Gunmen kill six in second church attack in Burkina Faso

Map of Burkina Faso

Gunmen killed six people including a priest outside a Catholic church in Burkina Faso on Sunday, the government said, the second attack on Christians in two weeks in a nation increasingly overrun by jihadists.

Congregants were leaving church around 9 a.m. (0900 GMT) in the town of Dablo in the Central North region when about 20 men encircled them and shot six dead, according to a government statement and local sources.

The attackers then burned the church, looted a pharmacy and some other stores, and left, Dablo mayor Ousmane Zongo told Reuters. The government statement only mentioned the burning of a shop and two vehicles.

“These terrorist groups are now attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us,” it said.

Burkina Faso has been beset by a rise in attacks in 2019 as groups with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda based in neighboring Mali seek to fuel local tensions and extend their influence over the porous borders of the Sahel, the arid scrubland south of the Sahara.

The government declared a state of emergency in several northern provinces bordering Mali in December because of deadly Islamist attacks.

But violence has only worsened since. Two French soldiers were killed in an operation to rescue four people taken hostage in Burkina last week, France said. Over 100,000 people in Burkina Faso have been displaced by the unrest this year, the United Nations has said.

Roughly 55% to 60% of Burkina Faso’s population is Muslim, with up to a quarter Christian. The two groups generally live in peace and frequently intermarry.

Then in late April unidentified gunmen killed a pastor and five congregants at a Protestant church, also in the north, suggesting the violence was taking a religious turn.

(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Suffering grows from Libya conflict, jihadists exploit vacuum

Bullets are seen while members of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli's forces, prepare themselves to go to the front line in Tripoli, Libya April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Stephanie Nebehay

TRIPOLI/GENEVA (Reuters) – Casualties from the battle for Libya’s capital mounted on Tuesday while Islamic State killed three people in a desert town, illustrating how jihadists may exploit renewed chaos.

Medical facilities reported 47 people killed and 181 wounded in recent days as eastern forces seek to take Tripoli from an internationally-recognized government, the World Health Organisation said.

That was a higher figure than numbers given by either side, and appeared to be made up mainly of fighters, although it also comprised nine civilians including two doctors, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in Geneva.

The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s army – seized the sparsely populated but oil-rich south earlier this year before heading toward Tripoli this month.

They are fighting on the southern side of the city, where witnesses said on Monday afternoon the LNA had lost control of a former airport and withdrawn down the road.

The government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal that Haftar boycotted, is seeking to repel the LNA with the help of armed groups who have rushed from Misrata in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.

Serraj’s forces carried out an air strike on an LNA position in the suburb of Suq al-Khamis on Tuesday, a resident and an eastern military source said, without giving more details.

GLOBAL PLEAS

The United Nations, United States, European Union and G7 bloc have appealed for a ceasefire, a return to a U.N. peace plan, and a halt to Haftar’s push.

Far south of Tripoli, the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for attacking the town of Fuqaha, where residents said three people were killed and another kidnapped.

Fuqaha is controlled by fighters loyal to Haftar, who casts himself as a foe of Islamist extremism though he is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mold of Gaddafi.

IS has been active in Libya in the turmoil since the Western-backed overthrow of Gaddafi eight years ago.

It took control of the coastal city of Sirte in 2015 but lost it the following year to local forces backed by U.S. airstrikes, and now operates in the shadows. The attack on Fuqaha indicated IS may be looking to exploit gaps left by movements of Haftar’s troops.

Libya’s potential slide into civil war threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe and scupper U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.

“There are fears that the civilian death toll will rise rapidly as the fighting intensifies and spreads into more densely populated parts of the city,” said Amnesty International’s regional deputy, Magdalena Mughrabi.

On Monday, a warplane took out Tripoli’s only functioning airport, and the number of displaced people – 3,400 at the last U.N. count – is mounting alongside the casualties.

MIGRANT MISERY

Libya has become the main conduit for African migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, many of whom suffer torture, rape and extortion on their journeys.

