Iraqi army launches offensive to retake Hawija from Daesh

The Iraqi army has launched an awaited offensive on Thursday to dislodge Daesh from Hawija. The offensive was announced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News

Advertisements

Daesh suicide attacks on restaurants, checkpoint, kill at least 80 near Nasiriyah

Three suicide attacks claimed by Daesh killed at least 80 people near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on Thursday and wounded more than 97, local police said.

Wearing security force uniforms and driving stolen army vehicles, the attackers targeted a police checkpoint and two restaurants on a highway near the city of Nasiriyah, using car bombs and suicide vests, the sources said.

Daesh claims responsibility

Daesh claimed responsibility in a statement on its Amaq news agency. The jihadist group said it had killed “dozens of Shi‘ites”. Daesh activity is usually concentrated in western and northern Iraq. Bomb attacks in the south, where the bulk of the country’s oil is produced and security forces hold a tighter grip, are relatively rare.

The head of Nasiriyah’s health directorate, Jassim al-Khalidi, said the city’s hospital had received 50 bodies and the death toll could rise because some of the wounded were in critical condition. The dead included civilians and members of security forces. Six attackers were also killed. Hospital sources said at least 15 Iranian pilgrims, who were visiting holy Shi‘ite shrines, were among the dead.

The deadliest attack was at a restaurant west of Nasiriyah. “One attacker blew up his suicide vest inside the crowded restaurant while a group of other gunmen started to throw grenades and fire at diners,” said police colonel Ali Abdul Hussain. Police sources said some police officers had died in the checkpoint attack, but the toll from that incident remained unclear.

Security sources said forces were placed on alert in most of the southern provinces, including the oil city of Basra, in case of similar attacks.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters/dpa

The hunt for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still on

The hunt for Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is very much on. According to a report by CNN, at one point over the summer the US believed they had their best shot at killing the jihadist leader in an airstrike, several US officials said. The strike, which has never been publicly disclosed, was based on intelligence that indicated a senior Daesh leader, quite possibly al-Baghdadi, was at the particular location. The officials familiar with the strike tell CNN it has never been definitively determined if al-Baghdadi was actually killed. But one official said that over recent months “we tried to take several shots at him.” One reason the US remains uncertain if it killed al-Baghdadi is that in the days and weeks that followed the strike, US intelligence did not intercept any Daesh communications confirming his death and there was no discussion on Daesh social media accounts, US officials said. Given al-Baghdadi’s stature, the US expects to see significant chatter discussing his death, if he is killed. The strike occurred after a claim by Russia in June that the Daesh leader might have been killed in one of its airstrikes on the outskirts of Raqqa on May 28. The US has long believed that the Russian claim is not true.

In another instance CNN has learned that US military planners for a ground mission being conducted by US forces thought they were on al-Baghdadi’s trail for a significant period of time. Intelligence indicated an individual with the name al-Baghdadi was at a target site, a US official confirmed to CNN. Senior US administration officials were briefed but a raid did not happen because of concern over the potential number of civilians at the site. The US official says they now believe al-Baghdadi was likely not at the location. It remains unclear if that individual was any relation to the Daesh leader.

A consistent problem the US has faced is that intelligence tips on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts are often not timely, meaning he is likely to have moved on before they are able to mount an operation to take him out. Al-Baghdadi is believed to remain fairly mobile, often moving by vehicle with just a driver one official told CNN. Because he potentially remains on the move, the best chance of killing him might come with last minute intelligence that would require a strike by a drone already loitering nearby.

Over the last several months, the top US commander in Baghdad has given several tantalizing answers to reporters about al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. In a July 11 press briefing, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told Pentagon reporters: “I’m unable to confirm or deny where he is or whether he is alive or dead.” Townsend recently departed Iraq after his tour of duty as commander was completed. In his final press conference on August 31, Townsend told reporters “I really don’t know where he is.” He then added “I believe he’s alive? Yes. Why? Because I’ve seen no convincing evidence, intelligence or open source or other — rumor or otherwise, that he’s dead. So, therefore, I believe he’s alive.” Without offering details Townsend also said “there are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s still alive.”

