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Posts tagged ‘Caliphate Seekers (ISIS / ISIL)’

In battle against IS, Iraqi forces retake town near Tikrit

March 10, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces on Tuesday retook a town next to the militant-held city of Tikrit as they pressed their offensive against Islamic State militants, two military officials said.

The Iraqi forces entered Alam early in the morning and hours later gained full control of the town adjacent to Tikrit, the two Iraqi officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The battle for Saddam Hussein’s hometown is a key test for the Iraqi forces as they struggle to win back some of the Islamic State group’s biggest strongholds in Iraq. Ahmed al-Karim, the Salahuddin provincial council chief, told The Associated Press that progress had been slow due to roadside bombs and sniper attacks.

Tikrit, Salahuddin’s provincial capital that lies about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, fell to the Islamic State group last summer, along with Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland.

The offensive to wrest Tikrit from IS has received significant assistance from Iranian military advisers who are guiding Iraq’s Shiite militias on the battlefield. U.S.-led coalition forces have said they are not providing aerial support for this particular mission because the Iraqis have not requested it.

Before Alam, the offensive succeeded in clawing back a few villages and towns, most notably Dawr, south of Tikrit. Among those directing operations is Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shiite militias in the campaign have raised fears of possible sectarian cleansing should Tikrit, an overwhelmingly Sunni city, fall to the government troops.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, activists said Tuesday that more than 70 prisoners escaped from an Islamic State jail in a town held by the militant group. The militants then went house-to-house and set up checkpoints around the northern town of Al-Bab, searching for those who fled.

The prisoners took the opportunity to escape when clashes erupted between rival militant groups, said Bari Abdelatif, an activist from al-Bab who is now based in Turkey. “There are checkpoints everywhere,” Abdelatif said of the situation in the town. He said he was contact with residents and added that IS fighters were driving through town streets and calling on people over loudspeakers to hand over any prisoners they were hiding.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Abdelatif said those who fled included Kurdish fighters who were captured by the Islamic State group in recent months. The Observatory said the IS extremists were able to recapture some of those who fled but did not provide details or numbers.

Along with a third of Iraq, the Islamic State last year also captured a third of Syria last year. In the past months, the group has been defeated in some areas, including the Syrian border town of Kobani and several surrounding villages.

U.S. military officials have that said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said while on a visit to the region on Monday that he is “a bit concerned” about whether the international coalition fighting the Islamic State is sustainable for the longer-term challenge of confronting extremists elsewhere.

Dempsey said that in military terms the campaign against IS is “on path.” But he put equal emphasis on the importance of sustaining the coalition for the longer term. Shiite dominance in Baghdad has upset predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Baghdad and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Kurdish fighters rout IS militants from town near Iraq

February 28, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Kurdish fighters fought their way Friday into a northeastern Syrian town that was a key stronghold of Islamic State militants, only days after the group abducted dozens of Christians in the volatile region, Syrian activists and Kurdish officials said.

The victory marks a second blow to the extremist IS group in a month, highlighting the growing role of Syria’s Kurds as the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State. In January, Kurdish forces drove IS militants from the town of Kobani near the Turkish border after a months-long fight, dealing a very public defeat to the extremists.

But it is also tempered by this week’s horrific abductions by IS militants of more than 220 Christian Assyrians in the same area, along the fluid and fast shifting front line in Syria. The town of Tel Hamees in Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh province is strategically important because it links territory controlled by IS in Syria and Iraq.

The province, which borders Turkey and Iraq, is predominantly Kurdish but also has populations of Arabs and predominantly Christian Assyrians and Armenians. “We are now combing the town for explosives and remnants of terrorists,” said Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG.

Speaking to The Associated Press over the phone from the outskirts of Tel Hamees, he said the town was a key stronghold for IS and had served as a staging ground for the group’s operations in the Iraqi town of Sinjar and the city of Mosul.

