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News :: International
Mass Executions Push Iraq Towards Sectarian War by PATRICK COCKBURN
16 Jun 2014
US Lines Up Iran Talks to Halt ISIS
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Iraq is close to all-out sectarian war as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) massacres dozens of Iraqi soldiers in revenge for the loss of one of its commanders, and government supporters in Baghdad warn that the spread of fighting to the capital could provoke mass killings of the Sunni minority there.

One unverified statement from Isis militants on Twitter says that it has executed 1,700 prisoners. Pictures show killings at half a dozen places.

Isis has posted pictures that appear to show prisoners being loaded on to flatbed trucks by masked gunmen and later forced to lie face down in a shallow ditch with their arms tied behind their backs.

Final pictures show the blood-covered bodies of captive soldiers, probably Shia, who make up much of the rank-and-file of the Iraqi army. Captions say the massacre was in revenge for the death of an Isis commander, Abdul-Rahman al-Beilawy, whose killing was reported just before Isis’s surprise offensive last week that swept through northern Iraq, capturing the Sunni strongholds of Mosul and Tikrit.

Meanwhile, the US government was considering direct talks with Iran to discuss options for halting the Isis advance, an official from the Obama administration said.

The two countries were already scheduled to meet with other world powers to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme in Vienna this week, and the US deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will now travel to take part in those talks.

President Barack Obama continues to weigh up options for international intervention in Iraq, and has now deployed three warships to the Persian Gulf, but on Sunday the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said: “We are probably going to need [Iran’s] help to hold Baghdad.”

Early on Monday the mayor of the northern town of Tal Afar said it had become the latest landmark settlement to fall to Sunni militants.

Abdulal Abdoul told reporters his town of some 200,000 people, 260 miles (420 kilometres) northwest of Baghdad, was taken just before dawn.

Shia militiamen are pouring out of Baghdad to establish a new battle line 60 or 70 miles north of the capital. Demography is beginning to count against Isis as its fighters enter mixed provinces such as Diyala, where there are Shia and Kurds as well as Sunni.

In Mosul, from where 500,000 refugees first fled, the Sunni are returning to the city. Isis ordered traders to cut the price of fuel and foodstuffs, but religious and ethnic minorities are too terrified to return.

Sectarian strife looms as Shia join up to fight Isis to go home. “People in Baghdad are frightened about what the coming days will bring,” said one resident, but added that they were “used to being frightened by coming events”.

Baghdadis have been stocking up on food and fuel in case the capital is besieged. There is no sound of shooting in the city, though searches at checkpoints are more intense than previously and three out of four of the entrances to the Green Zone are closed.

Isis may be the shock troops in the fighting but their swift military success and the disintegration of four Iraqi army divisions have provoked a general Sunni uprising. At least seven or eight militant Sunni factions are involved, many led by former Baathists and officers from Saddam Hussein’s security services. But the most important factor working in favour of Isis is the sense among Iraq’s five or six million Sunni that the end of their oppression is at hand.

“The Shia in Iraq see what is happening not as the Sunni reacting justifiably against the government oppressing them but as an attempt to re-establish the old Sunni-dominated-type government,” said one observer in the capital. On both the Shia and Sunni sides the factors are accumulating for a full-scale bloody sectarian confrontation.

The surge of young Shia men into militias was touched off by the appeal of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered Shia cleric, for people to join militias. “The street is boiling,” said the observer.

Some 1,000 volunteers have left the holy city of Kerbala for Samarra which is on the front line, being the site of the al-Askari mosque, one of the holiest Shia shrines in a city where the majority is Sunni.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shia militia force close to the Iranians, is said to have recaptured the town of Muqdadiyah in Diyala and Dulu’iyah further west towards Samarra.

A problem in Iraq is that the country’s sectarian divisions are at their worst in areas where there are mixed populations: the country could not be partitioned without a great deal of bloodshed, as occurred in India at the time of independence.

The Sunni-Shia civil war of 2006-07 was centred on Baghdad and eliminated most mixed neighbourhoods, leaving those Sunni who had not already fled holding out in enclaves mostly in the west of the capital.

A cadre of advisers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is believed to be putting together a new military force drawn from the army and militias. The regular army command has been discredited by the spectacular failure of the last 10 days.

