Iraq unearths mass grave of Kurds killed by Saddam

Bits of clothing are seen after they were unearthed from a mass grave of Kurds in west of the city of Samawa, Iraq April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

SAMAWA, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq must never forget Saddam Hussein’s crimes or allow his party to return, President Barham Salih said on Sunday after attending the unearthing of a mass grave of Kurds killed by the former leader’s forces three decades ago.

The grave, found in the desert about 170 km (106 miles) west of the city of Samawa, contained the remains of dozens of Kurds made to “disappear” by Saddam’s forces, Salih’s office said.

Iraqi members of the Civil Defense cover the bones from an unearthed mass grave of Kurds in west of the city of Samawa, Iraq April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

Iraqi members of the Civil Defense cover the bones from an unearthed mass grave of Kurds in west of the city of Samawa, Iraq April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

They were among up to 180,000 people who may have been killed during Saddam’s “Anfal” campaign that targeted Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s when chemical gas was used, villages were razed and thousands of Kurds were forced into camps.

“He killed them because they did not accept the continuation of this regime, because they wanted to live a free and dignified life,” Salih, a Kurd, told a news conference at the grave site.

“He brought them to Samawa to bury them but our people in Samawa embraced them,” Salih added. Iraq’s southern provinces are predominantly inhabited by Shi’ite Arabs, who also suffered oppression and mass killings under Saddam, a Sunni Arab.

“The new Iraq must never forget these crimes that were committed against Iraqi people from all groups,” he said.

(Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Susan Fenton)

Iraqis voting in first election since Islamic State

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

By Ahmed Aboulenein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE-WAY RACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COALITION HORSE-TRADING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIVISIONS ALL ROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by David Clarke)

Saudi Arabia and Iraq to re-open border crossing after 27 years

FILE PHOTO: A member from the Iraqi security forces stands guard at a checkpoint during a patrol at the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia and Iraq plan to open the Arar border crossing for trade for the first time since 1990, when it was closed after the countries cut ties following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Saudi local media reported on Tuesday.

Saudi and Iraqi officials toured the site on Monday and spoke with Iraqi religious pilgrims, who for the past 27 years had access to the crossing only once annually during the haj season, the Mecca newspaper reported.

The governor of Iraq’s southwestern Anbar province, whose staff was on hand for the ceremonies, said the Iraqi government had deployed troops to protect the desert route leading to Arar and called its opening a “significant move” to boost ties.

“This is a great start for further future cooperation between Iraq and Saudia Arabia,” said Sohaib al-Rawi.

The announcement follows a decision by the Saudi cabinet on Monday to establish a joint trade commission with Iraq.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are both wooing their northern neighbor in an effort to halt the growing regional influence of arch-foe Iran.

The Sunni-led Arab Gulf countries have hosted influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for talks with their crown princes in recent weeks, rare visits after years of troubled relations.

Sadr’s office said his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman resulted in an agreement for Saudi Arabia to donate $10 million in aid to the Iraqi government and study possible investments in Shi’ite regions of southern Iraq.

The opening of border crossings for trade was also on a list of goals for the talks published by Sadr’s office.

Sadr commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and southern Iraq, and is one of few Iraqi Shi’ite leaders to keep some distance from Tehran.

The Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement extends back to 2015, when Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad following a 25-year break.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Baghdad in February, and the two countries announced in June they would set up a coordination council to upgrade ties.

(Reporting by Katie Paul and Ahmed Rasheed, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Exclusive: Islamic State leader Baghdadi almost certainly alive – Kurdish security official

A top Kurdish counter-terrorism official Lahur Talabany speaks during an interview with Reuters in Sulaimania, Iraq

Sulaimania, IRAQ (Reuters) – A top Kurdish counter-terrorism official said on Monday he was 99 percent sure that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was alive and located south of the Syrian city of Raqqa, after reports that he had been killed.

“Baghdadi is definitely alive. He is not dead. We have information that he is alive. We believe 99 percent he is alive,” Lahur Talabany told Reuters in an interview.

FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been 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

FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been 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/File Photo

“Don’t forget his roots go back to al Qaeda days in Iraq. He was hiding from security services. He knows what he is doing.”

Iraqi security forces have ended three years of Islamic State rule in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and the group is under growing pressure in Raqqa – both strongholds in the militants’ crumbling self-proclaimed caliphate.

Still, Talabany said Islamic State was shifting tactics despite low morale and it would take three or four years to eliminate the group.

After defeat, Islamic State would wage an insurgency and resemble al-Qaeda on “steroids”, he said.

The future leaders of Islamic State were expected to be intelligence officers who served under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the men credited with devising the group’s strategy.

 

(Reporting by Michael Georgy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

 

ISIS Using Water As Weapon

The Islamic terrorist group ISIS is reducing the water flowing into Iraq’s Anbar province as the government is trying to retake land from the terrorists.

The tactic is not new to Middle East conflicts.  ISIS had previously restricted water flowing through the ISIS controlled town of Fallujah but reopened locks after residents complained about the lack of water.

Anbar Provincial Council Member Taha Abdul-Ghani told the Associated Press the terrorists are blocking water at a dam on the Euphrates river that will dry up irrigation system and water treatment plans for the government and tribes that are opposed to ISIS.  Other areas to the south and central areas of the country would be provided water from the Tigris River.

The United Nations quickly condemned the terrorist’s actions.

“The use of water as a tool of war is to be condemned in no uncertain terms,” the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters. “These kinds of reports are disturbing, to say the least.”

He said the U.N. would work to bring water to the impacted residents of the region.

Military experts say the withdrawl of water also lowers the level of the river to where terrorists would be able to walk across, allowing for attacks in locations that previously had been impeded by the water.

Residents of Habbaniya, Husaybah and Khalidiyah have been fleeing out of fear of an assault by the terrorists.

ISIS Rise Masterminded By Former Saddam Hussein Officer

A German magazine has uncovered an ISIS document that says their rise has been guided by a former intelligence official for Saddam Hussein.

The “blueprint”consists of 31 pages of information that showed handwritten notes and charts from Samir al-Khlifawi.  Khlifawi was a colonel in the air force intelligence service of the former Iraqi dictator.

“Even his best-known pseudonym, Haji Bakr, wasn’t widely known. But that was precisely part of the plan. The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years,” according to the report. “Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was.”

Bakr was killed last year.  However, the group continued to use his plans as guideline for their operations according to the report in Der Spiegel.

“What Bakr put on paper, page by page, with carefully outlined boxes for individual responsibilities, was nothing less than a blueprint for a takeover,” the Spiegel article added. “In addition, months of research undertaken by Spiegel in Syria, as well as other newly discovered records, exclusive to Spiegel, show that Haji Bakr’s instructions were carried out meticulously.”

The report says that in 2013, Bakr moved to a town outside of Aleppo called Tal Rifaat.  His home then became the first stronghold for the terrorists.

Iraqi Army Drives ISIS From Tikrit

The Iraqi army has declared victory in their battle to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic extremist group ISIS.

Troops are working to clear out the last pockets of terrorist support within the city but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went to the city and raised an Iraqi flag over the city’s center.

“Most of Tikrit today is liberated, only small parts remain [outside our control],” Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban told reporters.

The Prime Minister attributed their success to taking the terrorist group by surprise.

“We managed to take (ISIS) by surprise,” the Prime Minister said. “And our air force … in addition to coalition air force, helping Iraqi forces, managed to deal severe blows to ISIS and the enemies of Iraq. And our ground forces with the blood of Iraqis, Iraqis alone with their own blood, were able to liberate this land.”

The battle for the hometown of Saddam Hussein has taken a month and been the biggest offensive against the terrorist outfit.  The attack had been stalled until the United States launched an air offensive against terrorist headquarters and weapons storage centers in the city.

The army now plans to focus on recapturing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq.