Staff evacuated as rocket strikes near foreign oil firms in Iraq

Iraqi soldiers sit on a tank at the entry of Zubair oilfield after a rocket struck the site of residential and operations headquarters of several oil companies at Burjesia area, in Basra, Iraq June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani

By Aref Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – A rocket hit a site in southern Iraq used by foreign oil companies on Wednesday, including U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil, wounding three people and threatening to further escalate U.S.-Iran tensions in the region.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack near Iraq’s southern city of Basra, the fourth time in a week that rockets have struck near U.S. installations.

Three previous attacks on or near military bases housing U.S. forces near Baghdad and Mosul caused no casualties or major damage. None of those incidents were claimed.

An Iraqi security source said it appeared that Iran-backed groups in southern Iraq were behind the Basra incident.

“According to our sources, the team (that launched the rocket) is made up of more than one group and were well trained in missile launching,” the security source said.

He said they had received a tip-off several days ago the U.S. consulate in Basra might be targeted but were taken by surprise when the rocket hit the oil site.

Iranian officials have made no comment about the attack but have strongly denied all other allegations against them of attacking energy tankers and facilities in the region.

Abbas Maher, mayor of the nearby town of Zubair, said he believed Iran-backed groups had specifically targeted Exxon to “send a message” to the United States.

U.S.-Iranian hostility has risen since President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and other world powers in May last year.

Trump has since reimposed and extended U.S. sanctions on Iran, forcing states to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own. Tehran has threatened to abandon the nuclear pact unless other signatories act to rein in the United States.

The U.S. face-off with Iran reached a new pitch following attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in May and June that Washington blames on Tehran. Iran denies any involvement.

ESCALATION FEARED

While the long-time foes say they do not want war, the United States has reinforced its military presence in the region and analysts say violence could nonetheless escalate.

Some Western officials have said the recent attacks appear designed to show Iran could sow chaos if it wanted.

Iraqi officials fear their country, where powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias operate in close proximity to some 5,200 U.S. troops, could become an arena for escalation.

The United States has pressed Iraq’s government to rein in Iran-backed paramilitary groups, a tall order for a cabinet that suffers from its own political divisions.

Iraq’s military said three people were wounded in Wednesday’s strike by a short-range Katyusha missile. It struck the Burjesia site, west of Basra, which is near the Zubair oilfield operated Italy’s Eni SpA.

Police said the rocket landed 100 meters from the part of the site used as a residence and operations center by Exxon. Some 21 Exxon staff were evacuated by plane to Dubai, a security source said.

Zubair mayor Maher said the rocket was fired from farmland around 3-4 km (2 miles) from the site. A second rocket landed to the northwest of Burjesia, near a site of oil services company Oilserv, but did not explode, he said.

“We cannot separate this from regional developments, meaning the U.S.-Iranian conflict,” Maher said.

“These incidents have political objectives … it seems some sides did not like the return of Exxon staff.”

EXPORTS UNAFFECTED

Exxon had evacuated its staff from Basra after a partial U.S. Baghdad embassy evacuation in May and staff had just begun to return.

Burjesia is also used as a headquarters by Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Eni., according to Iraqi oil officials.

The officials said operations including exports from southern Iraq were not affected.

A separate Iraqi oil official, who oversees foreign operations in the south, said the other foreign firms had no plans to evacuate and would operate as normal.

A Shell spokesman said its employees had “not been subject to the attack … and we continue normal operations in Iraq.”

Eni say its operations were also proceeding as normal after the rocket exploded “several kilometers” from its facilities.

Wednesday’s rocket strike fits into a pattern of attacks since May, when four tankers in the Gulf and two Saudi oil pumping stations were attacked.

They have been accompanied by a spate of incidents inside Shi’ite-dominated Iraq, which is allied both to the United States and fellow Shi’ite Muslim Iran.