Those who manage to board a boat to Italy risk drowning or being sent back into detention in inhumane conditions, according to the U.N. migration agency, which estimates that twice as many die in the Sahara desert as in the Mediterranean.

U.N. agencies say some 5,700 refugees and migrants are trapped in detention centers in conflict areas and fear some may be used as human shields or forcibly recruited.

“They tell us they can hear the clashes. Many are really scared,” U.N. refugee agency UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.

The LNA says it has 85,000 men in an army analyst believe has been swelled by Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders. Its elite Saiqa (Lightning) force numbers some 3,500, LNA sources say.

Britain’s junior foreign minister, Mark Field, told parliament on Monday that Haftar had support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and had spent 20 years in the United States so was likely to have good connections there. Field said he feared the new violence could foster support for Islamic State.

“My biggest concern, I guess, is that it is very evident that General Haftar’s position is that he doesn’t regard democracy as being an important way forward for Libya,” he said.

The U.N.-backed prime minister Serraj, 59, received telephone calls from Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and France’s President Emmanuel Macron late on Monday to discuss the crisis.

(Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi, Tom Miles in Geneva, Ulf Laessing in Cairo; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Giles Elgood and Frances Kerry)

Battle for last Islamic State enclave edges toward its end

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to take Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria looked close to an end on Wednesday, with no sign of clashes as U.S.-backed fighters said they were combing the area for hidden jihadists.

Reuters reporters overlooking Baghouz from a hill on the bank of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border said the area was calm, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia searched for tunnels and landmines, an SDF official said.

The SDF on Tuesday captured an encampment where the jihadists had been mounting a last defense of the tiny enclave, pushing diehard fighters onto a sliver of land at the Euphrates riverside.

There was no immediate update from the SDF on Wednesday on the fate of these remaining militants. A group of women and children were seen being evacuated from the Baghouz area.

Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz would end its territorial control over the third of Syria and Iraq it held in 2014 as it sought to carve out a huge caliphate in the region.

(GRAPHIC: How Islamic State lost Syria – https://tmsnrt.rs/2O7l4mN)

While it would represent a significant milestone in Syria’s eight-year-old war and in the battle against Islamic State, the jihadist group remains a threat.

Some of the group’s fighters remain holed up in the central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraqi cities to wage an insurgent campaign to destabilize the government.

For the SDF, it would cap a four-year military campaign in which its fighters drove Islamic State from swathes of northeastern Syria with the help of a U.S.-led coalition, taking the city of Raqqa after a months-long battle in 2017.

The group was also forced into retreat by numerous other local and foreign forces roused by its public displays of bloodletting and the attacks it plotted abroad.

Its enclave at Baghouz was the last part of the massive territory it suddenly seized in 2014, straddling swathes of Iraq and Syria, where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new caliphate.

His fate, along with other Islamic State leaders, is not known, though the United States has said it believes him to be in Iraq.

The group’s supporters in Baghouz faced months of siege, pounded by coalition air strikes. Over the past two months, some 60,000 people poured out of the shrinking IS territory.

About half of that number were civilians, the SDF has said, including some Islamic State victims such as enslaved women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious community.

The others were the group’s supporters including about 5,000 fighters. In recent days, as the enclave shrank, the SDF said hundreds more of them started to surrender, or were captured trying to escape.

Most of those who left were moved to displacement camps in northeast Syria. The fighters were detained, but the SDF has urged foreign countries to take back their citizens, causing a dilemma for some Western states who see them as a threat.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Baghouz, writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut, Editing by Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)

Hundreds surrender in last Islamic State enclave as SDF advance

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State militants along with women and children surrendered in the hundreds to U.S.-backed forces in eastern Syria on Thursday as the jihadists lost ground in their last shred of territory.

Many of the men were limping as they crossed out of the Baghouz enclave along a dirt path over a rocky hill, with weeping children and fully veiled women, dragging suitcases and backpacks behind them.

Some men trudged along on crutches with bandages wrapped around their legs. Women hoisted children onto their shoulders to get them up the hill, leaving strollers and blankets behind in the dust.