Dislodging the group from Tel Hamees cuts a supply line from Iraq, Khalil said. The push on the town’s eastern and southeastern edges came after the Kurdish troops, working with Christian militias and Arab tribal fighters, seized dozens of nearby villages from the Islamic State extremists. U.S.-led coalition forces provided cover, striking at IS infrastructure in the region for days.

More than 200 militants died in the fighting, and at least eight troops fighting alongside YPG, including an Australian national who has been with the Kurdish forces for three months, Khalil said. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said IS defenses collapsed and the militants fled after Kurdish fighters broke into Tel Hamees from the east and south.

The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdurrahman, said the Kurds seized more than 100 villages around Tel Hamees and that ground battles and air strikes around the town have killed at least 175 IS fighters in the past several days in some of the latest losses for the group since Kobani.

Some 15,000 villagers have fled the fighting, he added. The Kurds in Syria and Iraq have emerged as the most effective force fighting IS, which controls about a third of Iraq and Syria — much of it captured in a lighting blitz last spring and summer, as Iraqi army forces melted away in the face of the militant onslaught.

In Syria, they have teamed up with moderate rebels for territorial gains against the group. Elsewhere in Hassakeh, IS fighters this week captured dozens of mostly Christian villages to the west of Tel Hamees — taking at least 220 Assyrian Christians hostage, according to activists. The fate of those abducted was still unknown.

On Thursday, video emerged of IS militants smashing ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in a museum in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the ongoing “barbaric terrorist acts” by the Islamic State group including attacks “and the deliberate destruction of irreplaceable religious and cultural artifacts housed in the Mosul Museum and burning of thousands of books and rare manuscripts from the Mosul Library.”

A council statement said income from looted cultural items in Iraq and Syria is being used to support the group’s recruitment efforts and strengthen its ability to organize and carry out terrorism acts.

“The members of the Security Council stressed again that ISIL must be defeated and that the intolerance, violence, and hatred it espouses must be stamped out,” the statement said, using one of several alternative acronyms for the group.

Irina Bokova, the head of the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, denounced the group’s destruction of ancient statues and artifacts as “cultural cleansing” and a war crime that the world must punish. From Paris, where the agency is based, Bokova said she could not watch to the end the Islamic State video posted Thursday that shows men using sledgehammers to smash Mesopotamian artworks in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul. She called the video “a real shock.”

The Louvre Museum in Paris said the destruction “marks a new stage in the violence and horror, because all of humanity’s memory is being targeted in this region that was the cradle of civilization, the written word, and history.”

French President Francois Hollande also condemned the “barbarity” of the destructions. “What the terrorists want is to destroy all that makes humanity,” he said Friday during a visit to the Philippines.

Elsewhere in Syria, at least eight civilians were killed in a car bomb that exploded outside the Bilal Mosque in the rebel-held town of Dumeir, east of Damascus. Many others were wounded in the blast, which occurred as worshippers were leaving the mosque following Friday prayers.

Another car bomb went off outside a mosque in Nasseriya, near Dumeir, also causing multiple casualties. It was not immediately clear who was behind the bombings.

Associated Press writers Ashraf Khalil in Beirut and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

Who’s who in coalition against IS jihadists

Baghdad (AFP)

Feb 23, 2015

The US-led coalition against the jihadist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria groups more than 60 countries, of which a dozen are taking part in air strikes.

Washington is carrying out its strikes in Syria with the help of Arab allies – Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In Iraq it has the active support of seven Western countries – Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands.

The coalition has since August carried out 2,000 air strikes, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on February 8.

While excluding the deployment of ground troops, coalition countries have also sent more than 1,000 military trainers to work with Iraqi forces.

Below are contributions from the main coalition members:

UNITED STATES: The US started to bombard IS positions in Iraq on August 8, 2014 and extended operations to Syria on September 23.

The 2016 budget earmarks $8.8 billion for the fight against IS.

