President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, left, speaks with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. before departing for Iraq on April 3. Photo by DoD/Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Reuters

Jared Kushner in Iraq for update on fight against ISIS


Jared Kushner, the Jewish son-in-law of President Donald Trump and a senior adviser, is in Iraq to receive an update on the campaign against the Islamic State.

Kushner arrived Monday in the Middle Eastern country with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, according to the Department of Defense.

National Public Radio reported that White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed to its reporter early Monday morning that they had arrived.

Dunford invited Kushner and Homeland Security Adviser Thomas Bossert to receive an update on the campaign against the Islamic State, or ISIS, a spokesman for Dunford told reporters. They will be meeting with Iraqi, American and coalition officials.

The spokesman, Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, also said that Kushner is “traveling on behalf of the president to express the president’s support and commitment to the government of Iraq and U.S. personnel currently engaged in the campaign” against the Islamic State.

Trump has charged Kushner with making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and has involved him in other foreign policy issues. Kushner also has been tapped to lead a new White House office that would streamline the government, using ideas borrowed from the business world.

A young Yazidi girl rests at the Iraq-Syrian border. Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle for existence, the world does little to help


It was well before dawn on Aug. 3, 2014, when fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) streamed out of the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, heading east. By daybreak, the Kurdish forces protecting the region’s civilian population had melted away. They fled with few warnings to the villagers, most of them Yazidis, members of an ancient and oft-persecuted religious minority.

The hundreds of settlements dotting the region, known together as Sinjar, are the locus of the global Yazidi population, which counts about 1 million souls worldwide. Across the arid expanse, the ISIS fighters who overran it seemed to follow the same script: Men and women were separated. Prepubescent boys were kidnapped for indoctrination as ISIS fighters. Women and their young children were sequestered into sexual slavery. And the men — those older than  12 — were forced to convert or else murdered, either shot in the head, sprayed from behind with bullets or beheaded as their families watched.

The picture painted in United Nations reports is dim. Within days, 5,000 were dead and about half a million displaced from their homes. One report, in June 2016, called the genocide “on-going,” estimating that 3,200 Yazidi women are still held as sex slaves by ISIS — bought, sold and raped by some of the same men who murdered their husbands and fathers. The bulk of Yazidis in Iraq who remain free stay in squalid refugee camps where basic needs are met barely or not all, while an untold number have embarked on the journey west, over perilous seas to the uncertain promise of refuge in Europe or the United States.

What’s worse is that the genocide of this tiny religious group didn’t take its victims by surprise. “We had a sense that it’s going to happen,” one Yazidi activist in Houston, Haider Elias, told the Journal.

In fact, ISIS has been remarkably forward about its genocidal intentions. “Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah [ransom] payment,” explained an article in Dabiq, a glossy ISIS propaganda magazine. “Their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqaha [Islamic jurists] say cannot be enslaved.”

A group of Islamic law students reviewed the Yazidi question, Dabiq reported, and ruled that unlike Jews and Christians, who are monotheists, Yazidis are pagans to be exterminated in preparation for Judgment Day. (In fact, Yazidis are monotheists whose Mesopotamian creed predates Islam by thousands of years.)

The Obama administration helped break a siege that stranded thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar shortly after the Aug. 3 massacres, but it was a brief show of American airpower. The United States has done little else to ameliorate the situation; the West can claim neither ignorance nor impotence.

A handful of Jewish organizations have raised the alarm, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and at least one, IsraAID, has even offered on-the-ground assistance (see sidebar). But with the global population of forcibly displaced people topping 65 million, most of civil society is tuned to the larger picture. A network of Yazidis in the U.S. seeks its aid and protection for their coreligionists, but their numbers are few.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

 

Iraq is one of the seven countries whose citizens are banned from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days, according to President Donald Trump’s recent executive order.  The order makes an exemption for religious minorities, but at present, the procedures for exercising that exemption are unclear. At press time, the order had been blocked by the courts and was awaiting appeal, but the constitutionality of a religious exemption appeared murky in the first place. Meanwhile, the president has promised “safe zones” in Syria but the majority of Yazidis in the Middle East are in Iraq.

The persistence of genocide into the second decade of the 21st century makes a cruel joke of “never again,” just as Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia did in the second half of the 20th century. More than two years after the Yazidi genocide began, the question remains: Shouldn’t we do something about it?

‘Nobody helped’

Salem Daoud is Mir of the Yazidis in the United States, the community’s chief religious functionary, serving alongside a council of elders. He speaks a halting English that would be difficult to fully comprehend even if he weren’t describing some of the most trying days of his life. So his son, Seif, who goes by Sam in the U.S., and Rabbi Pamela Frydman, an activist in Los Angeles, joined him on a recent conference call from Glendale, Ariz., to make sure he was understood.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

In such a tiny community, no family is unaffected by an event on the scale of the genocide. Salem’s sister and brother-in-law were kidnapped and then rescued six months later; they’ve never been quite the same since, Salem said. It’s hard to know what to ask a person who sat, more or less helplessly half a world away, while his relatives and countrymen were slaughtered and enslaved.

When Salem’s phone began to ring in early August 2014, there was little he could do to help the man on the other end, a local leader in Sinjar by the name of Ahmed Jaso.

“Till the last minute, till before they killed him, he was calling my dad, like, every, I would say, hour,” Sam said on the phone. “And he’s saying, ‘Do something for us, to save us from their hands.’ ”

Jaso was in a village called Kocho, where ISIS troops were lining up the villagers in groups of 60 or 100 and demanding payment to spare the locals’ lives. When the ransom was not forthcoming, they killed residents in a hail of gunfire, Jaso told Salem. Sam explained that his father has many contacts, people who might have been able to help, “whether here in the U.S., in Iraq, Russia, to people in Germany” — even people close to the White House. “Everybody put their hands on their eyes and their ears,” Sam said.

“[Jaso] would call, ‘[ISIS] said they just killed a hundred, so we need support to save the rest. … They killed another hundred, they need money.’ ” he said. “But nobody wanted to pay.”

“We give the information to a lot of people,” Salem added in his imperfect English. “Just nobody helped. No government, and nobody.”

The village of some 1,800 people was cleared out — the men slaughtered, the young boys kidnapped, the women enslaved.

“Very hard time, that was,” the Mir said. The last time he called Jaso back, the local leader was awaiting his turn at the death squad. “The last time, I hoped I’d be one of these people with them,” Salem said.

The activist

Frydman — known more commonly as Rabbi Pam — is a recent arrival to Los Angeles from Northern California, having moved here in May. There, she started the San Francisco congregation Or Shalom Jewish Community 25 years ago and spent a decade as a social justice activist and educator.

One January morning, Frydman sat down in front of her laptop at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Pico Boulevard. In front of her, a manila folder contained a manuscript of a book about the Holocaust she’s writing that she put on hold two years earlier, when she first learned about the genocide of Yazidis and Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria. She finally was finding time to get back to work on the book. Asked to describe how she became active in the struggle for Yazidi survival, she scribbled an impromptu timeline on the back of the manila folder.

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

In November 2014, Frydman saw an email from the Board of Rabbis of Northern California about an event at a Jewish Community Center in the Bay Area. “It said, ‘Act before it’s too late,’ ” she recalled. At the gathering, she saw footage of Yazidis being marched up to the heights of Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped.

“We heard about children who were dehydrated because there just wasn’t enough water,” she said. She heard a story about a woman being driven up the mountain by ISIS forces and struggling to carry both of her children — one of many such stories to emerge from these forced marches. When this particular woman grew too exhausted to hold both children, she put one of them down.

“As soon as she put that child down, the child was slaughtered, was killed, and I said to myself, ‘This is a death march! This is what our people went through in the Holocaust!’ ” Frydman said, her voice wavering. “The fire was in my belly and my heart was shattered, and I felt that I had to do something. And I returned to my home and I started to contact Jewish and interfaith colleagues, and I said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ ”

Soon, she organized a program called Save Us From Genocide, a consciousness-raising campaign for the plight of the Yazidis and Assyrians, hosted by four Bay Area interreligious councils in concert with the United Religions Initiative, a global interfaith network. A project of Save Us From Genocide administered by the Northern California Board of Rabbis, called Beyond Genocide, hopes to gain attention and relief specifically for atrocities perpetrated against Yazidis.

In addition to helping finance university scholarships for Yazidis studying outside Iraq, Beyond Genocide assists in Yazidi migration and resettlement. On that last score, Frydman could describe her efforts only in vague details, out of abundant caution against putting Yazidis in danger.

Asked how much Beyond Genocide had raised for resettlement, she responded, “A very small amount. But with this very small amount, we have performed miracles.”

‘My brother’

Frydman’s resettlement and advocacy work runs primarily through tight-knit networks of American Yazidis such as the one operated by Saeed Hussein Bakr, whom she calls “my brother.” Bakr arrived in the U.S. about five years ago and found his way to Phoenix, where currently he works as a cook for a local Panda Express. As the disaster in Sinjar unfolded, groups quickly sprang up among American Yazidis to help those fleeing for their lives in the Middle East, managed by people like Bakr.

“Yazidis are not a big community,” he said. “So, almost, we all know each other.”

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Headquartered in places such as Lincoln, Neb., the largest American Yazidi population center, these networks raise money when possible, though the community is in large part newly arrived and not a wealthy one. More often, they deploy contacts in the United States, Europe and the Middle East to help Yazidi migrants who find themselves in trouble.

Bakr’s group, Yazidi Rescue, will alert Coast Guard officials in Greece, for example, when a boatload of Yazidi refugees is abandoned or waterlogged in the Mediterranean or Aegean sea. In other cases, they’ll help Yazidi women escape from slavery or help refugees who are imprisoned abroad. There are no rules or standard operating procedures for this type of operation, only dire phone calls to anybody who might be able to do something, whether civilians or government officials.

“Some nights, I can say we help 1,000 people in one night,” Bakr said.

Bakr first became involved after one of his sons, Layth, on his way to the U.S., got on a boat headed to Greece from Turkey. His boat capsized, and some of the refugees on board with him drowned. “That’s why I work to help those people,” Bakr said.

Remarkably, though, his son’s near-death experience in the Aegean Sea was not the most harrowing episode for Bakr. That would be earlier, in August 2014, when Bakr’s son and other relatives were turned out of their homes and driven up Mount Sinjar.

“For seven days, they were in the mountains, no power, no communications. We don’t know at any time if ISIS, they captured them,” he said. “It was horrible days. Those seven days, they were the worst seven days in my life.”

An ancient people long oppressed

The Yazidis are an ancient people, born in the cradle of civilization. Consecrated to one God, they survived through the ages. In each generation, the yoke of oppression found them, and they cried out for deliverance — except sometimes their savior was a long time in coming.

Sound familiar?

“In each and every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us,” Jews recite each Passover. It would be equally true on the lips of a Yazidi.

The parallels between Jews and Yazidis become uncanny at a point. Both are ethnically distinct religions dating to the birth of monotheism. Both have been singled out by Muslim rulers for persecution based on their strange and foreign faith, slandered as perversions of Islam.

But somewhere along the ages, the historical arcs of the two people diverge. Whereas the history of Jewish genocide ends after the Holocaust, Yazidis have had no such luck.

Since the 15th century, Yazidis count 74 farmans against them — literally, decrees, calls by rulers for their destruction that inevitably result in mass slaughter. They’ve faced genocide at the hands of Kurds, Turks and Arabs, mostly Sunni Muslims backed by the Ottoman Empire. ISIS is only the most recent in a long line of persecutors.


More: A sex slave survivor fights back


Invariably, Yazidi customs and belief are offered as the reason for their oppression. The religion has no central texts that have survived the ages, but its folklore is vivid and distinct from any other faith. Adherents claim to descend not from Abraham but from Adam. Their legend has it that Adam and Eve, as a sort of competition, each placed their seed in a jar. When Eve’s jar was opened, it held an unpleasant stew of filth and insects. Adam’s contained a beautiful baby boy, ibn Jar, literally the son of Jar, who became the ancestor of the Yazidi people.

Ironically, it is their guardian angel that has earned them the fanatical ire of radical Islamists. Yazidis regard as sacred Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, a fallen angel who refused to bow to Adam when God requested he do so, and who consequently gained dominion over the fates and follies of man. This origin story bears a similarity with that of the Islamic legend of Iblis, the archdevil in Muslim theology. The resemblance between the tales has historically motivated the slander of Yazidis as devil worshippers, a kind of Middle Eastern blood libel that continues to claim the lives of its subjects.

