Al-Abadi tries to break sectarian barriers in Iraqi elections

In advance of national elections next weekend, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is the front-runner here, and if he ultimately prevails, he will make political history as a Shiite politician in this overwhelmingly Sunni city. The electoral strength of Abadi and his ticket in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, underscores his nationwide popularity and bodes well for his reelection, which U.S. officials have repeatedly indicated they would like to see. But beyond that, Abadi’s success in a place that had been the jewel of Daesh would represent an opening for cooperation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in a country long bedeviled by sectarian grievance and violence.

When campaigning officially kicked off last month for the May 12 elections, the boulevards of this city were instantly lined with candidate posters. But it was Abadi’s face, smiling softly and ubiquitous on the vehicle-jammed streets, that stood out as both familiar and entirely unexpected. For the first time since Iraq began electing a legislature in 2006, a Shiite politician is headlining an electoral ticket in Mosul. Abadi’s list is named “Nasr,” or “Victory,” a reference in part to his role in ending the city’s Daesh trauma by orchestrating the military campaign that liberated the city last year. Mosul may now be the ultimate proving ground for Abadi’s message of nationalism over sect. “Abadi is a symbol of shedding sectarianism,” said Rana al-Naemi, 44, an English teacher from Mosul running on the prime minister’s list. “The people of Iraq are ready for this.” Alluding to the traditional colors worn by Sunni and Shiite clerics, she added, “Sectarianism is what destroyed us — whether it was a white turban or a black turban.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) stands with candidates from his Nasr coalition during a campaign gathering in Kirkuk on April 28, 2018. [Photo: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP]

Once considered a weak and unremarkable leader who stumbled into power in the midst of the Daesh blitz that conquered about one-third of Iraq, Abadi has been campaigning on a message of national unity in hopes of breaking the cycle of sectarian fighting that has marked Iraq’s politics since the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Abadi’s popularity has soared since he managed the successful military campaign to claw back Iraqi cities from Daesh while artfully juggling the interests of the United States and Iran. He also won plaudits from many Iraqis when he dispatched troops to block an attempted secession by Kurds in the north late last year. “One thing that we see consistently is that Prime Minister Abadi has a more balanced degree of support across all regions and across all ethnic and sectarian religious groups,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Iraq’s internal politics. For the United States, Abadi’s presence in Mosul and other Sunni areas, such as Fallujah, is reassuring. He has worked closely with Washington in the fight against the Islamic State while maintaining cordial ties with Iran and reestablishing relations with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.

The war against Daesh has significantly altered the political map in Iraq, where Shiites are the majority. In previous elections, one or two major Shiite coalitions dominated the vote and subsequently the formation of the government. This year, the support of the Shiite political establishment is fragmented among Abadi and challengers old and new. His predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, though severely diminished because of losses to Daesh, is headlining a ticket that is running on a traditional platform of Shiite supremacy. Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the powerful Badr Organization, is the face of a new coalition called “Fatah,” or “Conquest,” which represents Shiite militias that helped defeat the Islamic State, earning much public support. Many of those militias, including Badr, are backed by Iran, and a key element of their campaign has been urging the expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq. In a sign of confidence, a number of the militias are running candidates in Mosul even though Abadi kept many of them out of the city during the battle because of their ultra-sectarian leanings.

With those major blocs essentially splitting the vote in Iraq’s Shiite heartland, any candidate hoping to become prime minister must run well in Mosul and other Sunni areas. The province of Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, is quickly emerging as one of the hottest contests in the election. This year, 940 candidates have been registered, compared with just 455 in 2014. Nineveh holds 31 seats in Iraq’s upcoming 329-member parliament, second only to Baghdad’s 69. Iraq’s parliament elects the prime minister and president, and those 31 votes could prove critical to Abadi winning a second term. His Nasr coalition is the only one fielding candidates in all 18 provinces, and many observers have concluded that he is the only candidate who can credibly claim to be a genuine centrist leader — even though his rhetoric of making a fresh, nonsectarian start has also been embraced by many of his opponents. “His attitude is one that he will be more successful with a larger variety of constituencies than many of his opponents,” the U.S. official said.

Rasha Al Aqeedi, a political researcher at the Dubai-based al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center and a Mosul native, said that Iraq’s minorities are unlikely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of another Shiite head of government but that Abadi remains the only candidate with the credentials to garner votes among Sunnis. “If you compare him to everyone else, he does stand out for sure,” she said. But there are major roadblocks Abadi must overcome in Mosul. Voter apathy runs deep among the population after the grueling nine-month battle against Daesh. In western Mosul, the situation is dire. The Old City neighborhood, where some of the most intense fighting took place, remains largely leveled, with some families living in the skeletons of what used to be their homes. On one street, a single election poster was hung next to a sign warning of unexploded ordnance in the area — drawing a scornful smile from a police officer stationed at the corner. “These politicians have no shame,” he said. Across the Tigris River in eastern Mosul, there are barely any reminders of the fight. New markets have popped up at a startling pace, and cratered roads and bullet-pocked buildings have been repaired. But the restoration has been largely self-financed by the city’s residents, who are becoming impatient with the central government’s slow response. “There will be no change — if there was going to be any change, it would have happened already,” said Bilal Mohamed, a 41-year-old restaurant owner who said he will abstain from voting. “These candidates are paying attention to Mosul now, but I’m certain once they get elected, they will forget about us.” But he said that if Abadi wins, it “will be the best possible outcome in a bad overall scenario.” Saleh Elias, a 34-year-old journalist, said he does not expect much to change after the elections but will vote in the hopes of registering his voice. Not doing so has been disastrous in the past, he said. “This city has always rejected the political process, and what we ended up with was Daesh,” Elias said.

Abadi has stocked his ticket in Mosul with both new and old faces. Most notable is Khaled al-Obeidi, a career politician whom Abadi named as his first defense minister in 2014. Obeidi is a Mosul native widely respected for his role in the battle against Daesh. He retains his popularity despite being ousted by parliament in 2016 during a corruption probe in which he was never formally charged. Mohsen Abdelkader, 37, a law professor also running on the ticket, said Abadi and Obeidi had inherited a “military that was in shambles” and restored it so it could eventually liberate Mosul. Abdelkader added that they had treated all Iraqis as equal under the law. “People in Mosul are starting to feel like they are citizens just like the people of Baghdad, and this is because of the leadership of Abadi and Obeidi,” he said. Abadi has also recruited local officials who gained prominence during the battle against the Islamic State. Basma Baseem, the head of the Mosul local council, was vocal during the conflict, drawing attention to the plight of civilians in the crossfire. “Nasr is not just an election coalition. It’s an ambitious project that will start after the elections,” she said.

But Abadi’s popularity has also made him a prime target for his opponents. Wissal Ali, a former member of parliament, is running on a purely Sunni ticket led by Osama al-Nujaifi — one of Iraq’s current vice presidents and a former speaker of parliament from Mosul. On the campaign trail, Ali has accused Abadi’s coalition of being no different from that of the Shiite militias: outsiders interested only in votes and not in Mosul’s well-being. She said the legacy of the Islamic State, often known in Arabic as Daesh, has left the city politically vulnerable. “People understand that the gangs of Daesh destroyed the city but also gave a chance for parties with outside agendas to gain a foothold in the city,” she said.

Sources: The Washington Post/Syria & Iraq News

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Iraqi forces retake Mosul’s main government building and museum

Iraqi forces said Tuesday they had seized the main government offices in Mosul and its famed museum as they made steady progress in their battle to retake the city’s west from jihadists.

News of the advances came on the third day of a renewed offensive against Daesh in west Mosul — the largest remaining urban stronghold in the “caliphate” declared by the jihadists in 2014. Supported by the US-led coalition bombing Daesh in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces began their push against west Mosul on February 19. The advance slowed during several days of bad weather but was renewed on Sunday. Recent advances have brought government troops and police closer to Mosul’s densely populated Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under Daesh rule.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement that federal police and the elite Rapid Response unit had been able to “liberate” the headquarters for the Nineveh provincial government. They also seized control of the Al-Hurriyah bridgehead, it said, in a step towards potentially relinking west Mosul with the city’s east, which government forces seized from the jihadists earlier in the offensive.

