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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.

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Afghan IS branch claims deadly attack on Shiites in Kabul

August 16, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — As Afghanistan’s Shiites mourned their dead and held funeral services Thursday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the horrific suicide bombing in Kabul that targeted a Shiite neighborhood the previous day, killing 34 students.

Grieving families gathered to bury their dead but even amid the somber atmosphere there was no respite from violence, underscoring the near-daily, persistent threats in the war-battered country. Two gunmen besieged a compound belonging to the Afghan intelligence service in a northwestern Kabul neighborhood early Thursday, opening fire as Afghan security forces moved in to cut them off. The standoff lasted for nearly six hours before police killed the gunmen and secured the area. The Islamic State group, in a posting on its Aamaq News Agency, claimed more than 200 people were killed or wounded in Wednesday’s suicide bombing.

The bomber, who had walked into a classroom in a one-room building at a Shiite educational center in the neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, where he set off his explosives, was identified as “the martyrdom-seeking brother Abdul Raouf al-Khorasani.” Afghanistan’s IS affiliate is known as The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, after an ancient name of the area that encompassed parts of present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The bombing also wounded 57 students, according to Health Ministry spokesman Wahid Majroh. Earlier on Thursday, the ministry revised an earlier death toll from the attack down to 34, not 48. Most of the victims were young men and women, high school graduates preparing for university entrance exams in the Shiite area’s educational center.

Kabul hospitals were completely overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the attack as officials collected data on the casualties, leading to the confusion and the initial wrong toll. The Dasht-e-Barchi area is populated by members of Afghanistan’s minority ethnic Hazaras — a Shiite community that has in the past been targeted by similar large-scale attacks.

IS, which considers Shiites to be heretics, frequently targets them, attacking their mosques, schools and cultural centers. In the past two years, there have been at least 13 attacks on the Shiite community in Kabul alone.

Fifteen of the victims’ bodies were taken Thursday to a Hazara community compound in Kabul where a mass funeral service was being held. The remaining victims were taken to their villages to be buried there, said Gulam Hassan, the cousin of one of the victims.

The attack, which came at the end of more than a week of assaults that have left scores of Afghan troops and civilians dead, shows how militants are still able to stage large-scale attacks — even in the capital of Kabul — and undermine efforts by Afghan forces to provide security and stability on their own.

Amnesty International on Thursday denounced the attack on the Shiites, calling it a war crime. “The deliberate targeting of civilians and the targeting of places of education is a war crime,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty’s South Asia campaigner. “Mounting civilian casualties show beyond any doubt that Afghanistan and, in particular, its capital, Kabul, are not safe.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also condemned the “terrorist” attack on the Shiites that “martyred and wounded the innocent” — students attending class — and ordered an investigation to determine how the bomber had managed to sneak into the compound, which has its own guards.

Survivors on Thursday struggled to come to terms with the bombing. In a Kabul hospital, Anifa Ahmadi sat by the bedside of her 17-year-old daughter Sima, who was wounded in the attack. Sima was in the front row of the classroom in the single-room building where the explosion occurred.

“I had told her and told her, ‘Don’t go to school. We are under attack everywhere. No place is safe for us.’ But she said ‘No, no, no’,” the mother said. Sima appeared undeterred despite injuries to her legs and arms and said she would go back to school. “I won’t let anyone stop me, I will resist all terrorist attacks to have the future I want,” she said.

Nahida Rahimi, a doctor at Kabul’s Isteqlal Hospital, where some of the wounded are being treated, said a mother told her she had lost a son in Wednesday’s bombing after already losing another a year earlier in another suicide bombing, also in Kabul, that targeted Shiites.

“We were both crying,” the doctor said. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, four policemen were killed and four were seriously wounded late Wednesday when they tried to defuse a car bomb they found in southern Kandahar province, according to Zia Durrani, provincial police spokesman.