The involvement of Shia militia fighters at the front increases the likelihood of mass killings of Sunni. This had started to happen even before the present offensive in Diyala province and at Iskandariya, south-east of Baghdad, where militants were said to be building car and truck bombs and where the Shia militiamen are said by witnesses to have adopted a “scorched-earth policy”.

Iraq has effectively broken up as the Kurds take advantage of the collapse of the regular army in the north to take over Kirkuk, northern Diyala and the Nineveh plateau.

The Kurds have long claimed these territories, saying they had been ethnically cleansed from there under Saddam Hussein. Many of these areas are rich in oil.

The government in Baghdad, though vowing to return to Mosul, has a weakened hand to play. Its military assets have turned out to be much less effective than even its most severe critics imagined.

If there is going to be a counter-attack it will have to come soon but there is no sign of it yet.

Isis has taken some of the tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment to Syria which might indicate that it doesn’t want to use it in Iraq.

But as a military force, it has recently depended on quick probing attacks and forays using guerrilla tactics, so its need for heavy weaponry may not be high.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

This work is in the public domain
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Re: PATRICK COCKBURN
19 Jun 2014
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As Iraq Breaks Up, the Price of a Bullet Has Tripled

The Baghdad Fear Index

by PATRICK COCKBURN


Iraq is breaking up, with Shia and ethnic minorities fleeing massacres as a general Sunni revolt, led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) sweeps through northern Iraq. The Isis assault is still gaining victories, capturing the Shia Turkoman town of Tal Afar west of Mosul after heavy fighting against one of the Iraqi army’s more effective units.

Iraq could soon see sectarian slaughter similar to that which took place at the time of the partition of India in 1947. Pictures and evidence from eye witnesses confirm that Isis massacred some 1,700 Shia captives, many of them air force cadets, at the air force academy outside Tikrit, which proves that Isis intends to cleanse its new conquests of Shia. Sunni cadets were told to go home. If the battle moves to Baghdad, then the Shia majority in the capital might see the Sunni enclaves, particularly those in west Baghdad, such as Amiriya and Khadra, as weak points in their defences, and drive out the inhabitants.

In a misguided effort to sustain the morale of people in the capital, the government closed down the internet at 9am. It had already closed YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The excuse is that Isis uses them to communicate, but this is extremely unlikely since Isis has a more professional communications system of its own. Since there is little confidence in the news on government-run television stations, or provided by official spokesmen, the internet shutdown is creating a vacuum of information filled by frightening rumours that are difficult to check.

The result is an atmosphere of growing panic in Baghdad with volunteers from the Shia militias being trucked to Samarra, north of the capital, to stop the Isis advance. The cost of a bullet for an AK47 assault rifle has tripled to 3,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $2. Kalashnikovs are almost impossible to buy from arms dealers though pistols can still be obtained at three times the price of a week ago. In the Shia holy city of Kerbala, south-east of Baghdad, the governor has asked volunteers to bring their own weapons to recruitment centres.

Many civilians are leaving Baghdad and the better-off have already gone abroad. The head of an Iraqi security company told me: “I am off to Dubai on an unscheduled holiday to see my daughters because all the foreigners I was protecting have already left.” The price of a cylinder of propane gas, used by Iraqis for cooking, has doubled to 6,000 Iraqi dinars, because it normally comes from Kirkuk, the road to which is now cut off by Isis fighters.

Rumours swirl through Baghdad. There was a report this morning that the whole of Anbar, the giant Sunni province, which normally has a population of 1.5 million, had fallen. But a call to a friend in its capital Ramadi revealed that fighting is still going on. A former minister last night told me that Isis, unable to take Samarra, had switched its assault to Baquba in Diyala province, one of the gateways to Baghdad, but a resident denied there was fighting.

It was a different story in Tal Afar, supposedly defended by 1,000 Kurdish peshmerga but they were either overwhelmed or forced to retreat. There are reports the commander of the Iraqi army division fighting there had been captured. The Turkoman Shia inhabitants have fled to Kurdish-held zones and the town is largely deserted. A source in Mosul said yesterday that the Iraqi air force had carried out bombing raids there, and electricity supplies had been cut.



What is not in doubt is that the Sunni revolt, in which Isis fighters act as shock troops, is still gathering strength though there has been no serious attack on the capital. If it does begin, Isis will be faced by hundreds of thousands of Shia militia and, if it makes progress, by Iranian military forces probably in the shape of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iraqi media has been reporting that two Iranian divisions are already in Iraq, but as of Monday afternoon I had not met anybody who had seen them.

