Iraqi election commission says Kirkuk voting stations under siege, staff inside

The head of Iraq's Independent Higher Election Commission Riyadh al-Badran speaks during a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

By Ulf Laessing

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk were on Wednesday besieging several polling stations containing election staff, four days after a national vote, the head of the electoral commission said.

Riyadh al-Badran said the gunmen, who he did not identify, were putting pressure on the commission to change the election results in the multi-ethnic region.

“The employees of the commission are in a hostage situation,” he said, calling on authorities to provide protection.

The final nationwide results should be announced in the next two days, Badran said.

The initial results in Kirkuk were disputed by the Turkmen and Arab communities of the region which is also inhabited by a large Kurdish population.

The election commission said on Tuesday that initial results from Kirkuk indicated a win for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a historic Iraqi Kurdish party.

In October, Iraqi forces backed by Shi’ite militias dislodged Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who had taken control of Kirkuk city in 2014, preventing its capture by Islamic State militants who had overrun Iraqi army positions in northern and western Iraq.

The return of the Iraqi army to Kirkuk was greeted with relief by the Arab and Turkmen populations there.

Saturday’s elections were the first in Iraq since the defeat of Islamic State last year by Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition.

Initial nationwide results showed a surprise victory for the bloc that supports populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite not aligned with Iran who campaigned on a nationalist platform, tapping into public resentment against widespread corruption and huge social disparities.

A tally by Reuters of provincial results announced over the past three days shows Sadr’s list leading, followed by Amiri, a close ally of Iran, and then outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was holding talks with politicians in Baghdad to promote the formation of a new cabinet which would have Iran’s approval, two people familiar with the political process underway said.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Iraqi Kurdish fortunes reversed in Kirkuk, the city they longed for as capital

An Iraqi security member dips his finger in ink after casting his vote at a polling station, two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Kirkuk, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

By John Davison

KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) – An intersection in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk paints a vivid picture of the Kurds’ rapid turn of fortune. The towering statue of a fighter who used to brandish a Kurdish sunburst flag now holds the red, white and black of Iraq’s Baghdad government.

Opposite, a fortified former headquarters of the Kurdish autonomous region’s ruling party serves as a base for the Iraqi forces that led Kirkuk’s swift recapture in October and dashed hopes of Kurdish independence.

Many Iraqi Kurds long for Kirkuk as the eventual capital of their own state, and as Islamic State went down to defeat in northern Iraq last year the oil-rich city seemed closer than ever to becoming a permanent center of Kurdish power.

That short-lived ascendancy has been reversed, and hopes for a Kurdish Kirkuk have faded ahead of an Iraqi national election on Saturday expected to weaken the main Kurdish parties there.

“We had many dreams for Kurdistan but these have gone – we’ve lost it all,” said Mariwan Ali, a 28-year-old former fighter in the Kurdish peshmerga militia who now works as a cook in Kirkuk.

He said he would boycott the vote. “I refuse to vote in any Iraqi election, for anyone who’s part of the state of Iraq.”

Ali and his comrades helped drive Islamic State out of Kirkuk after Iraqi government forces fled a lightning advance by the jihadist militants in 2014.

With that, the Kurds, who were persecuted for decades under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, controlled Kirkuk for the first time, and the Erbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) duly erected the statue of the Kurdish fighter.

The peshmerga, Iraqi military and Shi’ite Muslim militias joined forces to defeat Islamic State in 2017. But with their common enemy gone, the rivalry between the KRG and Baghdad was laid bare, especially in Kirkuk.

A decision to include Kirkuk in a controversial Kurdish referendum in September that voted overwhelmingly for independence sealed its fate. Within weeks, Iraqi government forces had advanced on the city, and captured it in a matter of days.

Now, only the Iraqi flag is permitted to fly.

The city’s takeover was a devastating blow, taking much of the KRG-run autonomous region’s oil revenue, and a symbolic loss that local Kurds say has left them humiliated and considering leaving again.

“I couldn’t bear to see another Kurdish flag ripped up in front of me – I’d rather die,” 67-year-old Ali Majid, another former fighter who volunteered post-retirement to fight against Islamic State, said at his restaurant.

“It’s humiliating to be a Kurd now in Kirkuk. You get harassed at checkpoints, and I had a Kurdish flag sticker taken off my car,” he said. “I also got rid of the gun I kept at home, after repeated searches by Shi’ite militias” who had helped recapture Kirkuk in October.

