Daesh believed to have stopped 20,000 civilians leaving Fallujah

Daesh jihadists in central Fallujah are believed to have prevented at least 20,000 residents from leaving the city and are offering fierce resistance to advancing Iraqi forces.

A string of cautious early engagements, which are believed to have killed scores of Daesh members and a smaller number of Iraqi troops, have set the scene for a protracted and difficult fight for Iraq’s fourth city that will likely expose large numbers of trapped civilians, whom the group is using as human shields.

Almost three days after Iraqi officers declared that troops had breached the outskirts of Fallujah, they have stopped at three points near the city’s dense urban centre, which is thought to hold up to 1,000 Daesh jihadists – many of whom are hiding in fortified tunnel and bunker network built over the past two-and-a-half years.

Iraq - Fallujah 160530-01Military planners say Daesh leaders appear unsure about whether to stay and fight, as they did in the battle for the Kurdish city of Kobani in late 2014, and Ramadi late last year, or to flee and regroup elsewhere as happened during fights for Tikrit and Sinjar, both of which fell within 48 hours of a final assault.

Equally unsure is the makeup of Iraqi forces that will eventually move on the city centre, with large numbers of Iranian-backed Shia militias determined to join an attack nominally led by the national military. State forces number around 20,000, nearly one-quarter of whom are Sunnis who have been positioned at the vanguard for the almost exclusively Sunni city. US air strikes have been pivotal to the early days of the operation – the most ambitious launched by Iraq’s military since overran much of the country’s north in June 2014.

Daesh had occupied Fallujah for six months before then and, despite being besieged since late last year, has concentrated many of its most fervent fighters there. In messages on the group’s main social media sites, Daesh vowed not to leave and threatened to take the fight to Shia forces. In an equally sectarian pitch, Aws al-Khafaji, the leader of the Shia Abu al-Fadl al Abbas Brigades, was seen on video on Monday urging his members to “cleanse Iraq of the tumour that is Fallujah”.

It is understood that the US military has partly conditioned its support on the Iraqi military taking the lead in the attack and the militias remaining on the outskirts. Air strikes have been focussed on the south approach to the city centre, which is where the army assault is concentrated.

Some senior Daesh figures had fought with the group’s forerunner, al-Qaida in Iraq, in two battles against the US military in April and November 2004. The first fight took one month and the second around six weeks to subdue similar numbers of militants to those now in Fallujah.

The long, brutal battles helped give rise to Daesh’s reputation for fielding die-hard fighters that can defy technically superior militaries. Sunni militants have since then seen Fallujah as a bastion of resistance, not just against US forces, but also the Iraqi government, which has long viewed the city and its residents with deep suspicion.

Some Iraqi officials have maintained that Fallujah was being used as a command post for Daesh members who have launched regular attacks inside Baghdad, 50km to the east, including a series of coordinated bombings earlier this month that killed more than 300 people. However, the city and its surrounds has been sealed for more than two years, with the only access point being through the deserts to the west.

Unlike in 2004, the western entrances to the city and much of the approaches to the cities of Ramadi and Heet, which were held by until earlier this year, have now been cleared. US officials say the group maintains a small number of ‘rat runs’ into Anbar province, which could potentially be used as an escape route. Paths to the north, which have seen more than 3,000 civilians flee in the past week, are controlled by militias and Iraqi troops, who are allowing women, children and elderly men to cross, but detaining all military aged males for screening.

Aid organisations had previously accused Iraqi troops of detaining some young men without explanation after they fled Fallujah in 2015 and earlier this year. However, most detainees are now being released in less than a week.

While being acclaimed by Iraqi leaders as essential to the war against Daesh, the move to take the city has caught US officials unaware. The offensive came amid Washington’s urging that efforts be instead focused on Mosul, one of two main centres of gravity for , along with Raqqa in Syria.

Fallujah is deeply symbolic for Daesh and its loss would be damaging for the group. However, it has concentrated much of its energies in the fight for the two cities through which it imposed itself as a force in both Iraq and Syria, after shredding the sovereignty of both states in 2014. Ever since, the jihadist juggernaut that has shaken the regional order, pursuing a genocide against minorities, including the Yazidi sect and attempting to act as a de facto representative of the region’s Sunnis.

“We will beat them in Mosul,” said a senior western official directly involved in the war against Daesh. “The Iraqis can wound them in Fallujah. But the reality is that this is a confidence builder for them. The real fight started later. But only when they can sort out their political differences.”

Before the launch of the Fallujah operation, Iraqi politics had been crippled by stalled anti-corruption reforms. The authority of the prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, had also been weakened by two mass protests that had breached the country’s seat of government. In both cases, powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had organised the rallies, demonstrating a formidable ability to harness public sentiment, when the government could not.

