Contains selective news articles I select

Posts tagged ‘(VMS) Victory of the Martyrs State’

Raqa remains in ruins one year since recapture from IS

Wednesday 17/10/2018

RAQA – All day, dinghies cross the Euphrates River to shuttle residents into the pulverized cityscape of Syria’s Raqa, where bridges, homes, and schools remain gutted by the offensive against the Islamic State group.

Exactly a year has passed since a blistering US-backed assault ousted the jihadists from their one-time Syrian stronghold, but Raqa — along with the roads and bridges leading to it — remains in ruins.

To enter the city, 33-year-old Abu Yazan and his family have to pile into a small boat on the southern banks of the Euphrates, which flows along the bottom edges of Raqa.

They load their motorcycle onto the small vessel, which bobs precariously north for a few minutes before dropping off passengers and their vehicles at the city’s outskirts.

“It’s hard — the kids are always afraid of the constant possibility of drowning,” says bearded Abu Yazan.

“We want the bridge to be repaired because it’s safer than water transport.”

The remains of Raqa’s well-known “Old Bridge” stand nearby: a pair of massive pillars, the top of the structure shorn off.

It was smashed in an air strike by the US-led coalition, which bombed every one of Raqa’s bridges to cut off the jihadists’ escape routes.

The fighting ended on October 17 last year, when the city finally fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which then handed it over to the Raqa Civil Council (RCC) to govern.

But 60 bridges are still destroyed in and around the city, says RCC member Ahmad al-Khodr.

“The coalition has offered us eight metal bridges,” he says, to link vital areas in Raqa’s countryside.

Houses, belongings long gone

Rights group Amnesty International estimates around 80 percent of Raqa was devastated by fighting, including vital infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

The national hospital, the city’s largest medical facility, was where IS made its final stand. It still lies ravaged.

Private homes were not spared either: 30,000 houses were fully destroyed and another 25,000 heavily damaged, says Amnesty.

Ismail al-Muidi lost his son, an SDF fighter, and his home.

“I buried him myself with these two hands,” says Muidi, 48.

“I was not as affected when I lost the house, but I had hoped it would shelter me and my family,” he adds.

Now homeless, he lives with his sister in the central Al-Nahda neighborhood.

“The coalition destroyed the whole building, and all our belongings went with them,” he says.

Anxiety over eking out a living has put streaks of grey into Muidi’s hair and beard.

“How could I rebuild this house? We need help to remove the rubble, but no one has helped us at all,” he says.

Since IS was ousted, more than 150,000 people have returned to Raqa, according to United Nations estimates last month.

But the city remains haunted by one of IS’s most infamous legacies: a sea of mines and unexploded ordnance that still maims and kills residents to this day.

The RCC says it does not have enough money to clear out the rubble still clogging up Raqa’s streets, much less rehabilitate its water and electricity networks.

Khodr unfurls a map of the city in front of him at his office in the RCC, pointing out the most ravaged neighborhoods.

“The districts in the center of the city were more damaged — 90 percent destroyed — compared to a range of 40 to 60 percent destroyed in the surrounding areas,” he said.

“The destruction is massive and the support isn’t cutting it.”

‘No hope at all’

A plastic bucket in hand, Abd al-Ibrahim sits despondently on a curbside in the Al-Ferdaws neighborhood.

Fighting destroyed his home, so he now squats in another house but there has been no water there for three days.

“I come sit here, hoping somebody will drive by to give me water. But no one comes,” the 70-year-old says, tearing up.

He points to a mound of rubble nearby.

“My house is like this now. We were in paradise. Look at what happened to us — we’re literally begging for water.”

The coalition has helped de-mine, remove rubble, and rehabilitate schools in Raqa, but efforts have been modest and piecemeal compared to the scale of the destruction.

“You can’t call this reconstruction — it’s all empty talk,” says Samer Farwati, who peddles cigarettes across from his destroyed house in the Masaken al-Tobb district.

He pays $120 to rent a home since his was hit in an air strike.

Farwati says he no longer trusts officials after too many empty promises.

“If they helped us even a little bit, we could complete the construction. But there’s no hope at all,” he says.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/raqa-remains-ruins-one-year-recapture.

Rights group criticizes US-led coalition for Raqqa deaths

October 12, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition’s failure to adequately acknowledge and investigate civilian deaths in the Syrian city of Raqqa is “a slap in the face for survivors” trying to rebuild their lives a year after the offensive to oust the Islamic State group, a prominent rights group said Friday.