Majid was one of few Kurds wearing the traditional sash across his waist.

Other expressions of Kurdish nationalism have disappeared. At a school used as a polling station for the September referendum, where Kurds danced at the time, Iraqi federal police filed in on Thursday to cast their early ballots.

MUTED NATIONALISM

Majid said that if the election result weakened the Kurds, he would leave Kirkuk.

Saturday’s election – Iraq’s first since Islamic State was driven out – will shape attempts to heal the country’s deep divisions and could shift the regional balance of power.

The three main ethnic and religious groups, the majority Shi’ite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds, have been at loggerheads for decades.

In Kirkuk, home to many of Iraq’s minorities including Kurds, Turkmen, Sunni Arabs and Assyrian Christians, the distribution of seats across ethnicity and religion is not expected to change.

Kurds, who are scattered across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, suffered a particularly brutal fate under Saddam, who gassed them, buried them in mass graves and gave their land to Arabs.

With many Kurds disillusioned about the political elites who led the failed independence bid, the election could undermine the grip on power that two ruling parties have enjoyed since Iraq’s Kurdish region gained semi-autonomous status in 1991.

Kurdish campaigning in Kirkuk has been muted. Supporters of Turkmen and Sunni Arab candidates paraded through the city center on Thursday, tooting car horns and waving flags, but no such fanfare was seen in the quieter Kurdish neighborhoods.

Many from Kirkuk’s other minorities say they are happy to be back under the Baghdad government.

“Things are better now, there’s more order. We prefer the Iraqi state to be in control here, since it’s a legal government and not just a non-state actor,” Turkmen oil worker Bashar Aref, 45, said at a shopping center.

“Before October it was tense.”

A return of Kurdish control looks less likely than ever. Local Kurdish media reports that Kurdish security forces might have a future role in the policing of the area have been rejected by Iraqi military officials.

“We have no orders to the effect that the peshmerga will return to Kirkuk,” General Maan Saadi of the elite Counter Terrorism Service said from his office in the former Kurdistan Democratic Party headquarters.

“The city is under control, and more stable than it was under the peshmerga.”

(Reporting by John Davison, with additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud; Editing by Michael Georgy/Mark Heinrich)

Iraqis voting in first election since Islamic State

An Iraqi security member casts his vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

By Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – For the first time since driving out Islamic State, Iraqis go to the polls on Saturday in an election that will shape attempts to heal the country’s deep divisions and could shift the regional balance of power.

Iraq’s three main ethnic and religious groups, the majority Shi’ite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds, have been at loggerheads for decades and the sectarian rifts are as apparent as ever 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The election of a new prime minister and parliament also takes place the same week U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, raising tensions between Iraq’s two main allies: Tehran and Washington.

A female security member casts her vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A female security member casts her vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Whoever wins the May 12 election will face the challenge of rebuilding Iraq after four years of war with Islamic State, jump-starting a flagging economy, balancing the interests of powerful foreign patrons and maintaining the country’s fragile unity in the face of sectarian and separatist tensions.

“We want security. We have killings, theft, kidnappings. We never had this before. In the past 15 years the people have been destroyed,” said 29-year-old Khalid Radi, a laborer in Baghdad.

Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead but victory is far from certain.

Even though he announced Islamic State’s defeat during his first four-year term, diffused sectarian tensions enflamed by his predecessor, and maintained Iraq’s unity in the face of a Kurdish independence bid, he faces a tough battle.

THREE-WAY RACE

Abadi has faced criticism about persistent government corruption, tough economic conditions and the austerity measures his cabinet introduced after the slide in global oil prices and to help pay for the fight against Islamic State.

He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the majority Shi’ite voter base is unusually split this year. Instead, he is looking to draw upon support from other groups.

Many, but not all, Sunnis see Abadi as a less sectarian alternative to his two main Shi’ite rivals and credit him with liberating their areas from Islamic State.

There’s bad blood between Abadi and the Kurds, however, after Baghdad imposed sanctions on the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region following its failed independence bid last year.

Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats he still has to navigate the long-winded and complicated backroom negotiations required to form a coalition government.

His two main challengers are his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri.

Both have a more passionate voter base than Abadi, who is mostly appealing to more pragmatic voters who see him as having better relations with the outside world and a cross-sectarian appeal needed to avoid further bloodshed and attract investment.

