Baghdad car bomb kills 51 as Islamic State escalates insurgency

People and Iraq forces gather around car bombing sight

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A car packed with explosives blew up on Thursday in southern Baghdad, killing at least 51 people and wounding 55, security and medical sources said, in the deadliest such attack in Iraq this year.

Islamic State, which is on the defensive after losing control of eastern Mosul to a U.S.-backed Iraqi military offensive, claimed responsibility for the bombing in an online statement.

As it cedes territory captured in a 2014 offensive across northern and western Iraq, the ultra-hardline group has stepped up insurgent strikes on government areas, particularly in the capital Baghdad.

Security sources said the vehicle which blew up on Thursday was parked in a crowded street full of garages and used car dealers, in Hayy al-Shurta, a Shi’ite district in the southwest of the city.

The death toll could climb further as many of the wounded are in critical condition, a doctor said.

The bombing is the second to hit car markets this week, suggesting the group has found it easier to leave vehicles laden with explosives in places where hundreds of other vehicles are parked.

A suicide bomber detonated a pick-up truck on Wednesday in Sadr City, a poor Shi’ite suburb in the east of the capital, killing at least 15 people. That explosion took place in a street full of used car dealers.

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have dislodged Islamic State from most of the cities it captured in 2014 and 2015. The militants also control parts of Syria.

Iraqi government forces last month captured eastern Mosul and are now preparing an offensive on the western side that remains under the militants’ control. The city is divided in two halves by the Tigris river.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams)

Multiple suicide bombing targets Nigerian refugees, Boko Haram blamed

people walk at the site of a bombing attack

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Seven suspected Boko Haram militants blew themselves on the outskirts of a northeast Nigerian city on Friday, a local aid agency said, in an attack witnesses said targeted refugees preparing to return to their home villages.

The bombing took place outside Maiduguri, the population center at the heart of a government campaign to eradicate the Islamist group, whose more than seven-year insurgency has killed 15,000 people and forced some two million from their homes.

The Borno State Emergency Management Agency said eight members of a local militia, the civilian Joint Task Force, were wounded in the attack, which underscored Boko Haram’s ability to continue to operate despite the government’s insistence it has crushed the group.

Witnesses told Reuters the attackers detonated their bombs

near a large refugee camp, outside which crowds of displaced people were gathering around trucks to form convoys before trying to return home.

In December, President Muhammadu Buhari said the capture of a key camp marked the “final crushing” of Boko Haram in its last enclave in Sambisa forest, once the group’s stronghold.

But since then the group, which split into two factions last year, has stepped up its attacks.

One Boko Haram faction is led by Abubakar Shekau from the Sambisa forest and the other, allied to jihadist group Islamic State, and led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, based in the Lake Chad region.

(Reporting by Ahmed Kingimi, Adewale Kolawole and Ola Lanre in Maiduguri; Writing by Paul Carsten; editing by John Stonestreet)

Islamic State readies for close combat in alleyways of west Mosul

US army forces in Mosul

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State militants are developing a network of passageways and tunnels in the narrow alleys of west Mosul that will enable them to hide and fight among the civilian population when Iraqi forces launch an attack that is expected any day now.

Residents said the fighters have been opening passages in the walls between houses to allow them to move from block to block undetected, disappear after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements.

They have also opened sniper holes in buildings overlooking the Tigris river bisecting the city into east and west, they said.

“They opened these holes and threatened us not to close them,” one resident told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be identified by name or location because Islamic State executes anyone caught communicating with the outside world.

The militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians, after U.S.-backed forces surrounding the city dislodged them from the east in the first phase of an offensive that concluded four weeks ago.

The westward road that links the city to Syria was cut at the end of November. The militants are still in charge of the road that links Mosul to Tal Afar, a town they control 60 km (40 miles) to the west, however.

Coalition aircraft and artillery have been bombarding selected targets in the west, included workshops in the eastern industrial zone where Islamic State is thought to build car bombs and booby traps. Ground forces have paused to redeploy and build new fortifications and staging posts along Mosul’s western flank, as well as rest and repair damaged hardware.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told a meeting of the armed forces commanders on Thursday that the offensive could start “very soon”.

MORE DIFFICULT IN THE WEST

Commanders expect the battle in the west to be more difficult than in the east because, among other things, tanks and armored vehicles cannot pass through its narrow streets and alleyways.

Western Mosul contains the old city center, with its ancient souks, Grand Mosque and most government administrative buildings. The city’s airport is also located there.

“The narrow alleys and densely populated districts, along with the defensive tunnels built by Daesh — all this is definitely going to make the battle tough and complicated,” said Colonel Sattar Karim of the Iraqi army’s 9th Division, using an Arabic acronym of Islamic State.

It was from the pulpit of the Mosul Grand Mosque that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The city — Iraq’s second biggest — is the largest urban center captured by Islamic State in both countries and its de facto capital in Iraq. Raqqa is its capital in Syria.

The Sunni group imposed a radical version of Islam in Mosul, banning cigarettes, televisions and radios, and forcing men to grow beards and women to cover from head to toe. Citizens who failed to comply risked death.

Capturing the city would effectively end the militants’ ambitions for territorial rule in Iraq. They are expected to continue to wage an insurgency, however, carrying out suicide bombings and inspiring lone-wolf actions abroad.

OVERWHELMING FORCE

Islamic State was thought to have up to 6,000 fighters in Mosul when the government’s offensive started in mid-October. Of those, more than one thousand have been killed, according to Iraqi estimates.

The remainder now face a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, including elite paratroopers and police, Kurdish forces and Iranian-trained Shi’ite paramilitary groups.

The United States, which has deployed more than 5,000 troops in the fighting, leads an international coalition providing critical air and ground support, including artillery fire, to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

In the next phase, the Iraqi military’s plan is to wear down the fighters and overwhelm them by moving on all fronts.

“Daesh will not be able to stand against thousands of attacking troops with air and artillery cover,” said federal police captain Haider Radhi.

The police’s target will be to capture the airport, located on Mosul’s southern limits, and secure it for army engineers who will quickly rehabilitate the runway and the other facilities so that it can be used as a close support base for troops, he said.

Intelligence gathering and the cooperation of the civilian population will be key for advancing troops to avoid booby traps and to find weapons caches placed across the city as part of Islamic State’s urban warfare plan, said Baghdad-based analyst and former army general Jasim al-Bahadli.

However, the narrowness of the streets will limit the militants’ ability to attack advancing troops with suicide car bombs, one of the group’s most effective weapons, along with mortar and sniper fire.

“Car bombs will be used in some areas of the western side where the streets are wide enough,” said Bahadli. “In the others, we can expect the group to send walking bombers” who will run or walk toward the troops and detonate explosive belts.

Karim, the army colonel, said the militants are using churches, schools, hospitals and homes as weapon caches to avoid airstrikes.

“The job will not be easy to determine who’s an enemy and who’s a friend,” he said.

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

In Mosul orphanage, Islamic State groomed child soldiers

Math and English textbooks found in Islamic State facility that trained children

By Stephen Kalin

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – When the boys first arrived at the Islamic State training facility in eastern Mosul they would cry and ask about their parents, who went missing when the militants rampaged through northern Iraq in 2014.

But as the weeks passed they appeared to absorb the group’s ultra-hardline ideology, according to a worker at the former orphanage where they were housed.

The children, aged from three to 16 and mostly Shi’ite Muslims or minority Yazidis, began referring to their own families as apostates after they were schooled in Sunni Islam by the militant fighters, he said.

The boys were separated from the girls and infants, undergoing indoctrination and training to become “cubs of the caliphate – a network of child informers and fighters used by the jihadists to support their military operations.

The complex in Mosul’s Zuhur district, which had been home to local orphans until they were kicked out by Islamic State, was one of several sites the jihadists used across the city.

It is now shuttered, its doors sealed with padlocks by Iraqi security forces.

Islamic State withdrew before Iraqi forces launched a U.S.-backed offensive in October to retake the city, but during a Reuters visit last month there were still reminders of the group’s attempt to brainwash dozens of children.

A saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed is painted in black on one wall, urging children to learn to swim, shoot and ride horses. Inside the building is a swimming pool, now dry and full of rubbish.