The attacks in Iraq have caused less damage but have all taken place near U.S. military, diplomatic or civilian installations, raising suspicions they were part of a campaign.

A rocket landed near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last month causing no damage or casualties. The United States had already evacuated hundreds of diplomatic staff from the embassy, citing unspecified threats from Iran.

Iran backs a number of Iraqi Shi’ite militias which have grown more powerful after helping defeat Islamic State.

Iraqi officials say that threats from Iran cited by Washington when it sent additional forces to the Middle East last month included the positioning by Iran-backed militias of rockets near U.S. forces.

Rockets hit on or near three separate military bases housing U.S. forces near Baghdad and in the northern city of Mosul in three separate attacks since Friday.

(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Dubai, Stephen Jewkes in; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Jon Boyle and Andrew Cawthorne and Alison Williams)

A legacy of war: U.N. clears thousands of explosives in Iraq

FILE PHOTO: Damaged buildings are seen in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations cleared almost 17,000 bombs, suicide belts and other explosive hazards in Iraq last year and the dangerous work of sifting through the debris of war – 7.6 million tonnes in Mosul alone – will take many years, U.N. experts said on Thursday.

There are 100,000 damaged buildings in the country that could harbor explosive hazards such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by retreating Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, said Pehr Lodhammar, head of the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Iraq.

The bulk of the clearance work is likely to take a decade, and 2 million displaced people are keen to go home. UNMAS trained almost 500,000 people last year to help them recognize the risks.

Last year’s haul of around 17,000 explosive hazards included a “staggering” 2,000 IEDs, Lodhammer told a news conference, noting these had pressure plate fuse triggers, trip wires, infrared devices, anti-lift devices, remote control devices, or a combination of those things.

That figure included 782 suicide belts, many of them actually fitted on dead ISIS fighters found in the debris, he said.

Islamic State held Mosul for three years, and UNMAS arrived when the fighting ended in 2017. Its experts are finding explosive hazards almost everywhere, Lodhammar said. It is also working in Fallujah, Tikrit and Kirkuk, and expanding to Sinjar.

Picking through the flattened wreckage of Western Mosul in temperatures close to 40 Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) is gruesome work and physically and psychologically demanding, UNMAS director Agnès Marcaillou said.

“You have decomposing body parts that are still attached to suicide belts. You are walking around in a stench and clouds of flies, and at any given time you can have a rat or a cat or dog actually detonating something that is buried under there,” she said.

Lodhammar said the task was not traditional one-dimensional mine clearance.

“These are not mines any longer. An anti-personnel mine would have up to 230-250 grams (8.1-8.8 oz) of explosives in it. Now we’re looking at 10-20 kilos (22-44 lb).”

Buildings up to nine storeys high needed to be searched and made safe, while many of the bombs and shells dropped on Mosul by Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition had failed to go off, he said.

There were 250-pound (113 kg) bombs and 500-pound bombs, some still buried 7-8 meters (23-26 ft) down.

Generally at least 10 percent of bombs are assumed not to explode, and if not cleared away they may turn up decades later, like the World War Two bombs that are still discovered in Germany, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Islamic State militants renew loyalty pledge to ‘caliph’ Baghdadi

FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State militants have restated their loyalty to the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in what is believed to be their first public pledge of allegiance to him since his “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq collapsed last year.

The group continues to carry out bombings, ambushes and assassinations in both countries, as well as in Libya. However, Baghdadi’s whereabouts have been unknown since the cross-border “caliphate” he declared in 2014 disintegrated with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, its strongholds in Iraq and Syria respectively.

“To infuriate and terrorize the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussaini al-Qurashi may god preserve him,” militants said in a statement posted on their social media groups.

Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises several governments including Iraq’s on Islamic State affairs, told Reuters this was the first known pledge of loyalty to Baghdadi since Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul in July and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias took Raqqa in November, in both cases backed by a U.S.-led coalition.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by David Stamp)

Yazidi sisters reunited after three years in Islamic State captivity

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 12, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18,

y Raya Jalabi

SHARYA, Iraq (Reuters) – When Rosa, now 14, asked her Islamic State captors about her younger sisters Bushra, 12, and Suhayla, seven, she was told they had been killed for misbehaving.

“At that point, I didn’t care about anything anymore. Even if I died,” she said. “I never thought I’d see them again.”

The sisters were finally reunited on Sunday, more than three years after being taken by the militants in an assault on Sinjar, the Yazidi heartland on August 3, 2014.

Yazidi girl Rosa, 13, who was reunited with her family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, is seen at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017.

Yazidi girl Rosa, 13, who was reunited with her family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, is seen at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Just last week, Iraq declared “final victory” over Islamic State, with parades through the streets of Baghdad in celebration after three years of bloody war.

But the damage done by the militants is not easily remedied: they brutalized Iraqis, exposing fault lines in the country’s already fragile social fabric and ripping families apart.

For Rosa and her family, though overjoyed at reuniting, the last three years will not be easily erased.

The militants shot, beheaded, burned alive or kidnapped more than 9,000 members of the minority religion, in what the United Nations has called a genocidal campaign against them. According to community leaders, more than 3,000 Yazidis remain unaccounted for.

Among them, are Rosa’s parents, thought murdered by the militants who rolled their victims into mass graves scattered across the sides of Sinjar mountain, where thousands of Yazidis still live in tents.

The girls’ nine-year-old brother, Zinal, is also still missing. Captured and held with them in the nearby city of Tal Afar, he was later driven away to Mosul in a car full of young Yazidi boys. They haven’t heard from him since.

SEPARATED AND SOLD

Reuters could not verify all of the details given by Rosa, Bushra and some of the five older brothers they now live with in a group of tents in the tiny village of Sharya in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

But Amin Khalat, spokesperson for Kurdish government office which helps return missing Yazidis, said Rosa and Suhayla had been taken to Syria and Turkey respectively after being held in Tal Afar and that his office had helped reunite them with their family.

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 12, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18,

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 7, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

He said Rosa was returned from Syria by fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Suhayla by the Iraqi government which was alerted to her existence by Turkish officials who found her at a refugee camp in Turkey. Her family then recognized her photograph.

Rosa said she and her younger siblings were sold, by the Islamic State militants who attacked Sinjar, to a fighter and his family in Tal Afar, a city of predominantly ethnic Turkmen which produced some of the group’s most senior commanders.

She said she did all the household chores and cared for her siblings and other young Yazidi captives, who lived together in a tiny room.

After a year together, Zinal was taken to Mosul, while Suhayla and Bushra were sold off to separate Islamic State families, close to one another, but not allowed to meet. After Bushra’s captors took her to Rosa’s house for a visit, she said she memorized the route so she could return.

“I would wait till everyone fell asleep in the afternoon, I’d pretend to fall asleep and then sneak out to see Rosa,” said Bushra. “They once caught me and threatened to sell me off if I didn’t stop seeing my sister but I didn’t care.”

Bushra said she was eventually sold again, but about a year ago, she and six older Yazidi girls ran away and reached Sinjar, where Kurdish fighters helped them find their families.

Rosa was taken to Deir Ezzor, Syria and sold twice more. She said she was originally bought for $4 in Tal Afar and last sold in Syria for $60. “Those dogs made quite a good profit out of me,” she said with a wry smile. PKK fighters came across her in Idlib and brought her back to Iraq and her family, she said.

Suhayla was taken by her Turkmen captors to a refugee camp in Turkey, where authorities discovered her situation and repatriated her. She was reunited with her sisters and other relatives on Sunday, a day after Rosa returned.

A general view of Sharya Camp, where Yazidi girls (back) who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants reside in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017

A general view of Sharya Camp, where Yazidi girls (back) who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants reside in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Beaten, forced to convert and forget their native Kurdish, the girls even had their names changed.