Like Abadi, Amiri is running on a platform highlighting the victory against Islamic State, though the militia leader’s narrative is more compelling as he was a frontline commander and is viewed as war hero by many Shi’ites.

Maliki, who was sidelined after eight years in office in 2014 after losing a third of the country to Islamic State, is looking to make a political comeback.

In contrast to the cross-sectarian message of Abadi, Maliki is again posing as Iraq’s Shi’ite champion and is proposing to do away with the country’s unofficial power-sharing model in which all the main parties have cabinet representatives.

COALITION HORSE-TRADING

Ever since Saddam fell in 2003, ending decades of dominance by the Sunni minority, senior government positions have been unofficially split between the country’s main groups.

The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’ite, the speaker for a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – with all three being chosen by parliament.

More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats.

The Iraqi constitution sets a 90-day deadline for forming a government after the election results are formally announced and the horse-trading can be protracted.

The new government will also have to cope with the simmering tension between the United States and Iran.

As prime minister, Abadi has won praise for his deft juggling of the competing and colliding interests of his two main backers. While his government maintains good relations with Iran, he is seen as balanced and Western diplomats say he would be the easiest candidate to work with.

Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, are both seen as much closer to Tehran.

DIVISIONS ALL ROUND

The election is also taking place in an atmosphere of division and disillusionment within Iraq’s three main groups.

The Shi’ite vote is split as many are unhappy with their leaders after 15 years in power that have only yielded violence and unemployment and left the country’s infrastructure crumbling.

But if the Shi’ites are split because they have too many leaders, Sunni Arabs are divided because they have none.

Sunnis are at their lowest point yet. Millions languish in displacement camps, many are out of pocket and trying to rebuild destroyed homes in cities reduced to rubble – and they feel collectively branded as Islamic State sympathizers.

The Sunni politicians that have held positions in government are largely discredited and there is no national Sunni leadership or party structure.

Iraq’s Kurds, meanwhile, blame their leaders for gambling away hard-won autonomy in the failed independence referendum and might punish them by voting for non-traditional parties, which in turn could undermine the historically unified Kurdish bloc’s position as kingmakers in parliament.

Voters go to the polls on Saturday, though security forces and Iraqis abroad started voting on Thursday. The electoral commission has said results will come “hours” after polls close.

Islamic State has threatened to attack polling stations amid a recent uptick in security incidents in areas retaken from the militants while many voters simply do not feel the election will bring any change.

“I propose the state just cancel parliament. Shake it and uproot it,” said 27-year-old mechanic Mustafa Tabbar using a popular Iraqi phrase meaning radical change.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by David Clarke)

U.S. Navy jets begin sorties against IS in Syria from Mediterranean

F/A-18 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, May 5, 2018. Picture taken May 5, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Karolina Tagaris

ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN (Reuters) – A U.S. naval strike force led by aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman began sorties on May 3 against Islamic State in Syria, continuing missions by a U.S.-led coalition against the militants.

The force joined the U.S. Sixth Fleet on April 18, nearly a week after the United States, Britain and France launched air strikes targeting what Western powers said were Syrian chemical weapons installations.

The Navy said it was a scheduled deployment to support coalition partners, NATO allies and U.S. national security interests.

“We commenced combat operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve,” Truman’s commanding officer Captain Nicholas Dienna said, referring to the coalition operation launched in 2014 against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“That operation demonstrates … our resolve to our partners and allies in the region and our continuing fight to eliminate ISIS and their impact to the region,” he said.

Strike fighter squadrons commenced sorties over Syria from the eastern Mediterranean on May 3, the Navy said in a statement.

The most recent aircraft carrier strike group to operate in the sixth fleet was the USS George H.W. Bush which last conducted combat operations from the eastern Mediterranean Sea in July 2017.

The Truman is capable of carrying 90 aircraft, including F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. It currently has “60 or so” aircraft on board, Truman’s air department officer Commander Steven Djunaedi said.

Several fighter jets were catapulted in sequence on Friday and Saturday from the Truman’s 4.5-acre flight deck and thundered into the sky, a Reuters witness said.

The strike group includes the cruiser USS Normandy and the destroyers Arleigh Burke, Farragut, Forrest Sherman and Bulkeley.

