Iraq Govt. Forces Launch Offensive on Kurdish-Held Kirkuk

Kirkuk

Iraqi government forces launched on Monday an offensive to retake territory seized by Kurds in Kirkuk in what is seen as response to last month’s Kurdish independence referendum, which was rejected by Baghdad.

The forces have so far seized a swathe of countryside surrounding the oil city of Kirkuk in a bold military response to the September 25 referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Kurds voted in favor of independence.

Baghdad and the Kurdish region have long been at odds over the fate of Kirkuk, a dispute that has grown more bitter since the vote.

The government said its troops had seized Kirkuk airport and had taken control of Northern Iraq’s oil company from the security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region, known as Peshmerga.

Iraqi oil industry officials said there was no disruption to production from the facilities of the Company, which is based in Kirkuk and one of the two main oil companies that together provide nearly all of Iraq’s government revenue.

The military action was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to rein in the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who have governed themselves as an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“We call on the Peshmerga forces to serve under the federal authority as part of the Iraqi armed forces,” Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in a statement which was read out on television. He ordered security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga”, the statement said.

State television said Iraqi forces had also entered Tuz Khurmato, a flashpoint town where there had been clashes between Kurds and mainly Shi‘ite Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.

The Kurdish regional government did not initially confirm the Iraqi advances, but Rudaw, a major Kurdish TV station, reported that Peshmerga had left positions south of Kirkuk.

The city of Kirkuk itself remained under Kurdish control, 12 hours after the start of the Iraqi operation, but two routes in and out were under control of the Iraqi forces.

“We have no orders to enter the city, just to secure the surroundings,” a military commander involved in the operation told Reuters, adding that the Kurdish forces had pulled out in an orderly manner from the position taken by the Iraqi forces.

Another military commander said: “Kurdish leaders we consider our brothers have agreed to hand over control of North Oil and North Gas company facilities that belong to the state.”

Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, Kurdish officials said Peshmerga had clashed with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Shi‘ite forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops.

The Peshmerga and PMF exchanged artillery fire south of Kirkuk, a Kurdish security official said. The official said the Peshmerga had pushed back two assaults by the Iraqi forces south of the city and destroyed several Humvees used by the PMF.

A spokesman for Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias announced they have “achieved all our goals” in retaking areas from Kurdish forces in and around the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.

He said federal forces have been deployed in the area of the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and a number of oil fields and installations. But he added that the PMF have not entered the city center. Abadi had previously vowed they would remain outside the city.

Neither side provided a toll of casualties.

Major General Ayoub Yusuf Said told The Associated Press that his Kurdish forces have been battling since early Monday and have suffered casualties, without providing a specific figure.

“We are not withdrawing from here, we are fortifying our positions at the airport and we intend to fight here.”

US forces which have worked closely with both the federal forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against ISIS called on both sides to avoid escalation.

It said it believes the exchange of fire between Iraqi and Kurdish forces was a “misunderstanding.”

It continued that it was aware of reports of a “limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness,” but “we believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”

The US-led task international force in Iraq was “closely monitoring (the situation) near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all,” a spokesman said on Twitter.

Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdish regional government’s representative in the United States, tweeted a plea for Washington to “use (its) leadership role to prevent war”.

Major General Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces, said: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy,” ISIS.

The action in Iraq helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.

Baghdad considers last month’s Kurdish independence referendum illegal, especially as it was held not just in the autonomous region itself but in territory in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, which the Peshmerga seized after driving out ISIS.

The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbors Iran and Turkey. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, had pleaded in vain for them to cancel the vote, arguing that it could lead to regional war and the breakup of Iraq.

Abadi’s government said its forces, including the elite US-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had moved almost unopposed into the industrial zone just south of Kirkuk and the oil, gas, facilities located south and west of the city.

Mysterious Raids on Popular Mobilization Forces near Syria

al-Tanf

Beirut, Baghdad – Mysterious airstrikes launched Tuesday against a faction linked with the Popular Mobilization Forces near the US-led international coalition camp of Syria’s al-Tanf, drove disputes between Iraqi officials and members of the coalition fighting ISIS in the war-torn country..

Sources from Sayyed al-Shuhada Brigade (The Battalion of the Sayyed’s Martyrs) said that the US army conducted airstrikes last night on one of its convoys, which was moving from inside the Iraqi territories in the direction of the Syrian border, near al-Tanf area.

Many members of the Brigade were killed and injured as a result of the aerial bombardment, including an officer from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

A spokesman from the brigade said on Tuesday that at least 36 members of the Sayyed al-Shuhada force were killed and more than 75 others were wounded in the strike.