Rosa was known as Noor – hers was an infidel’s name, her captors told her. Suhayla, captured when she was three, barely recognizes her sisters and speaks in broken Turkman dialect and Arabic.

“She has to learn to remember us again,” said Rosa. “She got used to calling some strangers mum and grandpa while she was held captive.”

Her sisters say Suhayla has barely spoken since returning to her family, but wearing a pink sweater and plastic jewelry, she relaxed under a flood of kisses from her sisters.

Bushra, nine when she was captured, is only at ease with her closest relatives. Because she returned to the family first, her brothers have asked her to help her sisters, but she warned them that it would not be easy.

“It’s true we are strong, we’ve been through so much. But our hearts are weak – they’re broken.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Fresh losses in Syria and Iraq push Islamic State ‘caliphate’ to the brink

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fighters fire a cannon against Islamic State militants in Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017.

By Angus McDowall and Raya Jalabi

BEIRUT/ERBIL (Reuters) – Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate was all but reduced on Friday to a pair of border towns at the Iraq-Syria frontier, where thousands of fighters were believed to be holding out after losing nearly all other territory in both countries.

Forces in Syria and Iraq backed by regional states and global powers now appear on the cusp of victory over the group, which proclaimed its authority over all Muslims in 2014 when it held about a third of both countries and ruled over millions.

On the Syrian side, government forces declared victory in Deir al-Zor, the last major city in the country’s eastern desert where the militants still had a presence. On the Iraqi side, pro-government forces said they had captured the last border post with Syria in the Euphrates valley and entered the nearby town of al-Qaim, the group’s last Iraqi bastion.

A U.S.-led international coalition which has been bombing Islamic State and supporting ground allies on both sides of the frontier said the militant group now has a few thousand fighters left, mainly holed up at the border in Iraq’s al-Qaim and its sister town of Albu Kamal on the Syrian side.

“We do expect them now to try to flee, but we are cognisant of that and will do all we can to annihilate IS leaders,” spokesman U.S. Colonel Ryan Dillon said.

He estimated there were 1,500-2,500 fighters left in al-Qaim and 2,000-3,000 in Albu Kamal.

But both the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their international backers say they worry that the fighters will still be able to mount guerrilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.

“As IS continues to be hunted into these smallest areas … we see them fleeing into the desert and hiding there in an attempt to devolve back into an insurgent terrorist group,” said Dillon. “The idea of IS and the virtual caliphate, that will not be defeated in the near term. There is still going to be an IS threat.”

Driven this year from its two de facto capitals — Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa — Islamic State is pressed into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert straddling the frontier.

In Iraq, it faces the army and Shi’ite armed groups, backed both by the U.S.-led international coalition and by Iran. In Syria, the coalition supports an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in areas north and east of the Euphrates, while Iran and Russia support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

On the Syrian side, the government victory at Deir al-Zor, on the west bank of the Euphrates, ends a two month battle for control over the city, the center of Syria’s oil production. Islamic State had for years besieged a government enclave there until an army advance relieved it in early September, starting a battle for jihadist-held parts of the city.

“The armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces, liberated the city of Deir al-Zor completely from the clutches of the Daesh terrorist organization,” state media reported, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Engineering units were searching streets and buildings in Deir al-Zor for mines and booby traps left behind by Islamic State fighters, a Syrian military source told Reuters.

Government forces are still about 40km from the border at Albu Kamal, where they are preparing for a final showdown.

“The defeat of Albu Kamal practically means Daesh will be an organization that will cease to exist as a leadership structure,” the military source said. “It will be tantamount to a group of scattered individuals, it will no longer be an organization with headquarters, with leadership places, with areas it controls.”

 

BESIEGED FROM ALL DIRECTIONS

The source added that he did not believe the final battle at Albu Kamal would involve “fierce resistance”, as many fighters had been surrendering elsewhere.