Adnan Afrin, a commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said hundreds of people were emerging, adding to the many thousands who have streamed out of Baghouz in recent weeks.

“They are coming out this way in case there are snipers or someone wants to attack.”

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said some 1,300 jihadists and their families came out on Thursday. SDF fighters said they included foreigners.

The militants surrendered during a pause in the U.S.-backed assault to seize the final patch of populated Islamic State territory – a self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

In the morning, explosions rang out at the front line as artillery fire pounded Baghouz and warplanes buzzed overhead.

The SDF, which the Kurdish YPG militia spearheads, said the jihadists had deployed more than 20 suicide bombers in counter-attacks in the last two days.

It said at least 112 militants had been killed since it resumed the offensive at the weekend.

No Islamic State commanders are believed to be in Baghouz village, a U.S. defense official has said. U.S. government experts strongly believe its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The jihadists are still assessed to be a potent security threat with a foothold in remote areas and widely expected to escalate a wave of guerrilla attacks.

TWISTED METAL, FALLEN PALM TREES

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared its ultra-radical Sunni Islamist “caliphate” and established a rule known for mass killings, sexual enslavement and meting out punishments such as crucifixion.

The militants suffered their major military defeats in 2017, when they lost the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. They were then forced down the Euphrates River to their last bastion at Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets on the eastern bank.

In part of the Islamic State encampment which the SDF seized a few days ago, collapsed tents and fallen palm trees lay among a scattering of rubble and twisted metal.

Dirty, ripped blankets, carpets, mattresses and abandoned motorcycles littered the ground.

The SDF assault had been postponed repeatedly over the last few weeks to evacuate people from the enclave, many of them wives and children of fighters.

Overall, tens of thousands have fled Islamic State’s shrinking territory in recent months. The SDF has mostly transferred to a camp at al-Hol in the northeast.

The United Nations says the camp now holds around 67,000 people, 90 percent of them women and children – well beyond its capacity. Camp workers say they do not have enough tents, food or medicine. They have warned of diseases spreading.

Aid agencies say scores of people, mostly children, have died en route to the camp or shortly after arriving.

(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; Writing by Lisa Barrington, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Islamic State counter-attacks out of final Syria enclave fall short -U.S.-backed SDF

Islamic state fighters and their families walk as they surrendered in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State launched two counter attacks on U.S.-backed fighters besieging their final shred of territory in eastern Syria on Wednesday but were beaten back without any progress, the Syrian Democratic Forces said.

The jihadists, waging a last-ditch battle in Baghouz, a collection of hamlets and farmland near the Iraqi border, dispatched suicide bombers against SDF fighters, who thwarted the attacks, the U.S.-backed force said.

Islamic State launched the second counter-attack in the afternoon, “(taking) advantage of smoke and dust over Baghouz”, the SDF media office said. “Fighting is still continuing. (Islamic State) made no progress so far and were stopped.”

There were no SDF casualties. “They attempted to carry out suicide attacks but failed,” the SDF said.

Black smoke mushroomed high over Baghouz as the sounds of gunfire, explosions and planes could be heard in a battle that the SDF has said is as good as over.

In parts of Baghouz already under SDF control, dirt roads were littered with the scorched remains of cars, trucks and motorcycles. Many houses had been completely flattened and roads had been cratered by missile strikes.

Islamic State’s black flag could still be seen painted on walls, while others had been emblazoned with freshly daubed SDF slogans and the words “Down with Daesh”, an Arabic acronym for the jihadists.

Islamic State (IS) held roughly one third of Syria and Iraq at the zenith of its power in 2014, when its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all the world’s Muslims.

Subsequently, IS was steadily beaten back by a range of enemies including the U.S.-led international coalition, suffering its major defeats in 2017 when it lost the Iraqi city of Mosul and its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa.

No Islamic State leaders are believed to be in Baghouz, according to a U.S. defense official. U.S. government experts strongly believe Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The group is still assessed to remain a potent security threat operating in remote territory in both Syria and Iraq.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said its forces had bombarded Baghouz heavily overnight before engaging in direct clashes with IS fighters in the pre-dawn hours.