‘A’ FOR APPLE, ‘B’ FOR BOMB

In another room sits a stack of textbooks Islamic State had amended to fit its brutal ethos.

Arithmetic problems in a fourth grade maths book use imagery of warfare, while the cover bears a rifle made up of equations. History books focus exclusively on the early years of Islam and emphasize martial events.

Another textbook entitled “English for the Islamic State” includes ordinary words like apple and ant beside army, bomb and sniper. Martyr, spy and mortar also appear alongside zebra crossing, yawn, and X-box.

The word “woman” is depicted by a formless black figure wearing the full niqab covering. All faces in the books – even those of animals – are blurred, in keeping with an Islamic proscription against such images.

The orphanage worker, who was cowed into staying on after the militants took over in 2014, said girls who were brought to the center were often married off to the group’s commanders.

The man asked not to be named for fear of reprisals by Islamic State, which still controls the entire western half of Mosul. He was shot in the leg during recent clashes.

He said the militants, mostly Iraqis, taught the Shi’ite children how to pray in the tradition of Sunni Islam and forced the Yazidis to convert.

They memorized the Koran, were taught to treat outsiders as infidels and conducted physical exercise in the yard, which has since grown over.

OLD ENOUGH TO FIGHT

A pair of colorful plastic slides and swing sets now sit untouched amid shattered glass, casings from a grenade launcher and a suicide bomber’s charred remains – signs of the militants’ fierce resistance as they retreated late last year.

Reuters could not independently verify the orphanage worker’s comments. But local residents gave similar accounts, and Islamic State has published numerous videos showing how it trains young fighters and even makes them execute prisoners.

New batches of children arrived at the Zuhur orphanage every few weeks from outside Mosul, including a few from neighboring Syria, while older boys were sent to the town of Tel Afar west of Mosul for intensive military training for duties including with Islamic State’s courts or vice squad, residents said.

“After six months at the camps, some of the boys came back to spend a weekend with their younger brothers. They were wearing uniforms and carrying weapons,” the orphanage worker said, fingering black and yellow prayer beads.

One of the boys, Mohammed, was killed last summer during the battle in the city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, he said, recounting how the other children wept upon learning the news.

A few weeks before the Mosul offensive began, Islamic State canceled lessons and sent the boys to guard an airfield near Tel Afar which pro-government forces later seized, he said.

“I told them, ‘If you see the army, drop your weapons and tell them you are orphans. Maybe they will spare your lives'”.

(Editing by Dominic Evans)

Friend to plead guilty to aiding San Bernardino gunman: prosecutors

Weapons and evidence of San Bernardino shooting

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A California man accused of buying assault-style rifles used by a married couple to massacre 14 people at a government office in San Bernardino in 2015 has agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, prosecutors said on Tuesday.

Enrique Marquez Jr., 25, will plead guilty to conspiring with Syed Rizwan Farook in 2011 and 2012 to attack a community college and commuters on a Southern California freeway, prosecutors said.

Marquez, a friend and former neighbor of Farook, has also agreed to plead guilty to making false statements about his purchase of two assault rifles used in the 2015 shooting rampage at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center.

Marquez was scheduled to enter his pleas, part of an agreement with federal prosecutors, at a hearing on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

“This defendant collaborated with and purchased weapons for a man who carried out the devastating December 2, 2015 terrorist attack that took the lives of 14 innocent people, wounded nearly two dozen, and impacted our entire nation,” U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said in a written statement announcing the plea deal.

Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, opened fire at a holiday gathering of Farook’s co-workers on Dec. 2, 2015, killing 14 people and wounding 22.

Farook, the U.S.-born son of Pakistani immigrants, and Malik, a Pakistani native he married in Saudi Arabia in 2014, died in a shootout with police four hours after the massacre.

Authorities have said the couple were inspired by Islamist extremism. It was one of the deadliest attacks by militants in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks.

Prosecutors say Marquez and Farook, who were childhood friends, plotted attacks together in 2011 and 2012 that were never carried out and it was during that time that Marquez purchased the two rifles that Farook and Malik ultimately used in San Bernardino.

Marquez did not take part in the San Bernardino massacre but was arrested about two weeks later and has remained in custody ever since.