“They have made Iblis — who is the biggest taghut [idolator] — the symbolic head of enlightenment and piety!” the article in the ISIS magazine Dabiq exclaims. “What arrogant kufr [infidels] can be greater than this?”

One irony to emerge from this account is that peacocks don’t exist in the region where Yazidi civilization arose. If the community of nations is not watchful, it’s not inconceivable to imagine a Middle East with no more Yazidis, either.

‘Never again requires a lot of energy’

Google searches for “Yazidis” saw a massive spike in early August 2014 and then returned, but for a few small flutters, to a flatline. But things never went back to normal for Haider Elias, a Yazidi activist in Houston who is the president of Yazda, an advocacy, aid and relief organization.

That’s not the role he’d imagined for himself before ISIS began to wreak catastrophe. A former translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq who immigrated in 2010, Elias was raising three children and studying biology as an undergraduate in the hopes of attending medical school. When his brother was murdered in Iraq and the rest of his family displaced from their homes, he dropped his medical school dreams to dedicate himself to advocacy.

Haider Elias

Haider Elias

Elias and his peers at Yazda run a gamut of programs aimed at helping those displaced by the genocide. They’ve presented on the catastrophe in more than 10 states, including California, and in Europe. In Iraq, the group offers psychological and psychosocial therapy to help reintegrate women who have escaped or been rescued from ISIS. On top of all that, Yazda runs documentation projects to record video testimonies about the genocide and document mass graves.

Elias is still a full-time student at the University of Houston, though he’s switched majors to psychology at the recommendation of some American friends. A social science degree would better suit him for advocacy work, they told him. His days are long and busy, but he’s motivated by the knowledge that his people still face imminent danger.

“Many people want to come back [home] but they’re afraid that the security forces again are going to fail and run away, and this time it’s going to be more fatal, more catastrophic,” Elias said.

And so Yazda now is advocating for international protection for Yazidis, without which resettling Sinjar is unfeasible. “Without some form or guarantee of protection, this community is terrified,” he said.

Elias admits to still being angry. He’s angry with ISIS, naturally, and with the world for standing idly by; but more specifically, he’s angry with the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, for abandoning their posts before the Islamists’ murderous advance.

“It’s not a battle and they lost — they ran away,” he said. “They did not tell the population. When you lose many lives and you think you lost the battle, the first thing you do, you inform the population. The second thing, you run away.” To hear Elias and other Yazidis tell it, the Peshmerga didn’t quite bother with the first.

Though most Yazidis are behind Kurdish lines for the moment, their situation remains precarious and their advocates few. Elias made note of a chilling silence in Congress, broken only on occasion by legislators who represent Yazidi population centers, including two Republicans, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“We need a campaign in 2017 to help the Yazidis, whether to advocate for international protection or accepting Yazidi refugees in the U.S. or sending more humanitarian aid to the areas,” Elias said.

Responding to the genocide, Yazda took up “never again” as a rallying cry. But Elias is not naïve about the prospects of his people.

“Never again requires a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a lot of work,” he said.

‘Save us!’

The Yazidi call for aid is neither subtle nor nuanced. Even before the genocide, theirs was a struggle for existence. There is no conversion into the community, and a child with even one non-Yazidi parent is considered to be outside the faith. The massacres and enslavement of Yazidis compound an already dire population problem.

“An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth,” Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, told the legislature on Aug. 5, 2014, in a tearful plea that briefly went viral on the internet. “Brothers, I appeal to you in the name of humanity to save us!”

Before she could finish the next sentence, she collapsed, weeping.

The Yazidis interviewed for this story made clear they are open to any help they can get — military, political, financial and otherwise. Currently, Frydman and her colleagues are advocating for a real immigration pipeline to allow Yazidis to come to the U.S. notwithstanding the Trump administration’s refugee policy.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. From left: Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein and Hussein Saeed Hussein, and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein (right) and Hussein Saeed Hussein (left), and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

 

The Trump order, before a federal judge blocked the bulk of it on Feb. 3, in theory allowed Yazidi immigration to continue largely unimpeded. In practice, though, the International Organization for Migration, which coordinates refugee admission, has told Yazidi refugees their immigration has been canceled until further notice, Reuters reported. A faith-based exemption raises constitutional questions and its legality is a matter for the courts to decide.

But not all displaced Yazidis want to leave Iraq, anyway. Many simply want to resume their lives in the villages where they were born and escaped death, according to Salem Daoud, the Yazidi Mir. Much of that territory is still held by ISIS.

For now, the totality of a people’s homeland lives in limbo and its diaspora finds only limited means to help them. Often, prayer is the only recourse. Frydman recalled a joint prayer group near Phoenix with Yazidis, Jews and Universal Sufis. After the prayers were over, a Yazidi elder approached her and showed her a tiny book in a plastic pouch. Peering through her bifocals, she discovered it to be the Book of Psalms. A Jewish friend had given it to the elder, he told her, shortly before immigrating to Israel after the declaration of the Jewish state. “He said the prayers in this book will protect me,” the elder told Frydman.

The themes reflected in the Book of Psalms, as it happens, are more topical now for the Yazidi people than they ever have been in recent memory. As it says in Psalm 7:

O Lord, my God, in You I seek refuge; deliver me from all my pursuers and save me, lest, like a lion, they tear me apart, rending me in pieces, and no one to save me.

How to help

LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.

CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.

DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below:

Beyond Genocide
norcalrabbis.org/yezidi-fundraiser
(415) 369-2860

Yazda
yazda.org
(832) 298-9584

IsraAID
israaid.co.il
info@israaid.org

75th anniversary of Baghdad pogrom to be commemorated in 4 cities


The author of a work on the Nazi-era massacre in Baghdad believed to have precipitated the Jewish exodus from Iraq is commemorating its 75th anniversary with candle lightings in four cities.

Edwin Black, who in 2010 published “The Farhud,” about the June 1-2, 1941 massacre of at least 180 Jews in Baghdad, will convene candle lightings on Tuesday in the morning on Capitol Hill and in the afternoon at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York.

On Thursday, there will be a candle lighting in London, which has a large Iraqi Jewish community, and then on June 6 at the Knesset in Jerusalem.

The pogrom, set off by the collapse of a popular pro-Nazi government in Baghdad, is seen as a turning point for Iraqi Jews. A series of subsequent decrees and attacks emptied the country of its ancient Jewish community by the early 1970s, with barely 100 Jews remaining.

In each city, 27 candles will be lit for the 27 centuries that Jewish life thrived in what is now Iraq.

Among the groups sponsoring the events are the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, StandWithUs and the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.

Suicide bomber kills 26, wounds 71 south of Baghdad


A suicide attacker detonated an explosive belt in a park outside Baghdad on Friday, killing 26 people and wounding 71, said the security head in Babel province where the bomb – claimed by Islamic State – went off.

The blast in Iskandariya, a mixed Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim town 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the capital, happened around 7:15 p.m. (1615 GMT) at the end of an amateur soccer game, said Falah al-Khafaji.

Islamic State militants, who control swathes of territory in Iraq's north and west, were behind the attack, according to Amaq news agency, which is affiliated with the group.

At least 60 people were killed earlier this month in an attack claimed by Islamic State 80 km further south, in Hilla, when an explosives-laden fuel tanker slammed into an Iraqi security checkpoint.

An apparent escalation of large bombings targeting areas outside Islamic State's primary control suggests that Iraqi government forces may be stretched thin after recent gains against the group in the western and northern provinces.

Turkey blames Kurdish militants for Ankara bomb; vows reprisals


Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed a Syrian Kurdish militia fighter working with Kurdish militants inside Turkey for a suicide car bombing that killed 28 people in the capital Ankara, and he vowed retaliation in both Syria and Iraq.

A car laden with explosives detonated next to military buses as they waited at traffic lights near Turkey's armed forces' headquarters, parliament and government buildings in the administrative heart of Ankara late on Wednesday.

Davutoglu said the attack was clear evidence that the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that has been supported by the United States in the fight against Islamic State in northern Syria, was a terrorist organization and that Turkey, a NATO member, expected cooperation from its allies in combating the group.

Within hours, Turkish warplanes bombed bases in northern Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and which Davutoglu accused of collaborating in the car bombing.

Turkey's armed forces also shelled YPG positions in northern Syria on Thursday, a security source said. Davutoglu said the artillery fire would continue and promised that those responsible for the Ankara attack would “pay the price”.

“Yesterday's attack was directly targeting Turkey and the perpetrator is the YPG and the divisive terrorist organization PKK. All necessary measures will be taken against them,” Davutoglu said in a televised speech.

President Tayyip Erdogan also said initial findings suggested the Syrian Kurdish militia and the PKK were behind the bombing and said that 14 people had been detained. 

The political arm of the YPG, denied involvement in the bombing, while a senior member of the PKK said he did not know who was responsible.

The attack was the latest in a series of bombings in the past year mostly blamed on Islamic State militants.

Turkey is getting dragged ever deeper into the war in neighboring Syria and is trying to contain some of the fiercest violence in decades in its predominantly Kurdish southeast.

The YPG militia, regarded by Ankara as a hostile insurgent force deeply linked to the PKK, has taken advantage in recent weeks of a major Syrian army offensive around the northern city of Aleppo, backed by Russian air strikes, to seize ground from Syrian rebels near the Turkish border.

That has alarmed Turkey, which fears the advances will stoke Kurdish separatist ambitions at home. It has been bombarding YPG positions in an effort to stop them taking the town of Azaz, the last stronghold of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels north of Aleppo before the Turkish frontier.

Hundreds of Syrian rebels with weapons and vehicles have re-entered Syria from Turkey over the last week to reinforce insurgents fending off the Kurdish-led assault on Azaz, rebel sources said on Thursday.

TENSIONS WITH WASHINGTON

The co-leader of the YPG's political wing denied that the affiliated YPG perpetrated the Ankara bombing and said Turkey was using the attack to justify an escalation in fighting in northern Syria.

“We are completely refuting that. …Davutoglu is preparing for something else because they are shelling us as you know for the past week,” Saleh Muslim told Reuters by telephone.

Washington's support of the YPG – it views the group as a useful ally in the fight against Islamic State – has strained relations with Turkey. Both Erdogan and Davutoglu have called on the United States to cut ties with the insurgents.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington was not in a position to either confirm or deny Turkey's charge the YPG was behind the attack. He also called on Turkey to stop shelling the YPG.

Turkey has said its shelling of YPG positions is a response, within its rules of engagement, to hostile fire coming across the border into Turkey, something Saleh Muslim also denied.

“I can assure you not even one bullet is fired by the YPG into Turkey … They don't consider Turkey an enemy,” he said.

The co-leader of the PKK umbrella group, Cemil Bayik, was quoted by the Firat news agency as saying he did not know who was responsible for the Ankara bombing. But the attack, he said, could be an answer to “massacres in Kurdistan”, referring to the Kurdish region spanning parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Turkey has been battling PKK militants in its own southeast, where a 2-1/2 year ceasefire collapsed last July and pitched the region into its worst bloodshed since the 1990s. Six soldiers were killed and one wounded on Thursday when a remote-controlled handmade bomb hit their vehicle, the military said.

WARNING TO RUSSIA

Davutoglu named the suicide bomber as Salih Necar, born in 1992 and from the Hasakah region of northern Syria, and said he was a member of the YPG. 

A senior security official said the alleged bomber had entered Turkey from Syria in July 2014, although he may have crossed the border illegally multiple times before that, and said he had had contact with the PKK and Syrian intelligence.

Davutoglu also accused the Syrian government of a hand in the Ankara bombing and warned Russia, whose air strikes in northern Syria have helped the YPG to advance, against using the Kurdish militant group against Turkey.

“I'd like to warn Russia, which is giving air support to the YPG in its advance on Azaz, not to use this terrorist group against the innocent people of Syria and Turkey,” he said. 

“Russia condemned yesterday's attack, but it is not enough. All those who intend to use terrorist organizations as proxies should know that this game of terror will turn around like a boomerang and hit them first.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told a teleconference with reporters that the Kremlin condemned the bombing “in the strongest possible terms.”

Kerry believes 2016 will see Islamic State ‘seriously dented’


Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday he believed Islamic State's military capabilities in Iraq and Syria would be seriously weakened by the end of 2016.

Asked at a media roundtable on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, whether this year would see the end of Islamic State, Kerry replied, referring to the militant group by an Arabic acronym:

“I think that by the end of 2016, our goal of very seriously denting Daesh …will be achieved. I think we are on track.”