Live footage broadcast by Kurdish Ronahi TV overnight showed a series of large blasts lighting up the night sky over Baghouz.

SUICIDE ASSAULTS

“There were suicide vest attacks by a group of bombers who tried to blow themselves up amidst our forces. Our forces targeted and killed them before they reached our positions,” Bali said.

The SDF has laid siege to Baghouz for weeks but had repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of Islamic State fighters, to leave. It resumed the attack on Sunday.

Around 3,000 IS fighters and their families surrendered to SDF forces in 24 hours, Bali said overnight. Three women and four children belonging to the Yazidi sect, a minority group who were kidnapped and enslaved by IS in 2014, were also freed, he said.

Islamic State put out a new propaganda video overnight Monday filmed in recent weeks inside Baghouz, maintaining its claim to leadership of all Muslims and calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

“Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in hell,” one of the men interviewed in the video said.

Though Islamic State is on the verge of losing its last piece of territory, Syria remains carved up among other parties to its multi-sided conflict: President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Kurdish-led SDF, and anti-government rebels.

The war has escalated in recent weeks between the Assad government and insurgents in the northwestern region of Idlib, where Islamist militant group Tahrir al-Sham holds sway.

Overnight, government forces rained incendiary bombs on the area, where a full-scale offensive was averted in September by an agreement brokered by Assad’s Russian allies and Turkey, which backs his opponents and has forces on the ground.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor, Ellen Francis in Baghouz and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Lisa Barrington/Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

150 Islamic State fighters surrender in Syria battle: monitor

FILE PHOTO: A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds a walkie-talkie in Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Scores of Islamic State fighters surrendered to U.S.-backed forces on Monday, a war monitor said, after a ferocious assault to overrun their last shred of territory in eastern Syria.

Islamic State faces defeat in Baghouz, the only remaining patch of land it still holds in the area straddling Iraq and Syria where it declared a caliphate in 2014, although it still has control in a few remote areas.

Early on Monday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they had slowed their assault on Islamic State because more civilians were trapped in the area, though it vowed to capture it soon.

A convoy of trucks was visible heading into Baghouz in the morning, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 150 jihadists left the enclave, along with about 250 other people.

There was no immediate confirmation of the surrenders from the SDF or any indication as to how many jihadists remained holed up inside.

Islamic State’s fighters have gradually fallen back on Baghouz at the Iraqi border as they retreated down the Euphrates in the face of sustained assault in both countries after its grotesque displays of cruelty roused global fury.

Despite the setbacks, the group remains a deadly threat, developing alternatives to its caliphate ranging from rural insurgency to urban bombings by affiliates in the region and beyond, many governments say.

The Syrian Democratic Forces this weekend resumed its assault on the group’s pocket in the village of Baghouz, the culmination of a campaign that included the capture of Raqqa in 2017, when IS also faced other big defeats in Iraq and Syria.

The militia had already paused its attack for weeks to allow thousands of people to flee the area, including Islamic State supporters, fighters, children, local people and some of the group’s captives.

It said on Friday that only jihadists remained, but now says some more civilians are left.

“We’re slowing down the offensive in Baghouz due to a small number of civilians held as human shields by Daesh,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

However, “the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon,” he added.

Dozens of trucks similar to those that had evacuated people from the enclave in recent weeks were visible heading back there on Monday and the drivers said they were going to pick people up at Baghouz.

Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said in an email that he could not verify who Islamic State was holding but hoped they would be released unharmed.

On Sunday, the SDF faced landmines, car bombs, tunnel ambushes and suicide attacks as they attempted to overrun the enclave – tactics the jihadist group has honed through its hard-fought retreat down the Euphrates.

Reuters photographs from Baghouz on Sunday showed dark plumes of smoke rising above houses and palm trees, and SDF fighters shooting into the Islamic State enclave.