Iraqi security forces advance during fighting against Daesh jihadists in western Mosul. [Photo by Khalid Mohammed/AP]

Site of artifact destruction

All the bridges crossing the Tigris in Mosul have been damaged or destroyed, and Iraqi forces would either have to repair them or install floating bridges to reconnect the two banks of the river, which divides the city.

Officers said Tuesday that security forces had also managed to recapture the Mosul museum, where the jihadists destroyed priceless artifacts, releasing a video of their rampage in February 2015. The video showed militants at the museum knocking statues off their plinths and smashing them to pieces. In another scene a jackhammer was used to deface a large Assyrian winged bull at an archaeological site in the city.

The jihadists’ attacks on ancient heritage in Iraq and Syria have sparked widespread international outrage and fears for some of the world’s most important archaeological sites. The museum was on a police list released Tuesday of sites recently recaptured from Daesh, which also included Mosul’s central bank building, which the jihadists looted along with other banks in 2014, seizing tens of millions of dollars.

Other sites recaptured during the last few days include the provincial police headquarters, the courts complex and the water and electricity directorates. The recent fighting in west Mosul has forced more than 50,000 people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. But the number who have fled is still just a fraction of the 750,000 people who are believed to have stayed on in west Mosul under Daesh rule.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/AFP

Iraqi forces fight their way into Mosul old city center

Iraqi forces launched on Sunday a new push toward the Daesh-held old city center of Mosul, on the western bank of the Tigris river, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

Iraqi forces are fighting their way toward the old center of the city, advancing from the south and the southwest, Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command, told state-run television.

According to a Syria & Iraq News source, the Iraqi forces are in close proximity to Mosul’s main government buildings.

mosul-0305-01

Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19. Their advance in western Mosul paused over the past 48 hours because of bad weather.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Iraqi army recaptures ancient city of Nimrud from Daesh

The Iraqi army announced Sunday the complete capture of ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, 30 kilometres south of Mosul.

“Troops from the Ninth Armoured Division liberated Nimrud town completely and raised the Iraqi flag above its buildings.”

Daesh had destroyed and demolished large part of the 3,000-year old archaeological monuments in 2015.

nimrud-1990aSource: Syria & Iraq News

Iraqi army advances in eastern Mosul, despite suicide bombers and tunnels

Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. and Iraqi air power took control of two districts of eastern Mosul on Saturday after heavy fighting in which they destroyed nine cars deployed by Daesh as suicide bombs, the military said. Infantry and armored division troops also advanced in a nearby neighborhood, destroying three rocket launchers and killing 30 jihadists, it said in a statement said.

Iraqi troops have been fighting for 10 days inside eastern Mosul, trying to expand their small foothold in the city which Daesh has controlled since mid-2014, when its leader declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

The nearly four-week campaign to drive Daesh out of the biggest city under its control in either country has brought together an alliance of 100,000 Iraqi fighters, also backed by thousands of Western personnel on the ground. They have faced fierce resistance from a few thousand militants who have deployed hundreds of suicide car bombers and waves of attacks by snipers, assault fighters and rocket teams. Daesh has also used a network of tunnels around the city and merged into the civilian population of 1.5 million people still living there, helping it launch surprise raids and ambushes on the troops.

The military statement said the Counter Terrorism Service took control of the districts of al-Qadisiya al-Thania, which it moved into on Friday, and adjacent al-Arbajiya. Further south, but still on the eastern fringes, troops from the First Infantry and Ninth Armoured divisions attacked the jihadists in the Salam neighborhood. Security forces and army troops are also advancing on southern and northern fronts close to the city, aiming to open new fronts inside Mosul to put further pressure on the jihadists.

The attacking forces include Iraqi army troops and special forces and federal police units. Outside the city, Kurdish peshmerga forces are holding territory to the northeast and mainly Shi’ite paramilitary forces are deployed to the west. They are supported by U.S.-led air power, including jets and Apache helicopters, and Western military advisers who have accompanied Iraqi forces on the edge of Mosul.

