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Iraqi Forces Ready to Strike Back, Obama Offers Military Advisers in Support

June 20, 2014

Destroyed Iraqi Army tanks in Al-Ramadi, June 19, 2014 Iraqi Army special forces in Al-Ramadi, June 19, 2014

Iraqi forces ready push after Obama offers advisers

By Isra' al-Rubei'i

BAGHDAD, Friday, June 20, 2014, 6:36 am EDT

(Reuters) -

Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad on Friday, aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive toward the capital prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance.

President Barack Obama offered up to 300 Americans to help coordinate the fight. But he held off granting a request for air strikes from the Shi'ite-led government and renewed a call for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fueled resentment among the Sunni minority.

In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the provincial governor, a rare Sunni supporter of Maliki, told cheering troops they would now force ISIL and its allies back.   

A source close to Maliki told Reuters that the government planned to hit back now that it had halted the advance which saw ISIL seize the main northern city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, 10 days ago and sweep down along the Sunni-populated Tigris valley toward Baghdad as the U.S.-trained army crumbled.

Governor Abdullah al-Jibouri, whose provincial capital Tikrit was overrun last week, was shown on television on Friday telling soldiers in Ishaqi, just south of Samarra: "Today we are coming in the direction of Tikrit, Sharqat and Nineveh.

"These troops will not stop," he added, saying government forces around Samarra numbered more than 50,000.

This week, the militants' lightning pace has slowed in the area north of the capital, home to Sunnis but also to Shi'ites fearful of ISIL, which views them as heretics to be wiped out. Samarra has a major Shi'ite shrine. And it was for killings of Shi'ites in nearby Dujail that Maliki had Saddam hanged in 2006.

The participation of Shi'ite militias and tens of thousands of new Shi'ite army volunteers has allowed the Iraqi military to rebound after mass desertions by soldiers last week allowed ISIL to carve out territory where it aims to found an Islamic caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.

"The strategy has been for the last few days to have a new defense line to stop the advance of ISIL," a close ally of Maliki told Reuters. "We succeeded in blunting the advance and now are trying to get back areas unnecessarily lost."

Pockets of fighting continue. Government forces appeared to be still holding out in the sprawling Baiji oil refinery, the country's largest, 100 km north of Samarra, residents said.

At Duluiya, between Samarra and Baghdad, residents said a helicopter strafed and rocketed a number of houses in the early morning, killing a woman. Police said they had been told by the military that the pilot had been given the wrong coordinates.


While a new reality is emerging with the key cities of Mosul and Tikrit for now out of reach for the government, Obama has put U.S. military power back at Baghdad's disposal, while insisting he will not send ground troops back, two and half years after he ended the occupation that began in 2003.

Announcing the despatch of advisers, the president said he was prepared to take "targeted" military action later if deemed necessary, thus delaying but still keeping open the prospect of air strikes to fend off a militant insurgency.

Obama also delivered a stern message to Maliki on the need to take urgent steps to heal Iraq's sectarian rift, something U.S. officials say the Shi'ite leader has failed to do and which ISIL has exploited to win broader support among the Sunnis.

"We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq," Obama told reporters. "Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."

The contingent of up to 300 military advisers will be made up of special forces and will staff joint operations centers for intelligence sharing and planning, U.S. officials said.

Leading U.S. lawmakers have called for Maliki to step down, and Obama aides have also made clear their frustration with him.

While Obama did not join calls for Maliki to go, saying "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders", he avoided any expression of confidence in the embattled Iraqi prime minister.

Warning that Iraq's fate "hangs in the balance," Obama said: "Only leaders with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together."

Iraqis appeared content with Obama's decision. The Maliki ally said Obama's offer of aid was appropriate and included the establishment of an intelligence liaison center that would allow for future U.S. air strikes on ISIL and other groups.

Obama's decision to hold off for now on such strikes underscored scepticism in Washington, and among its regional allies, over whether they would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraqi Sunnis.