Kandahar was the religious heartland of the Taliban during their five-year rule that ended with the 2001 invasion by U.S. and NATO forces following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

IS claims Tajikistan attack that killed 4 foreign cyclists

July 31, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for a car-and-knife attack on Western tourists cycling in Tajikistan that killed two Americans and two Europeans. Officials in the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation didn’t publicly address the IS claim and instead blamed the Sunday attack on a banned local Islamist group. The young men featured in an IS-linked video resembled the individuals that Tajik authorities identified as attack suspects who were later killed by police.

The Islamic State group said in a statement late Monday that several of its soldiers attacked the “citizens of the Crusader coalition.” The four tourists were killed when a car rammed into a group of foreigners on bicycles south of the capital of Dushanbe, Tajik officials have said. The driver and the passengers then got out and attacked the cyclists with knives.

Two of the victims were American, one was Swiss and the fourth was from the Netherlands, foreign and Tajik officials said. The three people injured included a woman from Switzerland. A video posted on an IS-linked website Tuesday shows five men sitting on a hill against the backdrop of a black-and-white IS flag and declaring allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The men say they’re from Tajikistan and pledge to slaughter disbelievers in the name of Allah. A note accompanying the video said the men took part in the weekend attack.

Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry posted photos Tuesday of what it said were the bodies of four suspected attackers lying dead in a field. Three of the men resemble ones in the IS video. It blamed the attack on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a local party banned several years ago for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

Tajikistan, an impoverished, predominantly Muslim nation of some 8 million people, was devastated by a 5-year civil war with Islamist-inspired rebel forces that ended in 1997. Alarmed by the rise of the Islamic State group in recent years, Tajik authorities have clamped down on behavior and traditions associated with Islam, regulating how people dress and behave at funerals and ordering men to shave their beards. Critics say the restrictions could help radicalize secular Muslims.

Israel weapons found in Daesh arms depot

July 18, 2018

Israeli-made weapons have been found among a cache of arms belonging to the terrorist group Daesh.

The discovery was made by Syrian government troops in the south of Hama province, during a large-scale military operation to clear the area of mines, Sputnik reported citing Syrian sources.

The depot, which was found in the town of Aqrab, contained Israeli-made bombs and assault rifles, pistols, as well as other military hardware including Kalashnikov machine guns, mortar shells and sniper rifles.

Syrian Army engineering units are said to have found the depot while clearing out Aqrab of booby traps, ammunition and weapons left by Daesh.

A similar discovery is reported to have been made last week, when Syrian government forces found a huge cache of Western-made arms in Daraa. The depots were identified as the Syrian Army launched an offensive in Daraa.

Israel’s support for the terrorist group has been closely tracked since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. A report released last year by an Israeli intelligence bureau suggested that in confronting Iran, the interests of Daesh and Israel could converge, making them temporary allies.

Last year, a UN report confirmed that Israel gave aid to armed extremists in Syria. It found that there had been a significant increase in interaction between Israeli soldiers and individuals from members of the Syrian opposition forces.

The friendship appears to be more than just the arming of rebel forces by Israel. A member of the Israeli Knesset has even accused Tel-Aviv of buying oil from Daesh.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180718-israel-weapons-found-in-daesh-arms-depot/.

Iraq Holds Military Parade Celebrating ISIS Defeat

Sunday, 10 December, 2017

An Iraqi military parade celebrating final victory over Islamic State is underway in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, Reuters quoted an Iraqi military spokesman as saying on Sunday.

Almost one year after the launch of military operations from Mosul, north Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Saturday that his country’s forces have “completely controlled” the Syrian-Iraqi borders, declaring that the war against ISIS has officially ended.

“Our forces are in complete control of the Iraqi-Syrian border and I, therefore, announce the end of the war against ISIS,” Abadi told a conference in Baghdad.

The Prime Minister added that Iraq’s enemy “wanted to kill our civilization, but we have won through our unity and our determination. We have triumphed in little time.”

In another speech delivered at the Defense Ministry in the presence of representatives from the entire armed forces, Abadi announced that Iraq’s next battle would be to defeat the scourge of corruption.

“Weapons should only be in the state’s hands,” Abadi confirmed.

He said that the rule of law and respect for it are the way to build the state and achieve justice, equality, and stability, adding that the unity of Iraq and its people is the most important and greatest accomplishment.

