount Sinjar. Joel Wing provides an update on the fighting:

During the second week of the month the Kurds said that they were liberating Sinjar, which was taken by the Islamic State in August, but then it was revealed that IS had actually surrounded Mount Sinjar and were trying to take it once again. On October 20 there were clashes in all the surrounding areas such as Khazir, Bartella, Bashiqa, Tilkaif and Mount Sinjar itself. IS was able to seize two towns north of the mountain that day as Yazidi fighters ran out of ammunition. Twenty peshmerga were also killed and 51 wounded. On Mount Sinjar there are two Yazidi militias resisting the IS push. They told Rudaw that they had not received supplies for weeks. There are also YPG, PKK, and peshmerga fighters in the area as well. IS has cut off the supply routes to the mountain and the Yazidi forces are desperate for weapons and ammunition.

With hundreds of thousands of Yazidis displaced from their homes and unable to return, and with international attention having shifted to the battle for Kobani, Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery fear that the Yazidis won’t get the help they need before winter arrives:

Since news about the Yazidis first appeared in the headlines, more substantial — and much-needed — relief efforts have stumbled. Liene Veide, the public information officer for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says the organization is doing all it can for internally displaced persons and refugees in the region, but that more funding and manpower is required. Coordination, it seems, is another problem: The United Nations is working with other local Kurdish organizations, along with the Kurdish Regional Government, to deliver aid, but some communities are receiving assistance multiple times, while others are getting none at all due to a lack of communication between these different organizations, Veide explained.

According to Veide, even with the new UNHCR camps currently in the planning stage in for Iraq, there still won’t be room for everyone. “What we are working on now is absolutely not enough for the whole number — absolutely not,” Veide says.

Cathy Otten reports on the psychological trauma the displaced Yazidis have endured and the limited treatment options available to them:

It’s mid-morning in the hospital and patients crowd the narrow corridors outside Dr [Haitham] Abdalrazak’s office in Zakho General Hospital. He estimates that over 70 percent of Yazidi IDPs in Zakho, a small city in Dohuk Province near the Turkish border, are suffering from trauma. Abdalrazak has a kind, serious expression. He says about 20 percent of his patients have considered suicide and about five percent have attempted it. … Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders warns that PTSD, anxiety and depression are now also affecting displaced children. The organisation has been offering psychological support to displaced people in their Dohuk mobile clinics since August, but do not have any psychiatrists working with them in the area.

(Photo: Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains without food and water for days, due to the Islamic State (IS) violence, arrive in Haseki city of Syria on August 10, 2014. By Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Polly Mosendz highlights ISIS’s use of child soldiers:

As more and more children roam away from schools that are no longer operational, or not safe to attend, fighters offer increasing responsibility to young boys under the guise of a new educational system. In the past, fighters frowned upon to give a boy under 15 a rifle, but now, boys much younger than this carry automatic weapons. One fighter in Aleppo explained in the UN report that, “Often young boys are braver and cleverer than adult fighters.” The boys are trained to use the weapons in makeshift educational programs: recruitment masquerading as a replacement for their schools-turned-military bases.

The kids, some under the age of 8, but most commonly 14 to 15 years old, are sent to training camps where recruitment officers offer religious education alongside weapons training. The children, in turn, are paid for attending. However, when class is over and the camp ends, the children are not allowed to return home. Instead, they are sent into active combat zones and in some cases, on suicide bombing missions.

Kate Brannen takes a closer look at what these children experience:

On the front lines of Iraq and Syria, the boys who join or are abducted by the Islamic State are sent to various religious and military training camps, depending on their age. At the camps, they are taught everything from the Islamic State’s interpretation of sharia law to how to handle a gun. They are even trained in how to behead another human and given dolls on which to practice, Syria Deeply, a website devoted to covering the Syrian civil war, reported in September.

Children are also sent into battle, where they are used as human shields on the front lines and to provide blood transfusions for Islamic State soldiers, according to Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, an organization devoted to the eradication of the use of child soldiers. Eyewitnesses from the Iraqi towns of Mosul and Tal Afar told United Nations investigators they have seen young children, armed with weapons they could barely carry and dressed in Islamic State uniforms, conducting street patrols and arresting locals.