“Some of them will fight until death, but they will not be able to do anything,” he said. “It is besieged from all directions, there are no supplies, a collapse in morale, and therefore all the organization’s elements of strength are finished.”

In Iraq, the military’s Joint Operations Command said on Friday the army, along with Sunni tribal fighters and Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries known as Popular Mobilisation, had captured the main border crossing on the highway between al-Qaim and Albu Kamal.

They had also entered the town of al-Qaim itself, which is located just inside the border on the south side of the Euphrates. The offensive is aimed at capturing al Qaim and another smaller town further down the Euphrates on the north bank, Rawa.

Iraq has been carrying out its final campaign to crush the Islamic State caliphate while also mounting a military offensive in the north against Kurds who held an independence referendum in September.

 

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry in Beirut and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graf)

 

Tillerson arrives in Iraq after rebuke from Baghdad over paramilitaries

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens to a reporter's question alongside Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani during a media availability after their meeting, in Doha, Qatar October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool

By Maher Chmaytelli

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived on Monday in Iraq, hours after the government rebuked him for calling on it to send home Iranian-backed paramilitary units that helped defeat Islamic State and capture the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk.

Iraq is one of the few countries allied closely to both the United States and Iran, and Tillerson’s effort to drive a wedge between Baghdad and Tehran appeared to have backfired, drawing a sharp statement from Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s office.

Tillerson visited Iraq a day after a rare joint meeting with Abadi and Saudi Arabia’s king Salman in the kingdom’s capital Riyadh.

After that meeting he called on Iraq to halt the work of the Tehran-backed paramilitary units, which have operated alongside government troops in battles against Islamic State and, since last week, in a lightning advance that seized the oil city of Kirkuk from Kurdish security forces.

Iraqi forces are deploying tanks and artillery just south of a Kurdish-operated oil pipeline that crosses into Turkey, a Kurdish security official said, the latest in a series of Iranian-backed operations against the Kurds.

“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.

Abadi’s office responded sharply.

“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement from his office read. It did not cite the prime minister himself but a “source” close to him. It referred to the mainly Shi’ite paramilitaries, known as “Popular Mobilization”, as “patriots”.

 

SAME SIDE

The international battle against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq since 2014 saw the United States and Iran effectively fighting on the same side, with both supporting the Iraqi government against the militants.

Washington has 5,000 troops in Iraq, and provided air support, training and weapons to Iraqi government forces, even as Iran armed, trained and advised Shi’ite paramilitaries which often fought alongside the army.

The latest twist in the Iraq conflict, pitting the central government against the Kurds, is trickier for U.S. policymakers. Washington still supports the central government but has also been allied to the Kurds for decades.

Iran is the pre-eminent Shi’ite power in the Middle East. Shi’ites, including Abadi, are the majority in Iraq which also has large Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

Iran exhibited its sway over Baghdad’s policies during tensions over a referendum last month in which the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region voted to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes, Kurdish officials say.

Baghdad responded to the vote by seizing the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as the heart of any future homeland.

Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, repeatedly warned Kurdish leaders to withdraw from Kirkuk or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces and allied Iranian-backed fighters, Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings said.

Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, share Washington’s concerns over Iran’s influence in Iraq.

 

IRAN DISMISSES TILLERSON REMARKS

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Tillerson’s remarks. The paramilitaries could not go home because “they are at home” already, he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

Abadi has asserted his authority with the defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and the Iraqi army’s sweep through Kirkuk and other areas which were held by the Kurds.

The buildup at the Kurdish oil export pipeline is taking place northwest of Mosul, an official from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) security council said.

The loss of Kirkuk dealt a major blow to the Kurds, who had been steadily building an autonomous region in northern Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, who oppressed them for decades.

“We are concerned about continued military build-up of Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces towards the Kurdistan Region,” said the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) in a statement.