Around 1,830 American soldiers are currently deployed in Iraq to assist its armed forces in equipment, training and intelligence.

– STRIKES ON IRAQ –

AUSTRALIA: Canberra sent eight RAAF F/A18s to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to take part in air strikes. On October 19, it announced sending 200 members of its special forces as advisers in Iraq. It has also sent military equipment and humanitarian aid to Iraqi Kurds.

BELGIUM: Brussels has committed six F-16 fighter jets and 120 troops, based in Jordan.

BRITAIN: London has deployed eight Tornado fighter bombers and started to conduct air strikes on September 30.

The government announced in October the redeployment from Afghanistan to Iraq of several of its Reaper drones.

In late 2014, London announced the deployment of several hundred extra British soldiers to Kurdish zones of northern Iraq and to near Baghdad to train Iraq’s infantry and help them fight against improvised explosive devices.

London has delivered machine-guns and ammunition to Iraqi Kurdish forces.

CANADA: Ottawa has deployed six F-18 fighter jets to Kuwait to take part in strikes in Iraq and officially deployed 69 members of its special forces to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

In the first confirmed ground battle between Western troops and IS, Canadian special forces in January exchanged gunfire with jihadist fighters in Iraq.

FRANCE: Paris joined air strikes in Iraq on September 19, 2014. On Monday, it deployed the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Gulf to work alongside the USS Carl Vinson.

The ship carries 12 Rafale and nine Super Etendard fighters, in addition to nine Rafales in the UAE and six Mirage fighters in Jordan operating over Iraq, along with a maritime patrol and a refueling aircraft.

The Charles de Gaulle strike group includes an attack submarine, a French anti-aircraft frigate and the HMS Kent, a British anti-submarine frigate. A total of 2,700 sailors are involved, including 2,000 on the carrier itself.

NETHERLANDS: Apart from six F-16 fighter jets based in Jordan for missions in Iraq, and two others in reserve, The Hague on October 5 announced it was deploying 250 soldiers in Iraq as trainers.

– STRIKES ON SYRIA –

SAUDI ARABIA: The leader of the Gulf monarchies has been taking part since September in air strikes on IS positions in Syria and has accepted moderate Syrian rebels for training and equipping.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Abu Dhabi resumed air strikes on February 10 in Syria, having suspending the raids after IS captured a Jordanian pilot in December.

On February 7, the UAE ordered a squadron of F-16 warplanes to be stationed in Jordan to support it in strikes against the IS.

BAHRAIN: Home of the US Fifth Fleet, Manama has taken part from the start in air strikes in Syria and on February 16 announced the deployment of fighter jets in Jordan.

JORDAN: A neighbor of both Iraq and Syria, the kingdom has also taken part in strikes in Syria since the outset.

It stepped up raids after the February 3 announcement of the execution of Jordanian pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh, burned alive by IS which captured him after his plane crashed.

On February 5, Jordan also joined air strikes on Iraq.

QATAR: Doha has supported air strikes in Syria, making available its Udeid air base, home of Centcom, the US central military command for the Middle East and central Asia.

TURKEY: Concerned by Kurdish activities, it joined the coalition on October 2 but has declined to take military action. After months of difficult negotiations, it signed a February 19 accord with the US to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.

The US government hopes the program can start by late March and the first trained rebel forces become operational by year’s end.

Other countries, including the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain, have either sent hundreds of soldiers to train Iraqi or Kurdish forces, or hosted training. Others have delivered arms and ammunition.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Whos_who_in_coalition_against_IS_jihadists_999.html.

Islamic State militants find a foothold in chaotic Libya

February 18, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — Libya, virtually a failed state in recent years, has succeeded in one way: It’s providing a perfect opportunity for the Islamic State group to expand from Syria and Iraq to establish a strategic foothold closer to European shores.