He also faces immigration fraud charges in connection with his marriage to Russian-born Mariyah Chernykh, which prosecutors say was a sham.

Chernykh, 26, and Farook’s brother, Syed Raheel Farook, 31, pleaded guilty in January to immigration fraud charges stemming from the marriage.

(This version of the story corrects first paragraph to read “conspiring to provide” instead of “providing” to comply with official correction from United States Attorney’s Office, Los Angeles)

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney and Andrew Hay)

Islamic State suspected of killing six Afghan Red Cross workers: officials

Logo of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Courtesy of Wiki Commons

By Bashir Ansari

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Islamic State gunmen were suspected of killing at least six Afghan employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday as they carried supplies to areas in the north of the country hit by deadly snow storms, government officials said.

Another two employees were unaccounted for after the attack in Afghanistan’s Jowzjan province, ICRC said, but the aid group did not know who was responsible or why the convoy was targeted.

“This is a despicable act. Nothing can justify the murder of our colleagues and dear friends,” the head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, Monica Zanarelli, said in a statement.

The aid workers were in a convoy carrying supplies to areas hit by snow storms when they were attacked by suspected Islamic State gunmen, Lotfullah Azizi, the Jowzjan provincial governor, told Reuters.

“Daesh is very active in that area,” he said, using an alternate name for Islamic State, which has made limited inroads in Afghanistan but has carried out increasingly deadly attacks.

A storm dumped as much as two meters (6.5 feet) of snow on many areas of Afghanistan over the weekend, according to officials, killing more than 100 people.

Three drivers and five field officers were on their way to deliver livestock materials to those affected by the snow storms when they were attacked, the ICRC statement said.

“These staff members were simply doing their duty, selflessly trying to help and support the local community,” ICRC president Peter Maurer said.

SEARCH OPERATION

Jawzjan police chief Rahmatullah Turkistani said the workers’ bodies had been brought to the provincial capital and a search operation launched to find the two missing ICRC employees.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said his group was not involved in the attack and promised that Taliban members would “put all their efforts into finding the perpetrators”.

Last month, a Spanish ICRC employee was released less than a month after he was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in northern Afghanistan.

That staff member was traveling with three Afghan colleagues between Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz on Dec. 19 when gunmen stopped the vehicles.

The other Afghan ICRC staff were immediately released.

In a recent summary of its work in Afghanistan last year, the ICRC said increasing security issues had made it difficult to provide aid to many parts of the country.

“Despite it all, the ICRC has remained true to its commitment to the people of Afghanistan, as it has throughout the last 30 years of its continuous presence in the country,” the statement said.

Zanarelli said it was still not clear how the deadly attack might change ICRC operations.

(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Josh Smith in Kabul; Editing by Nick Macfie and Ken Ferris)

Air strikes hit Syria’s rebel-held Idlib, around 30 dead: residents, monitor

people see debris of attack in Syria

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 30 people died in air strikes on the rebel-held Syrian city of Idlib on Tuesday, in some of the heaviest raids there in months, witnesses and rescue workers said.

Around eight attacks by what witnesses believed to be Russian jets wounded scores of people and leveled several multi-storey buildings in residential areas of the northwestern city, they added.

Russia’s Defense Ministry later said media reports that its planes had bombed Idlib were not true, Interfax news agency reported.

Two rescue workers said the death toll was at least 30. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 26 people were killed and casualties were expected to rise as rescue workers searched for bodies under the rubble.

Video footage by activists on social media showed civilians, including young children, being treated in a main city hospital where the injured had been rushed for treatment.

“We are still pulling bodies from the rubble,” said Issam al Idlibi, a volunteer civil defense worker.

The extent of the damage and the debris bore the hallmarks of a Russian attack, two witnesses said.

Russian planes have targeted a number of towns and villages in the area since entering the Syrian conflict in September 2015 to back ally President Bashar al-Assad.

But activists and residents also said there had been a reduction of Russian strikes in Idlib province since a Turkish-Russian brokered cessation of hostilities late December.

Planes from the U.S.-led coalition have also launched a number of attacks in the rural province, a major stronghold of jihadists, many of them formerly affiliated to al Qaeda.