Abadi last week urged demonstrators to not invade the Green Zone for a third time, so his officials could focus on Fallujah. Protesters heeded his request, marching towards the area, while chanting “Peaceful, peaceful.”

Source: The Guardian

Iraqi army storms Fallujah outskirts; fresh bombings hit Baghdad

The Iraqi army stormed to the southern edge of Fallujah under U.S. air support on Monday and captured a police station inside the city limits, launching a direct assault to retake one of the main strongholds of Islamic State militants. A Reuters TV crew about a mile (about 1.5 km) from the city’s edge said explosions and gunfire were ripping through Naimiya, a district of Fallujah on its southern outskirts.
The battle for Fallujah is shaping up to be one of the biggest ever fought against Islamic State, in the city where U.S. forces waged the heaviest battles of their 2003-2011 occupation against the Sunni Muslim militant group’s precursors. Fallujah is Islamic State’s closest bastion to Baghdad, and believed to be the base from which the group has plotted an escalating campaign of suicide bombings against Shi’ite civilians and government targets inside the capital.

As government forces pressed their onslaught, suicide bombers driving a car and a motorcycle and another bomb planted in a car killed more than 20 people and injured more than 50 in three districts of Baghdad, police and medical sources said.

Separately, Kurdish security forces announced advances against Islamic State in northern Iraq, capturing villages from militants outside Mosul, the biggest city under militant control.

The Iraqi army launched its operation to recover Falluja a week ago, first by tightening a six-month-old siege around the city 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad. Fallujah, in the heartland of Sunni Muslim tribes who resent the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, was the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State in January 2014. Months later, the group overran wide areas of the north and west of Iraq, declaring a caliphate including parts of neighboring Syria.
On Monday, army units advanced to the city’s southern entrance, “steadily advancing” under air cover from a U.S.-led coalition helping to fight against the militants, according to a military statement read out on state TV.

A Shi’ite militia coalition known as Popular Mobilization, or Hashid Shaabi, was seeking to consolidate the siege by dislodging militants from Saqlawiya, a village just to the north of Fallujah. The militias, who took the lead in assaults against Islamic State in other parts of Iraq last year, have pledged not to take part in the assault on the mainly Sunni Muslim city itself to avoid aggravating sectarian strife.

Islamist militant stronghold

Shi'ite fighters and Iraqi security forces fire artillery during clashes with Islamic State militants near Falluja, Iraq, May 29, 2016. [photo by Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani]
Shi’ite fighters and Iraqi security forces fire artillery during clashes with Islamic State militants near Falluja, Iraq, May 29, 2016. [photo by Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani]

Fallujah has been a bastion of the Sunni insurgency that fought both the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi’ite-led Baghdad government that took over after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003. American troops suffered some of their worst losses of the war there in two battles in 2004 to wrest it back from al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent group now known as Islamic State.

The latest offensive is causing alarm among international aid organization over the humanitarian situation in the city, where more than 50,000 civilians remain trapped with limited access to water, food and health care. Fallujah is the second-largest Iraqi city still under control of the militants, after Mosul, their de facto capital in the north that had a pre-war population of about 2 million. It would be the third major city in Iraq recaptured by the government after Saddam’s home town Tikrit and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s vast western Anbar province. Fallujah is also in Anbar, located between Ramadi and Baghdad, and capturing it would give the government control of the major population centers of the Euphrates River valley west of the capital for the first time in more than two years.

On the northern front, the security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region launched an attack on Sunday to oust Islamist militants from villages about 20 km (13 miles) east of Mosul so as to increase the pressure on Islamic State and pave the way for storming that city. The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, have retaken six villages in total since attacking Islamic State positions on Sunday with the support of the U.S.-led coalition, the Kurdistan Region Security Council said on Monday. That represents most of the targets of their latest advance. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hopes to recapture Mosul later this year to deal a decisive defeat to Islamic State.

Abadi announced the onslaught on Fallujah on May 22 after a spate of bombings that killed more than 150 people in one week in Baghdad, the worst death toll so far this year. The worsening security in the capital has added to political pressure on Abadi, struggling to maintain the support of a Shi’ite coalition amid popular protests against an entrenched political class.

Monday’s bombings targeted two densely populated Shi’ite districts, Shaab and Sadr City, and a government building in one predominantly Sunni suburb, Tarmiya, north of Baghdad. A car bomb in Shaab killed 12 people and injured more than 20, while in Tarmiya eight were killed and 21 injured by a suicide bomber who pulled up in a car outside a government building guarded by police. In Sadr City, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed three people and injured nine.