At a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Amnesty International said 2,521 bodies from the battle for Raqqa have been recovered in the city, the majority killed by coalition airstrikes. It cited a small unit known as the Early Recovery Team working with U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish forces to recover bodies and bury them. They expect to recover at least 3,000 more bodies.

There are “more bodies underneath the ground than living souls,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s senior director of global research, who in 2017 with the coalition playing a supporting role recently returned from Syria.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said the fighting to liberate the citizens of Raqqa from the grip of the Islamic State group “was often house to house against an enemy with no regard for human life” using explosives and booby traps every step of the way. He added that the coalition is aware of the discrepancies of other reports and that the Coalition has based its figures on “supportable evidence and facts.”

Ryan said that liberating the citizens was the goal and “the other choice would be to let ISIS continue to murder, torture, rape and pillage the citizens of Raqqa, and that is unacceptable,” using a different acronym for IS. He added the Coalition could concede a high counts after we checking them against their existing records.

The battle for Raqqa, once a city of 200,000 people, played out over four months as the Kurdish-led Syrian forces fought street by street. The coalition unleashed wave after wave of airstrikes and shell fire until the city was cleared of militants in October 2017.

Amnesty has accused the coalition before of underreporting civilian deaths in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. On Monday, Neistat said most of the bodies recovered so far are believed to be civilians. The U.S.-led coalition said in July that 77 civilians died as a result of its airstrikes on Raqqa between June and October last year. The U.S. and its coalition partners launched their campaign against the Islamic State group in 2014, driving out the militants from their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa three years later.

Neistat also said the “clock is ticking” for Idlib province, the last opposition stronghold in northwestern Syria. A demilitarized zone negotiated between Turkey and Russia to protect civilians from a government offensive on the northwestern province should be ready by Oct. 15.

Turkish and Russian officials have said that Syrian rebels completed withdrawing their heavy weapons from the front lines in implementation of the deal that’s expected to demilitarize a stretch of 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) along the front lines by Oct. 15.

Neistat said the zone is not adequate to protect all the civilians in Idlib province and expressed concern the agreement may not last. She said she fears massive civilian deaths, destruction, displacement, arrests and disappearances, citing previous government offensives in cities like Aleppo.

Neistat called on Russia to pressure the Syrian government to do more to protect the civilian population, highlighting Moscow’s influence on Damascus. “It may not be too late to stop it,” she said. Meanwhile on Friday, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that his military could soon launch a new operation across the border into northern Syria in zones held by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan’s statement renews a threat to expand Turkey’s military operations into areas east of the Euphrates River held by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish militia to be terrorists and part of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

“God willing, very soon … we will leave the terror nests east of the Euphrates in disarray,” he said. He spoke on Friday at a military ceremony honoring Turkish commandos. Turkey launched two incursions into Syria, in 2016 and 2018, into areas west of the Euphrates, pushing Islamic State militants as well as Syrian Kurdish fighters from its border.

Iraq: After losing Kirkuk, Kurdish forces pull out of Sinjar

October 17, 2017

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish forces lost more territory in Iraq on Tuesday, withdrawing from the town of Sinjar a day after Iraqi forces pushed them out of the disputed city of Kirkuk. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were seen streaming back to Kirkuk, driving along a main highway to the city’s east. The Kurdish forces had built an earthen berm along the highway, reinforced by armored vehicles, but were allowing civilians to return to the city.

Many returnees were seen with their children and belongings packed tight in their cars. The Iraqi forces’ retaking of Kirkuk came only two weeks after they had fought together with the Kurdish fighters to neutralize the Islamic State group in Iraq, their common enemy.

As Kirkuk’s Arab and Turkmen residents on Monday evening celebrated the change of power, thousands of Kurdish residents, fearful of federal and Shiite militia rule, packed the roads north to Irbil, the capital of the northern autonomous Kurdish region.

On Tuesday, they were going back. When Iraq’s armed forces crumbled in the face of an advance by Islamic State group in 2014, Kurdish forces moved into Kirkuk to secure the city and its surrounding oil wells though it was 32 kilometers (20 miles) outside the Kurds’ autonomous region in northeast Iraq.

Baghdad has since insisted Kirkuk and its province be returned to the central government, but matters came to a head when the Kurdish authorities expanded their referendum last month to include Kirkuk. To the Iraqi central government, that looked like Kurdish expansionism.

The city of more than 1 million is home to Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well as Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. By midday Monday, federal forces had moved into several major oil fields north of the city, as well as the Kirkuk airport and an important military base, according to Iraqi commanders. Kurdish party headquarters inside Kirkuk had been abandoned.

