USA says ‘grave’ consequences if Tahrir al-Sham dominates Idlib

The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al-Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped. In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, spearheaded by former al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.

“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war. “In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said. “Everyone should know that al-Julani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Muhammad al-Julani who effectively leads Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

In less than three days al-Julani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al-Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict. An emboldened Hay’at Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolize power. The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.

Abu Muhammad al-Julani in a screenshot from an 2016 video

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.” He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.

The expanding influence of the former al-Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run. Al-Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.

The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods. Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains. The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.

Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

Four Daesh suicide attacks in Baghdad kill at least 45, dozens injured

Three Daesh suicide attacks struck Baghdad on Monday killing at least 45 people and injuring dozens.

The most devastating attack happened Baghdad’s Sadr City as a suicide bomber driving a pickup loaded with explosives struck a bustling market in Sadr City, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens. The bomb went off in a fruit and vegetable market that was packed with day laborers, a police officer said, adding that another 52 people were wounded. Sadr City is a vast Shiite district in eastern Baghdad that has been repeatedly targeted by Sunni extremists since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

On-lookers at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Sadr City, Baghdad on January 2, 2017 [photo by Karim Kadim/Associated Press]
On-lookers at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Sadr City, Baghdad on January 2, 2017 [photo by Karim Kadim/Associated Press]

During a press conference with French President Hollande, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the bomber pretended to be a man seeking to hire day laborers. Once the workers gathered around, he detonated the vehicle.

Daesh claimed the attack in a statement circulated on a militant website often used by the jihadists. Daesh claims the attacks are “a revenge for coalition-Iraqi targeting of health services in Mosul ”. It was the third Daesh-claimed attack in as many days in and around Baghdad, underscoring the lingering threat posed by the group despite a string of setbacks elsewhere in the country over the past year, including in and around the northern city of Mosul.

Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric for whose family the neighborhood is named, were seen evacuating bodies in their trucks before ambulances arrived. Dead bodies were scattered across the bloody pavement alongside fruit, vegetables and laborers’ shovels and axes. A minibus filled with dead passengers was on fire.

Asaad Hashim, an owner of a mobile phone store nearby, described how the laborers pushed and shoved around the bomber’s vehicle, trying to get hired. “Then a big boom came, sending them up into the air,” said the 28-year old, who suffered shrapnel wounds to his right hand. He blamed “the most ineffective security forces in the world” for failing to prevent the attack. An angry crowd cursed the government, even after a representative of al-Sadr tried to calm them. Late last month, Iraqi authorities started removing some of the security checkpoints in Baghdad in a bid to ease traffic for the capital’s 6 million residents. “We have no idea who will kill at any moment and who’s supposed to protect us,” said Ali Abbas, a 40-year old father of four who was hurled over his vegetable stand by the blast. “If the securities forces can’t protect us, then allow us to do the job,” he added.

Three other attacks claim at least seven dead

Three other bombings elsewhere in the city on Monday killed another seven civilians and wounded at least 30, according to medics and police officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Two blasts struck central Baghdad on the same day, killing at least five and wounding five others, while another blast near a hospital in Sadr City killed two and wounded four others.

Daesh took responsibility for all four bomb attacks.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Associated Press/Reuters/Tomorrow Channel

Daesh attacks Iraqi police checkpoint near Najaf, kills seven

Daesh attacked an Iraqi police checkpoint near the southern city of Najaf on Sunday, killing seven policemen as government forces in the north made more gains against the militants in Mosul, their last major stronghold in the country.

najaf-170101-01The attack near Najaf, 500 km (310 mile) south of Mosul, happened when two vehicles traveling through the desert were stopped at a police checkpoint around al-Qadisiyah town, local police sources said. The driver detonated an explosive load and the second vehicle fled. Police pursued it and killed the two militants inside.

In a statement distributed online by supporters, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack, which also wounded 17 people including civilians. It said four gunmen had opened fire before detonating explosive vests and then a fifth assailant launched a suicide car bomb.

Source: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Daesh bomb attacks in Baghdad’s al-Sinak market kill at least 28

Two suicide bombers ripped through al-Sinak market area in central Baghdad Saturday, shattering a relative lull in attacks in the capital and marring preparations for New Year celebrations.