Kerry said Islamic State has already lost 20-30 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria combined and about 40 percent in Iraq.

The jihadist group lost control of the western Iraqi city of Ramadi last month, in a sorely needed victory for U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.

But critics, including some in the U.S. Congress, say the U.S. strategy is still far too weak and lacks sufficient military support from Sunni Arab allies, while Islamic State has also established a foothold in other countries in the region, notably Libya and Yemen.

Kerry said the coalition had upped its engagement significantly, noting that defense chiefs from the United States, France, Britain and four other countries had pledged to intensify the fight.

Kerry said he planned to meet on Feb. 2 with foreign ministers from 24 of the nations that were the most active in the anti-Islamic State coalition to get additional commitments.

Israel cracks down on Islamic State volunteers


Ayoob Kara, a deputy Israeli cabinet minister, used to double as an unofficial intermediary with the few of his fellow Arab citizens who have left to join Islamic State insurgents in Syria or Iraq.

Negotiating discreetly through relatives and go-betweens, he would offer them reduced jail terms if they returned to Israel, cooperated with security services and helped deter other would-be Islamic State recruits by publicly disavowing the group.

A half-dozen volunteers took the deal, Kara says. 

But with the number of Islamic State sympathizers in Israel growing from its initial trickle, and some accused of trying to set up armed cells within the country's 18-percent Muslim minority, the deputy minister no longer sounds so accommodating.

“I used to work hard to dissuade people from joining ISIS, but now I say that there's no point,” he told Reuters in an interview, using an acronym for the insurgents. 

“If, by this point, when the dangers are abundantly clear to everyone, they still want to go, then they are beyond saving and it's a one-way ticket for them. It's literally a dead end.”

Kara, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was expressing a hardening of government policy against Islamic State, which, though preoccupied with battling Syrian and Iraqi regime forces, has recently inveighed against Israel.

“Jews, soon you shall hear from us in Palestine, which will become your grave,” promised a Dec. 26 voice recording on social media attributed to Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

In October, two video clips surfaced in which Islamic State gunmen threatened to strike Israel. They spoke in near-fluent, Arabic-accented Hebrew, suggesting they were among the several dozen Israeli Arabs who the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service estimates have joined the group abroad.

Israel sees a major cross-border attack on it by Islamic State as unlikely. But it is less sanguine about support for the group inside Israel, which is already beset by Palestinian street violence that has surged in the last three months, stoked in part by strife over a contested Jerusalem mosque complex. 

“It (Islamic State influence) is beginning to spread here as well,” Intelligence Ministry director-general Ram Ben-Barak told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday. “The ISIS scenario we worry about is ISIS cells arising in Israel to carry out terrorist attacks.”

Among Israel's Muslim minority, pro-Palestinian sympathies are common but political violence rare.

PARAGLIDER, EX-ARMY DEFECTOR AMONG RECRUITS

Still, a series of spectacular incidents involving Israelis and Islamic State has unsettled the Shin Bet. 

One Arab citizen who had volunteered to serve in Israel's army later defected to the insurgents' ranks in Syria, it emerged this month – a blow for a military that regards itself as a sectarian melting pot in the Jewish-majority country.

Separately, an Israeli Arab used a paraglider to fly into Syria in what the Shin Bet said was a bid to join Islamic State, and three others were arrested on suspicion of trying to set up an armed cell to carry out attacks in Israel on orders from two Israeli Arabs who are already with Islamic State in Iraq.

The paraglider incident prompted Netanyahu to order the revocation of Islamic State volunteers' Israeli citizenship. Such a move, if it passes higher court review, would effectively shut the door on their return, a step that also has been a controversial topic of debate in European nations whose citizens have been fighting for Islamic State.

It marks a policy shift for Israel, which last year repatriated Marhan Khaldi, an Arab citizen wounded while fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and who made his way back to Turkey, where Israeli diplomats replaced the passport he had discarded en route to the war zone.

Israel jailed Khaldi for 42 months, a sentence comparable to previous cases of citizens who joined Islamic State abroad. 

Prosecutors had sought an 8- to 12-year prison term for Khaldi and appealed to the Supreme Court to harshen his punishment, saying in a statement that due the risk posed by Islamic State “the time is ripe to get tough on such offences”. The Supreme Court's ruling on the appeal could take months.

Khaldi's lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, said Israeli judges lacked court precedents on which to base sweeping new sentences due to the fact that the country outlawed Islamic State only in September 2014 – a delay he attributed to the Netanyahu government's reluctance to take sides in Syria's civil war. 

Israeli legislation introduced in December 2014 that would raise the maximum jail sentence for joining foreign groups like Islamic State to five years is still under parliamentary review.

“It has taken time for the monstrousness of ISIS to dawn, so while Israel is seeking greater penalties for joining it, this had been taking time too,” said Abu Hussein, who also heads the Israeli Arab civil rights group Adalah. 

Abu Hussein said the Shin Bet appeared to be refocusing its anti-Islamic State efforts on social media activity by Arab citizens that might flag up nascent sympathizers for arrest.

According to Kara, the value to Israeli intelligence of Arab citizens who came back from Islamic State's fiefdoms had waned – meaning any returnees had less to bargain with for clemency.

“There was a time when someone would come back and provide useful information on their camps and recruitment, et cetera,” Kara said. “But that's in the past now. The whole world is fighting Islamic State and everything is pretty much known.”

Iraqi prime minister vows to defeat ISIS in 2016 after army’s first major victory


A triumphant Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared on Monday that the coming year will see his forces defeat Islamic State, after his military achieved its first major victory since collapsing in the face of the fighters 18 months ago.

Iraqi forces flew the national flag above the main government complex in Ramadi earlier in the day, declaring they had recaptured the city, a provincial capital west of Baghdad which fell to Islamic State fighters in May.

“2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh's presence in Iraq will be terminated,” Abadi said in a speech broadcast on state television, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State that the hardline group rejects. 

“We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal and final blow to Daesh,” he added. Mosul, northern Iraq's main city, is by far the largest population centre in the self-proclaimed caliphate Islamic State rules in Iraq and Syria.

The army's apparent capture of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province in the Euphrates River valley west of Baghdad, marks a major milestone for U.S.-trained force that crumbled when Islamic State fighters charged into Iraq in June 2014. In previous battles since then, Iraq's armed forces operated mainly in a supporting role beside Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias.

Soldiers were shown on state television on Monday publicly slaughtering a sheep in an act of celebration.

Gunshots and an explosion could be heard as a state TV reporter interviewed other soldiers celebrating the victory with their automatic weapons held in the air. A separate plume of smoke could be seen nearby.

U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for a U.S.-led coalition backing Iraqi forces, said in a statement: “The clearance of the government centre is a significant accomplishment and is the result of many months of hard work.”

He said the coalition had provided more than 630 airstrikes in the area over the past six months as well as training, advice and equipment to the army, counter-terrorism forces and police.

The U.S.-led coalition, which includes major European and Arab powers, has been waging an air campaign against Islamic State positions in both Iraq and Syria since a third of Iraqi territory fell to the fighters in mid-2014.

The Iraqi army was humiliated in that advance, abandoning city after city and leaving fleets of American armoured vehicles and other weapons in the militants' hands. One of the main challenges of the conflict since then has been rebuilding Iraq's army into a force capable of capturing and holding territory.

Baghdad has said for months that it would prove its forces' rebuilt capability by rolling back militant advances in Anbar, a mainly Sunni province encompassing the fertile Euphrates River valley from Baghdad's outskirts to the Syrian border. 

After encircling the provincial capital for weeks, Iraqi forces launched an assault to retake it last week and made a final push to seize the central administration complex on Sunday. Their progress had been slowed by explosives planted in streets and booby-trapped buildings.

Security officials said the forces still need to clear some pockets of insurgents in the city and its outskirts.

KEEPING CONTROL

Authorities gave no immediate death toll from the battle for the city. They have said most residents were evacuated before the assault.

Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters the capture of Ramadi was “a done deal” but said the government had to do more to rebuild the city and encourage displaced people to return.

“The most important thing is to secure it (Ramadi) because Daesh can bounce back,” he said in an interview in Baghdad.

Iraq's army took the lead in the battle for Ramadi, with the Shi'ite militias prominent in other campaigns held back from the battlefield to avoid antagonising the mainly Sunni population. Washington had also expressed reluctance about being seen as fighting alongside the Iranian-backed groups.

Abadi took office in September 2014 after the Islamic State advance, pledging to reconcile Iraq's warring sectarian communities. While he initially swung behind Shi'ite militias to help halt Islamic State's onslaught, he has since tried to implement reforms to reduce the power of sectarian parties, angering many political leaders.

Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, are ultra-hardline Sunnis who consider all Shi'ite Muslims to be apostates. They swept through northern and western Iraq in June 2014 and declared a “caliphate” to rule over all Muslims from territory in both Iraq and Syria, carrying out mass killings and imposing a draconian form of Sunni Islam.

Since then, the battle against the group in both Syria and Iraq has drawn in most global and regional powers, often with competing allies on the ground in complex multi-sided civil wars.

The Baghdad government says the next target after Ramadi is Mosul. Washington had hoped that a potentially decisive battle for that city would take place in 2015 but it was pushed back after the fighters seized Ramadi in May.

Abadi's government plans to hand over Ramadi to local police and a Sunni tribal force once it is secured, to encourage Sunnis to resist Islamic State.

Such a strategy would echo the U.S. military's “surge” campaign of 2006-2007, which relied on recruiting and arming Sunni tribal fighters against a precursor of Islamic State. Anbar, including Ramadi, was a major focus of that campaign at the height of the 2003-2011 U.S. war in Iraq.

Turkey Incursion Into Iraq Intensifies


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Turkey’s recent deployment of troops and tanks into northern Iraq has caused a major diplomatic row between Ankara and Baghdad, but experts say Turkish forces are there to stay.

“Honestly speaking there is not much Baghdad can do,” Aydın Selcen, the former Turkish consul to Erbil [capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq] told The Media Line.

On December 4, Turkey sent at least 150 soldiers and 20 to 25 tanks to a military facility in the small Kurdish Iraqi town of Bashiqa, 19 miles north of Mosul, where it has been assisting in the training of Iraqi forces

The Islamic State (ISIS) captured the Sunni-majority city of Mosul (population about 1.5 million) in a shocking lightning offensive in June of last year. Plans to retake the city stalled, though Kurdish forces have made recent progress in cutting off its supply routes.

Hüseyin Bağcı, head of Middle Eastern Technical University’s international relations department, says the primary goal of Turkey’s armed forces in northern Iraq is still countering the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.)

“Turkey’s main enemy is not ISIS, but the PKK,” Professor Bağcı told The Media Line.

Akın Ünver, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, says Turkey’s deployment is also about regaining lost prestige. In June 2014, ISIS overran Turkey’s consulate in Mosul and took 49 Turkish citizens hostage, releasing them the following September.

“It was actually one of the biggest national security and intelligence failures,” Ünver tells The Media Line. “They want to rectify that mistake. There’s a prestige issue there.”

Baghdad says the Turkish troops don’t have permission to be there and must leave immediately, calling the situation a “crisis” and threatening to resort to the United Nations.

Powerful members of the Iraqi parliament have called for military strikes against the Turkish forces, though such a drastic measure is unlikely.

Ankara claims that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi himself invited the Turkish troops. It refuses to withdraw its deployment but has pledged to not send reinforcements.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the troops were needed to protect Turkey’s already present forces in Iraq from ISIS fighters, to train Iraqi forces to fight ISIS, and to maintain stability in the region.

Washington, which has been leading air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria for over a year says it doesn’t support any military deployments in Iraq without Baghdad’s consent. But Washington too is unlikely to antagonize Ankara.

Massoud Barzani, leader of the autonomous KRG that currently controls Bashiqa, welcomed the Turkish troops and said he signed the agreement for their deployment on November 2.

Selcen, Turkey’s former consul to Erbil, says that the deployment shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is, he says, merely a reinforcement of Turkish forces that have been in Iraq for decades.

Turkish military trainers have been working with Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen fighters in Bashiqa for about two years. To counter militants from the PKK, that Ankara considers its enemy, Turkey has also maintained military units, including heavy armor, throughout northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Selcen says the latest reinforcements have transformed Bashiqa into a permanent forward operating base for Turkey, but added that its soldiers have no offensive purpose, even in an expected assault on Mosul. “That would be stretching reality a bit.”