With regular Iraqi army commanders discredited or distrusted, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force of the IRGC is in Baghdad and is reported to have taken over planning and strategy. Iraqi officials say the Iranians plan to secure the road north to Samarra, a mostly Sunni city, but with a revered Shia shrine, and then use that as a rallying point for forces to re-take Tikrit and Mosul.

An important factor is how far President Masoud Barzani, head of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, who has just made historic gains for his people by taking over Kirkuk and other territories in dispute with Baghdad, will want to join a government counter-attack. The extent to which the entire 350,000 strong Iraqi army forces are demoralised is also unclear. Officers returning from Mosul say that their senior commanders fled or told them not to resist.

Asked about the cause of defeat, one recently retired Iraqi general said: “Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!” He said it started when the Americans told the Iraqi army to outsource food and other supplies in about 2005. A battalion commander was paid for a unit of 600 soldiers, but had only 200 men under arms and pocketed the difference which meant enormous profits. The army became a money-making machine for senior officers and often an extortion racket for ordinary soldiers who manned the checkpoints. On top of this, well-trained Sunni officers were side-lined. “Iraq did not really have a national army,” the general concluded.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/18/the-baghdad-fear-index/
Re: Mass Executions Push Iraq Towards Sectarian War by PATRICK COCKBURN
19 Jun 2014
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US Rules Out Military Action Until Iraq's Prime Minister Steps Down

Obama Wants Maliki Out

by PATRICK COCKBURN


The US has told senior Iraqi officials that the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, must leave office if it is to intervene militarily to stop the advance of Sunni extremists. The Sunni community sees Mr Maliki as the main architect of its oppression and the Americans believe there can be no national reconciliation between Sunni and Shia unless he ceases to be leader of the country.

Mr Maliki is showing every sign of wanting to cling to power despite the disasters of the past 10 days during which his army of 350,000 men, on which $41.6bn (£24.5bn) has been spent by Iraq since 2011, has disintegrated after being attacked by a far less numerous foe. He has blamed Saudi Arabia, the Kurds and treacherous generals, but has offered no real explanation nor taken responsibility for the defeat.

Mr Maliki was effectively appointed by the US in 2006 but is today seen as being under the influence of Iran. The Iranian leadership is divided on whether or not to withdraw its support from Mr Maliki and see Shia dominance and Iranian power in Iraq diluted. Iranian commanders have taken over central direction of the Iraqi army, but Iraqi politicians do not believe that Iran has a coherent plan to rescue the Baghdad government from the crisis. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, said that “the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to defend the holy [Shia] shrines”. These are at Samarra in the front line, al-Kadhimiya in Baghdad and Najaf and Karbala further south.

The most effective shape for US military support would be air strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) fighters called in by American forward air controllers operating with Iraqi units. Drones would be largely useless against an elusive and lightly armed enemy, though US air strikes of any type would raise the morale of the Iraqi military and the Shia population.



There is a constitutional way of getting rid of Mr Maliki when the Iraqi parliament meets before the end of June. It must choose a speaker and a president who will then ask a member of the largest party to form a government. It is unlikely that Mr Maliki would be chosen Prime Minister as other parties unite against him. “It is impossible that he should serve a third term,” said an Iraq politician who did not want to be named.

But parliamentary procedures may be too slow to remove Mr Maliki and put in place a new Iraqi leadership capable of withstanding an uprising by Iraq’s five or six million Sunni population, led by Isis but including seven or eight other armed groups. The pace of the Isis advance has slowed north of Baghdad in recent days, but it is still capturing Sunni towns and villages where much of the armed male population joins it. The original force of Isis fighters, sometimes put at 10,000 men, is thereby multiplied many times.



This happened in the Sunni town of Hibhib near Baquba, which is 40 miles north-east of Baghdad, over the last two days. A local woman speaking by phone said: “Less than 100 Daesh [Isis] came into the town and soon became more than 2,000 armed men. Even teenagers aged 14 and 15 are carrying rifles and setting up checkpoints.”

The general support for the Sunni revolt in northern and western Iraq will make it very difficult for any counter-offensive, which would be facing far more opponents than Isis originally fielded. Isis now controls almost all the Euphrates valley from Fallujah west of Baghdad through western Iraq and eastern Syria as far as the Turkish border. Any long-term campaign against Isis by the Iraqi government backed by US air power would require air strikes in Syria as well as Iraq. The two countries have effectively become a single battlefield.