“Our fundamental job, by our presence even alone, is to increase the security and stability here in this part of the world,” Dienna said.

The Nimitz-class carrier was at the center of the U.S. Navy’s strikes against Islamic State in 2016. It returned to its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, after an extended eight-month deployment.

Officials on board would not say how long its latest deployment was expected to last.

“We’ll be here as long as they need us and we’ll move on when they decide we need to go do something else,” the strike group’s commander Rear Admiral Gene Black said.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight the group.

April’s intervention was the biggest by Western countries against President Bashar Assad and his ally Russia. The countries said the strikes were limited to Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.

On Friday, the U.S. Navy said it was re-establishing its Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic Ocean, amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Asked to comment on relations with the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, Dienna said: “We’ve had numerous interactions thus far with the Russians across the Mediterranean.

“I have been involved in virtually all of them and every single one of those has been professional, it’s been courteous and it’s been in accordance with international law.”

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

With Jews largely gone from Iraq, memories survive in Baghdad and Israel

A Jewish holy scroll is seen on display at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel, April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Maher Chmaytelli, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell

BAGHDAD/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Behind the high concrete walls of Baghdad’s Jewish cemetery, Violette Saul lies at rest under a weathered and cracked tombstone, one of the last memorials to an ancient community that is now all but extinct.

The Iraqi nurse was buried a decade ago alongside thousands of others in the sands of a country where her community thrived for more than 2,500 years.

Drive west to the shores of the Mediterranean – just a day’s journey geographically but a world away politically – and there is a lament inscribed at the entrance to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre in Israel – “The Jewish community in Iraq is no more”.

It is no accident that such a somber epitaph to Iraq’s Jews should be found in Israel, where tens of thousands of them fled after 1948 amid the violent spasms that accompanied the birth of that state.

That transplanting of an educated, vibrant and creative community unquestionably enriched Israel, which celebrates its 70th anniversary on Wednesday.

But it also denuded Iraq of a minority that had long contributed to its political, economic and cultural identity.

In 1947, a year before Israel’s birth, Iraq’s Jewish community numbered around 150,000. Now their numbers are in single figures. And they are missed.

Ziyad al-Bayati, an Iraqi Muslim who looks after the rarely visited graveyard near the East Baghdad neighborhood Sadr City, said his father used to reminisce about an Iraq in which ethnic communities lived together.

It was a time, Bayati said, that predated the turmoil around Israel’s creation, the wars of later years, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed years of sectarian bloodshed.

“My father used to say it was the good times when people lived peacefully side by side,’ said Bayati, 48. “There is no concern shown for the cemetery, (even if) the culture of people here is to respect the dead and their graves.”

The chronology of Jews in Iraq stretches back some 4,000 years to the biblical patriarch Abraham of Ur, and to the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar, who sent Jews into exile there more than 2,500 years ago.

OLD LAND TO NEW LAND

The creation of Israel in 1948 and its successive defeats of Arab armies caused further bursts of popular anger and violence against Jews, an episode of history that is written in graves n the cemetery, where five Iraqi Jews accused of spying for Israel now lie side by side.

Between 1950 and 1952 about 125,000 Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel. Each came with one suitcase, and all had to give up their Iraqi citizenship.

Aharon Ben Hur, 84, who immigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951, is seen in his house in Rehovot, Israel, April 16, 2018. Picture taken April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Aharon Ben Hur, 84, who immigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951, is seen in his house in Rehovot, Israel, April 16, 2018. Picture taken April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

For one of them, Aharon Ben Hur, memories of Iraq are bitter. Now 84 and the owner of two falafel restaurants in Tel Aviv, he recalled the 1941 Farhud pogrom that killed more than 180 Jews during the Jewish festival of Shavuot. His father and younger brother were among them.

“They were thrown from the second floor. My father died ten days later and the boy almost immediately. He held him in his hands, and they threw them down 100 stairs. I was saved,” Ben Hur said.

He left early, in 1951. Some hung on much longer. Emad Levy, 52, was the last of Baghdad’s Jews to immigrate to Israel, in 2010.

“We kept our tradition, the holidays, the synagogue,” he told Reuters during the build-up to Israel’s Independence Day. “But it’s not the joy you feel here during a holiday, walking down the street where most people are Jewish.”

Levy is among perhaps 600,000 Israelis, out of a population of some 8.8 million, who can claim a measure of Iraqi ancestry, according to the heritage center in the town of Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv.

