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News, July 2014
ISIS Consolidates Its Positions, 2400 Iraqis Killed in June, Parliament Fails to Meet Again
July 8, 2014
Iraq parliament delayed for five weeks, general killed near Baghdad
By Isra'a al-Rubei'i and Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD Tue Jul 8, 2014 8:30am EDT
Iraq's new parliament put off its next session for five weeks on Monday, extending the country's political paralysis amid a Sunni Islamist insurgency that claimed the life of an army general near Baghdad.
Citing the politicians' failure to reach "understanding and agreement" on nominations for the top three posts in government, the office of acting speaker Mehdi al-Hafidh said parliament would not meet again until Aug. 12.
Putting off the work of reaching consensus is a slap in the face to efforts by Iraq's Shi'ite clergy, the United States, the United Nations and Iran, who have all urged the swift formation of an inclusive government to hold the country together.
"We're looking at a dire situation on the ground, which is why it's so important that things move forward urgently on the ground,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington in reaction to the delay.
With no signs that Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will abandon his bid for a third term, his Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish opponents warn there is a risk that Iraq will fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines.
"Things are moving faster than the politicians can make decisions," a senior Shi'ite member of parliament told Reuters.
The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, and a patchwork of Sunni insurgents are holding territory they seized in northern and western Iraq, the majority of it taken last month.
Kurds, who run their own autonomous region in northern Iraq, have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their territory.
Maliki's opponents blame him for last month's defeats and want him to step aside. They accuse him of favouring the Shi'ite majority over the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Some hopes remained that parliament would meet again this month, based on local press comments by Hafidh and other comments by a senior U.S. official.
Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, said on his Twitter feed that Hafidh had clarified that the new date for parliament to resume work was July 13. But parliament would still be required to issue a formal statement to change the date.
Maliki said last week that he hoped to overcome the challenges blocking the formation of a new government after the new parliament's first session ended without agreement on the top posts of prime minister, president and parliament speaker.
The Iraqi military, backed by Shi'ite militias and volunteers, has yet to take back any major cities but is trying to advance on Tikrit, the late dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown in Salahuddin province.
The fighting is taking a heavy toll. The United Nations said last week more than 2,400 Iraqis had been killed in June alone, making the month by far the deadliest since the height of sectarian warfare during the U.S. "surge" offensive in 2007.
A senior Iraqi general was killed in fighting with insurgents near Baghdad on Monday, as the army fights to hold militants back from the capital.
Major General Nejm Abdullah Ali, commander of the army's sixth division responsible for defending part of Baghdad, was killed just 16 km (10 miles) northwest of the capital.
A few hours later, four policemen and three civilians were killed by a suicide bomber at a checkpoint in the mainly Shi'ite Kadhimiya district of northern Baghdad.
A bomb exploding at a roadside outdoor cafe killed four people late on Monday in the Nahrawan area just south of the capital, a police officer and a medic said.
Top U.S. defence officials said last week the security forces could defend the capital but would have difficulty going on the offensive to recapture lost territory, mainly because of logistic weaknesses.
In the northeastern province of Diyala, Islamic State militants killed four civilians in the town of Udaim, a police officer said.
Militants killed six civilians including a woman and an elderly man late on Monday in the village of Zawiya near the northern city of Baiji when they tried to arrest a local police officer, an eyewitness said.
According to the witness, Islamic State fighters accused the policeman, who escaped, of trying to form a "Sahwa" or "Awakening" force to rise up against the group.
Sunnis and Kurds blame the National Alliance, the Shi'ite grouping that includes Maliki's State of Law list, for failing to name a prime minister.
Most Sunnis and Kurds walked out of the last parliament, saying they believed the prime minister and president should be chosen along with the speaker as a package, not one at a time.
With parliament's session a day away, they could not resolve the impasse, so the acting speaker postponed the meeting.
Shi'ite MP Haidar Abadi of Maliki's State of Law coalition said it viewed the month-long break as a mistake and said that there would be "strong pressure" for a meeting before Aug. 12, the date set for the next session.
Results of April's elections initially suggested parliament would easily confirm Maliki in power for another term. The loss of the Sunni regions in the north has created an opening for Maliki's opponents, however.
Some within his own alliance are whispering about the need for him to step aside, although Maliki has stated publicly he will not give up his candidacy.
Islamic State rounds up ex-Baathists to eliminate potential rivals in Iraq's Mosul
BAGHDAD/MOSUL Iraq Tue Jul 8, 2014 8:30am EDT
One night last week, Islamic State militants in an SUV with tinted windows pulled up at the home of a former Iraqi army officer, one of the men they see as an obstacle to their goal of establishing a caliphate from Iraq to the Mediterranean.
As the retired major-general was led away to the vehicle draped in the trademark black and white Islamist flag, his son and wife feared the worst.
"I have been asking the families of other officers and no one knows why they were taken," his son said by phone, breaking down in tears.
In the past week, Sunni militants who overran the city of Mosul last month have rounded up between 25 and 60 senior ex-military officers and members of former banned Ba'ath party, residents and relatives say.
The crackdown potentially signals a rift in the Sunni alliance that helped secure Islamic State fighters swift victory when they rode in from the desert to capture Mosul last month.
The northern city of around 2 million people is by far the largest to fall to the group now known as the Islamic State and a central part of its plans for an Islamist caliphate.
When the group, then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (Greater Syria), seized large swathes of Iraq at lightning speed last month, it was supported by other Sunni Muslim armed groups.