“It’s a signal,” he said. “A political message to all parties interested. To Erbil, it means, ‘we are with you.’ To Baghdad, it means more or less ‘we don’t care much about what you say.’ To Tehran and Moscow it means in a now-unified war theatre in Syria and Iraq, ‘you are not on your own, we are here too.’ To Washington it says […] ‘we are allies with you in this but we are also able to move when need be according to our own national interests.’”

Soner Çağaptay, the director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Program, says that Baghdad has only now decided to voice its concern at Turkey’s long-time presence in its northern territories because it is pressured by Russia and Iran, each vying for influence in the country.

“This is in my view a coordinated Iranian-Russian pushback,” he told The Media Line. “They have gone to the government in Baghdad and told them to stand up to the Turks.”

Russia is still furious about Turkey’s downing of an SU-24 jet on November 24, after the aircraft allegedly entered Turkish airspace.

However, Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, says that Shia-dominated Baghdad views Turkey negatively regardless of Russian or Iranian influence.

“There is overwhelming, near-unanimous opposition [to Turkey] on the Shia street,” Sowell told the Media Line, speaking from Ottawa.

Sowell says there was never a formal agreement between Ankara and Baghdad allowing Turkish forces entry.

He believes the friction between the two countries is not only sectarian (Turkey is majority-Sunni and Iraq majority Shia) but also a consequence of Turkey’s support for the KRG and the widely-believed rumor that Ankara supports ISIS.

Much to Baghdad’s unhappiness, the KRG enjoys significant autonomy and openly hopes for independence from Iraq.

Turkey and the KRG have enjoyed very good relations at least since 2010, when Ankara established a consulate in Erbil.

“Erbil right now is essentially a colony of Turkey,” Sowell says. “The only reason it’s able to function at all is because the Turks keep loaning them money.” Erbil is also only able to export oil independently of Baghdad through Turkey.

Ankara is using its Bashiqa base to train Kurdish Peshmerga forces and support an anti-Baghdad Sunni Arab militia.

Sowell says the only force strong enough to retake Mosul are the Iraqi Armed Forces, possibly with the assistance of Shia militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

However, Baghdad’s army has proven itself unwilling to take casualties and is notoriously disorganized. Furthermore, it can only reach Mosul by crossing through territory held by the KRG—requiring the acquiescence of President Barzani.

Former consul Selcen disagrees.

“You cannot ‘liberate’ that kind of a [large Sunni] city with Shia forces or the so-called national Iraqi army. It’s up to the Mosul Arabs to get rid of ISIL there,” he says.

Ünver, the international relations professor at Kadir Has University, agrees that any kind of Shia force retaking Mosul could end in disaster.

“If a Shiite group comes in and acts like a bull in a china-shop and starts killing Sunni civilians, that’s going to create even more tensions, which feeds into the whole ISIS narrative of being the only ones who can defend Sunnis,” he says.

From Ünver’s point of view, the Peshmerga should be armed and take Mosul instead. He considers a recent vote in the US House Foreign Affairs Committee allowing Washington to directly arm the Peshmerga without going through Baghdad is a significant development.

According to Ünver, retaking Mosul is likely to be very difficult because of the large number of civilians in the city, who ISIS does not in general allow to flee. Airstrikes would therefore be impossible without significant civilian casualties.

“Basically, ISIS is forcing whoever is going to retake Mosul into a street-by-street, building-by-building Stalingrad type of war.”

On Thursday, Turkish National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan and Foreign Ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu traveled to Baghdad.

On the same day, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that between Turkey, the US, and KRG officials will meet on December 21.

Bush wants increased U.S. presence on ground in Iraq


Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush called for an increased American troop presence on the ground in Iraq to counter Islamic State militants following the Paris attacks, saying President Barack Obama's policy of air strikes is not enough.

“While air power is essential, it alone cannot bring the results we seek,” Bush said in a speech at The Citadel, a military college. “The United States – in conjunction with our NATO allies and more Arab partners – will need to increase our presence on the ground.”

Bush used the speech to shift slightly his proposals on how to take on Islamic State militants after 129 people were killed in the Paris attacks last Friday.

“Militarily, we need to intensify our efforts in the air -and on the ground,” he said.

The former Florida governor has been calling for more U.S. special operations forces to be embedded with Iraqi units to help identify enemy targets.

If elected in November 2016, Bush said he also would build an international coalition including regional countries to use “overwhelming force” to take out Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq. 

In his speech, he did not say how many more troops are needed, saying the scope of any increased U.S. presence on the ground should be in line with what U.S. military generals recommend.

“But the bulk of these ground troops will need to come from local forces that we have built workable relationships with,” he said.

Bush, looking to show he is capable of being commander in chief in the face of multiple threats abroad, laid out a national security strategy in a speech that he retooled in order to take account of the Paris attacks.

Iraq is a sensitive subject for Bush, given the dismay some Americans feel over the rationale for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ordered by his brother, former President George W. Bush.

Bush's plan calls for maintaining the U.S. prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, that his brother used to house terrorism suspects and which President Barack Obama is trying to close by the time he leaves office in January 2017. The prison currently has 107 inmates.

Bush is eager to make an impact on a Republican race that in some respects has been leaving him behind. He is in single digits in many polls of Republican voters, who so far have been more enthusiastic about non-politician candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Bush's belief is that voters eventually will come around to a serious, policy-minded candidate like him but with the Iowa caucuses to kick off the 2016 election season on Feb. 1, his plan has not helped him in polls.

A Reuters-Ipsos poll found on Tuesday that 33 percent of Republican voters felt Trump would be the strongest candidate to deal with terrorism, followed by Senator Marco Rubio at 17 percent. Carson and Bush were tied at about 9 percent.

Jeb: Use of force will restore U.S. leadership


Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush situated himself on national security and America’s role in the world right in the center – between the hawks, the isolationists and the inexperienced candidates in his party, in a speech he delivered at The Citadel military school in South Carolina on Thursday. 

“As we gather today, in the aftermath of the bloodshed in Paris, let it be said that this generation knew the cost of war, but also knew the even greater cost of acquiescence to an enemy with which there is no co-existence,” Bush said. “Radical Islamic terrorists have declared war on the western world. Their aim is our total destruction. We can’t withdraw from this threat, nor negotiate with it.”

ISIS is a direct national security threat to the United States which requires using military action to defeat them, Bush said. “We have but one choice: to defeat it,” he said. “America has had enough of empty words, of declarations detached from reality of an administration with no strategy or no intention of victory. Here is the truth you will not hear from our president: We are at war with radical Islamic terrorism. It is the war of our time, and a struggle that will determine the fate of the free world.”

The military campaign, according to the Republican presidential hopeful, would include intensified airstrikes and “overwhelming force,” not necessarily involve substantial U.S. ground troops, rather increased presence in conjunction with NATO and Arab countries in the region. 

In an interview previewing the speech on Bloomberg’s WADR program Tuesday, Bush said the U.S. should hit ISIS targets even at the risk of civilian casualties: “This is war. And we need to treat it as war. You don’t go out of your way to kill innocents. But I think this administration has not viewed it. They view it as a law enforcement exercise. They have lawyers on top of it. That’s not the attitude that you need to be successful.” 

The former Florida Governor, in an attempt to restart his campaign in the crucial months leading to the early state primaries in February, argued that the attacks in Paris should serve as a siren against electing inexperienced candidates for the highest office. “This brutal savagery is a reminder of what is at stake in this election. We are choosing the leader of the free world,” he stressed. “And if these attacks remind us of anything, it is that we are living in serious times that require serious leadership.” 

While acknowledging the need of spending cuts across the board, Bush called for increasing the size of the military and be prepared for the use of force. “I believe in the principle that the greater our superiority in military power, the less likely it is that we will have to assert that power, or be provoked into using it,” he asserted. “In my administration, security for the United States will mean gaining and keeping the edge in every category, old and new. Whether it’s our command of the seas, the land, or the air, of space or cyberspace, America’s goal should be technological superiority beyond question. My plan puts the warfighters first, to maintain a force without equal.”

Bush also addressed the Iran nuclear deal, highlighting the need to put forth a “comprehensive strategy” not just to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, “but also to confront Iranian aggression, terrorism, and malign activities that have stoked such sectarian violence and destabilized the region.”

“To accomplish this,” Bush’s plan states, “the U.S. will have to repair broken alliances and partnerships, above all with Israel.” 

Changing course will also require leadership, Bush said. “But for the U.S., who’s going to defend our allies? But for the US, who will lead the effort to stop Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons? Who’ll be the dependable friend for Israel if not for the United State of America?” he asked rhetorically.

Islamic State says ‘Schweppes bomb’ used to bring down Russian plane


Islamic State's official magazine carried a photo on Wednesday of a Schweppes drink it said was used to make an improvised bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 people on board.

The photo showed a can of Schweppes Gold soft drink and what appeared to be a detonator and switch on a blue background, three simple components that if genuine are likely to cause concern for airline safety officials worldwide.

“The divided Crusaders of the East and West thought themselves safe in their jets as they cowardly bombarded the Muslims of the Caliphate,” the English language Dabiq magazine said in reference to Russia and the West. “And so revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe in the cockpits.”

Western governments have said the plane was likely brought down by a bomb and Moscow confirmed on Tuesday it had reached the same conclusion, but the Egyptian government says it has still not found evidence of criminal action.

Islamic State also published a photo of what it said were passports belonging to dead Russians “obtained by the mujahideen”. It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the published photos.

The group, which has seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq, said it had exploited a loophole at Sharm al-Sheikh airport, where the plane originated, in order to smuggle a bomb on board.

The airport is widely used by budget and charter airlines to fly tourists to the nearby resorts on the Sinai coast.

Islamic State said it had initially planned to bring down a plane belonging to a country participating in the U.S.-led coalition bombing it in Syria and Iraq, but it changed course after Moscow started its own air strikes campaign in Syria.

“A bomb was smuggled onto the airplane, leading to the deaths of 219 Russians and five other crusaders only a month after Russia’s thoughtless decision,” it said.

Egypt's interior minister told a news conference in Sharm al-Sheikh on Tuesday that there was “no information” about security lapses at the airport.

Islamic State's Egyptian branch, Sinai Province, claimed responsibility for the attack the day it happened but Egyptian officials were quick to dismiss talk of a bomb as premature.

NO SAFETY IN MUSLIM LANDS

Egypt is battling an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, a strategic peninsula bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal. But Islamic State said the airline attack was primarily planned as a response to Russian and Western air strikes.

“This was to show the Russians and whoever allies with them that they will have no safety in the lands and airspace of the Muslims,” the group wrote. “That their daily killing of dozens in (Syria) through their air strikes will only bring them calamities.”

Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, launched air strikes against opposition groups in Syria including Islamic State, on Sept. 30.

Since the attacks on Paris, both Russia and France have stepped up the tempo of air strikes.

The downed aircraft, an Airbus A321 operated by Metrojet, had been carrying Russian holidaymakers from the Egyptian resort to St Petersburg when it broke up over Sinai.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible for blowing up the plane and offered a $50 million reward for information leading to those responsible.

“We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them,” Putin said of the plane bombers at a somber Kremlin meeting.

Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB security service, said traces of foreign-made explosive had been found on fragments of the downed plane and on passengers' personal belongings. He said the bomb probably contained around 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of TNT.

Egypt has not officially given a reason as to why the plane was brought down, calling on all sides to await the official results of an investigation carried out by an Egyptian-led team.

The government said it would “take into consideration” Russia's findings but that it was yet to find any evidence of criminal action bringing down the plane.

Uncertainty grips Middle Eastern markets


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The impact of the Middle East’s ongoing woes on the region’s tourism businesses has been well documented. The industry’s standing has been tarnished not just by continuing conflicts, but also by repeated terrorist attacks against foreign tourists in a number of countries in the region. What has been less discussed is the downturn in the Middle East’s industry, business, and inter-regional commerce.

Syria, the focal point for much of the violence in the region, was described by the World Bank as a “lower middle income country,” with agriculture and petroleum exports making up the bulk of its trade in 2010. Five years later, its economy has been characterized as anywhere between collapsed and as a ‘war economy’. But the country is hardly the only state whose financial position is hugely affected by the sectarian conflict raging in, and across, its borders.

In a research paper for the World Bank published last year, Elena Ianchovichina and Maros Ivanic described how the impact of the war has been felt chiefly by Syria and by Iraq. With stretches of its western provinces captured by the Islamic State, including areas of oil production, it is hardly surprising that Iraq has suffered large scale economic regression. Ianchovichina and Ivanic also discussed a second tier of affected countries — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — neighboring Syria and Iraq, who have taken in the bulk of the war’s refugees.

