Exclusive: Islamic State crushes rebellion plot in Mosul as army closes in

Convoy on the Outskirts of Mosul

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State has crushed a rebellion plot in Mosul, led by one of the group’s commanders who aimed to switch sides and help deliver the caliphate’s Iraqi capital to government forces, residents and Iraqi security officials said.

Islamic State (IS) executed 58 people suspected of taking part in the plot after it was uncovered last week. Residents, who spoke to Reuters from some of the few locations in the city that have phone service, said the plotters were killed by drowning and their bodies were buried in a mass grave in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city.

Among them was a local aide of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who led the plotters, according to matching accounts given by five residents, by Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on IS affairs that advises the government in Baghdad and by colonel Ahmed al-Taie, from Mosul’s Nineveh province Operation Command’s military intelligence.

Reuters is not publishing the name of the plot leader to avoid increasing the safety risk for his family, nor the identities of those inside the city who spoke about the plot.

The aim of the plotters was to undermine Islamic State’s defense of Mosul in the upcoming fight, expected to be the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Mosul is the last major stronghold of Islamic State in Iraq. With a pre-war population of around 2 million, it is at least five times the size of any other city Islamic State has controlled. Iraqi officials say a massive ground assault could begin this month, backed by U.S. air power, Kurdish security forces and Shi’ite and Sunni irregular units.

A successful offensive would effectively destroy the Iraqi half of the caliphate that the group declared when it swept through northern Iraq in 2014. But the United Nations says it could also create the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, in a worst case scenario uprooting 1 million people.

Islamic State fighters are dug in to defend the city, and have a history of using civilians as human shields when defending territory.

CAUGHT

According to Hashimi, the dissidents were arrested after one of them was caught with a message on his phone mentioning a transfer of weapons. He confessed during interrogation that weapons were being hidden in three locations, to be used in a rebellion to support the Iraqi army when it closes in on Mosul.

IS raided the three houses used to hide the weapons on Oct. 4, Hashimi said.

“Those were Daesh members who turned against the group in Mosul,” said Iraqi Counter-terrorism Service spokesman Sabah al-Numani in Baghdad, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “This is a clear sign that the terrorist organization has started to lose support not only from the population, but even from its own members.”

A spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition which conducts air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq was unable to confirm or deny the accounts of the thwarted plot.

Signs of cracks inside the “caliphate” appeared this year as the ultra-hardline Sunni group was forced out of half the territory it overran two years ago in northern and western Iraq.

Some people in Mosul have been expressing their refusal of IS’s harsh rules by spray-painting the letter M, for the Arabic word that means resistance, on city walls, or “wanted” on houses of its militants. Such activity is punished by death.

Numani said his service has succeeded in the past two months in opening contact channels with “operatives” who began communicating intelligence that helped conduct air strikes on the insurgents’ command centers and locations in Mosul.

A list with the names of the 58 executed plotters was given to a hospital to inform their families but their bodies were not returned, the residents said.

“Some of the executed relatives sent old women to ask about the bodies. Daesh rebuked them and told them no bodies, no graves, those traitors are apostates and it is forbidden to bury them in Muslim cemeteries,” said one resident whose relative was among those executed.

“After the failed coup, Daesh withdrew the special identity cards it issued for its local commanders, to prevent them from fleeing Mosul with their families,” Colonel al-Taie said.

A Mosul resident said Islamic State had appointed a new official, Muhsin Abdul Kareem Oghlu, a leader of a sniper unit with a reputation as a die-hard, to assist its governor of Mosul, Ahmed Khalaf Agab al-Jabouri, in keeping control.

Islamic State militants have placed booby traps across the city of Mosul, dug tunnels and recruited children as spies in anticipation of the offensive.

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Peter Graff)

North Korea publicly executes two officials for disobeying Kim Jong Un

File photo of North Korean flag flying on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea publicly executed two officials in early August for disobeying leader Kim Jong Un, a South Korean newspaper reported on Tuesday, in what would be the latest in a series of high-level purges under the young leader’s rule, if confirmed.

Kim took power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and his consolidation of power has included purges and executions of top officials, South Korean officials have said.

Citing an unidentified source familiar with the North, the JoongAng Ilbo daily said former agriculture minister Hwang Min and Ri Yong Jin, a senior official at the education ministry, had been executed.

The report could not be independently verified, and South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea-related matters, did not have immediate comment.

Some previous media reports of executions and purges in the reclusive state later proved inaccurate.

The report of the executions comes soon after the South said North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London had defected and arrived in the South with his family, dealing an embarrassing blow to Kim’s regime.