Source: Reuters

Iraqi army says preparing to retake Falluja, tells residents to leave

Iraq’s army said on Sunday it was preparing to retake the Daesh stronghold of Fallujah and asked residents to get ready to leave, state TV reported. Families who could not leave should raise white flags to mark their location in the city just went of Baghdad, the army’s media unit added, according to the TV channel.

The army “is asking the citizens that are still in Fallujah to be prepared to leave the city through secured routes that will be announced later,” the channel said.

Fallujah - archive picFallujah was the first Iraqi city to fall to Daesh in January 2014, six months before the group that emerged from Al-Qaeda swept through large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria. The city on the Euphrates river 50 km (32 miles) west of the capital, had a pre-war population of around 300,000. It is encircled by Iraqi forces and the Hashid Shaabi coalition of Shi’ite militias.

Source: Reuters

US and Russia agree cessation of hostilities in Aleppo

The US State Department announced Wednesday evening that an agreement has been reached with Russia to extend a ceasefire in Syria to Aleppo province and the city of Aleppo.

As part of our urgent efforts to de-escalate violence in Syria and reaffirm the Cessation of Hostilities nationwide, the United States and Russia concluded arrangements late yesterday to extend this effort to Aleppo province, including Aleppo city and its surrounding areas. Since this went into effect today at 00:01 in Damascus, we have seen an overall decrease in violence in these areas, even though there have been reports of continued fighting in some locations.

To ensure this continues in a sustainable way, we are coordinating closely with Russia to finalize enhanced monitoring efforts of this renewed cessation. We expect all parties to the Cessation of Hostilities to abide fully by the renewed cessation in Aleppo and throughout the entire country, pursuant to the terms of the arrangements established in Munich in February 2016. Attacks directed against Syria’s civilian population can never be justified, and these must stop immediately.

We look to Russia as a co-chair of the International Syria Support Group to press for the Assad regime’s compliance with this effort, and the United States will do its part with the opposition. Following the regime’s overnight airstrikes against Eastern Ghouta, we welcome today’s reaffirmation of the cessation in Eastern Ghouta for the next 48 hours. It is critical that Russia redouble its efforts to influence the regime to abide fully by the cessation.

Our objective remains, and has always been, a single nationwide cessation of hostilities covering all of Syria – not a series of local truces. We are determined to reaffirm the Cessation of Hostilities across Syria and will continue expanding this effort so we can de-escalate the violence, alleviate the suffering, and help create the conditions that enable the parties to resume negotiations focused on a political transition, as called for in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the 2012 Geneva Communique.

Source: US Department of State

Muqtada al-Sadr supporters end Green Zone sit-in for now after issuing demands

Protesters camped out in Baghdad’s Green Zone for 24 hours left the heavily fortified government district on Sunday after issuing demands for political reform but they pledged to return by the end of the week to keep up the pressure.

Iraq has endured months of wrangling prompted by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s attempt to replace party-affiliated ministers with technocrats as part of an anti-corruption drive. A divided parliament has failed to approve the proposal amid scuffles and protests. Deep frustration over the deadlock culminated in a dramatic breach on Saturday of the Green Zone by supporters of powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr wants to see Abadi’s proposed technocrat government approved, ending a quota system blamed for rampant corruption. Powerful parties have resisted, fearing the dismantling of patronage networks that sustain their wealth and influence. Abadi has warned continued turmoil could hamper the war against Islamic State, which controls large swathes of northern and western Iraq.

Iraqi people protest at Grand Festivities Square within the Green Zone in Baghdad [photo by Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani, 1/5/2016]
Iraqi people protest at Grand Festivities Square within the Green Zone in Baghdad [photo by Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani, 1/5/2016]

The Green Zone protesters issued an escalating set of demands, including a parliamentary vote on a technocrat government, the resignation of the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker and new elections. If none of the demands are met, a spokeswoman for the protesters said in a televised speech that they would resort to “all legitimate means” including civil disobedience.

Hundreds of protesters peacefully exited the Green Zone moments later.

The peaceful defusing of the crisis came after Abadi convened a high-level meeting with Iraq’s president, parliament speaker and political bloc leaders who called the breach of the Green Zone “a dangerous infringement of the state’s prestige and a blatant constitutional violation that must be prosecuted”. They said the high-level meetings would continue in coming days “to ensure radical reforms of the political process”. A politician who attended the talks said Abadi had faced accusations of mishandling the crisis. Another said the conflict had become an intra-Shi’ite battle over who will run Iraq.