Inside a building built in the style of a traditional two-story Jewish home in Baghdad, there are displays of religious and cultural artefacts of Jewish life in Iraq through the centuries. Visitors walk through the reconstructed crooked alleys of Baghdad’s Jewish quarter and view a scaled-down replica of the city’s Great Synagogue.

Exhibits at the museum depict a hard landing for the Iraqi immigrants in the early years of Israel, where Ashkenazim, or Jews of European descent, were the ruling elite and Sephardim, Jews with roots in the Middle East, faced prejudice.

One photo shows Iraqi newcomers being sprayed with DDT pesticide. A tent has been erected on the floor, showing how the immigrants were initially housed.

But it also records how Iraqi Jews have gone on to become generals in the Israeli military, cabinet ministers, legislators, business executives, entertainers and celebrated writers.

Few expect ever to go back, amid the violent turmoil that still envelops Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other countries which once had thriving Jewish communities.

An Iraqi man walks inside a Jewish cemetery in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq April 1, 2018. Picture taken April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Wissm Al-Okili

An Iraqi man walks inside a Jewish cemetery in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq April 1, 2018. Picture taken April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Wissm Al-Okili

Now aged 90, Zevulun Hareli joined a Jewish self-defense underground movement in Iraq, and recalls the fate of some of his fellow Zionists in 1948.

“They were children, 14 or 15. They were tortured. They were hanged. Their genitals were burned,” said Hareli, who immigrated to Israel in 1949. “Iraq said Zionism is a crime.”

Some still harbor more positive sentiments. Edwin Shuker, who was born in Iraq, has made several visits to the Baghdad cemetery in recent years, sometimes bringing people who want to say Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – over the graves.

He says he is welcomed by Iraqis when he goes back, and encounters nostalgia for a time when Iraq included a “mosaic” of minorities.

“No-one is going to move back,” concedes Shuker, 62, who had to escape Iraq in 1971. “However there are many who would be very receptive to visiting their shrines and where there ancestors are buried. The Iraqi Jewish community is the most ardent Jewish community, probably anywhere, that is so attached to its birthplace, because of its history.”

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.S. returns thousands of smuggled ancient artifacts to Iraq

A man photographs artifacts on display, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hosts an event to return several thousand ancient artifacts to the Republic of Iraq, at the Iraqi ambassador's residence in Washington, DC, U.S., May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – About 3,800 artifacts, including Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating to 2100 B.C., that were illegally smuggled to retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc were returned to Iraqi officials in Washington on Wednesday.

U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials signed over the artifacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, with some of the artifacts laid out on a table.

“We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan.

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer, agreed in July to surrender the antiquities it received and pay $3 million to settle civil proceedings brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Shipping labels on the packages the artifacts arrived in described them as “tile samples,” federal prosecutors said.

The company had purchased more than 5,500 artifacts, according to court documents. It agreed that if it receives any of the remaining antiquities or learns where they are, it must notify the federal government, according to court documents.

Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington in 2016. Privately held Hobby Lobby has said the seized artifacts were not intended for the museum. It has not said what it planned to do with them.

The forfeited packages included tablets with cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of the tablets come from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to 2100 B.C. through 1600 B.C. primarily, known as the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods.

Justice Department officials have said Hobby Lobby’s 2010 purchase of $1.6 million in ancient artifacts through dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel was “fraught with red flags,” saying the company had ignored warnings that the items could have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

When the company disclosed its settlement with the Justice Department in July, Green said Hobby Lobby should have “carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”

A representative of the company did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Hobby Lobby and the Green family drew headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled the craft store chain and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania could refuse to cover contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance due to its owners’ religious beliefs.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)

Syria is death trap for civilians, U.N. refugee chief warns

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi adresses the media with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) following their talks in Berlin, Germany, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Civilians can no longer flee fighting and bombing raids in Syria because borders are so tightly controlled and neighboring countries are overwhelmed by refugees, creating some of the worst suffering in modern times, a top U.N. agency chief said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was warning of a new disaster if the rebel-controlled Syrian city of Idlib was the next target of the Syrian military.

“The country is becoming a trap, in some places a death trap for civilians,” Grandi told Reuters during a donor conference for Syria.