An Iraqi woman with her cat flees Daesh-occupied areas, reaches a Peshmerga checkpoint near Shaquli, Mosul [10/11/2016]
An Iraqi woman and her cat fleeing Daesh-occupied areas reaches a Peshmerga checkpoint near Shaqouli, Mosul [10/11/2016] (photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)
The International Organisation for Migration says so far 49,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, the most complex military operation in more than a decade of turmoil since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Daesh executes hundreds in Mosul

Daesh fighters have reportedly shot and killed scores of civilians in Mosul in recent days, according to the UN, which has also confirmed the discovery of a mass grave in the nearby town of Hammam al-Alil in which more than 100 bodies were found.

In a brief published on Friday detailing a series of Daesh executions and abuses, the UN’s human rights office said that 40 people were killed by the armed group on Tuesday for “treason and collaboration” with Iraqi forces and their allies closing in on the city during a major military push. Dressed in orange jumpsuits, the bodies of the victims were hung from electrical poles in several areas around Mosul, the UN said.

On Wednesday evening, Daesh reportedly shot to death a further 20 civilians in the Ghabat military base in northern Mosul, also on charges of leaking information. “Their bodies were also hung at various intersections in Mosul, with notes stating: ‘Decision of execution’ and ‘used cell phones to leak information to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)’,” the UN said. The rights office also said the mass grave in Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul, was just one of several Daesh killing grounds.

The site was discovered on Monday and contained the bodies of at least 100 people, including former ISF officers and Daesh detainees, as well as people killed for initiating anti-Daesh attacks since the beginning of the Mosul operation four weeks ago.

“I’ve been in Erbil since the beginning of this military operation to retake the city of Mosul and we have documented hundreds of executions by Daesh,” Belkis Wille, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera from Erbil. “We are not surprised, unfortunately, to see mass graves like this one [in Hammam al-Alil]; it definitely is not the only one.”

A shoe from a victim of mass executions at a dump yard near Hammam al-Alil, Iraq [11/11/2016]
A shoe from a victim of mass executions at a dump yard near Hammam al-Alil, Iraq [11/11/2016]

The human rights body said they had received reports of Daesh stockpiling large amounts of chemicals in civilian areas in order to be used as weapons. At least four people died from inhaling fumes after Daesh shelled and set fire to the al-Mishrag sulfur gas factory in Mosul on October 23.

The UN also said it had gathered evidence that teenagers and young boys were being used by Daesh as suicide bombers during the offensive, while young girls and women were being sexually exploited by the armed group’s fighters. “Since 27 October, Daesh has been relocating abducted women, including Yazidi women, into Mosul city and into Tel Afar town,” the human rights body said in its brief. “Some of these women were reportedly ‘distributed’ to Daesh fighters while others have been told they will be used to accompany Daesh convoys.”

But in its brief, the UN human rights office also urged the Iraqi government to ensure that the rights of Mosul civilians are met amid accusations of atrocities committed by government forces. It cited sporadic reports of retaliatory attacks, including allegations of revenge killings by civilians or by forces under the control of the Iraqi army.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said that he welcomed a statement by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemning such acts, but urged the government to act to prevent reprisals and revenge killings. “Justice for the victims and survivors of human rights abuses and violations – irrespective of when, where or by whom such abuses and violations were committed – need to be impartial, transparent and effective,” Zeid said. “The government of Iraq must act quickly to restore effective law enforcement in areas retaken from Daesh to ensure that captured fighters and their perceived supporters are dealt with according to the law.”

One video circulating on social media on Friday appeared to show a teenage boy being shot and run over by a tank used by what seemed to be Iraqi-backed forces. “I think we need to exercise extreme caution with videos like this,” HRW’s Wille told Al Jazeera. “We know that Daesh previously produced fake videos showing Iraqi forces committing abuses.” There is a possibility that this video had been faked by Daesh fighters to shift the public opinion against Iraqi forces, she said. “There is no flag on the tank in the video. That is a bit inconsistent with what I’ve seen on Iraqi force tanks,” Wille said. “Also only one man in the video is wearing an Iraqi uniform, and there are no other armored vehicles in the area.” But, she said, if the video is genuine, Iraqi authorities should take swift action to stop these kinds of extrajudicial killings. “Unfortunately in the battle to retake Fallujah, we’ve seen multiple instances of abuses perpetrated by pro-government forces against the civilian population. “And there is an extreme concern that this may happen again in Mosul.”