In the predominantly Yazidi town of Sinjar, Masloum Shingali, commander of the local Yazidi militia, said Kurdish forces had left before dawn on Tuesday, allowing Iraqi Shiite militiamen to move in. The Yazidis were massacred by the Islamic State group when the jihadis seized the town in 2014. More than 2,000 were killed, and thousands of women and children were taken into slavery. Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. airstrikes, liberated the town in 2015.

Town Mayor Mahma Khalil said the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization militia forces were securing Sinjar. The militias are recognized by Iraq’s government as a part of its armed forces but are viewed with deep suspicion by the country’s Kurdish authorities, which see them as an instrument of Tehran.

The Kurdish forces “left immediately, they didn’t want to fight,” Shingali said. The Shiite militia had supported Iraqi forces’ to oust Kurdish troops out of Kirkuk. The Kurdish forces withdrew to their autonomous region in the northeast.

Iraq’s Kurds beef up, move back defense line around oil-rich Kirkuk

OCTOBER 13, 2017

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Kurdish authorities said on Friday they had sent thousands more troops to Kirkuk to confront “threats” of Iraqi military attack, but also slightly pulled back defense lines around the disputed oil-producing area to ease tensions.

The Baghdad central government has taken a series of steps to isolate the autonomous Kurdish region since its overwhelming vote for independence in a Sept. 25 referendum, including banning international flights from going there.

Baghdad’s tough line, ruling out talks sought by the Kurds unless they renounce the breakaway move, is backed by neighbors Turkey and Iran – both with their own sizable Kurdish minorities, and in Turkey’s case, a long-running Kurdish insurgency.

Tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers have been stationed in and around Kirkuk for some time and another 6,000 have arrived since Thursday, Kosrat Rasul, vice president in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said.

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday the situation had the full attention of the United States, which was working to ensure it does not escalate.

“We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want this to go to a shooting situation,” Mattis said. “These are issues that are longstanding in some cases … We’re going to have to recalibrate and move these back to a way (in which) we solve them politically and work them out with compromised solutions.”

The KRG’s Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it called a significant Iraqi military buildup south of Kirkuk, ”including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars.”“These forces are approximately 3 km (1.9 miles) from Peshmerga forces. Intelligence shows intentions to take over nearby oilfields, airport and military base,” it said in a statement.

Kurdish security sources later said that the Peshmerga had shifted their defense lines by 3 km (1.9 miles) to 10 km south of Kirkuk to reduce the risk of clashes with Iraqi forces, which then moved into some of the vacated positions without incident.

The area from which the Peshmerga withdrew is populated mainly by Shi‘ite Muslim Turkmen, many of whom are loyal to the Shi‘ite led-government in Baghdad and affiliated with Iranian-backed political parties and paramilitary groups.

An Iraqi military spokesman said military movements near Kirkuk aimed only to “inspect and secure” the nearby region of Hawija recaptured from Islamic State militants a week ago.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly denied any plans to go further and actually attack the territory.

Kirkuk, a city of more than one million people, lies just outside KRG territory but Peshmerga forces deployed there in 2014 when Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught. The Peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk’s oilfields from falling into jihadist hands.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani urged the United States, the European Union and the U.N. Security Council “to rapidly intervene to prevent a new war.”

Germany, which traditionally has good relations with both Baghdad and the KRG, called for measures to defuse tensions.

“We would like to ask them to meet those responsibilities and not to escalate the conflict,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin.

President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said on Thursday Ankara would gradually close border crossings with northern Iraq in coordination with the central Iraqi government and Iran.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is expected in Baghdad on Sunday for talks with Abadi.

Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber; editing by Mark Heinrich and G Crosse

Source: Reuters.

Link: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-referendum-kirku/iraqs-kurds-beef-up-move-back-defense-line-around-oil-rich-kirkuk-idUSKBN1CI0UV.

Iraqi VP warns of ‘civil war’ over Kurdish-held Kirkuk

October 09, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi warned on Monday there could be a “civil war” over the Kurdish-administered city of Kirkuk if talks over Kurdish independence are left unresolved. Allawi, in an interview with The Associated Press, urged Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, as well as Iraq’s central government and its Iranian-backed militia forces, to show restraint and resolve their disputes over the oil-rich city.

The head of the Asaib al-Haq militia Qais Khazali warned worshipers in a sermon Sunday that Iraq’s Kurds were planning to claim much of north Iraq, including Kirkuk, for an independent state, after Iraq’s Kurds voted for independence in a controversial but non-binding referendum two weeks ago.