Despite the scale and the length of the conflict the economic repercussions onto global markets have not been large, Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics Research Company, told The Media Line. Syria’s economic output was far more relevant to its direct neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, than to global markets, Tuvey said.

As well as a loss of trade both countries have borne the brunt of Syria’s refugee exodus. Lebanon has taken in so many Syrians that refugees are now 25% of the population and in Jordan the Zaatari refugee camp is so crowded as to constitute the country’s fourth largest city, the economist explained.

Turkey too has taken in large numbers of refugees but is more financially stable than the two smaller host nations.

Whether or not Syria’s reduction in trade has adversely affected the broader Middle East the war is still hampering the region’s economy due to the uncertainty it produces, Colin Foreman, news editor at MEED Middle East Business Intelligence, told The Media Line. Similar to the early years of the Arab Spring – the pro-democracy protests that took place throughout the Middle East in 2011 – the Syrian war creates uncertainty in Middle Eastern markets, Foreman said.

The difference is that in 2011 petroleum prices were stable, so uncertainty actually benefited exporting nations, whereas now the cost of a barrel of oil is low and so the market is more adversely affected, the editor explained.

Conflict in Syria is not the only cause of this situation as political turmoil in Egypt and war in Yemen also add to the uncertainty, Foreman said.

Escalating the uncertainty yet further is the Islamic State (ISIS). “The situation in Syria has deteriorated particularly since mid-2014 with ISIS taking a foothold,” Foreman argued. This has led to the refugee crisis and to a significant downturn in the value of the Iraqi oil industry, the editor suggested.

Tuvey was not as sure that the impact of the Islamic State was felt strongly on Iraqi oil exports. “In Iraq most of its oil fields are in the south away from ISIS – Iraq has actually been increasing its oil production over the last year or so,” he explained.

He went onto suggest the current price of petroleum may be limiting the damage ISIS can cause to global markets.

“It has not had an enormous impact because we’re now in an era when we have a huge glut of oil – ten years ago it might have been more concerning,” he said.

‘They’ll think we are the enemy’: refugees in Germany fear backlash


Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Germany fear that the attacks in Paris could further shift public opinion against the Berlin government's welcoming asylum policy.

About a dozen men, smoking heavily, discussed the deadliest attacks in Europe since 2004 outside Berlin's Tempelhof airport, an imposing structure built by Hitler to showcase Nazi power and now functioning as a shelter for asylum-seekers.

The backdrop to their conversation on Monday was a chorus of demands by right-wing European politicians to halt the flow of migrants into Europe, which some see as providing ideal cover for Islamic State to smuggle in militants — even if there is as yet no proof. 

Nabil, 27, a Syrian from Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, finds it hard to believe a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the Paris gunmen. He believes this was a conspiracy, a common thought in the Arab world.

“And France is known for having extremists. I worry about public opinion,” he added, tucking his hands into the pockets of his red jacket on a cold evening, as two children aged no more than six walked past in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Nizar Basal, a Syrian from a town near Hama, was surprisingly frank.

“There are of course ticking bombs coming in with the refugees,” said the 49-year-old, who worked as a private teacher of computer science in Abu Dhabi before coming to Germany last month.

“But the question is, what will happen to us? What will people think about us? They will think we are the enemy.”

The German government said after the attacks, in which at least 129 people were killed on Friday night, that its security agencies had intensified monitoring of radical right-wing activists, fearing a backlash against refugees.

German media also reported that the government wants to tighten security at refugee shelters. German police have detained an Algerian man at one shelter in connection with the Paris attacks, officials said on Monday. 

There have been more than 690 arson and other attacks on refugee centres so far this year, as Germany expects up to one million asylum seekers. The influx has increased pressure on the government to reverse some of its welcoming policies and strained German Chancellor Angel Merkel's coalition. 

Mohammad, 31, who worked in a sweet shop in Syria before the war there, fears a hardening of German public opinion.

“We fled death, we don't want anyone to die. This is a problem that will affect the refugees,” he said.

Falah, 48, who owned a watch shop in Baghdad before fleeing to Turkey, put things into perspective.

“There is a suicide bombing every 15 minutes in Iraq,” he said. He then pointed to a picture of Merkel on his mobile phone and said: “She is our hope.”

Basal, the teacher, said he would have attended a weekend vigil in Berlin for the Paris attack victims if he had heard about it in advance. 

“We don't have much time to think about it. There are no showers here, we haven't had a shower for two weeks.”

Iraq fights cholera epidemic


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Health officials in Iraq are working to contain an outbreak of cholera that could threaten millions of Shi’ite pilgrims due to visit holy sites in Iraq early next month. According to UNICEF, there have been over 2000 confirmed cases of the disease and two deaths reported in Iraq, as well as individual cases in Kuwait and Bahrain.

“The millions of pilgrims who come will be walking through areas that have cholera,” Jeffrey Bates, the Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Iraq told The Media Line. “If these people access contaminated water sources, they could get the disease. We are working with the government and religious sources to make the sure the water systems along the route are clean and that medical facilities along the way are equipped.”

The pilgrims are coming to the Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to mark the “arbaeen”, the end of 40 days of mourning for Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and the founder of Shi’ite Islam.

Outbreaks of cholera in Iraq are frequent, and usually come in the fall and spring, Bates says. This year it is more challenging than the past because the Islamic State controls about a third of northern and Western Iraq. It has been difficult to assess the cholera situation there, and there are fears that the three million displaced people might have less access to clean water than in the past.

Bates says that the key to controlling the spread of cholera is early detection. There is an anti-cholera vaccine that is effective in 50- 60 percent of the cases if two doses are taken. Cholera can be treated with oral rehydration solution, and in severe cases, antibiotics. The disease is spread through contaminated water or food.

Bates says that UNICEF has partnered with the Iraqi government to handle the cholera outbreak.

“The government came on board quickly as soon as cholera was identified in September,” he said. “Because of the conflict going on (with Islamic State) we had to re-gear quite a bit, but the response was rapid. The government responded with a round of oral cholera vaccine aimed at the displaced people and refugees.”

He said the first round of the oral vaccine was completed last week, and the second round is scheduled for early next month. In any case, the cholera outbreak, which tends to be seasonal, is winding down.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it has launched a campaign to encourage families to purify water, prepare food carefully and to wash their hands. The organization said it has launched a campaign to use 510,000 doses from a global stockpile of one million of the anti-cholera vaccination and will use it to vaccinate 255,000 internally displaced people and refugees.

“Five countries – Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – have reported cholera cases. The cholera situation in Kuwait and Bahrain is under control, however we are concerned about the current cholera outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Iraq. If not properly contained, cases could spike and spread across borders,” warned Coordinator, WHO Control of Epidemic Diseases, William Augusto Perea Caro.

He said the WHO needs five million dollars to ramp up its response to the cholera outbreaks. They said the situation in Africa is even worse than the Middle East.

“The cholera situation in the African Region is especially worrisome. WHO is working closely with national authorities and partners to manage the cases and provide access to safe water, adequate sanitation and basic hygiene needs,” said Dr Ibrahima-Socé Fall, Director of the Health Security and Emergencies Cluster at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

In Tanzania, there have been almost 5000 cases of cholera and 74 deaths in the past few months.

Israel faces threats ranging from rockets to nuclear, defense minister says


Israel faces a wide variety of threats ranging from Islamic militants wielding missiles and rockets to nuclear attack, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday during a visit to the United States.

Yaalon was speaking with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the National Defense University in Washington. Carter emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Israeli security relationship and the United States' commitment to maintaining close ties.

Carter and Yaalon are due to visit the Naval Air Station in Maryland on Wednesday for a demonstration of the F-35 joint strike fighter. The United States has said it will deliver the F-35 to Israel next year, making it the only country in the Middle East to have the top-flight aircraft.

Yaalon ticked off a number of threats that he said Israel has faced, including from Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad's Syria, and Iran.

“The threat has been changed dramatically from conventional type warfare to what might be called super-conventional…weapons of mass destruction, or sub-conventional like terror, rockets, and missiles,” Yaalon said.

Close U.S.-Israeli ties have come under strain in recent months over a nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and the United States and other world powers, which Israeli officials have denounced as empowering Iran and endangering Israel.

Yaalon said the deal, which was agreed in July and imposes curbs on Iran's nuclear program in return for the removal of some economic sanctions, could delay an Iranian nuclear threat againstIsrael.

“Yes, for the time being, for about a decade or so, it (Iran's nuclear program) might be postponed as a threat against us,” Yaalon said, adding that the Iranian government had not given up its “vision of having a military nuclear capability.”

Iran denies ever pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and said that it wanted nuclear capability only for civilian purposes.

Yaalon also addressed ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians. Violence has flared in Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, in part triggered by Palestinians' anger over what they see as Jewish encroachment on Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Yaalon said claims that Israel had violated agreements related to the holy site were false.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced cautious hope that there may be a way to defuse the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Islamic State can draw on veteran jihadists, ex-Iraq army officers for leadership


Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one of the world's most wanted men, is counting on veteran jihadis and former Iraqi army officers who form the core of the militant movement to take over if he is killed.

New questions arose over Islamic State's leadership structure and who might succeed Baghdadi after Iraq's military said on Sunday air strikes had hit a convoy carrying him, though Iraqi security officials later denied this.

Baghdadi, who rarely appears in public and delivers few audio speeches, makes the vast majority of decisions, including which of the group's enemies should be killed.

His approval is needed even for decisions taken by the five-member Shura Council, which runs Islamic State and will elect a new a new leader if Baghdadi is killed, and he rules over a decentralized network of emirs in the field who run the everyday activities of the caliphate he has declared.

Baghdadi does, however, lean on a small circle of senior Islamic State aides such as Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the group's official spokesman, as he pursues a mission which his fighters describe as “part of God's path to create a strong Islamic State that will rule the world.” 

Born in 1977 in Idlib, Syria, Adnani has delivered Islamic State's main messages, including its declaration of a caliphate, which was distributed in five languages.

The most important operatives include Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, a former general and military intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein who can provide Islamic State fighters with training and direction.

Baghdadi is also said by followers to rely heavily on Abu Omar al-Shishani, a senior commander in Syria. Born in 1986 in Georgia, which was then still part of the Soviet Union, he has a reputation as a great military mind and has long been at Baghdadi's side.

RUTHLESS AND SECRETIVE 

Sunday's air strike was at least the third attack on Baghdadi's entourage.

Despite his power – and a $10 million U.S. reward for information leading to his capture – little is known about a man who for his own survival has shunned the spotlight.

But it is clear he will go to all lengths to achieve his goals, as evidenced in Islamic State videos depicting the violent deaths of those who stand in its way.

Opponents have been beheaded, shot dead, blown up with fuses attached to their necks and drowned in cages lowered into swimming pools, with underwater cameras capturing their agony.

According to the U.S. reward notice, which depicts a round-faced, brown-eyed man with closely cropped beard and short dark hair, Baghdadi was born in the Iraqi town of Samarra in 1971.

The United States, which is bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, first came across Baghdadi in Iraq in 2004 when it detained him at the Camp Bucca. He was later released.

A follower of al Qaeda during the early years of the U.S. occupation, he later branched out on his own, helping establish Islamic State.

When he seized tracts of Iraq and Syria and declared a so-called caliphate he hopes will span the Muslim world, he drew militants from around the globe to Islamic State, creating a diverse pool of fighters eager to rise up the jihadist ladder.

Baghdadi and his aides have thrown an already fractured Middle East deeper into turmoil and delivered a shock to global security on a scale not seen since the heyday of al Qaeda.

Baghdadi's followers' killings of Shi'ites on the Arabian Peninsula deepened divisions in the Muslim world and their brutality helped spur Russian military involvement in the region and worsen the most severe refugee crisis since World War Two.

Baghdadi has exploited conflict in Syria and Iraq to topple al Qaeda from its primacy in trans-national militancy, a huge loss of prestige for a group whose hijacked plane attacks killed nearly 3,000 people in New York's World Trade Center, Washington and Pennsylvania. 

The recruiting drum he beat was loud and clear: summoning followers to a pitiless jihad against Shi’ite heretics, Christian crusaders, Jewish infidels, and Kurdish atheists. He berated Arab despots for defiling the honor of Sunni Islam.

FAR-REACHING AMBITIONS

Islamic State became the first militant group to defeat an army when it swept through northern Iraq last year.