North Korea rarely announces purges or executions, although state media confirmed execution of Kim’s uncle and the man widely considered the second most powerful man in the country, Jang Song Thaek, in 2012 for factionalism and crimes damaging to the economy.

A former defense minister, Hyun Yong Chol, is also believed to have been executed last year for treason, according to the South’s spy agency.

The JoongAng Ilbo said the two men were executed by anti-aircraft gun at a military academy in Pyongyang.

North Korean state media described Hwang, one of the officials named, as agriculture minister in 2012, and referred to him as a vice minister of agriculture in 2014.

Hwang was killed because his policy proposals were seen as a challenge to Kim Jong Un, JoongAng Ilbo said. Ri was caught nodding off during a meeting with Kim and later investigated for corruption and showing disrespect to the leader, it added.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Tony Munroe and Clarence Fernandez)

U.N. rights boss says executions in Iran were ‘grave injustice’

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Al Hussein arrives for the 31st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva

GENEVA (Reuters) – The hanging of up to 20 people in Iran this week followed serious doubts about the fairness of their trials and respect for due process, leading to a “grave injustice” being committed, the United Nations’ top human rights official said on Friday.

Iran executed up to 20 Kurdish Islamists on Tuesday who were suspected of attacks on security forces, drawing condemnation from rights groups which said the convictions may have been based on forced confessions.

They were convicted of killing two Sunni Muslim clerics, several police and wildlife guards, abducting a number of people and carrying out armed robbery and bombings in western Iran, state news agency IRNA said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the men had been executed for “purported terrorism-related offences” and that reports suggested most if not all were from a minority group – Sunnis from the Kurdish community.

“The application of overly broad and vague criminal charges, coupled with a disdain for the rights of the accused to due process and a fair trial have in these cases led to a grave injustice,” Zeid said in a statement.

Shahram Ahmadi, one of those hanged, was alleged to have been beaten and coerced into signing a blank piece of paper on which his false confession was recorded, Zeid said.

Iran is one of the world’s top executioners, international rights groups say. Human Rights Watch said this week that Iran had executed at least 230 people this year.

Hassan Afshar, a 19-year-old who was 17 when he was arrested and convicted of rape, was executed last month, Zeid said.

“The execution of juvenile offenders is particularly abhorrent and I urge Iran to respect the strict prohibition under international human rights law against this practice,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Islamic State captures up to 3,000 fleeing Iraqis: UNHCR

Islamic State flag

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Islamic State fighters may have captured up to 3,000 fleeing Iraqi villagers on Thursday and subsequently executed 12 of them, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said in a daily report on events in Iraq.

The report followed a statement on Thursday from the Iraqi Observatory for Human rights, which said about 1,900 civilians had been captured by an estimated 100-120 Islamic State fighters, who were using people as shields against attacks by Iraqi Security Forces. Tens of civilians had been executed, and six burnt.

“UNHCR has received reports that ISIL captured on 4 August up to 3,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) from villages in Hawiga District in Kirkuk Governorate trying to flee to Kirkuk city. Reportedly, 12 of the IDPs have been killed in captivity,” the UNHCR report said.

The United States is leading a military coalition conducting air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where the group seized broad swathes of territory in 2014. The fighting had displaced 3.4 million people in Iraq by July 2016.

Islamic State’s grip on some towns has been broken, but it still controls its de facto capitals of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

Last month the U.N. appealed for $284 million to prepare aid for an assault on Mosul, as well as up to $1.8 billion to deal with the aftermath.

It has so far received nothing in response, according to the U.N. Financial Tracking Service.

UNHCR has begun building a site northeast of Mosul for 6,000 people and is preparing another northwest of the city for 15,000, a fraction of those expected to need shelter.

Tens of thousands who fled from the city of Falluja have still not returned since its recapture from Islamic State in June. Three volunteers helping to clear Falluja of rubble and explosives died while clearing a house on Aug 1, UNHCR said.

“Although local authorities have suggested that returns to Falluja could begin in September, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement has stated that it may take another three months before conditions are conducive for large scale returns,” it said.

But Iraqi authorities reported 300,000 displaced people had returned to Ramadi district, UNHCR said. Iraqi forces declared victory over the jihadist group in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, in December, but later called a halt to returns after dozens of civilians were killed by mines.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

Anger grows in Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite areas after executions

By Angus McDowall

RIYADH (Reuters) – Since Saturday’s execution of four Shi’ite Muslims in Saudi Arabia, hundreds or thousands of the minority sect have marched nightly in protest, and their anger could herald wider unrest.

The execution of one of them, dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr, caused an international crisis as Shi’ite Iran and its allies responded angrily, but it also caused upset in his home district of Qatif, where many saw his death as unjustified.