"We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if we conclude the situation on the ground requires it," Obama said. But he insisted that any U.S. military response would not be in support of one Iraqi sect over another.

Maliki's Shi'ite alliance won the most votes in April parliamentary elections, and U.S. officials said the Obama administration was pressing Iraqi authorities to accelerate the process of forging a new governing coalition and for it to be broad-based, including Sunnis and Kurds.

Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington, said Obama's decision guaranteed that the United States, not just Maliki's other key foreign allies in Shi'ite Iran, will have a presence on the ground during the Iraq crisis.

"It gives the United States the kind of direct contact with Iraqi forces that allows them to judge their strengths and weaknesses and act as a check on sectarian abuses," he wrote. "It keeps up the right kind of pressure on Maliki and any successor."

(Additional reporting by Raheem Salman, Ned Parker and Oliver Holmes in Baghdad, Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit and Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey, Roberta Rampton, Mark Felsenthal and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Ned Parker; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)


War or Peace? Obama faces thorny issues over Iraq crisis

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2014 (Xinhua) --

When the last batch of U.S. soldiers left Iraq in 2011, President Barack Obama might have never thought of sending them back.

But at a White House press conference on Thursday, Obama announced his decision to dispatch up to 300 military advisers to the embattled country, where he said the United States is "prepared to take targeted and precise military action" if necessary.

The decision came as insurgents, spearheaded by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), were scoring sweeping victories across the country, overrunning several major cities in the northern and western parts of Iraq.

The lightning gains by the insurgents have sparked concerns that the sectarian clashes could descend into civil war and even spread to other countries in the Middle East.


The 300 military advisers, made up of special forces, will be focused on assessing how to best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces, rather than being directly involved in the fight, according to Obama.

While emphasizing that American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, the president said he was "prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it."

In another effort to boost the support to Iraqi forces, the United States is prepared to create joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the threat, Obama said.

Washington has in recent days positioned additional military assets in the region. It is reported that manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft are now flying over Iraq 24 hours a day to collect intelligence.


Even as Obama left the door open for possible military action, he said there was "no military solution inside of Iraq," and called for peaceful political ways to solve the crisis, saying the "best and most effective response... will ultimately involve partnerships where local forces, like Iraqis, take the lead."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long been criticized by the United States for not giving the country's Sunni minority a greater role in the Shiite-dominated government, which some think has contributed to the unrest.

Leading U.S. lawmakers have called for Maliki's resign, a call that Obama did not join during the conference, saying, "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders."

But the president did emphasize that "only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis."

"The United States will not pursue military options that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another," he added.

The president also said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East this weekend for talks which he hoped would stabilize the region.

As for the role Iran might play in the Iraq crisis, Obama warned that if Iran was coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shi'ites, it would probably worsen the situation.

"Our view is that Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we're sending," Obama said.

That message is that Iraq will only hold together if it becomes an "inclusive" nation where the interests of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds are all respected.


Despite Obama's rationale that U.S. involvement in Iraq was to safeguard the national security interest of the United States, going back to war is certainly the last thing both Obama and the U.S. public want.

The brutal eight years of war cost tens of thousands of lives, including at least 100,000 civilians. Nearly a quarter of Iraqi youths are unemployed, giving terrorist groups more opportunity to expand their power.

For the United States, the Iraq war proved to be far longer and costlier than imagined. Almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers lost their lives, and it cost nearly 1 trillion U.S. dollars.

To stop a possible new war, an anti-war coalition in Los Angeles on Thursday announced plans to stage a nationwide anti-war rally over the upcoming weekend.

"The present civil conflict in Iraq is a result of the U.S. war and occupation, which destroyed the Iraqi government and divided the country along sectarian lines in order to conquer it," said Brian Becker, national coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition.

"Now is the time for a massive grassroots opposition to stop an escalating U.S. war in Iraq," he added.


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