Elections for Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s presidency and parliament set for Nov. 1 will be delayed because political parties failed to present candidates, the head of the electoral commission Hendrean Mohammed told Reuters.

Parties have been unable to focus on the elections because

of turmoil that followed the referendum, a Kurdish lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.

 

(additional reporting by Jon Landay; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Peter Graff)

 

‘Gates of Hell’: Iraqi army says fighting near Tal Afar worse than Mosul

'Gates of Hell': Iraqi army says fighting near Tal Afar worse than Mosul

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi forces battling to retake the small town of al-‘Ayadiya where militants fleeing Tal Afar have entrenched themselves, saying on Tuesday the fighting is “multiple times worse” than the battle for Mosul’s old city.

Hundreds of battle-hardened fighters were positioned inside most houses and high buildings inside the town, making it difficult for government forces to make any progress, army officers told Reuters.

Iraqi government troops captured the town of Mosul from Islamic State in June, but only after eight months of grinding urban warfare.

But one Iraqi officer, Colonel Kareem al-Lami, described breaching the militants’ first line of defense in al-‘Ayadiya as like opening “the gates of hell”.

Iraqi forces have in recent days recaptured almost all of the northwestern city of Tal Afar, long a stronghold of Islamic State. They have been waiting to take al-’Ayadiya, just 11 km (7 miles) northwest of the city, before declaring complete victory.

Tough resistance from the militants in al-‘Ayadiya has forced the Iraqi forces to increase the number of air strikes, as well as bring in reinforcements from the federal police to boost units from the army, air force, Federal Police, the elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and some units from the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

Up to 2,000 battle-hardened militants were believed to be defending Tal Afar against around 50,000 government troops last week.

Military intelligence indicated that many militants fled Tal Afar to mount a staunch defense in al-‘Ayadiya. Many motorcycles carrying the Islamic State insignia were seen abandoned at the side of the road outside al-’Ayadiya.

Though the exact numbers of militants on the ground in al-‘Ayadiya was still unclear, al-Lami, the Iraqi Army colonel, estimated they were in their “hundreds.”

“Daesh (Islamic State) fighters in their hundreds are taking positions inside almost every single house in the town,” he said.

Sniper shots, mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-armored projectiles were fired from every single house, he added.

“We thought the battle for Mosul’s Old City was tough, but this one proved to be multiple times worst,” al-Lami said. “We are facing tough fighters who have nothing to lose and are ready to die.”

Two army officers told Reuters that no significant advances had yet been made in al-‘Ayadiya. They said they were waiting for artillery and air strikes to undermine the militants power.

The extra Federal Police troops that were called in said late on Tuesday that they had controlled 50 percent of the town, deploying snipers on the high buildings and intensified shelling the militants headquarters with rockets, a federal police spokesman said in a statement.

Tal Afar became the next target of the U.S.-backed war on the jihadist group following the recapture of Mosul, where it had declared its “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Iraqi forces prepare to retake Tal Afar from Islamic State militants

Displaced Iraqis from Talafar are seen in Salamya camp, east of Mosul, Iraq August 6, 2017. Picture taken August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily

By Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Five weeks after securing victory in Mosul, Iraqi forces have moved into positions around the city of Tal Afar, their next objective in the U.S.-backed campaign to defeat Islamic State militants, Iraqi military commanders say.

A longtime stronghold of hardline Sunni insurgents, Tal Afar, 50 miles (80 km) west of Mosul, was cut off from the rest of the Islamic State-held territory in June.

The city is surrounded by Iraqi government troops and Shi’ite volunteers in the south, and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the north.

About 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in the city, according to U.S. and Iraqi military commanders. They are expected to put up a tough fight, even though intelligence from inside the city indicates they have been exhausted by months of combat, aerial bombardments, and by the lack of fresh supplies.

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate all but collapsed last month when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul after a brutal nine-month campaign. But parts of Iraq and Syria remain under its control, including Tal Afar, a city with a pre-war population of about 200,000.