Authorities in Iraq announced a public holiday on Sunday “to celebrate the victory.”

The prime minister’s declaration came three years after the militant group captured some third of Iraq’s territory.

Meanwhile, Naim el-Kaoud, leader of the al-Bounmar tribes in Anbar told Asharq al-Awsat on Saturday the “battles that continued following the liberation of Rawa, including the western desert, were now completed and the area is now combined to the entire border with Syria after clearing ISIS militants.”

For his part, Hisham al-Hashemi, an expert on jihadist groups, told Asharq Al-Awsat that although the terrorist group was military defeated in Iraq, ISIS would still hold some pockets in some Iraqi areas.

He said that around 800 fighters were still present in the country, especially in east Tigris, and the Hamrin Mountains.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.

Link: https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1108881/iraq-holds-military-parade-celebrating-isis-defeat.

PM announces on state TV Iraq’s war against IS has ended

December 09, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — After more than three years of combat operations, Iraq announced Saturday that the fight against the Islamic State group is over after the country’s security forces drove the extremists from all of the territory they once held. Iraqi and American officials warned, however, that key challenges remain despite the military victory.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formally announced the victory in an address to the nation aired on Iraqi state television Saturday evening. “Honorable Iraqis, your land has been completely liberated,” he said. “The liberation dream has become a reality. We achieved victory in difficult circumstances and with God’s help, the steadfastness of our people and the bravery of our heroic forces we prevailed.”

“The flag of Iraq is flying high today over all Iraqi territory and at the farthest point on the border,” he added, standing before the most senior members of Iraq’s security forces. Following al-Abadi’s remarks, his office declared a public holiday Sunday in celebration of the victory, according to an official statement from the prime minister’s office.

Iraqi forces mopped up the last pockets of IS fighters from Iraq’s western deserts Saturday, securing the country’s border with Syria, a step that marked the end of combat operations against the extremists.

“All Iraqi lands are liberated from terrorist Daesh gangs and our forces completely control the international Iraqi-Syrian border,” said Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah, a senior Iraqi military commander, in a statement Saturday afternoon.

The U.S. applauded the prime minister’s announcement. The U.S. offers “sincere congratulations to the Iraqi people and to the brave Iraqi Security Forces, many of whom lost their lives heroically fighting ISIS,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a written statement, using an alternative acronym for IS.

“Our coalition will continue to stand with Iraq to support its security forces, economy and stabilization to help ensure that ISIS can never against threaten Iraq’s people or use its territory as a haven,” said Brett McGurk, U.S. special presidential envoy to the anti-IS coalition, in a statement posted to his official Twitter account.

“We mark today’s historic victory mindful of the work that remains,” he added. Iraq’s government remains faced with significant security threats, an economic crisis and the enormous task of rebuilding swaths of territory decimated by the IS fight.

IS fighters overran nearly a third of Iraqi territory, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city and Tikrit, the capital of Iraq’s central Salahuddin province in the summer of 2014. The following year, IS fighters also overran Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi.

Over the past 3 ½ half years, Iraqi ground forces closely backed by the U.S.-led coalition and mostly Shiite paramilitary forces backed by Iran have slowly retaken all of that territory. The pace of the anti-IS operation accelerated last year as coalition-backed Iraqi ground forces prepared for the assault on Mosul that was formally launched in October 2016.

After more than nine months of mostly grueling urban combat, Al-Abadi declared victory over IS in Mosul in July. In the months that followed Iraqi forces retook a handful of other IS held towns including Tal Afar in August, Hawija in September and Qaim in October. In November, Iraqi forces retook the last Iraqi town held by IS — Rawah, near the border with Syria.

However, IS fighters remain capable of carrying out insurgent attacks in Iraq, and the group has recovered from past setbacks. IS insurgent networks continue to pose a threat to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, a senior Iraqi security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The official said intelligence gathering would become increasingly important in the post-military phase of the fight against IS.