Extremists loyal to the group have taken control of two Libyan cities on the Mediterranean coast, have moved toward oil facilities and are slowly infiltrating the capital, Tripoli, and the second-largest city, Benghazi. They have siphoned off young recruits from rival militant groups linked to al-Qaida and in some places taken over those groups’ training camps, mosques and media networks.

Notably, there appears to be strong coordination between the Libya branch and the group’s central leadership in Syria and Iraq. One of its top clerics, Bahraini Turki al-Binali, has visited the Libyan city of Sirte to preach: in 2013 and again at the end of last year, soon before it fell into the hands of the group’s supporters, according to a rival militia official based there. The official spoke on condition of anonymity for fear for his life.

A video released last week showing the beheading of a group of Egyptian Christians abducted from Sirte was produced by the IS media branch. About 400 mostly Yemeni and Tunisian fighters are in Sirte, according to Libyan Interior Minister Omar al-Sinki. The militia official said Islamic State fighters have set up headquarters in the city’s convention complex, the Ouagadougou Center, built by former dictator Moammar Gadhafi as a symbol of his secular regime’s aspirations to be a pan-African leader. An Associated Press reporter who briefly visited Sirte on Wednesday saw masked militants deployed along the main road linking the convention center to downtown.

The close connection between the Libya branch and the central leadership around Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi underscores the strategic importance of the North African country to the group. Libya boasts oil resources – something the extremists have exploited for funding in Iraq and Syria. There are vast amounts of weapons, a legacy of the turmoil since Gadhafi’s 2011 ouster. Its borders with Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria are porous.

And the southern shore of Italy is about 400 miles (660 kilometers) away, a distance Libyans fleeing their country’s chaos regularly try to cross in rickety boats. Italy and France favor some sort of international action in Libya, while Egypt is pressing for a U.N.-backed coalition air campaign.

Besides Sirte in the center of the country, Islamic State loyalists control the city of Darna, farther east along the coast. This week, Egyptian warplanes struck IS training facilities and weapons depots in Darna in retaliation for the beheadings.

In Tripoli, which is controlled by powerful militias, IS militants have infiltrated some neighborhoods, destroying statues they consider forbidden by Islam and distributing pamphlets to spread their message. They also claimed responsibility for a deadly attack at a luxury hotel that killed several foreigners, including an American.

Some IS extremists have entered Benghazi and are battling government troops, fighting beside other Islamic militias who dominate the city. IS fighters from Sirte recently were seen waving their black banners in a parade of vehicles in the town of Nofaliya, heading toward Libya’s oil ports of Sidr, Ras Lanouf and Brega.

The IS leadership in Iraq has named an “emir of Tripoli” to oversee the eastern half of Libya. He is a Tunisian known by the nom de guerre of Abu Talha, according to Interior Minister al-Sinki, removed from his post days ago. It was not possible immediately to verify his account. In charge of the western half is a Yemeni emir based in Darna and known as Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, according to local activists and a former militant from the city.

The Islamic State has established is presence in Libya by exploiting the country’s breakdown since Gadhafi fell. After his ouster and death, hundreds of militias took power, and some of them have militant ideologies, including Ansar al-Shariah, an al-Qaida-associated group. A militia coalition known as Libya Dawn, which backs Islamist political factions, has taken over Tripoli, where Islamists set up their own parliament and government, and Islamist militias control Benghazi.

The elected, Western-backed government has been pushed to the remote eastern city of Tobruk, from which remnants of the military led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter and some allied militias have been battling the Islamists. The fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and damaged large parts of Benghazi.

The violence also appears to have radicalized some militia members, making them easy recruits for the Islamic State. The group was kicked out of al-Qaida’s network for being too extreme, and it made a bid to become the leader of jihadis worldwide last year by declaring a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria it controls.

It took over Darna last year, while its move to dominate Sirte came more recently. Once a showcase for Gadhafi’s rule, Sirte was devastated by the 2011 civil war, and little has been done to repair it. Schools operated sporadically, banks ran short of cash and bakeries were low on wheat, while garbage piled up in the streets, said Reem el-Breki, a Benghazi activist who runs a news portal that has covered Sirte. “The city was buried alive,” she said.