“There is an entire population out there that cannot bear its refugees anymore, that is suffering from one of the worse ordeals in modern history.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said last month about 511,000 people had been killed in the war since it began in March 2011.

Some 5.5 million Syrians are living as refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and now account for a quarter of Lebanon’s population. Another 6.1 million people are still in Syria but have been forced to flee their homes.

Grandi is hoping to raise $5.6 billion from international donors for emergency humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees this year, but that money is not for Syria itself, instead going to help host countries such as Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 civilians trapped in besieged areas throughout Syria.

That the number could rise dramatically because 2 million people live in northwestern Idlib region, the largest populated area of Syria in the hands of insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.

Some aid agencies are predicting suffering on an even greater scale than during the siege of Aleppo last year and in eastern Ghouta and Raqqa this year if the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian backers turn their full fire on Idlib.

Tens of thousands of fighters and civilians have fled to the area from parts of the country which the army has recaptured with the help of Russia and Iran.

“Idlib is where an area where a lot of fighters have transferred,” Grandi said. “If fighting moves more decisively to that area, it could be very dangerous for civilians.”

However, Grandi and other aid agencies predict they will have nowhere to flee to because Turkey’s southern border with Syria at Gaziantep is tightly controlled, mainly letting aid supplies through to Idlib, forcing refugees deeper into Syria.

“I think we are going to lose not only a generation but a population,” Grandi said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alison Williams)

Israel hints it could hit Iran’s ‘air force’ in Syria

FILE PHOTO - An Israeli soldier walks near a military post close to the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel released details on Tuesday about what it described as an Iranian “air force” deployed in neighboring Syria, including civilian planes suspected of transferring arms, a signal that these could be attacked should tensions with Tehran escalate.

Iran, along with Damascus and its big-power backer Russia, blamed Israel for an April 9 air strike on a Syrian air base, T-4, that killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) members. Iranian officials have promised unspecified reprisals.

Israeli media ran satellite images and a map of five Syrian air bases allegedly used to field Iranian drones or cargo aircraft, as well as the names of three senior IRGC officers suspected of commanding related projects, such as missile units.

The information came from the Israeli military, according to a wide range of television and radio stations and news websites. Israel’s military spokesman declined to comment.

However, an Israeli security official seemed to acknowledge the leak was sanctioned, telling Reuters that it provided details about “the IRGC air force (which) the Israeli defense establishment sees as the entity that will try to attack Israel, based on Iranian threats to respond to the strike on T-4.”

The official, who requested anonymity, would not elaborate.

Israel’s Army Radio reported that, given tensions with Iran over Syria, the Israeli air force canceled plans to send F-15 fighter jets to take part in the U.S.-hosted exercise Red Flag, which begins on April 30.

“EXPOSED”

Roni Daniel, military editor for Israeli TV station Mako, said the disclosure was a signal to Iran that its deployments in Syria “are totally exposed to us, and if you take action against us to avenge (the T-4 strike) these targets will be very severely harmed”.

According to Daniel, Israel was bracing for a possible Iranian missile salvo or armed drone assault from Syria.

There was no immediate response from the IRGC or Syria.

The Iranian death toll in T-4 was unusually high. “It was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets – both facilities and people,” the New York Times on Sunday quoted an Israeli military source as saying.

Iran, Israel’s arch-foe, has cast its military personnel in Syria as reinforcements helping President Bashar al-Assad battle a seven-year-old insurgency. The Iranians have also described their cargo flights to Syria as carrying humanitarian aid only.

An Israeli-Iranian showdown over Syria has loomed since Feb. 10, when Israel said an armed drone launched from T-4 penetrated its air space. Israel blew up the drone and carried out a raid on Syrian air defenses in which one of its F-16 jets was downed.

“Israel is headed for escalation,” Yaacov Amidror, former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM. “There could be a very big belligerent incident with Iran and Hezbollah.”

While not claiming responsibility for the T-4 strike, Israel has restated a policy of preventing Iran setting up a Syrian garrison. Scores of previous such raids went unanswered but Israel worries that changing conditions may now embolden Iran.

Russia, which long turned a blind eye to Israeli actions in Syria while serving as a brake on retaliation by Iran or its Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla allies, is now at loggerheads with Western powers over accusations, denied by Syria’s government, that it has used chemical weaponry in fighting.