Officials say that now Daesh has largely been forced out of Raqqa as well as Mosul, they believe al-Baghdadi is somewhere in the middle Euphrates River Valley, which could put him in the crosshairs of the Syrian regime and Russian aircraft operating in the region. Two administration officials also say that over the last several weeks the CIA assembled specific intelligence that prompted undisclosed drone strike missions carried out by the military mainly in Syria to go after Daesh targets. The CIA declined to comment on the matter. Because of the lack of confirmation about al-Baghdadi’s death, the working assumption by the US is that he still remains alive. Officials say they will continue to pursue him even though they believe that his relevance in the Daesh organization may be diminished as the coalition drives fighters out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

Sources: CNN/Syria & Iraq News

Iraqi army readies to retake Hawija

Iraqi forces backed by tribal fighters are manoeuvring into position in the western desert bordering Syria to launch an offensive against one of the last bastions of Daesh.

The jihadist group has suffered a string of defeats on the battlefield that have left in tatters its “caliphate”, three years after it was declared. After driving Daesh out of Nineveh province earlier this year, the Iraqi government set its eyes on Hawija, north of Baghdad, as well as the towns of Al-Qaim, Rawa and Anna in the western desert.

On Tuesday an AFP correspondent who toured the region saw several artillery units positioning themselves around Rawa and Anna, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border with Syria. Moving in clouds of dust, gunners set up their equipment in the rugged terrain and dug trenches before test-firing mortar rounds.

Further in the distance the infantry deployed, backed by tribal fighters. Sheikh Qatari Kahlan, who commands one of the tribal units, said his forces were ready for battle. “All the tribes wanted to take part to liberate the region and fight against Daesh,” he told AFP. “Tribe members inside Anna and Rawa are giving us information and assuring us that the battle will be ferocious but quick,” he added, pointing an automatic rifle at the horizon. Up ahead a few palm trees dotted an otherwise desert landscape, through which runs an asphalt road.

An Iraqi general, who declined to be named, estimated that “more than 1,500 jihadists” were in Anna, Rawa and Al-Qaim. Al-Qaim lies closer to the Syria border and just across from Deir Ez-Zor province where Daesh jihadists are facing separate offensives from US-supported SDF and government troops backed by Russia. The Iraqi general said the battle for the three towns could begin after an expected assault on Hawija — 300 kilometres (185 miles) — or simultaneously.

‘We know their methods’

Another Iraqi commander, Qotaiba Assaad, said he expected the offensive to retake Rawa, Anna and Al-Qaim to be “quick and to our advantage”. “We have fought Daesh for three years and we know their methods: car bombs, snipers and bombs,” said Assaad, who set up his unit in Al-Sagra a few kilometres away from Rawa and Anna. Lieutenant Colonel Jamal Amr said huge efforts and “a real coordination between all our forces” are needed to keep the jihadists from across the porous Iraq-Syria border.

The battle for Hawija is expected to be more complicated because of its location in oil-rich Kirkuk province, which is at the centre of a long-running dispute between the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad and regional Kurdish authorities. An offensive targeting Hawija could also be postponed due to a referendum on Kurdish independence planned for September 25 — which Baghdad has called “unconstitutional” and “untimely”. On Tuesday Iraq’s parliament voted against plans by Kurdish leaders to hold the referendum.

Iraqi forces and paramilitary units announced plans to retake Hawija on September 1, a day after recapturing Tal Afar and weeks after ousting Daesh jihadists from second city Mosul. Daesh once held almost one-third of Iraq’s territory, but the US-led coalition supporting the fight against them said after the fall of Tal Afar that the jihadists were left with no more than 10 percent of that.