Source: Reuters

Iraqi leaders struggle to break crisis, hundreds protest in Green Zone

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other political leaders promised on Sunday to deliver on radical reforms and stem a deepening crisis as protesters held an unprecedented sit-in inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified government district.

Iraq has endured months of wrangling prompted by Abadi’s attempt to replace party-affiliated ministers with technocrats as part of an anti-corruption drive. A divided parliament has failed to approve the proposal amid scuffles and protests. Deep frustration among Iraqis over the deadlock culminated in a dramatic breach on Saturday of the Green Zone by supporters of powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr wants to see Abadi’s proposed technocrat government approved, ending a quota system that its opponents say has encouraged corruption. Powerful parties have resisted, fearing the dismantling of patronage networks that have sustained the political elite’s wealth and influence for more than a decade.

Abadi has warned continued turmoil could hamper the war against Islamic State, which controls vast swathes of northern and western Iraq. He convened a high-level meeting on Sunday with Iraq’s president, parliament speaker and political bloc leaders. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who heads the Dawa Party, and representatives of Sadr were not there, a politician who attended told Reuters.

In a statement from the presidential residence published after the meeting, the leaders said meetings would continue in coming days “to ensure radical reforms of the political process.” They also called the breach of the Green Zone “a dangerous infringement of the state’s prestige and a blatant constitutional violation that must be prosecuted.”

Green Zone: “Even the plants are different”

The Green Zone, a 10-square-kilometre district on the banks of the Tigris River which also houses many foreign embassies, has been off-limits to most Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Its breach is unprecedented.

Hundreds of people pulled down and stormed over concrete blast walls, celebrating inside parliament and attacking several deputies. After nightfall, they moved to Grand Festivities Square as security reinforcements arrived from the army, police and Sadr’s militia. Many protesters, including some women and children, remained in the square on Sunday. Most took refuge inside event halls from 37 degree Celsius heat, while others lay on the grass or cooled off in a large fountain topped with a military statue. The protesters had been restricted to using one Green Zone entrance where personal searches were conducted separately by Sadr’s militia and then military guards.

Riot police, Humvees fixed with machine guns, and an armored military vehicle were stationed around the sit-in area, but protesters were permitted to come and go freely. State television said the security forces had reopened the entrances to Baghdad which had been closed a day earlier.

Asked how long they planned to stay, multiple protesters responded: “Until victory, God willing.” A demonstrator named Humam said he had entered the Green Zone on Saturday evening “for patriotic reasons” and was waiting with his two sons for instructions from protest organizers. The 32-year-old said he was shocked by the contrast between the poverty in which most Iraqis like him live and the comparative luxury inside the central district, which he had never entered before. “There is electricity and street lighting, there is more water here than I expected. Even the plants are different,” he said. “It is the people’s right to enter this area because (the politicians) are living in conditions that don’t even exist in Iraq. I didn’t imagine this existed in Iraq.”

Another 50-year-old protester from Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood who referred to parliament as “the council of traitors” said he wanted to see the president, prime minister and parliament speaker removed. “They have done nothing good for Iraq, only destruction, sectarian wars, hunger and no services.”

The politician who attended Sunday’s meeting said leaders had agreed that the protesters must evacuate, either peacefully or with the intervention by police. The demonstrators, though, showed no sign of leaving voluntarily. Jabra al-Taie, a leftist activist in the square, said she expected the sit-in to last at least until Wednesday when parliament might convene next following a week-long Shi’ite pilgrimage.

Sources: Reuters/Deutsche Welle

Daesh suicide attacks kill at least 33 in Samawah

Two suicide car bombs claimed by Daesh killed at least 32 people and wounded 75 others in the center of the southern Iraqi city of Samawa on Sunday, police and medics said.

The first blast was near a local government building and the second one about 60 meters (65 yards) away at a bus station, police sources said. The death toll was expected to keep rising.

Online videos and photographs showed a large plume of smoke rising above the buildings as well as burnt out cars and bodies on the ground at the site of one of the blasts, including several children. Police and firefighters carried victims on stretchers and in their arms.

Daesh said it had attacked a gathering of special forces in Samawah, 230 km (140 miles) south of the capital, with one car bomb and then blew up the second when security forces responded to the site. Daesh holds positions mostly in Sunni areas of the country’s north and west, far from the mainly Shi’ite southern provinces where Samawah is located. Such attacks are relatively rare.

The rise of the ultra-hardline Sunni insurgents has exacerbated Iraq’s sectarian conflict, mostly between Shi’ites and Sunnis, which emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The quota-based governing system put in place by the United States at the time is being challenged by hundreds of protesters who camped out overnight in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone after storming the parliament building.

Source: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News