He said it would be tantamount to a “foreign occupation,” according to remarks reported by the Afaq TV channel, which is close to the state-sanctioned militia. Allawi, a former prime minister, said any move by the country’s Popular Mobilization Front militias, which include the Asaib al-Haq, to enter Kirkuk would “damage all possibilities for unifying Iraq” and open the door to “violent conflict.”

“The government claims they control the Popular Mobilization Forces. If they do they should restrain them, rather than go into a kind of civil war. And there should be a restraint on Masoud Barzani and the Peshmerga not to take aggressive measures to control these lands,” said Allawi.

Kirkuk was included in the September referendum even though it falls outside the autonomous Kurdish region in the country’s northeast. The ethnically-mixed city has been administered by Kurdish forces since 2014, when government forces fled from the advancing Islamic State group.

Barzani held the referendum over the strong objections of Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran, enraging leaders in the regional capitals. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi demanded the Kurdish self-government annul the results and called for joint administration over Kirkuk. Baghdad closed the airspace over the Kurdish region to international flights.

Turkey and Iran also threatened punitive measures against the Kurdish region, fearing Kurds in their own countries would renew their campaigns for self-rule. “Iraqis should be left alone to discuss their own problems without interference,” said Allawi. “Kirkuk has become a flashpoint.”

Barzani has not declared independence for any part of northern Iraq.

Multi-ethnic Kirkuk tense ahead of referendum

2017-09-20

Visitors to Kirkuk in northern Iraq are greeted by an imposing statue of a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter with a gun slung over his shoulder, a reminder of tensions building in the hotly-contested city ahead of a referendum on Kurdish independence.

Erected in July, the statue has come to symbolize how the Kurds want to cement their hold on oil-rich Kirkuk and other parts of the region by holding next Monday’s vote. Peshmerga, which means those who confront death, are the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The referendum is risky, especially in Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city also claimed by Arabs since oil was discovered there in the 1930s. The Kurdistan region produces around 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil.

The central government in Baghdad, Iraq’s neighbors and Western powers fear the vote could divide the country and spark a wider regional conflict, after Arabs and Kurds cooperated to dislodge Islamic State from its stronghold in Mosul.

Already at least one Kurd has been killed in pre-referendum clashes, and security checkpoints have been erected across the city to prevent further violence.

But the Kurds say they are determined to go ahead with the vote, which, though non-binding, could trigger the process of separation in a country already divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Iran, Turkey, the United States and Western allies oppose the vote.

Some non-Kurds fear Baghdad will attempt to regain control of Kirkuk and send in Shiite militias (PMU), also known as the Hashid al-Shaabi, stationed just outside the province.

“I fear the Hashid will come and fighting will start in Kirkuk,” said Nazim Mohammed, an Arab from Mosul who fled to Kirkuk when the northern city was overrun by Islamic State.

Backed by Iran, the militias fear an independent Kurdistan would split Iraq, giving them and Tehran less influence.

Kirkuk, populated by Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and other minorities, is one of 15 ethnically mixed areas in northern Iraq that will participate in the referendum. They are claimed by both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

A decision by KRG President Massoud Barzani to include these so-called disputed territories in the plebiscite was widely interpreted as a unilateral move to consolidate Kurdish control.

Critics say Kurdish intentions were already clear before the referendum was announced. Peshmerga fighters seized Kirkuk in 2014, after fleeing Iraqi security forces left its oil fields vulnerable to Islamic State militants who had just swept across northern Iraq.

The statue is dedicated to the Peshmerga and is designed to represent the appreciation of the people of Kirkuk.

KURDS MARK OUT TERRITORY

Tensions between the KRG and Baghdad are not new, and hinge on oil revenue. The Kurds have long accused Baghdad of failing to make budget payments to the region, while central government has opposed oil deals made by the Kurds without its consent.

Nevertheless, the Kurds have been marking their territory in the run-up to the vote. Peshmerga outposts dot the area, protecting the flaming oil fields on Kirkuk’s outskirts. Kurdish flags have been hoisted across the city since the spring, and now fly alongside Iraqi flags on government buildings.

Dreaming of long-denied statehood since World War One, the Kurds say they are ready to fight if necessary. “Kurdistan’s land belongs to the Kurdish people,” Kemal al-Kirkuki, the Kurdish military commander responsible for the front-line against Islamic State, told Reuters at his base in Dibis.

“No one, not the PMU, has the right to take it … We will ask them to leave Kurdish territory, peacefully. But we are prepared to fight if we need to.”