“Islam was never for a day the religion of peace; Islam is the religion of war,” he said in a speech released on May 14.

This year he set his sights on Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, and his group launched an online magazine for Turks, who volunteered for his jihad in hundreds if not thousands.

Unlike al Qaeda, which focuses on hit-and-run attacks and bombings, Islamic State is more concerned with seizing and holding on to territory for the caliphate, acquiring tanks and weapons left by fleeing Iraqi soldiers along the way.

Stolen oil sold on the black market provides revenues as Baghdadi seeks military self-sufficiency.

Baghdadi's ambitions stretch far beyond the Middle East, where his men control large swathes of Iraq and Syria and rule over perhaps 10 million people. He has established a presence in Libya, enjoys support from militants in Egypt's Sinai desert and his suicide bombers have attacked a variety of targets in war-

Baghdadi has opened the door to foreign fighters, mostly Europeans and Americans who have latched on to his call for holy war and are able to return home with their passports to stage attacks. He also accepted a pledge of allegiance from Nigerian Islamists Boko Haram. 

Many young Islamists who were of school age at the time of the Sept. 11 2001 attacks on the United States now look for inspiration not to al Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is in his mid-60s, but to Baghdadi, a generation younger.

Everyone’s talking ISIS at the UN, leaving Netanyahu glaring


All anyone attending the United Nations General Assembly opening seemed to want to talk about was the threat posed to the world by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

That was much to the consternation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who argued in his speech before that body on Thursday that Iran, beyond the benefits accrued to it because of the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal, was benefiting from the intensified focus on ISIS.

“When your enemies fight each other, don’t strengthen either one, weaken both!” he said.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the week of speeches, Netanyahu charged the assembled world leaders with silence in the wake of Iranian provocations, including calls for Israel’s disappearance, before and after it reached the deal in July with six major powers.

He held up what he said was a 400-page tome by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which anticipated Israel’s demise.

“The response from this body, the response from every one of the governments represented here, has been absolute silence, utter silence, deafening silence,” the Israeli leader said.

Netanyahu then glared, silent, his eyes moving back and forth across the chamber, for 44 seconds.

He was not precisely correct in suggesting that no other leader had called out Iran. President Barack Obama, speaking Monday, focused on Iran’s perpetuation of mischief even in the wake of the deal.

Iran “continues to deploy violent proxies to advance its interests,” Obama said. “These efforts may appear to give Iran leverage in disputes with neighbors, but they fuel sectarian conflict that endangers the entire region, and isolates Iran from the promise of trade and commerce.”

Obama called on Iran to choose a “different path.”

“Chanting ‘Death to America’ does not create jobs or make Iran more secure,” he said. “If Iran chose a different path, that would be good for the security of the region, good for the Iranian people and good for the world.”

Still, Netanyahu had reason to be concerned that the Obama administration was preparing to pivot toward a gentler accommodation of Iranian ambitions in the region, precisely because of shared interests in confronting the Sunni extremist ISIS.

Prior to the formal opening of the General Assembly, Secretary of State John Kerry met in New York with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, for the first time since the July deal was announced – and made clear that the U.S. had more to discuss with Iran than just nuclear compliance.

“We have a lot of issues to talk about,” Kerry said on his way into the meeting. “I view this week as a major opportunity for any number of countries to play an important role in trying to resolve some of the very difficult issues of the Middle East. We need to achieve peace and a way forward in Syria, in Yemen, in the region itself.”

The success of ISIS, and the wave of Europe-bound refugees it has created, preoccupied many of the speakers, chief among them Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sparred over best practice: Targeting ISIS while seeking the ouster of the the Iran-backed Bashar Assad regime in Syria, as Obama counseled, or embracing Assad as a useful partner in defeating ISIS, as Putin advised.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said.

“But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo,” he said in his General Assembly address. “Let’s remember how this started: Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife.”

Putin, speaking soon thereafter, likened Obama’s insistence on Assad’s ouster to his Soviet predecessors’ notorious interference in smaller states.

“We should all remember what our past has taught us,” Putin said. “’Social experiments’ for export, attempts to push for changes within other countries based on ideological preferences, often led to tragic consequences and to degradation rather than progress.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking Tuesday, also dedicated much of his speech to the threat that he said ISIS posed.

“The gravest and most important threat to the world today is for terrorist organizations to become terrorist states, for the destiny of nations to be determined by arms and terror rather than the ballot box,” he said. “No country should be allowed to use terrorism for the purpose of intervention in the affairs of another country.”

As if anticipating Netanyahu’s direst warnings, Rouhani welcomed the nuclear deal as an entree into the international community while continuing Iran’s tradition of lobbing anti-Israel rhetorical bombs at the United Nations.

“The agreed-upon deal is not the final objective but a development which should be the basis of further agreements to come,” he said.

Rouhani warned the assembled leaders “not to allow the Zionist regime to remain the only impediment in the way of realizing this important precedent.”

Having failed to stop the nuclear deal, Netanyahu appeared to realize that his best bet is to encourage its close supervision. He made clear that keeping a close eye on Iran would be high on his agenda when he meets with Obama at the White House on Nov. 9.

“Israel deeply appreciates President Obama’s willingness to bolster our security, help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge and help Israel confront the enormous challenges we face,” he said. “Israel is grateful that this sentiment is widely shared by the American people and its representatives in Congress, by both those who supported the deal and by those who opposed it.”

Custody battle over rare Iraqi-Jewish historical documents


On May 6, 2003, 16 American soldiers of a special unit searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction entered the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.

While the soldiers found no nuclear or chemical arms, they did discover 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents pertaining to the lives and history of the Iraqi-Jewish community from 1524 to the 1970s.

The historical trove was slowly disintegrating under 4 feet of water, so U.S. authorities in Iraq sent an urgent request to Washington for top conservation experts.

One week later, Doris Hamburg, director of preservation programs at the National Archives, arrived in Baghdad and was taken to the flooded basement. “When we opened the trunks where the documents were stored, we were hit by an overpowering moldy smell,” she recalled in a phone interview.

On Sept. 4, an exhibition including 23 of the recovered items, along with videos of the painstaking restoration effort, will open at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.

The 2,000-square-foot exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” will continue through Nov. 15 at the Orange County site.

Among the show’s highlights are a Hebrew Bible with commentaries published in 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a hand-lettered and decorated haggadah, and a lunar calendar in Hebrew and Arabic.

One section of the exhibition shows how the moldy mass of material was saved by the National Archives experts. “Every page had to be vacuumed, freeze-dried, preserved and digitized,” Hamburg said. On the Sept. 4 opening day, Hamburg will give a free public lecture at 10 a.m. at the Nixon Library.

After restoration: Passover Haggadah from Vienna, 1930. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

The exhibition is of particular significance to the roughly 3,000 Jews of Iraqi descent in Los Angeles, who make up the largest concentration among the estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Iraqi Jews in the United States. Other sizable communities are in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Arizona; Connecticut; Florida; and New Jersey.

The spiritual center of the Los Angeles community is Congregation Kahal Joseph, a Sephardic synagogue on the city’s Westside. It has a membership of some 400 families, about 90 percent of which are of Iraqi descent, with the remainder from Burma, Indonesia, India and Singapore.

After a number of years without a spiritual leader, Kahal Joseph welcomed Rabbi Raif Melhado to its pulpit last month.

The congregation’s former president and current chairman of the board is Joseph Dabby, who said he lobbied intensively to bring the exhibition to Los Angeles after it had been shown in New York;, Washington, D.C.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Asked why the exhibition venue would be located in Yorba Linda rather than at a central Jewish site in Los Angeles, Dabby said he had asked the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to host the show but was turned down by both.

Skirball museum director Robert Kirschner explained, “Of the many exhibitions proposed to us, unfortunately we can present very few. The museum gave this exhibition serious consideration several years ago, and I subsequently went to see it in in New York City. While it is a worthy exhibition, our decision was that it did not resonate closely with the Skirball’s mission, which focuses on the American-Jewish experience.”

At the Museum of Tolerance, director Liebe Geft stated that no one at the museum had been contacted about the exhibition.

She added that potential exhibits are judged on whether the subject matter and content are consistent with the museum’s mission, as well as with the logistics and available space. Currently, she said, the new Anne Frank installation is occupying all available space.

Dabby’s greatest concern, however, is whether the thousands of books, documents and artifacts will remain in the United States or be returned to the government in Baghdad, as was stipulated in the initial agreement allowing the transfers to the U.S. National Archives.

Given the unsettled conditions in Iraq and the presence of the Islamic State, with its penchant for destroying ancient monuments and historical religious artifacts, Dabby asked how anyone could guarantee the survival of the Iraqi-Jewish collection. His question was echoed by Maurice Shohet, the Washington-based president of the World Organization of Jews From Iraq.

“All the books and documents were taken forcibly from the Jewish community by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and they still belong to us,” Shohet said. “I don’t know what the State Department plans to do, but at this time, it seems to be postponing any decision.”

The Journal asked the State Department for its view, and the same day received a lengthy response from spokesman Michael Lavallee, who made the following points:

As agreed to by the Iraqi government, the Iraqi Jewish Archive (IJA) is in the temporary custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for conservation, preservation, digitization and exhibition in the United States.

In May 2014, the Iraqi government extended IJA’s stay in the United States to allow its exhibition in more cities. After its Nixon Library display, the exhibit is due at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in December.

There are no definite plans for subsequent exhibits, but the United States “remains committed to the return of the IJA to Iraq, as per prior agreement,” Lavallee stated.

To the Journal’s question regarding the security of the IJA material should it be returned to Iraq, Lavallee responded diplomatically: “We will continue to partner with the Government of Iraq in countering the threat that [Islamic State] poses to the Iraqi people and heritage. Iraqi forces continue to make progress against [Islamic State] and it is impossible to speculate what the security situation would be at the point in the future when the collection would return to Iraq.”

Admission tickets to the Nixon Library ranges from $11.95 for adults to $4.75 for children. For additional information, visit ” target=”_blank”>ija.archives.gov

Campaign to push Islamic State from Anbar Province in Iraq intensifies


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

One month after the Iraqi government announced a new initiative to take back Anbar province in western Iraq, analysts and diplomats say the campaign is beginning to take root and Iraqi troops have regained control of some important areas.

“There is a shift in momentum towards unifying Iraqis and trying to win back the trust of the Sunni fighters in Anbar province who are on the front lines,” Renad Mansour, an expert on Iraq at the Carnegie Middle East Center told The Media Line. “Ramadi hasn’t been won back yet, but some territory has been going back and forth.”

The Iraqi army said it had 10,000 troops ready to participate in the fight, along with members of the Popular Forces, a predominately Shi’ite militia, who has successfully battled Islamic State, which practices an extreme form of Sunni Islam. Currently, Islamic State still controls large parts of Anbar province, the largest in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting.

Iraqi analysts say that the popular tide has turned against Islamic State, after brutal killings, arrests and torture of thousands in Ramadi.

“All of the citizens of Iraq, even the Sunnis, are waiting for the end of the nightmare of Daesh,” Methaq al-Fayydh, an Iraqi journalist told The Media Line, using the Arabic name of Islamic State. “What happened in Mosul (the first city taken over by Islamic State) – the killings and displacement of Christians and Muslims (Shi’ites and Sunnis) and Yazidis alike, make people want to get rid of Daesh.”

The Iraqi government has been trying to rebuild its army which was decimated when Islamic State swept through Iraq and neighboring Syria. Tens of thousands of soldiers fled, and a small number even joined Islamic State.

Along with the military efforts, President Heidar Abadi is working to streamline government and cut back on corruption, to help in the fight against Islamic State.

“Both sides are connected,” Mansour said. “People need to see the government fighting corruption and that will strengthen it as well.”

There have been some successes already. Military officials said that the army has recaptured the desert area west of Samarra and is preparing to move down into Anbar province. At the same time, suicide bombers recently killed two Iraqi generals last month as they led forces against Islamic State.

The media arm of Islamic State also released a video showing four Shi’ite fighters, suspended by their hands and feet, being burned alive. “Now retribution has come, for today, we will attack them as they attacked us and punish them as they punished us,” a masked Islamic State member said in the video.

The international community has been hesitant to get too involved in the fighting in Iraq, after the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, eight years after tens of thousands of US troops entered the country to overthrow long-time Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Almost 4500 US soldiers were killed during that time in Iraq, along with at least 150,000 Iraqis.

But many in Iraq called for more US involvement.