The success or failure of the US and Mr Maliki’s domestic opponents in replacing him in the next few weeks will be crucial in determining the future of the conflict. A chief reason why Isis, Sunni armed groups and the Sunni population have been able to form a loose common front against the government is the antipathy of the Sunni population to Mr Maliki. They see him as systematically reducing them to second-class citizens and putting as many as 100,000 in jail, with prisoners often held because of confessions extorted by torture or without any charge at all. Hostility to Mr Maliki provides part of the glue that holds the Sunni coalition together.

But the Iraqi government’s problems are immediate and require intelligent leadership which continues to be lacking. This was shown in Mosul last week where two senior generals took off their uniforms and fled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s semi-independent zone. Overall, some 230,000 soldiers are reported to have deserted their units.

Mr Maliki continues to take many military decisions himself. Iraqi sources say that just before Isis stormed Tal Afar, a Shia Turkoman city of 300,000 west of Mosul, last weekend the KRG President Masoud Barzani sent a message to Mr Maliki offering to send peshmerga (Kurdish soldiers) to defend it. Mr Maliki rejected the proposal. Such peshmerga as were in Tal Afar were withdrawn and Isis took over.

Unless it is too over-extended to make further advances, Isis may think it in its interests to strike quickly at Baghdad before the US and Iran decide what to do and while the political and military leadership in Baghdad is in turmoil. The Shia are the majority in the capital but there are Sunni enclaves in west Baghdad which might rise up.

Living conditions all over northern and central Iraq will get more difficult as the economic unity of the country is broken. Baghdadis mostly cook on bottled propane gas, but this can no longer be supplied from Kirkuk because the road is cut by Isis. The insurgents have also taken three-quarters of Baiji refinery according an official speaking from inside the plant. The government’s version of what has happened at Baiji according to state television is that 44 Isis fighters were killed and survivors fled.

Mr Maliki’s best chance of staving off calls for his departure is that the threat to Baghdad will get so severe that Washington and Tehran will have to give support even if he stays. He has already been strengthened by the Shia clerical leadership in Najaf calling for people to join the Iraqi army. Not everything that has gone wrong in Iraq is Mr Maliki’s fault, but his responsibility for the present catastrophe is too great for him to play a positive role in averting a sectarian civil war.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/19/obama-wants-maliki-out/
Re: Mass Executions Push Iraq Towards Sectarian War by PATRICK COCKBURN
20 Jun 2014
Why US Airstrikes Won't Stop ISIS

The Propaganda War in Baghdad

by PATRICK COCKBURN


Baghdad.

Sunni rebels and Iraqi army forces fought for control of Iraq’s largest refinery at Baiji, as Baghdad waited for a US response to its request for airstrikes to hold back the offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).

The struggle to take the giant refinery has swayed backwards and forwards, with Isis raising its black flag over one tower while the government deployed helicopter gunships. The Iraqi army appears to be holding together better than it did last week, when it lost much of northern Iraq in a few days.

The US Government is linking military assistance with the departure of Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister, on the grounds that his policies have provoked the Sunni revolt and that no attempt at national reconciliation will be taken seriously as long as he is in office. Generalised Sunni hostility to Mr Maliki as a sectarian hate figure has enabled Isis to ally itself with seven or eight Sunni militant groups with which it had previously been fighting.

Streets in Baghdad are normally choked with traffic, but are surprisingly empty this week because many people believe it is too dangerous to go out. This is particularly true of Sunni districts such as al-Adhamiyah on the east bank of the Tigris River, where young men rightly believe that if they pass through a checkpoint they are likely to be arrested. Many Sunni men leave work early on the grounds that this reduces their chance of being detained.

Shia neighbourhoods such as Karada are noticeably busier and have fewer shops closed.

People in Baghdad are waiting to see what will happen. Weddings – which are elaborate affairs in Iraq – have been postponed. Businessmen have stopped importing and are drawing down their stocks, so that if war comes to the capital they will not be left with unsold goods. Most imports come from Turkey but many Turks are being held hostage in Mosul by Isis, and the rebels have cut all roads linking Baghdad to Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area. This has led to a shortage in Baghdad of propane gas cylinders used for cooking, but not of petrol which is easily available. In the KRG, which is supplied by Baiji refinery, there are queues of three or four miles outside petrol stations.