Waves of civilians have fled the city and surrounding villages under cover of darkness for weeks now, although several thousand are estimated to remain, threatened with death by the militants who have held a tight grip there since 2014.

Thousands of troops stand ready at the frontline, awaiting orders from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to start the offensive, Iraqi army Major-General Uthman al-Ghanimi said this week.

TURKEY WORRIES

The main forces deployed around Tal Afar are the Iraqi army, Federal Police and the elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), Iraqi commanders told Reuters.

Units from the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), some of which are trained and armed by Iran, are also likely to take part in the battle, as well as volunteers from Tal Afar fighting alongside government troops, they said.

The involvement of the PMF is likely to worry Turkey, which claims an affinity with the area’s predominantly ethnic Turkmen population.

Tal Afar experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has produced some of Islamic State’s most senior commanders.

Iraqi forces have already begun conducting air strikes aimed at “wearing them down and keeping them busy,” Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said.

The coalition’s targets on Friday included weapons depots and command centers, in preparation for the ground assault.

The war plan provides for the Iraqi forces to gradually close in on the city from three sides — east, west and south — under the cover of air and artillery strikes.

Major General Najm al-Jabouri told Reuters last month he expected an easy fight in Tal Afar. He estimated fewer than 2,000 militants and their families were left there and they were “demoralized and worn down”.

“I don’t expect it will be a fierce battle even though the enemy is surrounded,” al-Jabouri said.

Residents who left Tal Afar last week told Reuters the militants looked exhausted.

“[Fighters] have been using tunnels to move from place to place to avoid air strikes,” said 60-year-old Haj Mahmoud, a retired teacher. “Their faces looked desperate and broken.”

But Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said he “fully expects this to be a difficult fight”.

“Intelligence gathered shows clearly that the remaining fighters are mainly foreign and Arab nationals with their families and that means they will fight until the last breath,” said Colonel Kareem al-Lami from the Iraqi army’s 9th Division.

But Lami said Tal Afar’s open terrain and wide streets will allow tanks and armored vehicles easy passage. Only one part of Tal Afar, Sarai, is comparable to Mosul’s Old City, where Iraqi troops were forced to advance on foot through narrow streets, moving house-to-house in a battle that resulted in the near total destruction of the historic district.

Lieutenant Colonel Salah Abdul Abbas of the 16th Infantry Division, said they were bracing for guerrilla street-fighting fight, based on the lessons learned in West Mosul.

CIVILIANS HAVE FLED

The United Nation’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimates that about 10,000 to 40,000 people are left in Tal Afar and surrounding villages. Iraqi commanders say the number of people left inside the city itself, including militants and their families, is closer to 5,000.

However, aid groups say they are not expecting a huge civilian exodus as most the city’s former residents have already left.

On Sunday, 2,760 people fleeing Tal Afar and the surrounding area were processed by the IOM before being sent on to displaced persons’ camps.

“We were living in horror and thinking of death at every moment,” Haj Mahmoud, the retired teacher, said. He decided to make a run for it with his wife and four sons and has been living with them at the Hammam al-Alil camp ever since.

Residents spoke of fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid the militants, who shot anyone caught trying to escape.

“We escaped at night, during evening prayers,” said 20-year-old Khalaf. “All the IS fighters were praying at the mosque, so they didn’t catch us. If they had, they would’ve sprayed bullets into our heads”, like they did his neighbors.

Khalaf said he fled five weeks ago with his two children and 40 other people from his village of Kisik. They walked for a full day to reach safety at a Peshmerga checkpoint.

“People in Kisik are completely trapped,” he said. “Those left tell us there’s no water, no food, no bread, no medicines – nothing.” Up until he left, 1kg bag of rice cost roughly $40.

Sultan Abdallah and his family escaped Kisik with Khalaf. They are now all living at the al-Salamiya refugee camp.