“The US must provide Iraqi forces with modern weapons,” al-Fayyadh said. “We also want them to increase air strikes targeting Islamic State.”

Israel bought $1 billion in oil from Iraqi Kurds


Israel has purchased $1 billion worth of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan in recent months, the Financial Times reported.

The import of some 19 million barrels of oil took place over the last three months, the Financial Times report said, citing shipping data, trading sources and satellite tanker tracking. The amount represents about one-third of northern Iraqi exports and meets about 77 percent of Israeli oil needs, according to the report, which speculated that some of the oil was resold by Israel.

Kurdish oil is exported through the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Kurdish government has denied selling oil to Israel. But a senior Kurdish government adviser in Erbil told the Financial Times, “We do not care where the oil goes once we have delivered it to the traders.”

The report speculated that the Israeli purchases are a way to support the Kurds’ fight against the Islamic State jihadist group.

White House: Islamic State second-in-command killed in U.S. air strike


The second-in-command of the Islamic State militant group was killed during a U.S. air strike in Iraq on Tuesday, the White House said on Friday, dealing a blow to the group that has sought to form a caliphate in the Middle East.

“Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, also known as Hajji Mutazz … was killed in a U.S. military air strike on August 18 while traveling in a vehicle near Mosul, Iraq, along with an ISIL media operative known as Abu Abdullah,” White House spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“Al-Hayali's death will adversely impact ISIL's operations given that his influence spanned ISIL's finance, media, operations, and logistics,” Price said, referring to the group by an acronym.

The White House said the dead leader was a “primary coordinator” for moving weapons, explosives, vehicles, and people between Iraq and Syria. He was in charge of operations in Iraq and helped plan the group's offensive in Mosul in June of last year.

The United States and its allies stage daily air strikes on Islamic State targets in the group's self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria. A drone strike last month killed a senior Islamic State leader in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

One counter-terrorism specialist cautioned that the impact of the killing on Islamic State could be short-lived.

“My experience in looking at the Islamic State suggests they have demonstrated … an ability to move people up into positions” when high-ranking operatives are killed, said Seth Jones, a former Pentagon official now at the RAND Corporation.

Jones said how much territory Islamic State controls was more important in determining the group's power. “The key issue is territorial control,” he said.

Iraqi prime minister pushes for reform


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for a truck bomb that killed at least 60 people and wounded more than 200 at a crowded market in Sadr City, a Shi’ite suburb of Baghdad. The attack came as Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is pushing for reforms that would streamline the government system as Islamic State continues to control about one-third of the country.

The violence in Iraq has intensified. Just last month, 1332 civilians, including civilian police, were killed and more than 2000 others wounded in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict, according to the United Nations. A further 488 member so the Iraqi security forces also died in the fighting.

Prime Minister Al-Abadi announced he will streamline Iraq’s government, as part of an effort to cut government spending and crack down on corruption. The plan also eliminates several senior positions that had traditionally been divided according to religious and ethnic affiliation such as Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. The Iraqi parliament unanimously approved the plan this week but there could be protests by minority groups.

“The Iraqi Prime Minister’s reform plan will probably strengthen Iraqi commercial and political networks, marginally improving state stability,” Meda Al Rowas, a senior analyst with HIS Country Risk told The Media Line. “It would mark the first step in renegotiating the Iraqi power-sharing plan in place since 2003.”

Abadi, a member of the majority Shi’ite group which represents 60-70 percent of the population, must ensure that Sunnis, who make up 20-30 percent still have a voice in the government. The Kurds, about ten percent, have a de facto separate state in northern Iraq.

“All of the things he’s trying to achieve, such as ending corruption and reducing government waste are noble goals and desperately needed,” Tim Easton, an expert on Iraq at Chatham House in London told The Media Line. “But they don’t address the fundamental problems in the system such as the patronage network that allows politicians to stay aloof from the people.”

This summer, like almost every summer, as temperatures climb above 120 degrees and the aging electricity grid is unable to handle the demand, there were street protests against the government. In the past, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki has sent troops to quell the protests. This year, Abadi seems more receptive to trying to solve the problem.

Perhaps the most serious challenge to Iraq’s stability in the past year has come from Islamic State, which now controls up to one-third of the country. In the face of Islamic State’s advance, many Iraqi soldiers fled, deserting their weapons. Many joined the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), in effect a Shi’ite militia.

“The spread of Islamic State gave the Shi’ite militias unprecedented power and legitimacy,” Donatella Rovera, a crisis analyst with Amnesty International who has spent most of the past year in Iraq told The Media Line. “Iraq has no functioning armed forces to speak of.”

The US, which had tens of thousands of troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, is trying to help rebuild the Iraqi army, helping train the allied Iraqi forces, who come from both the army and the PMU’s. So far these units have not been able to offer a serious threat to Islamic State.

These allied forces, backed by US air strikes, are trying to re-take Anbar province, and eventually move on to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Rivera says the international community has not done enough to help the Iraqi people.

“Millions of people were left under the control of the Islamic State with nobody to defend them,” she said. “Entire Sunni communities have been forced from the area. The Sunni population is being squeezed out of the north by the Kurds and out of the center by the Shi’ite militias. They have lost their homes and livelihoods and have nowhere to go.”

‘The Girl from the Garden’: A story of love and shame in Jewish Iran


In 1984, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, the writer Parnaz Foroutan left Iran with her family. She was only 6 years old, but she remembers how tense life had become.

“My early childhood, we would run down to the basement, with the lights off and the landlord’s wife screaming that we’re all going to die,” she recalled, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. “The next morning you just put on your outfit and go to first grade, and pass rubble where there used to be a building.”

Foroutan’s mother is Jewish and her father is Muslim. She was raised in a secular household, which made living in post-revolution Iran difficult.

“They were telling us that if our parents listened to unsanctioned radio stations, or if they drank wine, we should tell the teachers,” she said.

After the family packed their belongings and left Iran, they traveled in Europe for a year before settling in the mostly white upper-middle class enclave of Agoura Hills in the Conejo Valley, where there were very few Persian families. Her parents’ mixed-faith marriage alienated them from many relatives and also exposed Foroutan to institutional hatred on both sides.

“It was weird growing up in between these two cultures. On one end, I would listen to an aunt on my Jewish side saying all Muslims should be eradicated off the face of the Earth. And then on my dad’s side, he told me that as children they were told that Muslim boys were in danger of being kidnapped by Jews, because they wanted to use their blood for Passover bread,” she said.

Foroutan eventually converted to Baha’i, but she enjoyed growing up with both Jewish and Muslim traditions. At Shabbat dinners and festivals, she would hear stories about her home country from her mother’s relatives in Southern California. They would riff off of one another’s stories in a sort of communal storytelling.

“Somebody would say something, and someone else would say, ‘No, no, you’re forgetting this part!’ And the story would just build and build, and all of us would be sitting there, in the middle of it,” she recalled.

Many of the characters in her debut novel, “The Girl from the Garden” (Harper Collins, 2015), are based on actual family members and events, though as her relatives aged, their versions of stories began to conflict.

“The Girl from the Garden” focuses on a wealthy family of Jews in the Iranian town of Kermanshah in the early 20th century. Asher Malacouti is the head of the family and measures his own success on having a son. But his young wife, Rakhel, is unable to bear him a child, which makes Asher frustrated and angry. He lusts after his cousin’s wife, Kokab, and as soon as it’s announced that she’s divorcing her husband, Asher announces his intention to take Kokab as his second wife. 

In a time when a woman’s worth was measured by her ability to bear children, Rakhel despairs at her infertility and fears she’ll be sent away from the family. Meanwhile, Asher’s brother Ibrahim and his wife, Khorsheed, give birth to a son, making Rakhel even more despondent.

The story is recounted in fragments by the family’s sole surviving daughter, Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in Los Angeles. As she tends to her garden, memories of her old life fade in and out of her consciousness. She remembers Rakhel as a bitter old woman, cursing anyone who came within earshot. She remembers the pain and sorrow her family experienced and the women who suffered at the hands of their husbands. 

Foroutan sees the servitude of women as part of a larger system of oppression, stemming from the Russian and British occupations of Iran during the early part of the 20th century, to the fighting between Muslims and religious minorities, conflict between the rich and poor and between men and their wives and children, in what Foroutan called “trickle-down oppression.”

The Jews in the book also suffer at the hands of the Muslim majority. In one scene, Ibrahim accidentally bumps into a man on the street and is beaten within an inch of his life by a mob of Muslims, who call him “Jude najis,” an impure Jew. A mullah eventually saves him from the angry crowd.

Mahboubeh is based on Foroutan’s real-life maternal grandmother, and the other characters are also drawn from her actual relatives.
Rakhel, the author said, “is the central figure in my family history.”

Even so, Foroutan is careful not to call her novel a work of history. She compared writing the book to exhuming the bones of a dinosaur. “You’ve got the structure, but you don’t know what color it was, or what its flesh looked like, or if it had feathers or scales,” she said. “So you construct it. To give it flesh, you have to imagine things.”

After graduating with a degree in English, Foroutan wandered from job to job. She taught English to fifth-grade boys at a yeshiva in Los Angeles, saying, “It was the most difficult thing I have ever done.” She then worked as a film and TV writer in Hollywood for a year (“I was so sickened by the industry, I took all my savings and went to Iran”). She knew she was a writer but didn’t know what to write. She began doing performance poetry, found a jazz-punk band to back her up, and did underground performances where the band would improvise and she would shout poetry onstage. “It was very raw,” she said.

That was in Tehran, right before 9/11. When she watched the World Trade Center towers fall on TV, she decided it was time to return to the United States. 

“We were all thrown into an upheaval. All of a sudden the world took a weird, dark turn. I wanted to do something and didn’t know what it was,” she said.

Foroutan taught English in inner-city schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, focusing on social justice through literature. She taught a class on Muslims in the media and the Middle East, and another on plays of the 1950s and the idea of the American dream from a Marxist perspective. She also taught classics of the Western canon from a feminist perspective.

“The one thing that gave me hope were those students and talking to them about everything that was going on globally,” she said. “They’re somewhere between childhood and adulthood. It’s this really magical age. There’s a lot of hope and belief in the goodness of the world. It’s a nice place to hang out.”

In Foroutan’s debut novel, her characters are trapped by tradition and expectations. Perhaps it’s the ability to think critically about their world that makes her so attracted to working with teenagers, as they dream of a better world than the one they inherited.


Parnaz Foroutan will read from “The Girl from the Garden” on Tuesday, August 18 at 6:30 pm at Diesel at Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica, and on Friday, August 21 at 7 pm at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Canadian-Israeli woman returns from fighting ISIS in Syria, Iraq


This article first appeared on

Christians in Iraq flee Islamic State


This article orginally appeared on The Media Line.

The Christian community in Iraq traces its roots to the first century. But the continued expansion of Islamic State across large parts of Iraq is sparking a Christian exodus from these countries. There is concern that one of the world’s oldest Christian communities could be eliminated completely from the area.

In 2003, the Christian population in Iraq was estimated at 1.5 million, from several communities including Assyrians, Chaldeans and Armenians. Among them are Christians who speak neo-Aramaic, the language most similar to what Jesus spoke. Today there are an estimated 200,000- 600,000 Christians in Iraq.

“The Christians are being targeted by Islamic State and face extreme violence,” Renad Mansour of the Carnegie Middle East Center told The Media Line. “The Christians are the indigenous people of Iraq which is the cradle of civilization. The fact that that are leaving is a blow to Iraq.”

Canon Andrew White, the founder and president of The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, and the long-time spiritual leader of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad goes even further.

“Iraq is finished as a country,” he told The Media Line. “There are a few safe towns near the Shi’ite shrines like Najaf and Karbala and parts of Baghdad but about two-thirds of the country is under the control of Islamic State.”

Once Islamic State takes over, it demands that Christians either convert, or pay the jizya, a massive tax levied on no-Muslims. There are also reports of dozens of Christian women being taken captive and forced to be sex slaves for Islamic State soldiers. Houses where Christians live are painted with a red letter “nun” for Nasara, or Christian. Many Christians say they fled, rather than try to live under Islamic State.

The US has paid a heavy price for its involvement in Iraq. From 2003-2010 tens of thousands of US soldiers tried to help Iraq rebuild itself as a democracy after the fall of long-time strongman Saddadm Hussein. More than 4400 US soldiers died fighting in Iraq. Iraqi civilians have paid a heavy price for the fighting, with more than 17,000 killed in 2014 alone. Sectarian attacks between majority Shi’ite and minority Sunni are a daily occurrence.

