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News, June 2014
As Shi'is Gear Up to Fight Sunnis in Iraq, Israel's FM Lieberman Tells Kerry It's Time for Kurdistan to Declare Independence
June 28, 2014
US flying armed drones over Baghdad – official
Russia TV, June 27, 2014, 20:05
The US military is flying “a few” armed drones over Iraq’s capital in order to defend diplomats and American troops serving there, a senior US official has confirmed.
"For the last 24 to 48 hours, we've started that," an anonymous official told AFP.
Any decision to attack Sunni extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) would have to be sanctioned by President Barack Obama. Therefore, there are currently no plans to use the drones in airstrikes, officials said.
The sources called the presence of the drones “force protection.” Last week, Obama said he was ready to take targeted military action if necessary.
Currently, US forces in Iraq are focused on working out the state of the Iraqi military and the Sunni extremists on the battlefield. There are around 500 American military personnel there who are drawn from special operations forces. A fresh batch of 180 military advisors have also just arrived.
In addition to the drones over Baghdad, piloted and unmanned aircraft are carrying out 30-35 surveillance flights a day, some of which include F-18 fighter jets that are flying from the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Gulf.
US officials also told Reuters on Friday that a joint US-Iraq operations center in Baghdad is set to open next week, and will be staffed by about 90 personnel.
The situation in Iraq has significantly deteriorated throughout the month of June as Sunni militants spearheaded by ISIS push south towards the capital Baghdad, taking major cities in the north of the country like Tikrit and Mosul.
More than 1,000 people have already died (in fighting), according to the UN.
Satellite imagery and photographs have confirmed that ISIS has carried out a number of mass executions in the northern city of Tikrit, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch.
The New York-based rights group estimates that between 160 and 190 men were killed in at least two locations near Tikrit between June 11 and June 14.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry has demanded that Iraqi officials form an inclusive government if Baghdad wants to gain support from Washington.
The alienation of Sunnis from Shia Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government was part of the initial cause for bitterness among Iraq's Sunni population. Maliki’s Shiite State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April election, but needs the support of Sunnis and Kurds to form a government.
Israel says disintegration in Iraq may lead to independent Kurdish state
Russia TV, June 27, 2014, 02:10
While the Iraqi army struggles to contain the ISIS advance in the country's northwest, the Kurds have been successful at heading off the Sunni insurgents. Israel has now openly stated that an independent Kurdish state is a “foregone conclusion.”
"Iraq is breaking up before our eyes and it would appear that the creation of an independent Kurdish state is a foregone conclusion," Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told US Secretary of State John Kerry as the two discussed the Iraqi crisis in Paris on Thursday.
Israeli President Shimon Peres had a similar message for US President Barack Obama. "The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic. One of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women," Peres said on Wednesday.
While forces from the Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) were advancing towards the capital Baghdad, the Iraqi army abandoned the city of Kirkuk. The Kurds have seized on the chaos to expand their autonomous northern territory to include the strategic city.
Besides being considered by Kurds as their historical capital, Kirkuk sits on vast oil deposits – a stable financial base for any possible statehood.
"Kirkuk will finally produce oil for the Kurds," Muhama Khalil, the Kurdish head of the economic committee in Iraq's national parliament, told the Guardian.
"For 70 years oil has been used to buy weapons to kill us. Finally we have our own oil and it will only be for the Kurds," he said.
The Kurds now control the oil hub, and there were numerous reports that they sold a tanker full of oil to Israel – a country that their Arab neighbors maintain a boycott of crude sales to.
Israel keeps quiet about its ties with the Kurds, allegedly at the request of the latter. Israel's Foreign Ministry said there were currently no formal diplomatic relations with the Kurds, but Eliezer Tsafrir – a former Mossad station chief in Kurdish northern Iraq – told Reuters that "we'd love it to be out in the open, to have an embassy there, to have normal relations. But we keep it clandestine because that’s what they want.”
The Israelis may see the Kurds as a natural ally in the Arab-dominated region where both feel they are threatened minorities.
In an interview to CNN, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani also commented on the possibility of an independent state, saying that "The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold."
In a reverse to decades of mistrust, the Kurds might find another country supporting their independence – Turkey. It now has a 50-year deal to send Kurdish oil by pipeline to Ceyhan and has been investing in Iraq’s increasingly autonomous Kurdish region in recent years.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced support for the Kurds’ right to self-determination. “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of entity they are living in,” Erdogan said last week.
Meanwhile, the US urges Kurdish leaders to support Baghdad in its fight against ISIS. Washington also assured the Kurds they would participate in the next Iraqi government. For thousands of years, the majority of Kurds – who are an Iranian people – have lived in the Kurdistan region, an area along the border of four Middle Eastern countries.
Now the Kurdish population is scattered between northern Iraq, eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and western Iran. They total up to 40 million people – making the Kurds one of the world's largest ethnic groups without its own state.
Iraqi troops push to retake Tikrit from rebels, parties pursue talks
By Raheem Salman and Ned Parker
BAGHDAD, Saturday, June 28, 2014, 10:52am EDT
Iraqi government forces backed by helicopter gunships began an offensive on Saturday to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Sunni militants while party leaders pursued talks that could end Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's divisive rule.
Politicians in Baghdad and world powers warn that unless security forces recover cities lost to the Sunni militants in tandem with a rapid formation of a government that can bring Iraq's estranged communities together, the country could rip apart along sectarian lines and menace the wider Middle East.
On the battlefield, Iraqi troops were trying to advance on Tikrit from the direction of Samarra to the south that has become the military's line in the sand against a militant advance southwards to within an hour's drive of Baghdad.