While the capture of Baghouz would mark a milestone in the fight against Islamic State, the group is expected to remain a security threat as an insurgent force with sleeper cells and some pockets of remote territory.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Robert Birsel, William Maclean and Hugh Lawson)

Operation to end last IS Syria pocket hits evacuation snag

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gives bread to children near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to destroy Islamic State’s final vestige of rule in Iraq and Syria hit a temporary snag on Thursday, as an expected evacuation of the remaining civilians from its last enclave in eastern Syria did not go ahead.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has steadily driven the jihadists down the Euphrates, has surrounded them at Baghouz near the Iraqi border but does not want to mount a final attack until all civilians are out.

Iraqi sources said the SDF handed over more than 150 Iraqi and other foreign jihadists to Iraq on Thursday, under a deal involving a total of 502.

The SDF had expected to pull the last civilians from Baghouz on Thursday, but trucks it sent in left empty. “We can’t get into details, but today no civilians came out,” SDF official Mustafa Bali told Reuters.

Baghouz is all that remains for Islamic State in the Euphrates valley region that became its final populated stronghold in Iraq and Syria after it lost its major cities of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.

In Paris, a French source said the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State was verifying whether an air strike killed French jihadist Fabien Clain, who voiced the recording claiming the November 2015 attacks on Paris.

A second French source close to the matter said Clain had been killed and his brother Jean-Michel seriously wounded after a coalition strike on Wednesday in Baghouz.

In the 2015 attacks, gunmen and suicide bombers killed 129 people in the French capital. France’s military, foreign ministry and president’s office declined to comment. The coalition said it could not confirm the information at this time.

The capture of Baghouz will nudge the eight-year-old Syrian war towards a new phase, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to withdraw troops leaving a security vacuum that other powers are seeking to fill.

Though the fall of Baghouz marks a milestone in the campaign against IS and the wider conflict in Syria, Islamic State is still seen as a major security threat.

The group has steadily turned to guerrilla warfare and still holds territory in a remote, sparsely populated area west of the Euphrates River – a part of Syria otherwise controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.

Bali told Reuters the SDF would attack Baghouz once the civilian evacuation was complete. He did not say how much more time was needed to finish off the remaining Islamic State militants or give a new estimate of how many fighters remained.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred fighters – believed mostly to be foreign jihadists – are still inside.

A Reuters witness saw warplanes in the sky over Baghouz on Thursday though there was no sound of fighting or shelling.

The U.S.-led coalition said on Wednesday “the most hardened” jihadists remain in Baghouz.

More than 2,000 civilians left the enclave on Wednesday, the SDF said. It has said more than 20,000 civilians left Baghouz in the days leading up to the start of the SDF’s final push to capture the enclave this month.

The SDF has not ruled out the possibility that some Islamic State fighters had left Baghouz with the civilians.

SDF and coalition forces are recording the names and questioning everyone who has left in the civilian convoys.

Many of the people who left the enclave in civilian convoys have been Iraqis, some of whom said they had crossed from Iraq into Syria as Iraqi government forces made gains against Islamic State on the other side of the frontier.

FACING THE CONSEQUENCES

Two Iraqi military sources told Reuters the handover of Islamic State fighters on Thursday was the first of several.

“The majority of the fighters are Iraqi,” said a military colonel whose unit is stationed at the Syrian border. “But we have a few foreigners.”

Islamic State, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all Muslims, in 2014, attracted members from all over the world, including many Western states.

A Turkish official said Turkey was doubling down its own security measures to make it harder for foreign fighters still in Syria or Iraq to pass through Turkey, noting that the threat was much greater than the 800 that the SDF says it is holding.

Western countries refusing to repatriate jihadists were not living up to their responsibilities and leaving countries like Turkey to face the consequences, the official added.