Some of the Christians have fled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish area in northern Iraq, which hopes to become an autonomous state. But says analyst Mansour, many of the new arrivals speak only Arabic, not Kurdish. While they welcome the protection, they are unable to integrate into the area.

Others have fled to Jordan or Turkey, said Canon White, and his organization has tried to set up schools for them and find them housing. Like most refugees, they yearn to return to their homes.

Other Christians have been allowed into the US, either because they already have relatives in the US, or on special student visas. Canon White says they are given enough money to last for eight months and then left to fend for themselves.

The international coalition including Saudi Arabia has launched dozens of air strikes on IS-controlled areas. In the case of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown they successfully drove out IS. They say they hope do the same in Mosul, and to take back more and more of Iraq. But by the time that happens, there may be no Christians left in the country.

ISIS troops 10 miles from Nahum’s Tomb, Iraqi Jewish pilgrimage site


The Iraqi site believed to be the burial place of the biblical prophet Nahum is in danger of being destroyed by the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Nahum’s Tomb in Al Ooosh, an annual pilgrimage spot for generations of Iraqi Jews, is 10 miles from territory controlled by ISIS, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

Until the early 1950s, thousands of Jews gathered at the site during the Shavuot holiday, some staying for as long as two weeks.

The tomb, inside an abandoned synagogue, is cared for by Asir Salaam Shajaa, an Assyrian Christian whose father and grandfather also cared for the site at the request of Jewish community leaders who fled, along with the majority of Iraq’s Jews, after the Iraqi government vowed to expel them following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1949.

Shajaa told Haaretz that he worries about the future of the tomb and the abandoned synagogue adjacent to it.

“I’m not sure how long my family will continue to stay in Iraq — we want to leave, most of the Christians want to leave,” Shajaa told Haaretz. “My brother says he will stay, though. If my family gets to leave Iraq, my brother and his children will look after the tomb. It will stay in the family, God willing.”

Crowds gather for anti-Islam demonstration outside Phoenix mosque


More than 200 protesters, some armed, berated Islam and its Prophet Mohammed outside an Arizona mosque on Friday in a provocative protest that was denounced by counter-protesters shouting “Go home, Nazis,” weeks after an anti-Muslim event in Texas came under attack by two gunmen.

The anti-Muslim event outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix was organized by an Iraq war veteran who posted photos of himself online wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Fuck Islam” on it and waving the U.S. flag.

As the event got under way on Friday, demonstrators on both sides screamed obscenities at each other as police in riot gear swiftly separated the two groups, each with about 250 people, using police tape and barricades.

“This is in response to the recent attack in Texas,” organizer Jon Ritzheimer wrote on his Facebook page announcing the event at a mosque targeted in part because the two Texas gunmen had worshipped there.

More than 900 people responded on the event's Facebook page that they would take part in the demonstration, and by 6 p.m. local time (0100 GMT on Saturday) police were expanding their presence in anticipation of growing crowds. Officers with riot helmets and gas masks formed a cordon for several blocks.

Among the anti-Islam protesters, some of whom called Islam a “religion of murderers,” more than a dozen men in military clothing carried semi-automatic weapons. Others waved copies of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad drawn at the Texas event.

Depictions of Mohammad, which many Muslims view as blasphemous, have been a flashpoint for violence in Europe and the United States in recent months where those displaying or creating such images have been targeted by militants.

Meanwhile, anti-Muslim groups have been active in the United States, buying ads and staging demonstrations characterizing Islam as violent, often citing the murderous brutality of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

ACT OF RETRIBUTION

The Phoenix mosque targeted on Friday has condemned such violence, and held a series of sermons at Friday prayers last year by an imam who criticized militant Islamist groups such as Islamic State, al Qaeda and Nigeria's Boko Haram.

The president of the center had urged worshippers not to engage with the demonstrators.

“We should remind ourselves that we do not match wrongness with wrongness, but with grace and mercy and goodness,” Usama Shami told worshippers during Friday prayers.

While some counter-protesters outside the mosque responded to the anti-Islam protest with obscenities, others followed his advice and chanted “Love your neighbor.”

In January, gunmen killed 12 people at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in anger at the magazine's cartoons featuring the Prophet, and a similar attack was foiled in Texas on May 3.

The pair of gunmen who opened fire near Dallas outside an exhibit of cartoons featuring Mohammad were shot dead by police without killing anyone. Leaders of the Phoenix Muslim community confirmed both gunmen had attended the Phoenix mosque targeted in Friday's demonstration.

Todd Green, a religion professor at Luther College in Iowa who studies Islamophobia, said that the brutal acts committed by Islamic State and other militant groups have colored many Americans' impressions of Muslims.

“Almost two-thirds of Americans don't know a Muslim,” Green said. “What they know is ISIS, al Qaeda, and Charlie Hebdo.”

U.S. officials are investigating claims that the Texas gunmen had ties to the Islamic State, but said they had not established a firm connection.

'EPIDEMIC OF ANTI-ISLAMIC SENTIMENT'

The Department of Homeland Security has been in touch with state and local law enforcement authorities, and was monitoring the situation in Phoenix, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

“Even expressions that are offensive, that are distasteful, and intended to sow divisions in an otherwise tight-knit, diverse community like Phoenix, cannot be used as a justification to carry out an act of violence,” he told reporters.

Ritzheimer, the main organizer of the demonstration, said the point of the demonstration was “to expose the true colors of Islam.”

“True Islam is terrorism. Yes, the ones that are out committing these atrocities and stuff, they are following the book as it's written,” Ritzheimer told CNN.

Ritzheimer was a staff sergeant in the Marine Reserve and was deployed to Iraq twice, in 2005 and 2008, the Marine Corps said.

Anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, who organized the Texas event, said she was not involved in the demonstration in Phoenix.

The mosque is a former church near the city's international airport that can hold some 600 worshippers. The Phoenix area is home to tens of thousands of Muslims.

The event is part of “an epidemic of anti-Islamic sentiment” that goes beyond protesting against extremism, said Imraan Siddiqi of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Don't mistake that, they're not saying they want to rid America of radical Islam, they are saying they want to rid America of Islam,” Siddiqi said.

Iraq deploys tanks as Islamic State tightens grip on Ramadi


Iraqi security forces on Tuesday deployed tanks and artillery around Ramadi to confront Islamic State fighters who have captured the city in a major defeat for the Baghdad government and its Western backers.

After Ramadi fell on Sunday, Shi'ite militiamen allied to the Iraqi army had advanced to a nearby base in preparation for a counterattack on the city, which lies in Anbar province just 70 miles northwest of Baghdad.

As pressure mounted for action to retake the city, a local government official urged Ramadi residents to join the police and the army for what the Shi'ite militiamen said would be the “Battle of Anbar”.

Sunni Islamic State fighters had set up defensive positions and laid landmines, witnesses said. As the group tightened its grip on the city, Islamists went from house to house in search of members of the police and armed forces and said they would set up courts based on Islamic Sharia law.

They released about 100 prisoners from the counter-terrorism detention center in the city.

Saed Hammad al-Dulaimi, 37, a school teacher who is still in the city, said: “Islamic State used loudspeakers urging people who have relatives in prison to gather at the main mosque in the city center to pick them up. I saw men rushing to the mosque to receive their prisoners.”

The move could prove popular with residents who have complained that people are often subject to arbitrary detention.

Sami Abed Saheb, 37, a Ramadi restaurant owner, said Islamic State found 30 women and 71 men in the detention center. They had been shot in the feet to prevent them escaping when their captors fled.

Witnesses said the black flag of Islamic State was now flying over the main mosque, government offices and other prominent buildings in Ramadi.

Jasim Mohammed, 49, who owns a women's clothing shop, said an Islamic State member had told him he must now sell only traditional Islamic garments.

“I had to remove the mannequins and replace them with other means of displaying the clothes. He told me that I shouldn't sell underwear because it's forbidden,” he said.

Islamic State had also promised that food, medicine and doctors would soon be available.

Dulaimi said Islamic State fighters were using cranes to lift blast walls from the streets and bulldozers to shovel away sand barriers built by security forces before they fled.

“I think they (Islamic State) are trying to win the sympathy of people in Ramadi and give them moments of peace and freedom,” he said.

SECTARIAN HOSTILITY

The decision by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shi'ite, to send in the militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation, to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.

The Abadi government had pledged to equip and train pro-government Sunni tribes with a view to replicating the model applied during the “surge” campaign of 2006-07, when U.S. Marines turned the tide against al Qaeda fighters – forerunners of Islamic State – by arming and paying local tribes in a movement known as the Anbar Awakening.

But a repeat will be more difficult. Sunni tribal leaders complain that the government was not serious about arming them again, and say they received only token support.

There are fears that weapons provided to Sunni tribes could end up with Islamic State. Islamic State has also worked to prevent a new Awakening movement by killing sheikhs and weakening the tribes.

Iraqi ministers on Tuesday stressed the need to arm and train police and tribal fighters. Abadi called for national unity in the battle to defend Iraq.

A spokesman for Iraqi military operations, Saad Maan, said the armed forces controlled areas between Ramadi and the Habbaniya military base about 30 km (20 miles) away where the militia fighters are waiting.

“Security forces are reinforcing their positions and setting three defensive lines around Ramadi to repel any attempts by terrorists to launch further attacks,” Maan said.

“All these three defensive lines will become offensive launch-pads once we determine the zero hour to liberate Ramadi.”

The International Organization for Migration said 40,000 people had been forced to flee Ramadi in the past four days.

About 500 people were killed in the fighting for Ramadi in recent days, local officials said.

Islamic State gains in Ramadi mean it will take longer for Iraqi forces to move against them in Mosul, where militants celebrated victory in Anbar by firing shots into the air, sounding car horns and playing Islamic anthems, residents said.

Shi’ite Militias Head to Ramadi


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Shi’ite militias, many of them backed by Iran, are streaming into the provincial capital of Ramadi, to try to help wrest the city back from Islamic State which captured it over the weekend. The loss of Ramadi, just 60 miles from Baghdad, threatens to weaken the Iraqi government further and has led to fears of growing sectarian violence which has already killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Islamic State forces continued east toward Baghdad, heading for an army base where Shi’ite fighters were massing to try to take back Ramadi. Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, presents new challenges to the Iraqi government, as well as to US policy. The victory came as a surprise to many, and has led to fears of new sectarian violence between the Sunni inhabitants of Anbar province and the incoming Shi’ite fighters. Some analysts described it as the worst setback for the Iraqi government in the past year.

“For the last few months the narrative has been that Islamic State is on the defensive,” Renad Mansour, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Center for Middle East Peace told The Media Line. “This shows that the battle isn’t as easy as it seems and will take much longer.”

He said that there had been speculation that Iraqi attempts to retake Mosul could begin as early as this summer. Now that timetable will be pushed back. Since last month at least 120,000 residents are the area are reported to have fled.

Reports from Ramadi say that at least 500 fighters and civilians have been killed, and thousands have fled the area. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was convinced that US-backed forces would succeed in retaking the area.

“I am convinced that as the forces are redeployed and as the days flow in the weeks ahead that’s going to change, as overall [Isis] have been driven back … I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” Kerry said.

The fight over Ramadi can also be seen as the fight between two different approaches – the Iranian one which favors deploying Shi’ite militias to fight the Sunni Islamic State, and the US-backed one of trying to restructure the Iraqi military.

“The US believes that in the long run the popular Shi’ite militias will have a negative effect on Iraq because they will use any military achievements as springboards for political ambitions like Hizbullah did in Lebanon,” Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The Media Line. “Our model is the patient retraining of the Iraqi security forces to create a professional army to reclaim areas taken by Islamic State and return them to government control.”

While the loss of Ramadi is an important victory for Islamic State, the Iraqi government has succeeded in reestablishing control over several important areas including Takrit. Eisenstadt said the Defense Department recently issued a map showing that 25 percent of the territory taken over by IS in Iraq has been recaptured. But the fall of Ramadi could have an important psychological effect.

“As long as IS had no major victories we could claim that the tide has turned against them and they are a spent force,” Eisenstadt said. “This could undermine these claims and challenge the validity of the US approach.

The fighting in Iraq seems to get worse each year. In 2014, at least 17,000 civilians were killed, roughly double the number recorded in 2013. Going back to 2003, and the beginning of the US and British invasion of Iraq, estimates for the number of civilian deaths range from 138,000 to 157,000 civilians killed.