“The triumph of military operations alone is not enough without stability,” government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said, explaining that rebuilding in the wake of military victories against IS remained a “big challenge” for the Iraqi government.

Additionally, some 3 million Iraqis remain displaced by the fight against IS, according to the United Nations. Al-Abadi also remains faced with a political and military stand-off with the country’s Kurdish region over a referendum held on independence.

Federal government troops remain deployed throughout a string of disputed territories claimed by both Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds — who were also backed by U.S.-led coalition forces in the fight against IS. While Baghdad and Irbil have both stated a willingness to talk, negotiations to end the dispute have not yet begun.

As he closed his national address, al-Abadi acknowledged the challenges that remain for Iraq. “I urge everyone to refrain from returning to the inflammatory and sectarian discourse that empowered gangs to occupy our cities and villages,” he said.

“Our people have paid a dear price,” he added. “We must turn this page forever.”

Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed from Baghdad.

Iraq retakes Rawa, last town held by IS

2017-11-17

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi army retook the last town in the country still held by the Islamic State group on Friday as the jihadists’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” faced collapse on both sides of the border with Syria.

The lightning recapture of the small Euphrates valley town of Rawa in an offensive launched at dawn came as the jihadists were also under attack for a second day in the last town they still hold in Syria, Albu Kamal just over the border.

The Islamic State group (IS) has lost 95 percent of the cross-border “caliphate” it declared in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the US-led coalition fighting it said on Wednesday.

Its losses include all of its major bastions, virtually confining it to pockets of countryside.

Government troops and paramilitary units “liberated the whole of Rawa and raised the Iraqi flag on all of its official buildings,” General Abdelamir Yarallah of Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) said in a statement.

An army general contacted at the front had predicted that the battle would be swift as “the majority of IS fighters who were in the town have fled towards the Syrian border.”

The JOC said appeals had been made for several days to the town’s Sunni Arab residents to listen to radio broadcasts for instructions on what to do when the army entered.

Rawa was bypassed in an offensive by the Iraqi army that resulted in the recapture of the strategically important border town of Al-Qaim earlier this month.

The stretch of Euphrates valley abutting the border with Syria has long been a bastion of Sunni Arab insurgency, first against US-led troops after the invasion of 2003 and then against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

The porous frontier became a magnet for foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria, which Baghdad accused of turning a blind eye, and a key smuggling route for arms and illicit goods.

US-led troops carried out repeated operations with code names like Matador and Steel Curtain in 2005 to flush out Al-Qaeda jihadists.

The region swiftly fell to IS when its fighters swept through the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in 2014 before proclaiming its “caliphate”.

– Jihadist dream in tatters –

The jihadists once controlled a territory the size of Britain but they have successively lost all their key strongholds, including Raqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

Over the border in Syria, IS still holds around 25 percent of the countryside of Deir Ezzor province but are under attack not only by government forces but also by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters.

In the border town of Albu Kamal, the Syrian army was battling IS fighters who mounted a surprise counterattack last week, pushing out government forces who had retaken it last month.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said the new army offensive had successfully penetrated the town, with troops backed by Russian air strikes advancing from the west, east and south.

“More than 7.5 million people have now been liberated” from IS, Washington’s envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, said late Wednesday, adding that the group’s finances are now “at their lowest levels to date”.

With the jihadists’ dreams of statehood lying in tatters following the battlefield defeats, Western attention is increasingly pivoting to trying to block foreign fighters from returning home to carry out attacks.

McGurk insisted that flows of foreign IS fighters into Syria have “nearly stopped”, and that jihadists are increasingly being picked up as they cross borders.

“We are enhancing cooperation and border security, aviation security, law enforcement, financial sanctions, counter-messaging, and intelligence sharing to prevent ISIS from carrying out attacks in our homelands,” he said.

Analysts have warned that in some areas recaptured from IS, government control remains weak and the jihadists retain the capability to wage a low-level insurgency.

“We still have places by the Baghdad belt, areas including Ramadi and Fallujah… that are not well controlled at all,” Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said earlier this month.

“They (the jihadists) are back where they were in 2013… They will restart insurgency all over again.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85981.

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