The bombers attacked the al-Sinak area, killing at least 28 people and wounding 53, a police colonel said. An officer in the interior ministry and a hospital official confirmed the toll. “Many of the victims were people from the spare parts shops in the area, they were gathered near a cart selling breakfast when the explosions went off,” said Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, who owns a nearby shop. Torn clothes and mangled iron were strewn across the ground in pools of blood at the site of the wreckage near Rasheed street, one of the main thoroughfares in Baghdad, an AFP photographer said. “Twin terrorist attacks were carried out by suicide bombers in al-Sinak neighborhood,” an official from Baghdad operations command told AFP. The area is packed with shops, workshops and wholesale markets and usually teeming with delivery trucks and laborers unloading vans or wheeling carts around.

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Daesh claims attack

Daesh later claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted by its Aamaq news agency, confirming that the blasts came from a pair of suicide bombers.

Baghdad has been on high alert since the start on October 17 of an offensive, Iraq’s largest military operation in years, to retake the northern jihadist stronghold of Mosul. Daesh has tried to hit back with major diversionary attacks across the country but has had little success in Baghdad. Saturday’s twin bombings were the deadliest in the capital since the start of the Mosul offensive.

Huge crowds were expected to gather on Saturday evening in Baghdad’s streets to celebrate the New Year for only the second time since the lifting in 2015 of a years-old curfew. Last year revelers turned out for celebrations that lasted most of the night despite an already tense security backdrop.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/AFP/Associated Press

At least ten Iranian pilgrims killed in Samarra suicide attack

At least ten Iranian pilgrims were killed in a suicide attack in Iraq’s holy city of Samarra, about 125 km north of Baghdad on Sunday.

samarra-161106-01

Pilgrimage official Mohammad Javad Daneshyar said the Iranians were getting off a bus when an ambulance carrying the suicide bomber approached them and blew up. Government forces imposed, on Sunday, a ban on roaming in the district of Samarra in Salahuddin province, following the bombings that hit the province. Meanwhile, a government source said, “The police imposed a ban on roaming in the district of Samarra, south of Tikrit in Salahuddin province.” The source added that “the police called on residents through loudspeakers to the need for caution and stay at home after the blasts witnessed by the province.”

Sources: IRNA, Syria & Iraq News

Suicide bomber kills at least 31 at Baghdad Shi’ite gathering

A suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest in the middle of a Shi’ite Muslim gathering in Baghdad, killing at least 31 people and wounding more than 50 on Saturday, according to local media and Syria & Iraq News sources.

The explosion went off inside a tent filled with people taking part in Shi’ite Ashura rituals, mourning the killing of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein in the 7th century.

The tent was set up in a crowded market in the city’s northern al-Shaab district.

Source: Reuters/El Wehda/Syria & Iraq News

At least 40 killed in Daesh attack on Mohammed bin Ali al-Hadi mausoleum in Balad

Daesh claimed a triple suicide attack on Thursday evening near a Shi’ite mausoleum in Balad, north of Baghdad, which killed at least 40 people and wounded 74 others, according to Iraqi security sources.

The attack on the Mausoleum of Sayid Mohammed bin Ali al-Hadi reignited fears of an escalation of the sectarian strife between Iraq’s Shi’ites and Sunnis. The Shi’ite form a majority in Iraq but Sunnis are predominant in northern and western provinces, including Salahuddin where the mausoleum is located. Prominent Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his militia, the Peace Brigade, to deploy around the mausoleum, near Balad, about 93 kilometers (58 miles) north of Baghdad. Sadr’s militia is also deployed in Samarra, a nearby city that houses the shrine of Imam Ali al-Hadi, the father of Sayid Mohammed whose mausoleum was attacked on Thursday.

Destruction outside Mohammed bin Ali al-Hadi shrine in Balad following Daesh attack. [8/7/2016]
Destruction outside Mohammed bin Ali al-Hadi shrine in Balad following Daesh attack. [8/7/2016]

A 2006 bombing destroyed the golden dome of the shrine of Ali al-Hadi and his other son, Imam Hasan al-Askari, setting off a wave of sectarian violence akin to a civil war.

Daesh claims the attack

Daesh statement on Balad attack
Daesh statement on Balad attack

Pictures posted on social media showed a fire burning in the market located at the entrance of the Sayid Mohammed mausoleum. It was not clear if the site itself was damaged. A man detonated an explosive belt at the external gate of the mausoleum at around 11 p.m., allowing several gunmen to storm the site and start shooting at worshippers on the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr festival, according to the security sources. At least one gunmen blew himself up in the middle of the crowd while another was gunned down by the guard of the mausoleum before he could detonate his explosive belt. The site also came under rocket fire during the attack that was claimed by Daesh. The ultra-hardline Sunni group said in a statement the attack was carried out by five suicide bombers wearing explosive belts.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News, Reuters