Britain has stripped the citizenship of a teenager who went to Syria aged 15 to join Islamic State. But interior minister Sajid Javid said he would not take a decision that would leave anyone stateless, after Bangladesh said it would not accept her.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a woman born in the United States who joined Islamic State did not qualify for U.S. citizenship and had no legal basis to return to the country.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Raya Jalabi in Erbil, Tom Perry in Beirut and Tulay Karadeniz, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Angus McDowall, William Maclean)

One year on, Baghdad falls silent to mark defeat of Islamic State

A member of security forces flashes the victory sign, during marking the one year anniversary of the military defeat of Islamic State, at Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A hush descended on central Baghdad on Monday as Iraqis observed a minute’s silence for those killed in the battle against Islamic State a year after the group was defeated.

Fireworks were scheduled to be set off later in the evening. The government has made the date a national holiday and dubbed it “victory day” but some Iraqis felt little cause for celebration, however.

Iraqis with security forces stop during a minute of silence, marking the one year anniversary of the military defeat of Islamic State, at Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Iraqis with security forces stop during a minute of silence, marking the one year anniversary of the military defeat of Islamic State, at Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Little meaningful reconstruction has taken place in cities decimated by battles against the jihadists between 2014 and 2017, and Iraq is in the throes of a new political crisis which has prevented it forming a government that can tackle widespread corruption and lack of jobs and services.

Meanwhile, Islamic State militants are still carrying out insurgent-style attacks against security forces and have been blamed for car bombs and assassinations of local notables.

“Iraqis are scared that the problems in parliament … and the inability to form a full cabinet … have helped create the (unstable) environment for Islamic State cells to re-emerge,” Najah Jameel, 48 a civil society activist, said.

Another Baghdad resident, Dawood Salman, 55, said he would remember the soldiers and fighters who were killed battling the jihadists.

“We congratulate the military and the Popular Mobilisation Forces,” a grouping of mostly Shi’ite paramilitaries, he said.

Iraq’s military, Kurdish forces and the Shi’ite militias backed by U.S.-led air strikes and special forces drove Islamic State militants out of areas they had controlled for three years in 2017.

Former prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared the Sunni Muslim extremists defeated in Iraq on Dec. 9, 2017. The group had ruled over a self-styled caliphate, governing large parts of northern Iraq and eastern Syria according to its fanatical interpretation of Islam and Islamic law.

“This is a day that we are all proud of when our courageous country defeat the enemies of peace,” Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said in a televised address.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Baghdad; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Islamic State kills 215 in southwest Syria attacks: state media

Remains of a suicide bomb are seen in Sweida, Syria July 25, 2018. Sana/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants killed more than 200 people in a coordinated assault on a government-held area of southwestern Syria on Wednesday, local officials and a war monitor said, in the group’s deadliest attack in the country for years.

Jihadist fighters stormed several villages and staged suicide blasts in the provincial capital Sweida, near one of the few remote pockets still held by Islamic State after it was driven from most of its territory last year.

The head of the Sweida provincial health authority told the pro-Damascus Sham FM that 215 people were killed and 180 injured in the attack, as well as 75 Islamic State fighters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the attackers had killed more than 200 people including many civilians. Islamic State said in an earlier statement that it had killed more than 100 people in the attacks.

The jihadists launched simultaneous attacks on several villages northeast of Sweida city, where they clashed with government forces, state media and the Observatory said.

In the city itself, at least two attackers blew themselves up, one near a marketplace and the second in another district, state television said. State news agency SANA said two other militants were killed before they could detonate their bombs.

The Observatory said jihadists seized hostages from the villages they had attacked.

Photographs distributed on social media, which Reuters could not independently verify but which the Observatory said were genuine, purported to show the bodies of Islamic State fighters hanged from street signs by angry residents.

Sweida Governor Amer al-Eshi said authorities also arrested another attacker. “The city of Sweida is secure and calm now,” he told state-run Ikhbariyah TV.

Islamic State lost nearly all the territory it once held in Syria last year in separate offensives by the Russian-backed army and a U.S.-backed militia alliance.

Since then, President Bashar al-Assad has gone on to crush the last remaining rebel enclaves near the cities of Damascus and Homs and swept rebels from the southwest.

After losing its strongholds in eastern Syria last year, Islamic State launched insurgency operations from pockets of territory in desert areas.