“We had spent three months with no food,” said Abdallah. He still has a brother, a cousin and an uncle left in Kisik, but he has not been able to speak to them since he left.

“You were forced to work for the militants to feed your family,” Abdallah said.

Saad al-Bayati fled Tal Afar five days ago with his family, fearing aerial bombardments. He is now living in the Hammam al-Alil camp with his wife and sick baby.

“I heard what happened in Mosul’s Old City, where whole families were killed by air strikes,” al-Bayati said. “I didn’t want to see my family buried under the rubble.”

(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles, Writing by Raya Jalabi, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Iraq seeks international help to investigate Islamic State crimes

FILE PHOTO: Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari speaks to reporters during a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

By Riham Alkousaa

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Iraq asked for international help on Wednesday to collect and preserve evidence of crimes by Islamic State militants and said it is working with Britain to draft a United Nations Security Council resolution to establish the investigation.

Britain, international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad, a woman from the Yazidi religious minority who was enslaved and raped by Islamic State fighters in Mosul, have been pushing Iraq to allow a U.N. inquiry.

The 15-member Security Council could have established an inquiry without Iraq’s consent, but Britain wanted Iraq’s approval in a letter formally making the request. Iraq sent the letter, seen by Reuters, on Monday.

“We request assistance of the international community to get benefited from international expertise to criminalize Daesh terrorist entity,” wrote Iraq’s foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in the letter, which was translated from Arabic.

Daesh is another name for Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.

Britain’s mission to the United Nations said on Twitter that it was working with Iraq on a draft resolution. It was not immediately clear when it could be put to a vote in the council.

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate effectively collapsed last month, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces completed the recapture of Mosul, the militants’ capital in northern Iraq, after a nine-month campaign.

Parts of Iraq and Syria remain under Islamic State control, especially along the border.

“I hope that the Iraqi government’s letter will mark the beginning of the end of impunity for genocide and other crimes that ISIS is committing in Iraq and around the world,” Clooney said in a statement.

“Yazidis and other ISIS victims want justice in a court of law, and they deserve nothing less,” Clooney said.

The Yazidis beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Islamic State militants consider the Yazidis to be devil-worshippers.

U.N. experts said in June last year that Islamic State was committing genocide against the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq to destroy them through killings, sexual slavery and other crimes.

The Iraqi government said in the letter that it was important to bring Islamic State militants to justice in Iraqi courts.

 

(Reporting By Riham Alkousaa; editing by Grant McCool)

 

Iraq acknowledges abuses committed against civilians in Mosul campaign

A member of Iraqi federal police patrols in the destroyed Old City of Mosul, Iraq August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office said on Thursday a unit of the security forces committed “abuses” against civilians during the offensive to oust Islamic State (IS) insurgents from the city of Mosul.

His government began an investigation in May into a report by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel that included images of apparent torture taken by a freelance photographer embedded with the Interior Ministry’s elite Emergency Response Division (ERD).

“The committee has concluded … that clear abuses and violations were committed by members of the ERD,” a statement from Abadi’s office said. It added that the perpetrators would be prosecuted.

Spiegel’s photos showed detainees accused of affiliation with Islamic State hanging from a ceiling with their arms bent behind them, and the journalist wrote of prisoners being tortured to death, raped and stabbed with knives.

The ERD was one of several government security forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition that drove IS out of Mosul, the northern city the jihadists seized in 2014 and proclaimed their “capital”, in a nine-month campaign that ended in July.

The ERD initially denied the Spiegel report and accused the German weekly of publishing “fabricated and unreal images”.

The photographer said he had initially intended to document the heroism of Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State but that a darker side of the war had gradually been revealed to him.

The soldiers with whom he was embedded allowed him to witness and photograph the alleged torture scenes, he said. He has now fled Iraq with his family, fearing for his safety

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” effectively collapsed with the fall of Mosul but parts of Iraq and Syria remain however under its control, especially in border areas.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Mark Heinrich)