Idlib’s population has been swollen by thousands of Syrian fighters and their families evacuated from villages and towns around Damascus and Aleppo city, which was retaken by the government in recent months.

Separately, at least four people were killed in air strikes by unknown jets in the town of Arbin in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, northeast of the capital. The Syrian army and pro-government militias have been seeking in recent days to gain new ground there.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Syrian army says it will press on against Islamic State near Aleppo

Syrian soldiers guarding checkpoint in area with Islamic State

By John Davison and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army signaled on Thursday it would press on with operations against Islamic State northeast of Aleppo, in a veiled warning to Turkey which backs a separate military campaign in northern Syria.

Syrian government forces have rapidly driven Islamic State back in the last two weeks, advancing to within 6 km (4 miles) of the city of al-Bab that the jihadists are fighting to hold.

The army’s gains risk sparking a confrontation with Turkey, which has sent tanks and warplanes across the border to support Syrian insurgents who are trying to seize al-Bab in a separate offensive.

Turkey’s offensive, launched last year, aims to drive both Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters away from its borders, as Turkey sees both groups as a security threat.

Syria’s military general command said government forces and their allies had recaptured more than 30 towns and villages from Islamic State, and a 16 km (10 mile) stretch of the highway that links Aleppo to al-Bab to the northeast.

“This achievement widens the secured areas around Aleppo city and is the starting point for (further) operations against Daesh (Islamic State),” a military spokesman said in a statement broadcast on state TV.

The military “confirms its commitment to … protecting civilians and maintaining the unity of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” the statement added, in a remark apparently directed at Turkey.

Turkey’s offensive has brought the rebel factions it backs – some of which have also fought against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Aleppo – to the outskirts of al-Bab, according to a group that monitors the war.

Ankara last week denied that Turkey would hand over al-Bab to Assad after driving out Islamic State.

A source in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad told Reuters on Wednesday the Syrian army aimed to reach al-Bab and was ready “to clash with the FSA fighting” alongside the Turkish army if necessary.

Turkey launched its “Euphrates Shield” campaign in Syria to secure its frontier from Islamic State and halt the advance of the powerful Kurdish YPG militia. Helping rebels to topple Assad is no longer seen as a priority for Ankara.

The Euphrates Shield campaign has carved out an effective buffer zone controlled by Turkey-backed rebel groups, obstructing the YPG’s plans of linking up Kurdish controlled areas in northeastern and northwestern Syria.

The YPG, backed by the United States, is separately also battling Islamic State, and Washington’s backing for the Kurdish fighters has created tension with Turkey.

ISLAMIC STATE ASSAULTS

Fighting between Syrian forces, backed by Russia, and Islamic State has meanwhile intensified elsewhere in the country in recent weeks, with the group on the offensive in several areas of Syria while it is driven back inside its Mosul stronghold in neighboring Iraq.

Government forces clashed with the militants west of the historic city of Palmyra late on Wednesday, in an attempt to recover ground recently lost, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

The army made some progress and took over farmland around the village of al-Tayas, 50 km (30 miles) west of Palmyra and near the T4 air base, but dozens of Syrian troops have been killed in the latest clashes in the area, the British-based Observatory said.

The jihadists seized Palmyra and some nearby oil fields in December for a second time in the nearly six-year Syrian conflict. They had been driven out by the army and its allies in March.

Further southwest the army fought Islamic State near the al-Seen military airport, the Observatory said.

Islamic State on Sunday launched an attack on the airport, 70 km northeast of Damascus, it said, adding that dozens of Syrian soldiers and militants had died in several days of fighting.

Government forces have recaptured at least one village in the area, the Observatory and a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah said.

Islamic State fighters have also been attacking the remaining pockets of government-held territory in the city of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria, long besieged by the group. Heavy Russian air strikes have targeted Islamic State in the area. Deir al-Zor province is almost entirely held by Islamic State.

(Reporting by John Davison and Tom Perry; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Dominic Evans)

French soldier shoots, wounds machete-wielding attacker at Paris Louvre

Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, sight of recent terrorist attack attempt

By Michel Rose and Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) – A French soldier shot and wounded a man armed with a machete and carrying two bags on his back on Friday as he tried to enter the Paris Louvre museum in what the government said appeared to have been a terrorist attack.