In 2013, it fell under the control of Ansar al-Shariah, which made alliances with local tribes and an uneasy truce with other militias and the few military troops in Sirte. Ansar militants took the Ouagadougou Center as their base, and the group boasted a TV and radio station in the city.

But the Islamic State group appears to have taken over Sirte though a slow infiltration. In 2013, al-Binali – the prominent radical cleric – made his visit to preach in the city’s central mosque. Fighters from Mali, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and the Palestinian territories began to move in, according to the militia official from the city.

Al-Binali – now firmly established in the top echelons of the Islamic State leadership – visited again late last year, the militia official said. Soon after, the 21 Egyptian Christians in Sirte were abducted, and there was a wave of assassinations Jan. 22, with three top security and militia officials killed.

Afterward, Ansar al-Shariah disappeared from Sirte, replaced by the Islamic State group, according to an activist who runs a Facebook page called Sirte Steadfast Youth. Radio stations played speeches by IS leader al-Baghdadi and songs urging people to pledge allegiance to him. Gunmen forced government workers to sign “repentance” statements. Militia vehicles switched their markings from Ansar to the Islamic State. Local media said IS gunmen looted Sirte’s banks.

The Islamic State group posted photos purportedly from Sirte showing religious police touring shops to remove sleeveless dresses. Schools and hospitals were segregated by gender and curriculum was censored, said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Sirte’s fall caused alarm in nearby Misrata, whose powerful militias make up the bulk of Libya Dawn and effectively control Tripoli. The city called on its allies in Tripoli to take action, and a militia official told AP that some forces from the capital have moved to the outskirts of Sirte, although they have not attacked.

An Associated Press reporter in Libya contributed to this report.

Kurds celebrate ousting Islamic State fighters from Kobani

January 26, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Jubilant Kurdish fighters ousted Islamic State militants from the key Syrian border town of Kobani on Monday after a four-month battle — a significant victory for both the Kurds and the U.S.-led coalition.

The Kurds raised their flag on a hill that once flew the Islamic State group’s black banner. On Kobani’s war-ravaged streets, gunmen fired in the air in celebration, male and female fighters embraced, and troops danced in their baggy uniforms.

The failure to capture Kobani was a major blow to the extremists whose hopes for an easy victory dissolved into a costly siege under withering airstrikes by coalition forces and an assault by the Kurdish militia.

For the U.S. and its partners, Kobani became a strategic prize, especially after they increased the number of airstrikes against IS fighters there in October. “Daesh gambled on Kobani and lost,” said senior Kurdish official Idriss Nassan, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

“Their defenses have collapsed and its fighters have fled,” he told The Associated Press from Turkey, adding that he would return to Kobani on Tuesday. Kobani-based journalis Farshad Shami said the few civilians who remained had joined in the celebration. Most of the town of about 60,000 people had fled to Turkey to escape the fighting.

Several U.S. officials said they couldn’t confirm that Kurdish fighters have gained full control of Kobani, but added that they have no reason to disbelieve the claims. A senior U.S. official said the Kurds controlled most of the town and have consolidated control particularly in the central and southern areas. The official said Islamic State militants still have a considerable presence in outlying areas around Kobani and are still putting up stiff resistance to the Kurds in those pockets outside it.

U.S. Central Central Command estimates that 90 percent of Kobani is now controlled by Kurdish forces. Kurdish officials and activists said Kobani was entirely in Kurdish hands, with only sporadic fighting on the eastern outer edges where the militants retained some footholds.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighters of the main Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, where searching houses in the eastern suburbs of the town and dismantling and detonating bombs and booby-traps left behind.

Capturing Kobani would have given the IS militants control of a border crossing with Turkey and open direct lines for their positions along the frontier. Now, it is a grave psychological loss for the extremist group, which has been dealt a series of military setbacks in both Syria and Iraq, particularly at the hands of the Kurds.