“People are angry. And they are surprised, because there were positive signals in the past months that the executions would not take place. People listen to his speeches and there’s no direct proof he was being violent,” a Qatif community leader said by phone.

The protests in Qatif, an almost entirely Shi’ite district of about a million people in the oil-producing Eastern Province, have been mostly peaceful, though a fatal shooting and gun attacks on armored security vehicles have also taken place.

Qatif is located near major oil facilities and many of its residents work for the state energy company, Saudi Aramco. Past incidents of unrest have not led to attacks on the oil industry, but a bus used by Aramco to transport employees was torched after a protest on Tuesday night.

Footage of marchers shouting “down with the Al Saud” and other anti-government slogans, corroborated by witnesses contacted by Reuters, is circulating on social media along with video clips showing shots fired at armored cars.

“I did not hear shooting last night, but I heard it a lot on the two nights before,” a resident of Nimr’s home village, al-Awamiya, told Reuters by phone. Like others Reuters spoke to in Qatif, he asked that his name be withheld.

Saudi Arabia only permits foreign news media, including Reuters, to visit Qatif if accompanied by government officials, which it says is to ensure journalists’ safety.

Whether the protests – and sporadic attacks on police – escalate may depend on whether the security forces continue an unspoken policy of allowing peaceful demonstrations until they die down, or crack down with force, say locals.

Government supporters say it depends rather on whether Tehran uses links to local activists, which both Iran and many Qatif residents deny exist, to stage attacks in retaliation for Nimr’s execution and Riyadh’s cutting of diplomatic ties.

DISCRIMINATION CHARGE

The security forces believe they can quash any mass protests in Qatif, like those that began during the 2011 Arab Spring when Nimr became a figurehead, or the 1979 uprising inspired by Iran’s revolution, analysts say.

Qatif is almost entirely populated by Shi’ites and can be physically isolated by the government. Checkpoints stand at its main street entrances.

“The security forces are very confident. The Shi’ite population is confined in certain places. They are a small minority compared to a big majority. They think they have the capability to control them,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to the Interior Ministry.

Shi’ites have long complained they face entrenched discrimination in a country where the semi-official Wahhabi Sunni school regards their sect’s beliefs as heretical. They say they face abuse from Wahhabi clerics, rarely get permits for places of worship and seldom get senior public sector jobs.

Those basic complaints have over the years been aggravated by what Qatif residents call a heavy security hand against their community, accusing the authorities of unfair detentions and punishments, shooting unarmed protesters and torturing suspects.

Reuters has met several Saudi Shi’ites detained after the 2011 protests who said they were repeatedly beaten and deprived of sleep to extract confessions of rioting.

The government denies discrimination against Shi’ites and bias or brutality on the part of its security services. Its supporters point to the blind eye police show frequent protests by Shi’ites in Qatif, which would be quickly crushed in any Sunni area, as evidence of leniency.

IRAN RIVALRY

Riyadh’s relations with the Shi’ite minority are complicated by its rivalry with Iran, and by its own reliance on a largely Wahhabi population for support.

Analysts say the government sometimes uses a tough stance towards Saudi Shi’ites to mobilize its Wahhabi power base, while perceived weakness in acceding to any demands made by the minority can prompt anger that Sunni militants seek to exploit.

A series of Islamic State attacks in Saudi Arabia since November 2014 has mainly targeted the kingdom’s Shi’ites as part of an apparent strategy to leverage the sectarian divide as a way of building support among conservative Sunnis.

Such divisions are easier to aggravate because of the wider struggle between the kingdom and Iran, with many Saudis, and their government, seeing Tehran as using ties with Shi’ites across the Middle East to seek dominance and persecute Sunnis.

“The Iranians and their allies have been pushing and promoting terrorism and recruiting people, inciting and providing weapons and explosives to people, and Nimr al-Nimr was one of them,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters in an interview this week.

During and after the 2011 protests, eight policemen and seven civilians were killed in attacks by Shi’ites that were connected to Iran and carried out by people linked to Nimr, Riyadh says.

Iran denies all those charges and Nimr’s family say he advocated peaceful change, took no part in violence and had no links to Tehran.

The police said Nimr was arrested when he fired on them with an assault rifle, injuring two, while trying to prevent the capture of another suspect, the act which most swayed judges to pass the death sentence on him, Alani said.

Nimr and the three other Shi’tes were executed on Saturday along with 43 Sunni al Qaeda convicts.

More young Shi’ites detained over the 2011 protests and subsequent attacks have been sentenced to execution. Others are also on trial and facing possible death sentences.

“I think people are worried. It might get worse. There is a feeling things might get complicated,” said a Shi’ite in Dammam, the capital of Eastern Province.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)