(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London; writing by Dan Williams; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Children of Iraq’s Kawliya return to school after 14-year break

Children of Iraqi Kawliya group (known as Iraqi gypsies) attend a class at a school in al-Zuhoor village near the southern city of Diwaniya, Iraq April 16, 2018. Picture taken April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

AL-ZUHOOR, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s Kawliya minority, also known as the country’s gypsies, have long been marginalized by society. But in al-Zuhoor, they finally have an elementary school again – nearly 14 years after the village’s only school was ransacked and destroyed at the hands of an Islamic militia.

Known locally as the Gypsies’ Village, Al-Zuhoor is near the city of Diwaniya, 150 km (95 miles) south of Baghdad. Roughly 420 people live in mud houses and reed huts lining unpaved streets.

With no basic services, the village’s primary school and clinic, built by the government of Saddam Hussein, were damaged by an Islamic militia in a mortar attack on the village in late 2003, months after a U.S.-led invasion toppled him from power.

The school was reopened with the help of U.N. children’s fund UNICEF after a campaign started by civilian activists on Facebook called I am a Human Being. It is made of a cluster of caravans provided by UNICEF on Al-Zuhoor’s outskirts.

The school has 27 children aged six to 10 and a teaching staff of a headmaster and two teachers.

Malak Wael, 10, said her family encouraged her to come to school and learn.

Headmaster Qassim Abbas Jassim said the school and the village suffer from a lack of electricity and safe drinking water.

Scorned by many Muslims and barely tolerated by the rest of society, Iraq’s Kawliya live a precarious existence. Lacking education or skills, they form one of the lower rungs of Iraq’s social system, and are not granted Iraqi citizenship.

Manar al-Zubaidi, representative of the I am a Human Being group who lobbied for a year for the construction of the school, urged the government to grant the Kawliya Iraqi nationality to help their children continue with their studies and get jobs.

Under Saddam, the Kawliya had some protection from persecution — partly in exchange for supplying dancers, alcohol and prostitutes, Iraqis say. The safety net disappeared with Saddam’s overthrow, leaving them open to the whims of religious militia groups contemptuous of their freewheeling ways.

The Kawliya speak Arabic and profess belief in Islam. Most originated in India, although a few came from other Middle Eastern countries.

(Writing by Huda Majeed, Editing by William Maclean)

U.S., UK, France strike Syria to punish Assad for suspected poison gas use

A missile is seen crossing over Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

By Steve Holland and Tom Perry

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S., British and French forces struck Syria with more than 100 missiles on Saturday in the first coordinated Western strikes against the Damascus government, targeting what they called chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a poison gas attack.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”.

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus. In the morning he tweeted: “Mission accomplished”.

The bombing represents a major escalation in the West’s confrontation with Assad’s superpower ally Russia, but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war which has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years.

That in turn raises the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as at once both reckless and pointless.

By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of President Bashar al-Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience”.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, with Damascus allies saying the buildings hit had been evacuated in advance.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”, with no intention of toppling Assad or intervening more widely in the war. She said she had authorized British action after intelligence showed Assad’s government was to blame for gassing the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago.

In a speech she gave a vivid description of the victims of the chemical strike that killed scores, huddling in basements as gas rained down. She said Russia had thwarted diplomatic efforts to halt Assad’s use of poison gas, leaving no option but force.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. Paris released a dossier which it said showed Damascus was to blame for the poison gas attack on Douma, the last town holding out in a rebel-held swathe of territory near Damascus which government forces have recaptured in this year’s biggest offensive.

Washington described its targets as a center near Damascus for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons, a chemical weapons storage site near the city of Homs and another site near Homs that stored chemical weapons equipment and housed a command post.

A plane prepares to take off as part of the joint airstrike operation by the British, French and U.S. militaries in Syria, in this still image from video footage obtained on April 14, 2018 from social media. courtesy Elysee/Twitter/via REUTERS

A plane prepares to take off as part of the joint airstrike operation by the British, French and U.S. militaries in Syria, in this still image from video footage obtained on April 14, 2018 from social media. courtesy Elysee/Twitter/via REUTERS

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the strikes a “one time shot”, although Trump raised the prospect of further strikes if Assad’s government again used chemical weapons.

“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss what Moscow decried as an unjustified attack on a sovereign state. Diplomats said the meeting would take place in New York at 11:00 am (1500 GMT).

Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a crime and the Western leaders criminals.

Inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW were due to try to visit Douma later on Saturday to inspect the site of the April 7 suspected gas attack. Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for their findings.

Russia, whose relations with the West have deteriorated to levels of Cold War-era hostility, has denied any gas attack took place in Douma and even accused Britain of staging it to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

But despite responding outwardly with fury to Saturday’s attack, Damascus and its allies also made clear that they considered it a one-off, unlikely to meaningfully harm Assad.

“ABSORBED” THE ATTACKS

A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the Syrian government and its allies had “absorbed” the attack. The sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia, the official said.

“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said.

Dmitry Belik, a Russian member of parliament who was in Damascus and witnessed the strikes, told Reuters by email: “The attack was more of a psychological nature rather than practical. Luckily there are no substantial losses or damages.”

At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke rose over the city, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus was hit.

A scientific research lab in Barzah appeared to have been completely destroyed, according to footage broadcast by Syrian state TV station al-Ikhbariya. Smoke rose from piles of rubble and a heavily damaged bus was parked outside.

But the Western intervention has virtually no chance of altering the military balance of power at a time when Assad is in his strongest position since the war’s early months.

ASSAD STRONG

In Douma, site of last week’s suspected gas attack, the final buses were due on Saturday to transport out rebels and their families who agreed to surrender the town, Syrian state TV reported. That effectively ends all resistance in the suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta, marking one of the biggest victories for Assad’s government of the entire war.

Russian and Iranian military help over the past three years has let Assad crush the rebel threat to topple him.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict for years, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight that group. But they have refrained from targeting Assad’s government apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year.

Although the Western countries have all said for seven years that Assad must leave power, they held back in the past from striking his government, lacking a wider strategy to defeat him.

The Western powers were at pains on Saturday to avert any further escalation, including any unexpected conflict with their superpower rival Russia. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said the Russians “were warned beforehand” to avert conflict.

The combined U.S., British and French assault involved more missiles, but appears to have struck more limited targets, than a similar strike Trump ordered a year ago in retaliation for an earlier suspected chemical weapons attack. Last year’s U.S. strike, which Washington said at the time would cripple Assad’s air forces and defenses, had effectively no impact on the war.

Mattis said the United States conducted the strikes with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas had been used in the April 7 attack in Syria. Evidence that the nerve agent sarin also was used was inconclusive, he said.

Syria agreed in 2013 to give up its chemical weapons after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in Douma. Damascus is still permitted to have chlorine for civilian use, although its use as a weapon is banned. Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use have been frequent during the war, although unlike nerve agents chlorine did not produce mass casualties as seen last week.

Mattis, who U.S. officials said had earlier warned in internal debates that too large an attack would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a one-off to dissuade Assad from “doing this again”.

But a U.S. official familiar with the military planning said there could be more air strikes if the intelligence indicates Assad has not stopped making, importing, storing or using chemical weapons, including chlorine. The official said this could require a more sustained U.S. air and naval presence.

EXIT SYRIA?

The U.S., British and French leaders all face domestic political issues surrounding the decision to use force in Syria.

Trump has been leery of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and is eager to withdraw roughly 2,000 troops in Syria taking part in the campaign against Islamic State.

“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria, under no circumstances,” Trump said in his address.

Trump has tried to build good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A prosecutor is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow in illegal efforts to help him get elected, an investigation Trump calls a witch hunt.

In Britain, May’s decision to strike without consulting parliament overturns an arrangement in place since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Her predecessor David Cameron was politically hurt when he lost a parliamentary vote on whether to bomb Syria.

Britain has led international condemnation of Russia, persuading more than 20 countries to expel Russian diplomats, over the poisoning with a nerve agent of a former Russian spy in England last month. May made clear that case was part of her calculus in ordering retaliation for chemical weapons in Syria.

She argued on Saturday it was necessary to act quickly without waiting for parliament’s approval. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn accused her of following Trump, hugely unpopular in Britain, into battle without waiting for the evidence.

In France, Macron has long threatened to use force against Assad if he uses chemical weapons, and had faced criticism over what opponents described as an empty threat.

To view a graphic on an overview of chemical warfare, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2pKDWOY

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Tom Perry,; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Tim Ahmann, Eric Beech, Lesley Wroughton, Lucia Mutikani, Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick and John Walcott in Washington; Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London; and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Geert de Clerq and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Angus MacSwan)