Tribes and former loyalists of Ba'ath party were eager to hit back at Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders, even if they did not share ISIS's vision of a caliphate ruled on medieval Islamic precepts. But now, leaders of those groups are being ordered to swear allegiance to the new caliphate.
"I think (the Islamic State) wants to give the message that they are the only group in the land, that people must follow them or give up their weapons," said provincial governor Atheel Nujaifi, who is in touch with residents by phone after having fled to the Kurdish-controlled city of Arbil as Mosul fell.
Shi'ite parliamentarian Haidar Abadi said the Islamic State was taking pre-emptive action to head off potential challenges. "ISIL knows very well they can’t stay if these groups move against them. They are not giving them the opportunity."
"ISIS called on their friends who are ex-Baathists to cooperate and they did. And now ISIS is kicking them out. Some will pledge allegiance. Those they don’t believe will pledge allegiance, they will execute," he said.
An Iraqi national intelligence officer, confirming the arrest by militants of Saddam-era officers, said the motive was: "to panic people, or as revenge, or in the event that they would cooperate with the Iraqi government".
Nujaifi, the governor, estimated that around 2,000 Mosul residents had signed up to join the Islamic State as fighters since they took the city. But he said career army officers and diehard Baathists were unlikely to be won over to ISIL.
Among those Nujaifi said had been rounded up by the Islamists were General Waad Hannoush, a Special Forces commander under Saddam, and Saifeddin al-Mashhadani, a Baath Party leader featured as the three of clubs in the U.S. Army's "Iraqi Most Wanted" playing card deck during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The governor and some residents told Reuters that they believe ISIL's bold declaration of a caliphate last week had caused local discontent, possibly prompting the group to act to head off the first stirrings of resistance.
The move echoes Islamic State tactics in neighboring Syria, where the group entrenched itself in the rebel-held east by eliminating other opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
Although ISIS, the Sunni tribes and veterans of Saddam's Baath party emerged as allies last month, they have a history of enmity. Many of those nostalgic for Saddam teamed up with Sunni tribes to fight against the Islamic State's predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. "surge" offensive in 2006-2007.
"WIND AT THEIR BACKS"
All the more reason for ISIL to act swiftly against potential rivals while its victory last month gives it momentum.
"With the wind at their backs, there’s an incentive to seek greater control over Mosul now rather than later," said Ramzy Mardini, non-resident fellow at the Washington think-tank Atlantic Council.
"They’re not going to allow other insurgent groups to operate in Mosul," he said. "They may have their sights set on consolidation and transformation of the city into the de facto capital of the caliphate."
While Mardini said the Islamic State is strong enough to "strike, consolidate, and push other groups out" for now, he sees the long term fate of the group in Mosul as less clear.
"It's the worst-kept secret that the other insurgent groups that represent the Sunni movement are going to eventually turn against ISIL," he said.
Mosul has long harboured members of the Baathist militant group the Naqshbandi Army, believed to be headed by Saddam's lifelong confidant Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri - king of spades in the U.S. deck and the highest-ranking Baathist to evade capture.
Sunni tribesmen with far looser ties to the old regime could also pose a threat to the militants, but the Islamic state seems to be focusing for now on Baathists and former army officers.
Asserting Islamic State ideology so far has meant issuing a "city charter" banning tobacco, drugs and alcohol and ordering women to dress modestly and stay home.
The militants have also bulldozed and blown up ancient shrines and Shi'ite mosques in Mosul and nearby towns, home to some of Iraq's richest cultural heritage.
Over the weekend jihadist forums and a Twitter account associated with the group posted images of fiery blasts and plumes of smoke rising under white minarets and golden domes.
Most of the city's minority population, including Christians and small groups like the Shabak Shi'ite Muslims, have fled.
The rejection of any power sharing or alternatives to its purist Sunni state fits the group's vision of absolute rule.
Photos have recently surfaced on social media of men said to be in Mosul standing in line in rooms where the Islamic State's flag is hung, with captions describing them as apostates come to repent and accept Islamic State rule.
Speaking from an ornate pulpit in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, a man identified by the Islamic State as its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, echoed the words of Prophet Mohammad, asking his followers to "advise" him if he is wrong.
The son of the 68-year-old retired major-general tried that approach last week when his father was taken by the militants.
"I told them that what they are doing is not in keeping with Islam and it is exactly what (Prime Minister Nuri) Maliki's forces would do," he said. "They told me not to panic and said they would bring my father back after questioning him."
(Reporting by Maggie Fick and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and a journalist in Mosul whose name has been withheld for security reasons; Additional reporting by Ned Parker and Isra'a al-Rubei'i in Baghdad; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)
Mortar bombs land in Saudi Arabia near Iraq border
RIYADH Tue Jul 8, 2014 7:16am EDT
Three mortar bombs landed inside Saudi Arabia on Monday close to its northern border with Iraq, where Islamist militants have grabbed land in a lightning advance, officials said.
The mortars caused no casualties but will stoke security fears in Saudi Arabia, which is also facing militants on its southern border with Yemen, where at least 10 people died in an al Qaeda raid into the kingdom on Friday and Saturday.
Authorities in Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, said they were still looking into who fired Monday's rounds, which landed near a block of flats outside the northern town of 'Ar'ar.
Saudi King Abdullah last week said he was stepping up security following the advance in Iraq by the militant Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate on land up to his border.
Saudi authorities fear the gains in Iraq made by Islamic State - which has shortened its name from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) - could radicalise their citizens.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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