Sources: UN Media Centre/Syria & Iraq News/Al Jazeera

Peshmerga repel new Daesh attack on Kirkuk, curfew lifted

Security forces managed on Sunday to put down a complex Daesh state attack on the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, as clashes with militants erupted for the third straight day. Local security forces said they repelled another attack early in the day, clashed intermittently with the fighters and ferreted out militants who remained in the city.

The three-day assault was a show of resilience by Daesh, launched days after an array of U.S.-backed Iraqi forces began a long-planned offensive to retake Mosul, about 100 miles northwest of Kirkuk and the group’s last remaining stronghold in the country. Daesh has been fighting back against the offensive by sending suicide bombers in explosive-laden cars charging into columns of advancing Iraqi forces. The militants also set fire to sulfur stocks at a factory south of Mosul, sending up a plume of noxious smoke that drifted over the nearby Qayyarah military base, where U.S. and Iraqi troops involved in the Mosul offensive are stationed. A regional health official on Sunday said about 500 people had been sickened by the smoke and treated at a hospital, adding that he didn’t know of any deaths from the fumes.

Iraqi Kurdish security forces patrol a street in the city of Kirkuk on Saturday 22/10/2016 [photo by Reuters]
Iraqi Kurdish security forces patrol a street in the city of Kirkuk on Saturday 22/10/2016 [photo by Reuters]

The assault on Kirkuk began with nearly 100 Daesh fighters fanning out into the city on Friday, using suicide bombers and gunmen and targeting police buildings and patrols. They battled security forces for two days. By late Saturday, officials said they had mostly cleared the attackers and were back in control of the city. However, Daesh launched fresh attacks late Saturday and early Sunday. Before dawn, Kurdish Peshmerga forces defeated Daesh jihadists who were driving armored vehicles and Humvees, said Kamal Karkookli, a Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk. Police killed a suicide bomber in the city center, local security officials said. Some Peshmerga units were redeployed from the Mosul front to aid security operations in the Kirkuk area, said Brig. Gen. Halgord Hekmet, a Peshmerga spokesman. “We have no choice. We pulled some forces from front lines to support Kirkuk,” he said.

A senior U.S. official on Saturday said the Kirkuk attacks had no major impact on the Mosul operations and a Peshmerga commander near the front said the troops sent to Kirkuk had finished their mission in Mosul before being called to Kirkuk. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil on Sunday, his second day in Iraq, to get battlefield assessments of the fight against Daesh. Mr. Carter met with Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani and other officials, as well as troops. He was expected to raise the issue of a large group of Sunni Arab fighters trained in Bashiqa by the Turks. Baghdad has said Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq violates Iraqi sovereignty. Mr. Carter on Friday hinted that he could broker a deal between the two countries after a brief visit to Ankara and that Turkey could be allowed to contribute to the operation in Mosul pending approval from Baghdad. But on Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the offer, saying he didn’t need the Turks’ help.

In Kirkuk, local police Capt. Star Muhammad said fighters were likely still hiding in the city. “There are suicide bombers,” he said in front of a government building pocked by bullets. When the attack began on Friday, some militants set up firing positions from a police station across the street. Their goal may have been to break into the jail next to the station to free comrades, local residents said. Abu Mohammad, 51 years old, scrubbed the inside of his barber shop in a building across from the police station that was targeted, the walls dusty and sooty from the clashes. Two bullet holes had pierced his glass front door. “I was at home and watched all this on television,” he said of the attack. “I’ve not been here for two days.” He said the repulsed attack showed people from Kirkuk aren’t scared of Daesh anymore. “From our point of view, Daesh are like ants now,” he said proudly, using another name for the group. “We have belief in our hearts. We are Muslims and we don’t want to give our city to unbelievers.”

Sources: Wall Street Journal/Syria & Iraq News