The Observatory said government forces had forced the jihadists from all the villages they had stormed from their pocket northeast of the city.

Government troops and allied forces hold all of Sweida province except for that enclave.

The air force pounded militant hideouts northeast of the city after soldiers thwarted an attempt by Islamic State fighters to infiltrate Douma, Tima and al-Matouna villages, state media said.

With the help of Russian air power, the Syrian army has been hitting Islamic State in a separate pocket further west, near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Yarmouk Basin in southwest Syria remains in jihadist hands, after an army offensive defeated rebel factions in other parts of the southwest. The operation has focused on Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Tom Perry in Beirut, Hesham Hajali in Cairo, and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; editing by Stephen Powell and David Stamp)

The Battle against the fanatical Islamic State

A boy who just fled a village controlled by Islamic State fighters cries as he sits with his family on a bus before heading to the camp at Hammam Ali south of Mosul, Iraq, February 22, 2017.

(Reuters) – It was an awkward coalition riven by political and sectarian differences, facing an elusive, fanatical enemy dug into an urban maze of narrow streets and alleyways. So, could Iraq’s government really deliver on its vow to vanquish Islamic State?

In the end, the army, Shi’ite Muslim paramilitaries and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters mustered rare unity to end Islamic State’s reign of terror in Iraq’s second city Mosul, seat of the ultra-hardline Sunni insurgents’ “caliphate”.

Baghdad’s victory in July 2017 after nine months of fighting was the coup de grace for the caliphate and came three years after a jihadist juggernaut seized one third of Iraq.

Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 15, 2017.

Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

But even with supportive U.S. air strikes, Baghdad’s triumph came at a devastating cost for the once-vibrant, multicultural city in northern Iraq and the surrounding region.

When Islamic State militants first arrived in Mosul in June 2014 after sweeping aside crumbling Iraqi army units, many Mosul residents initially welcomed them.

The militants were Sunni Muslims, like many in Mosul who had accused the forces of then-Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of widespread sectarian abuses.

Islamic State consequently presented itself as Mosul’s savior. But as jihadists brandishing AK-47 assault rifles began imposing an Islamist doctrine even more brutal and mediaeval than al Qaeda, its popularity soon faded.

Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, had long been seen as an ineffective leader who could not make tough decisions.

However, a U.S.-backed campaign against IS in Mosul offered Abadi a chance to emerge as a steely statesman capable of taking on a group that had terrorized a sprawling city with beheadings in public squares while staging deadly attacks in the West.

A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017

A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

REIGN OF TERROR

Just smoking one cigarette, an act IS saw as anti-Islamic, earned you dozens of lashes. Children were used as informers. Women in minority communities were turned into sex slaves.

But taking back Mosul was never going to be easy.

Long before the first shot was fired, Abadi and his advisers and military commanders had to tread cautiously, taking into account sectarian and ethnic sensitivities that could splinter the united front he urgently needed to establish.

Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence agencies had recruited informers inside Mosul, from ex-soldiers and army officers to taxi drivers, who would face instant execution if caught.

Even if an alliance of convenience was struck, glossing over sectarian splits, Mosul itself posed formidable physical obstacles.

Key districts consisted of ancient little streets and alleyways inaccessible to tanks and armored vehicles, and they were so densely populated that U.S.-led coalition air strikes risked heavy civilian casualties.

So, street by street, house by house, fighting was unavoidable.

Such challenges first popped up in Mosul’s hinterland as Kurdish forces slowly advanced against fierce IS resistance.

In one village, a single IS sniper hunkered down in a house held up hundreds of Kurdish fighters, the U.S. special forces advising them and 40 of their vehicles. Eventually, his rifle went silent after three air strikes on the house.

As pro-government forces inched forward, the United Nations warned of a possible humanitarian disaster and expressed fear that jihadists could seize civilians for use as human shields, and gun down anyone trying to escape.