“People were shocked and afraid when they first heard that Mosul had been captured,” said one woman in Baghdad. “But then Iraqis have had wars and revolts since 1980 and they get over the shock quite soon.” This stoicism is unlikely to survive if Isis enters the city and takes over the Sunni enclaves.

In order to prevent infiltrators there are many checkpoints with intelligence officers or Shia militants in plain clothes standing beside the soldiers to identify suspects. Even elderly traffic policemen in white shirts have started carrying sub-machine guns, a development perhaps reflecting their knowledge that Isis executes even the most harmless municipal employees.
A further reason for the empty streets is that many people spend their time watching television at home, trying to assess the seriousness of the threat of the fighting spreading to Baghdad. Often they channel hop, trying to tease out the truth from competing propaganda claims. The main government channel is invariably upbeat but its accounts of victories are seldom backed up by pictures.

The government is trying to maintain morale in the capital by downplaying Isis successes, emphasising patriotism and stressing that Baghdad can never fall.

Crude propaganda like this frequently leads viewers to switch to al-Arabiya, based in Dubai but Saudi owned, or a medley of other channels that have film of events. Ammar al Shahbandar, who heads the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Iraq, says: “Iraqi state TV is always playing catch-up. They never have film. They pretend things are normal and as a result people watch al-Arabiya. This is a visual culture and people get their news from television channels that show them what is happening.”

By way of contrast, Isis shows sophisticated planning in producing a visual record of everything it does, thereby multiplying its political impact. Its militants dominate social media and produce well-made if terrifying films to illustrate the fanatical commitment of their fighters as they identify and kill their enemies.

Sometimes pictures of Isis successes are fabricated and film is used of events that took place in Syria or Libya. But film of genuine Isis successes starts appearing on television screens across the world within hours of them occurring.

The Iraqi government response has been to close down some “enemy television stations” as well as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other internet services, although Iraqis are quick to find ways around official censorship. Overall, the government succeeds only in creating a vacuum of information that its enemies are swift to fill.

Why US Airstrikes Won’t Stop ISIS

US air strikes aimed at stopping Isis from advancing on Baghdad or taking more territory would be very different from previous American air campaigns in Iraq in 1991, 2003 and during the guerrilla campaign against the US occupation between 2004 and the departure of US troops in 2011.

This time the US would be looking for vehicles carrying Isis fighters or for fighters moving on foot. Air strikes against them would be effective in breaking up ground attacks if these are directed by highly trained US forward air controllers operating on the front line. The US fought this sort of war in Afghanistan in 2001 when its air power operated on behalf of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. It was also successful in northern Iraq in 2003 when the US Air Force was supporting the Kurds advancing on Mosul and Kirkuk.
Air strikes of this type would very likely succeed in giving the Iraqi army and Shia militias the edge over the Sunni rebels in holding Baghdad. US intervention would help restore the battered morale of the army and the Shia in general. Air strikes would come in combination with two other factors already slowing the rebel advance: Isis is now entering mixed Sunni-Shia areas north of Baghdad and not Sunni-dominated cities like Mosul, Tikrit and Baiji where it is guaranteed local support. Second, Shia volunteers have been pouring into the army since Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shia hierarchy issued a fatwa calling for volunteers. They are unlikely to run away as the regular army did in Mosul.

More ambitious use of air power by the US is likely to show diminishing returns because Isis leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are careful to hide their movements. Few prisoners from Isis taken by the government say they have ever seen him and those that have say he often wears a mask. Isis commanders, believed in many cases to be well trained military professionals from Saddam Hussein’s security forces, are likely to be very careful not to expose themselves or their men to air attack.

The Isis offensive has turned into a Sunni uprising with many trucks full of young men from Sunni villages waving their rifles and taking little care to protect themselves. Killing many of these will only further anger the Sunni community. The US will also not want to appear as the saviour of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who is detested in Sunni districts.

It is important to recall that much greater air power than is now available, notoriously failed to win the war in Iraq for the US from 2003 to 2011 when it had air bases all over the country along with 150,000 soldiers. The same is true of US air strikes in Afghanistan, which often turned out to have mistakenly targeted wedding parties and other social gatherings.

One important feature of US air intervention has not been mentioned. Isis is an efficient, experienced and fanatical movement with a reputation for striking back at any enemy. If its fighters start being killed by US aircraft, it may not be long before it sends its suicide bombers against American targets, inside or outside the US, to exact revenge.