Last month, Kurdish fighters in Iraq retook the strategic town of Sinjar that had been home to many of Iraq’s minority Yazidis. The focus is now expected to shift to several hundred villages around Kobani still held by the militants. Kurdish activists said they expected the fight for those to be easier than for the town itself.

In September, Islamic State fighters began capturing about 300 Kurdish villages near Kobani and thrust into the town itself, occupying nearly half of it and sending tens of thousands of residents fleeing into Turkey.

But the once-nondescript town with few resources quickly became a centerpiece of the international campaign against the Islamic State group. TV crews flocked to the Turkish side of the border and trained their cameras on the besieged town, plumes of smoke rising from explosions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared it would be “morally very difficult” not to help Kobani.

The U.S.-led air assault began Sept. 23, with Kobani the target of about a half-dozen daily airstrikes on average. More than 80 percent of all coalition airstrikes in Syria have been in or around the town.

At one point in October, the U.S. air dropped bundles of weapons and medical supplies for Kurdish fighters — a first in the Syrian conflict. Dozens of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces joined their brethren in Kobani, bringing in heavy weapons that neutralized the Islamic State group’s artillery advantage.

By early January, more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters had been killed and much of its heavy weaponry destroyed. The group continued to invest in resources, bringing in hundreds of reinforcements. Activists said these included many teenagers and even children, signaling a shortage in its forces.

The group made a last stand in the past few weeks, unleashing more than 35 suicide attacks in recent weeks, activists said. But the advancing Kurdish fighters could not be stopped. Nassan said coalition airstrikes intensified in recent days, helping the Kurds in their final push toward IS positions on the southern and eastern edges of Kobani.

The U.S. Central Command said Monday it had carried out 17 airstrikes near Kobani in the last 24 hours that struck IS infrastructure and fighting positions. Shami, the Kurdish journalist, said the remaining IS militants in eastern Kobani vacated quickly, leaving behind fresh food and heavy weapons.

“Their morale collapsed,” he said by telephone as celebratory gunfire echoed in the background. Gharib Hassou, a representative of Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, based in Southern Kurdistan, said most of the militants fled to the IS-controlled town of Tal Abyad to the east.

“There are a lot of dead bodies … and they left some of the weapons,” he said. Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory, also confirmed Kobani was entirely in Kurdish hands. He said the Kurdish force was led by Mohammed Barkhadan, the Kobani commander of the main Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

Barkhadan, a well-known militia commander, led an offensive in 2013 that ousted Islamic militants from the northern Syrian town of Ras Ayn, Aburrahman said. Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition fighting the IS group, had predicted in November that Kobani would be a defeat for the extremists.

The militant group “has, in so many ways, impaled itself on Kobani,” he said in an interview in Ankara with the Turkish daily Milliyet. There also was joy across the border in Turkey, where Kurds set off fireworks and performed a traditional folk dance to mark the victory by their brethren in predominantly Kurdish Kobani. In Istanbul, police used tear gas and pressurized water to break up pro-Kurdish demonstrations in the city.

Shami said it was a triumph for the “entire world” that had come to Kobani’s rescue. “It is a historic victory, when a small town like Kobani defeats a formidable criminal force like Daesh,” he said.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; Suzan Fraser in Ankara; and Bram Janssen in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.

Jordan launches new airstrikes after vowing harsh war on IS

February 05, 2015

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Dozens of Jordanian fighter jets bombed Islamic State training centers and weapons storage sites Thursday, intensifying attacks after the militants burned to death a captured Jordanian pilot.

As part of the new campaign, Jordan is also attacking targets in Iraq, said Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. Up to now, Jordan had struck IS targets in Syria, but not Iraq, as part of a U.S.-led military coalition.