Sources: AFP/Syria & Iraq News

SAA and allies capture Uqayribat in Hama governorate

The Syrian Arab Army and its allies were fighting on Saturday in Daesh’s last pocket in Hama governorate after taking the heavily defended village of Uqayribat on Friday.

The enclave lies close to the main road running between the cities of Homs and Aleppo near the town of al-Salamiyah, and has been the site of intense fighting for months. Evicting jihadists from the area is viewed as necessary to improve security on the road.

Russian navy fires Kalibr cruise missiles on Daesh targets in Hama: Russian defense ministry

Russian Navy ships fired 3M-54 “Kalibr” cruise missiles on Daesh targets in Hama province, the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced.

The Russian Defense said that the attacks were carried out from the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea by “Admiral Essen” and “Admiral Grigorovich” frigates, as well as the “Krasnodar” submarine. At the same time, “Krasnodar” performed missile launches from an underwater position.

The targets were reportedly command posts and large ammunition stores of Daesh jihadists Hama province, and the missiles hit their targets and caused an explosion of the ammunition arsenal.

The Russian Ministry also stressed that the army commands of Turkey and Israel had been informed prior to the attack.

archive photo by the Russian Defense Ministry

Source: Syria & Iraq News

SDF announce the start of the “Great Battle” for the liberation of Raqqa

SDF have begun the “long and difficult” battle to capture the city of Raqqa, Daesh’s de facto capital, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Jihadist group said Tuesday.

YPG-led rebels began laying the groundwork for the offensive in November, edging through the surrounding province and cutting supply lines into the city. But a showdown for the city itself will prove a major test for the coalition, with the potential for high civilian casualties. “The fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult,” Lt. Gen Steve Townsend, the coalition’s commanding general, said in a statement.

In northeastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that “Great Battle” had begun for the liberation of the city of Raqqa, with the participation of the Army of Revolutionaries (Jaysh al-Thuwar), Jabhat al-Akrad, Democratic al-Shamal Brigades, Tribal Forces, Maghawir Humus Brigades, Siqur al-Raqqa, Liwa al-Tahrir, Seljuk Turkmen Brigade, Hamam Turkmen Martyrs Battalion, Sanadid Forces, Syriac Military Council, Manbij Military Council, Deir ez-Zor Military Council, Self-Defense Forces, Asayish Forces, YPG/YPJ and Nuxbe Forces.

Western diplomats and experts monitoring the Jihadist group say Daesh has relocated foot-soldiers and senior leaders to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, where an even tougher fight against the Jihadists will be expected. But U.S. officials estimate that at least 3,000 Daesh fighters are still holed up inside Raqqa, where they have erected defenses against the anticipated assault. Among them are as many as 200,000 civilians, who aid groups fear may be used as human shields, a tactic employed by Daesh in its strongholds across Syria and Iraq as coalition forces closed in. Conditions inside the city are understood to be dire. According to a recent assessment by the Syria Relief Network, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, two-thirds of the population are living on two meals a day amid dwindling supplies of essentials caused by the siege on the city.

SDF forces reached the northern and eastern gates to Raqqa last week after intense clashes under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the SDF, said Tuesday that the “great battle” had begun. “Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition,” he told reporters in northeast Syria, flanked by representatives of Kurdish male and female fighting units, as well as Syrian rebel groups and Arab tribesmen.

Ankara’s sour reaction

Washington’s decision to back a Kurdish-led force has soured relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, which is battling PKK militants within its own borders. In Ankara, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday that the army is not ruling out military force if the battle for Raqqa is seen as a threat to Turkey.

As Daesh forces dig deep across their remaining territory, civilians have increasingly been caught in the cross-fire, dying at the hands of the militants’ bombings and land mines as well as U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and SDF shelling. The International Rescue Committee said Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned” for Raqqa’s civilians and warned that they risked “facing the full brunt of the assault to come.”