The man shouted Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) and rushed at police and soldiers before being shot near the museum’s shopping mall, police said, adding a second person had also been detained after acting suspiciously.

The attacker was alive but seriously wounded, the head of Paris police Michel Cadot told reporters at the scene, adding the bags he had been carrying contained no explosives.

“The soldier fired five bullets,” Cadot said, describing how the man hurried threateningly toward the soldiers at around 10 a.m. (0900 GMT).

“It was an attack by a person … who represented a direct threat and whose actions suggested a terrorist context.”

Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said during a visit to Bayeux in Normandy: “It appears to be an attempted attack of a terrorist nature.”

The soldier who fired the bullets was from one of the patrolling groups that have become a common sight around the capital since a state of emergency was declared across France in November 2015. An anti-terrorism inquiry has been opened, the public prosecutor said in a statement.

Another soldier was slightly wounded in the incident.

The identity and nationality of the attacker remains unknown for now, French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told reporters. Interior Minister Bruno le Roux abandoned a trip to the Dordogne region to return to Paris.

More than 230 people have died in France in the past two years at the hands of attackers allied to the militant Islamist group Islamic State.

The country is less than three months away from a presidential election in which security and fears of terrorism are among the key issues.

Paris was also planning to submit its official bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games on Friday with a launch show at the Eiffel Tower around 1730 GMT.

The city had in recent months been gradually recovering from a dip in foreign tourism caused by the attacks.

The most recent deadly attack took place in the southern city of Nice in July last year when a man drove a truck into a crowd on the seafront killing 86.

In September, in an attempted attack, a group of women parked a car containing gas canisters near Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral.

Police cordoned off and evacuated the area around the museum for a time on Friday but began to allow traffic to pass less than two hours after the incident. Louvre officials closed the museum and kept visitors inside for a time before beginning to let them leave.

(Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Chine Labbe, Bate Felix; Editing by Andrew Callus, John Irish and Janet Lawrence)

Afghan government controls less than 60 percent of country: watchdog

Afghan National Army soldier stands guard

By Josh Smith

KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan government controls less than 60 percent of the country, a U.S. watchdog agency reported on Wednesday, after security forces retreated from many strongholds last year.

Afghan soldiers and police, with the aid of thousands of foreign military advisers, are struggling to hold off a resurgent insurgency led by the Taliban, as well as other groups like Islamic State.

As of November, the government could only claim to control or influence 57 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, according to U.S. military estimates released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in a quarterly report to the U.S. Congress.

That represents a 15 percent decrease in territory held compared with the same time in 2015, the agency said in a report.

“SIGAR’s analysis of the most recent data provided by U.S. forces in Afghanistan suggests that the security situation in Afghanistan has not improved this quarter,” it said.

“The numbers of the Afghan security forces are decreasing, while both casualties and the number of districts under insurgent control or influence are increasing.”

More than 10 percent of districts are under insurgent control or influence, while 33 percent are contested, according to the report.

Some of the most contested provinces include Uruzgan, with five of six districts under insurgent control or influence, and Helmand, with eight of its 14 districts under insurgent control or influence.

U.S. military officials say much of the loss of territory reflects a change in strategy, with Afghan forces abandoning many checkpoints and bases in order to consolidate and focus on the most threatened areas.

Insurgents tried at least eight times to capture provincial capitals, although each assault was eventually beaten off.

According to U.S. military estimates, the number of Afghans living under insurgent control or influence decreased slightly in recent months to about 2.5 million people.

But nearly a third of the country, or 9.2 million people, live in areas that are contested, according to SIGAR, leading to some of the highest civilian casualty rates the United Nations has ever recorded in Afghanistan.

Afghan security forces also sustained heavy casualties, with at least 6,785 soldiers and police killed in the first 10 months of last year, with 11,777 wounded, SIGAR reported.

Casualty figures are rarely released by the Afghan government, while difficulties in confirming and tracking troop numbers make any figures subject to wide variation.

SIGAR reported some progress in combating corruption, which has plagued both Afghan military and political institutions.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)