Iraqi special forces already have snipers inside Tikrit University who were dropped by air there in a bold operation on Thursday. Helicopter gunships fired at targets in Tikrit on Saturday and ISIL fighters abandoned Tikrit's governorate building, security sources said. More government troops had been air-dropped in a pocket just north of the city.
Iraqi military spokesman Qassim Atta told reporters in Baghdad on Saturday that 29 Sunni militants were killed on Friday in Tikrit and that militant commanders were struggling because "their morale has started to collapse."
However, the militants were showing resilience and enjoyed the backing of some local Sunni tribes, as well as former ruling Ba'athists from the era of late Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein - whose hometown was Tikrit - alienated from Maliki's government.
Since early June, the radical ISIL have overrun most majority Sunni areas in the north and west of Iraq, capturing the biggest northern city Mosul and fanning southwards.
ISIL vows to re-create a caliphate erasing borders from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.
GRAND AYATOLLAH'S POLITICAL INTERVENTION
In a stunning political intervention on Friday that mean the demise of Maliki's eight-year tenure, powerful Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged political blocs to agree on the next premier, parliament speaker and president before a newly elected legislature meets in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Saudi King Abdullah pledged in talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to use his influence to encourage Sunni Muslims to join a new, more inclusive Iraqi government to better combat Islamist insurgents, a senior U.S. official said on Saturday.
Abdullah's assurance marked a significant shift from Riyadh's unwillingness to support a new government unless Maliki, a Shi'ite, steps aside, and reflected growing disquiet about the regional repercussions of ISIL's rise.
"The next 72 hours are very important to come up with an agreement..., to push the political process forward," said a lawmaker and former government official from the National Alliance, which groups all Shi'ite Muslim parties.
The lawmaker, who asked for anonymity due to political sensitivities, said he anticipated internal meetings by various parties and a broader session of the National Alliance including Maliki's State of Law list to be held through the weekend. Some Sunni Muslim parties were to convene later on Saturday.
Iraqi Sunnis accuse Maliki of freezing them out of any power and repressing their community, goading armed tribes to support the insurgency led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL). The president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region has also said Maliki should bow out.
Sistani's entry into the fray will make it hard for Maliki to stay on as caretaker leader as he has since a parliamentary election in April. That means he must either build a coalition to confirm himself in power for a third term or step aside.
Sistani's message was delivered after a meeting of Shi'ite factions including the State of Law coalition failed to agree on a consensus candidate for prime minister.
Maliki, whose State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April election, was positioning himself for a third term before the ISIL offensive began. His closest allies say he still aims to stay, but senior State of Law figures have said he could be replaced with a less polarizing figure.
"It’s a card game and State of Law plays a poker game very well," said the official from the premier's alliance. "For the prime minister, it will go down to the wire."
ISLAMISTS BATTLE ISLAMISTS ON BORDER
In Syria, where ISIL controls large swathes of land, other Islamist rebel groups pursued a counter-offensive in the border town of Albu Kamal, challenging ISIL's grip along the Iraqi-Syrian frontier.
ISIL has its roots in Iraq and expanded into Syria shortly after the start of the three-year insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground forces back to Iraq, where they were for eight years after invading to oust Saddam, but has sent up to 300 advisers, mostly special forces, to help the government take on ISIL.
U.S. defense officials said on Friday that the Obama administration was flying armed aircraft over Iraq although these aimed to collect intelligence and ensure the safety of U.S. personnel on the ground rather than attack targets.
Still, General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, said additional U.S. options included going after "high value individuals who are the leadership of ISIL" and working to protect Iraq's "critical infrastructure".
On Saturday, 11 people were injured when an explosion rocked a health ministry building in insurgent-held Mosul, a local health official said. City residents said the blast was caused by a drone strike but this could not be confirmed and a U.S. official dismissed this possibility. Residents also reported overnight rocket fire into Mosul, whose fall to ISIL on June 10 was the catalyst for a militant sweep southwards in which they also took border crossings with areas of civil war-racked Syria that they already controlled.
STRUGGLE FOR SHARE OF POWER
Under Iraq's governing system put in place after Saddam's overthrow, the prime minister has always been a Shi'ite, the largely ceremonial president a Kurd and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. Negotiations over the positions have often been drawn out: after the last election in 2010 it took nearly 10 months for Maliki to build a coalition to stay in office.
Divvying up the three posts in the four days before parliament meets, as sought by Sistani, would require leaders from each of Iraq's three main ethnic and sectarian groups to commit to the political process and swiftly resolve their most pressing political problems, above all the fate of Maliki.
Allies of Maliki said Sistani's call for a quick decision was not aimed at sidelining the premier but at putting pressure on all political parties not to drag out the process with typical infighting with Iraq facing disintegration. Even so, they acknowledged Sistani was not happy with Maliki's policies.
“It is other groups telling Sistani they cannot accommodate Maliki for a third term. Sistani doesn't want to get involved in who is the next prime minister, but there has to be progress," said one official from Maliki's State of Law list.
The roadmap is far from smooth. Kurds have yet to agree on a candidate for president and the Sunnis, long riven by intense rivalries and shaken by the loss of their cities to militants, are divided among themselves over the speaker's post.
Iraq's million-strong army, trained and outfitted by the United States at a cost of some $25 billion, largely disintegrated in the north in the face of ISIL's offensive.
Thousands of Shi'ite volunteers have responded to an earlier call by Ayatollah Sistani for all Iraqis to rally behind the military to defeat the jihadist threat.
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