On Monday, clashes broke out in Kirkuk after a Kurdish convoy celebrating the referendum drove by a Turkmen political party’s office. A Kurd was killed, and two others were injured, security sources said.

This followed a week of escalating rhetoric between the Kurdish leadership and Baghdad, where parliament voted to reject the referendum and oust Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor, Najmaddin Kareem.

The conflict over the disputed territories is bitter. If the Kurdistan region of Iraq declared a break-off from Baghdad, Kirkuk would fall right on the border between the two. Kirkuk produces around one quarter of the region’s oil.

“If the Kurds want to press for a separation of sorts,” said Joost Hiltermann, MENA programme director at the International Crisis Group, “the boundary question becomes critically important.”

“If Baghdad and Erbil continue to take unilateral steps,” he said, “things can only escalate”.

There are no reliable statistics on Kirkuk’s population, where both Kurds and Arabs say they have a demographic majority; vital to legitimize their respective claims over the province.

RETURNING KURDS

Kirkuk was meant to have a census under the 2005 constitution, drafted two years after former Iraqi leader Saddam was toppled in the US-led invasion, but it did not take place because of the risk of ethnic and religious tensions.

During Saddam’s Anfal campaign waged against the Kurds in the 1980s, there was a forced “Arabisation” of disputed areas, which ejected Kurds from the province. Arabs from other parts of Iraq were then settled, taking over Kurdish homes and businesses.

In 1988, Saddam caused international outrage by staging a chemical attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja which killed thousands of people.

Many Arabs have been ousted since Saddam was toppled in 2003, emboldening the Kurds to reclaim large parts of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk. Displaced Kurds were provided with incentives to return, while Kurds from other areas were also moved in, angering other minorities.

“Since 2003 some 600,000 Kurds have arrived, many of them are here illegally,” said Ali Mehdi Sadiq, a Turkman member of Kirkuk’s local council. “Without dialogue everything is possible. We need to avoid a war engulfing the whole of Iraq.”

“NOTHING COMES WITHOUT A PRICE”

He blamed Governor Kareem, a Kurd who lived for more than 30 years in the United States for what he called a Kurdish discrimination of minorities.

The governor said the Kurds would guarantee minorities’ rights, pointing to relative stability in the Kurdistan region in contrast to Baghdad where suicide bombings are frequent.

But his support for Kurdish independence is worrying minorities: he refused to sit behind an Iraqi flag during an interview, preferring the Kurdish one and said he would destroy his Iraqi passport the minute he got a Kurdish one.

He shrugged off the decision by Iraq’s parliament last week to sack him as “unlawful”, adding: “This is a proud day for me.”

Anticipating trouble ahead, some residents of Kirkuk have been stockpiling basic foods such as flour, rice and milk.

“Since they announced the referendum I have hardly had any customers. The market is dead,” said 27-year-old Ali Hamza, an Arab who has a small textiles shop in the old city.

Several Kurds interviewed supported the independence vote but privately said they were worried about clashes afterwards.

But faced with his people’s fears of clashes and economic problems, Governor Kareem said that when taking a big step like the referendum, “anything was possible”.

“Nothing comes without a price.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84950.

Thirteen Arab and Turkmen Parites in Kirkuk Oppose Kurdish Referendum

September 10, 2017 Sunday

SULAIMANI — Thirteen Arab and Turkmen political parties in the city of Kirkuk issued a statement on Sunday (September 10) expressing their opposition to the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, just two weeks ahead of the vote.

A plan by Kurdish authorities towards an independent state does not comply with the Iraqi constitution and that risks the country’s unity, the statement read.

The Arab political parties said a recent session held by the Kirkuk Provincial Council to include the city in the independence referendum lacked legal legitimacy as it was boycotted by Arab and Turkmen sides.

“The decision [to include Kirkuk in the referendum] is in the extension of the autocracy that is still being implemented in Kirkuk and surrounding areas since 2003,” the statement continued.

The move to declare a Kurdish independent state will hinder effort to dislodge Islamic State (ISIS) militants, the Arab political parties said, calling on the three Iraqi presidencies not to allow the referendum to take place in Kirkuk.

A total of 22 members of the Kirkuk Provincial Council voted in favor of Kirkuk’s involvement in the referendum. Turkmen and Arab blocs, however, boycotted the session.

The Kurdistan Region declared on June 7 a plan to hold a referendum on the region’s independence this year on September 25. The announcement came following a meeting between the region’s political parties, not including the Gorran and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG).

Source: NRT.

Link: http://www.nrttv.com/en/Details.aspx?Jimare=16478.

Tag Cloud