“We said we are going to take this all the way, we are going to go after them wherever they are and we’re doing that,” Judeh told Fox News. Asked if Jordan was now carrying out attacks in both countries, he said: “That’s right. Today more Syria than Iraq, but like I said it’s an ongoing effort.”

“They’re in Iraq and they are in Syria and therefore you have to target them wherever they are,” he added. The militant group controls about one-third of each Syria and Iraq, both neighbors of Jordan. In September, Jordan joined the U.S.-led military alliance that has been carrying out air strikes against the militants.

The Jordanian military said dozens of fighter jets were involved in Thursday’s strikes on training centers and weapons storage sites. State TV showed footage of the attacks, including fighter jets taking off from an air base and bombs setting of large balls of fire and smoke after impact. It showed Jordanian troops scribble messages in chalk on the missiles. “For you, the enemies of Islam,” read one message.

The military’s statement, read on state TV, was entitled, “This is the beginning and you will get to know the Jordanians” — an apparent warning to IS. It said the strikes will continue “until we eliminate them.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II was paying a condolence visit to the family of the pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, in southern Jordan when the fighter jets roared overhead. The king pointed upward, toward the planes, as he sat next to the pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh.

Al-Kaseasbeh told the assembled mourners that the planes had returned from strikes over Raqqa, the de facto capital of the militants’ self-declared caliphate. His son had been captured near Raqqa when his F-16 fighter plane went down in December.

Earlier this week, Islamic State displayed the video of the killing of the pilot on outdoor screens in Raqqa, to chants of “God is Great” from some in the audience, according to another video posted by the militants.

Also Thursday, Jordan released an influential jihadi cleric, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdesi, who was detained in October after speaking out against Jordan’s participation in the anti-IS coalition, according to his lawyer, Moussa al-Abdallat.

Jordan’s Islamic militants are split between supporters of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al-Qaida in Syria. Last year, al-Maqdesi had criticized Islamic State militants for attacking fellow Muslims. However, after Jordan joined the military coalition, he called on his website for Muslim unity against a “crusader war,” a reference to coalition airstrikes.

Jordan says IS can be defeated; uproar over burn video

February 04, 2015

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan called Wednesday for a decisive battle against the Islamic State group, declaring “this evil can and should be defeated,” after the militants burned a Jordanian pilot to death in a cage and gleefully broadcast the horrific images on outdoor screens in their stronghold.

Waves of revulsion over the killing washed across the Middle East, a region long accustomed to violence. In mosques, streets and coffee shops, Muslims denounced the militants’ brutality and distanced themselves from their violent version of Islam.

Even a prominent preacher with close links to jihadi groups said Islamic State militants miscalculated if they hoped the images of the pilot’s agony would galvanize greater opposition to a U.S.-led military coalition that has been bombing targets of the group.

“After millions of Muslims were cursing every pilot (in the coalition), with this act, they (IS) have made the burned one into a symbol,” Abdullah al-Muhaysni, a Saudi sheik, wrote on his Twitter account.

The Islamic State group, which controls large areas of Iraq and Syria, has killed captives in the past, posting videos of beheadings and sparking widespread condemnation. However, the killing of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who crashed over Syria in December, also highlighted the vulnerability of Jordan, a key Western ally in the region, to threats from extremists.

Jordan was long considered an island of relative stability in a turbulent region, but in recent years had to absorb hundreds of thousands of war refugees, first from Iraq and then Syria, at a time of a sharp economic downturn.

Jordan receives hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid a year, but grinding social problems persist, including high unemployment among young men, a reservoir of potential IS recruits. Experts estimate Islamic State and other jihadi groups have thousands of supporters in the kingdom, with an upswing last year after the militants declared a caliphate in the areas they control.