IS fighters – both Iraqis and foreigners – were experts at carrying out suicide bombings and assembling homemade bombs. Many houses were booby-trapped. Iraqi military commanders had to factor these lurking perils into their gameplan.

In interviews, IS insurgents shed light on what Iraqi forces were up against. They were quite open about their ideology and what they were willing to do to transform the Middle East.

One man said he had used rape as a weapon of war against more than 200 women from Iraqi minorities, and had killed 500 people.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces arrest a person suspected of belonging to Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2017.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces arrest a person suspected of belonging to Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani/File Photo

DEADLY OBSTACLE COURSE

After months of grueling fighting, Iraqi forces finally attained the outskirts of Mosul, but any celebrations were premature. Bombs littered dusty roads. Car bombs were exploding.

A Mosul resident explained that his child no longer flinched as explosions shook his street because many people, including the young, had grown numb to the daily bloodshed.

Each side resorted to desperate measures to gain an edge.

In north Mosul, people walked by fly-infested, bloated corpses of militants who had been left on roadsides for two weeks. Iraqi soldiers explained that the stinking bodies had been left there to send a clear message to residents – don’t join IS or you will suffer the same fate.

A woman injured in a mortar attack is treated by medics in a field clinic as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2017.

A woman injured in a mortar attack is treated by medics in a field clinic as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

Caught in the middle were civilians who had suffered under the IS reign of terror for three years and were now wondering if they would survive a relentless battle to “liberate” them.

Parents waited patiently after weeks of fighting for a largely unknowable right moment to make a dash for Iraqi government lines, clutching their children, risking a run-in with jihadists from places as far away as Chechnya.

As much of east and west Mosul was pulverized by coalition air strikes or IS truck and car bombs, the city was reduced to row after row of collapsed or gutted housing.

In the end, IS suffered its most decisive defeat and watched their self-proclaimed caliphate evaporate in Iraq, then in Syria as Kurdish-led forces retook Raqqa, IS’s urban stronghold there.

 

FUTURE CHALLENGES

But those victories will be followed by tough questions about the future of both Iraq and Syria.

Preserving the shaky understanding forged between the different communities in the run-up to the Mosul campaign will be essential to saving Iraq as a state in the future.

It did not take long for the Mosul coalition to fray.

In October, Iraqi forces dislodged Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from the oil city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas and Baghdad imposed curbed air travel to and from the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in retaliation for a Kurdish independence referendum held in northern Iraq in September.

The battle for Raqqa, which became IS’s operational base in Syria, had a different feel to it as U.S.-backed Kurds and Arabs in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) tightened their siege.

The fighting seemed slower and more measured, step by step along abandoned streets where journalists were given access.

In the weeks before Raqqa’s fall in October, young female SDF fighters faced off against hardened militants and suffered losses. But that did not curb their enthusiasm and some said they would eventually like to join Kurdish PKK militants in Turkey and help advance their 33-year-old insurgency there.

The victors in Iraq and Syria now face new challenges as they rebuild cities shattered by the showdown with IS.

People cross a makeshift ladder in a village near Raqqa after a bridge was destroyed in fighting between the U.S.-led coalition and Islamic State, in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017.

People cross a makeshift ladder in a village near Raqqa after a bridge was destroyed in fighting between the U.S.-led coalition and Islamic State, in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

After IS’s defeat in Raqqa, Raqqa residents formed a council to run the city but they had no budget when it was first set up, just residents streaming into their tin, run-down headquarters demanding everything from instant jobs to getting their damaged farmland back.

Syrian Kurdish fighters were inspired by the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, head of the PKK militants who has been imprisoned in Turkey for almost 20 years.

Turkey views the political rise of Syria’s Kurds as a threat to its national security and is fiercely opposed to the idea of Kurdish autonomy on its doorstep.

The Kurdish groups who led the fight against Islamic State in its former capital Raqqa must now navigate a complex peace to avoid ethnic tension with the city’s Arab majority and to secure critical U.S. aid.

So, life for Raqqa’s victors will remain fraught with risk.

 

(Reporting by Michael Georgy; editing by Mark Heinrich)