The United States and Israel are particularly concerned about any signs of turmoil. Israel views Jordan as an important land buffer and the two countries share intelligence. In Washington, congressional support built Wednesday for increased U.S. military assistance to the kingdom. Currently, the United States is providing Jordan with $1 billion annually in economic and military assistance.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Jordan’s King Abdullah II — who met with lawmakers and President Barack Obama on Tuesday — must be given “all of the military equipment” he needs to combat the group. He said Abdullah did not ask for ground troops.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration would consider any aid package put forward by Congress, but that the White House would be looking for a specific request from Jordan’s government.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he expected his panel to swiftly approve legislation. He repeated his criticism that the Obama administration has “no strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State group, and said he hoped the video of al-Kaseasbeh’s death will galvanize not only U.S. leadership but “the Arab world.”

Abdullah rushed home after his Washington meetings, cutting short his U.S. trip, to rally domestic support for an even tougher line against the militants. In September, Jordan joined the U.S.-led military coalition that began bombing Islamic State group targets in Syria and Iraq.

The decision was not popular in Jordan, with the bombing campaign widely seen as serving Western, not Jordanian interests. During weeks of uncertainty about the fate of the airman, some of his relatives and supporters chanted against Jordan’s role in the coalition.

On Wednesday, Hammam Saeed, the leader of Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, visited relatives of the pilot in the southern tribal town of Karak, and called on Jordan to pull out of the anti-IS coalition, saying that “we have no relations with this war.”

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani on Wednesday urged the international community to work together and deliver a decisive blow to Islamic State militants. Jordan believes that “this evil can and should be defeated,” he said.

In an initial response, Jordan executed two Iraqi al-Qaida prisoners, Sajida al-Rishawi and Zaid al-Karbouly, before sunrise Wednesday. Over the past week, Jordan had offered to trade al-Rishawi, a failed female suicide bomber, for the pilot, but insisted on proof of life it never received. Al-Momani said Wednesday that Jordan now believes the pilot was killed in early January.

Dozens more suspected Islamic State sympathizers are in detention in Jordan, most rounded up during a crackdown in recent months. Public outrage over the pilot’s death and calls for revenge against IS could help Abdullah broaden support for the coalition, said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm in Austin, Texas.

“Sentiments (about the airstrikes) are going to start changing across the Middle East after people see the video, especially the Jordanian people,” he said. Stewart said a similar shift occurred a decade ago in Iraq after Sunni Muslim tribes turned away from a local branch of al-Qaida, a precursor of the Islamic State group, over its brutality.

Marwan Shehadeh, a Jordanian expert on jihadi groups, said he expects the opposite outcome. “Public opinion rejected the IS behavior, but at the same time, more voices are questioning the participation of Jordan in the international coalition,” he said. “The killing (of the pilot) will drive more people to question that.”

The Islamic State militants appeared to be goading Jordan. In the northern Syrian city of Raqaa, the Islamic State group’s de facto capital, the militants showed graphic footage of al-Kaseasbeh’s slaying on outdoor screens, with some chanting “God is great!” according to militant video posted online Wednesday that conformed to Associated Press reporting of the event.

In the 20-minute video of the killing, the pilot displayed signs of having been beaten, including a black eye. Toward the end of the clip, he stood in the outdoor cage in an orange jumpsuit and a masked militant lit a line of fuel leading to him. The AP could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video.

A senior Iraqi Kurdish official, meanwhile, echoed Jordan’s appeal for a decisive campaign against the militants. Fouad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, said U.S.-led coalition airstrikes are helpful, but “to finish ISIS … you need to finish it on the ground,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the militant group.

“And on the ground, we are most of the time alone. So we need partners,” he said. “It means advisers. It means special forces. It means a collective fight against ISIS. It means equipment, it means munitions.”

Though Islamic State fighters have been forced to retreat from Kobani, a strategic town on Syria’s border with Turkey, the battlefield picture suggests they are far from beaten in northern Iraq, where harsh winter weather and thick mud underfoot hampers military moves.

The Kurdish peshmerga fighters have struggled for months to inch ahead, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, Hamza Hendawi in Cairo, Zeina Karam and Diaa Hadid in Beirut and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to the report.

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