The US attack is considered the first against militias linked to Iran inside Iraqi territories, although the coalition’s warplanes had already attacked military regime forces and Iranian-linked militia convoys near al-Tanf camp in the east.

For its part, Iran admitted on Tuesday the killing of one of its Revolutionary Guards officers.

Tehran said that Colonel Morteza Hosseinpour-Shalmani from was killed in Syria during an “advisory” mission fighting ISIS forces.

Colonel Abbas Bayrami, assistant of coordination affairs at Al-Quds Brigade based in Gilan province, said on Tuesday that Shalmani was killed during a “consultative mission in Syria” on Monday.

However, Iran’s Fars news agency said that ISIS captured Shalmani during clashes with the Popular Mobilization Forces in an area near al-Tanf, without giving additional information.

Meanwhile, although the International Coalition has denied its involvement in the raid, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Tuesday “the international coalition has no authority to carry out bombardment without the knowledge of Iraq.”

Iraq: Jaafari Calls on Kurds to Avert Provoking Neighborhood

Iraq

Vienna- Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has called for taking into consideration neighboring countries when tackling the Kurdish file, warning of any unwise act that might cause the rage of these countries as a hint on the independence referndum Iraqi Kurdistan is willing to hold in September.

During his visit to Vienna, he stated to Asharq Al-Awsat that there is no fear over rights of various Iraqi components, responding to a question on the planned Kurdish referendum that “Iraq is no longer as it was before.

Kurds today enjoy their full rights and the president was Kurdish after ousting Jalal Talabani as well as the second president Fouad Massoum.

He added that Kurds are found in the three authorities, sovereign ministries and the parliament – not only Kurds but all the components.

Jaafari saw that everyone has the right to express himself and that although the Iraqi nation is only one but the Iraqi communities are many.

“There is a community of Arabs, Kurds and Turk-men. There is no suppression or forbidding of voting or conducting referendum – the constitution remains to be the ruler and we agree upon all what is endorsed by it,” he added.

The Iraqi minister stressed that when dealing with the Kurdish file, it should be taken into consideration that Iraq is part of other Kurdish components in neighboring countries in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Russia and that any unwise act would provoke these states.

Jaafari defended his visit to Vienna to intervene in the case of two members from the Popular Mobilization Forces militias who were accused by international rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of committing anti-humanity violations and crimes during the fight.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Active in Dozens of ‘Premises’ in Mosul

Iran

Irbil – The Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards is active in Mosul through dozens of military and political premises established in the western side of the city under the wings of the Popular Mobilization Forces, informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday.

Sheikh Muzahim Huwet, the spokesperson for the Arab tribes in Nineveh, said that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “is currently working to form several tribal councils in Nineveh that are linked to him and directly supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.”

Huwet added: “They seek to win the largest number of parliamentary seats in Mosul and also the majority of seats at the governorate’s council, in order to factionalize the Sunni Arabs, to Shi’itize Mosul and fight the Kurdistan district.”

The Quds Force is a special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responsible for their extraterritorial operations.

Separately, section XIV Kurdistan Democratic Party relations official in Mosul, Sheikh Muhyiddin Mezouari uncovered the presence of “Sunni tribes linked to the Maliki movement,” adding that those tribes possess arms.

“The political forces supporting those tribes seek to shake the security situation in the liberated areas and to ignite strife between residents,” Mezouari said.

Also, an official from one of the Popular Mobilization Forces’ factions with offices in Mosul said that Iranian officers are constantly present in those offices, adding that few days ago, Iran provided its militias in Mosul with heavy weapons and drones. However, the official did not elaborate.

Iran seeks to open a ground road from Mosul to the Syrian territories to supply the regime of Bashar Assad and the “Hezbollah” party with arms and militants and to increase its powers in the area by controlling the city of Mosul and getting closer to the borders of Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

Iraq Summons Turkish Envoy over Erdogan’s Criticism of Popular Mobilization Forces

Erdogan

Baghdad – Baghdad submitted on Thursday a formal complaint to Ankara over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which he described as a “terrorist group.”

Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal said in a statement that the ministry summoned Turkish Ambassador to Baghdad Fatih Yildiz and “handed him an official complaint over the recent statements by the Turkish president against the PMF.”

Erdogan had said during an interview with Qatar’s al-Jazeera television that Iran is adopting a “Persian expansionist policy that is starting to hurt us.”

“What are the PMF? Who supports them? The Iraqi parliament backs these units, but frankly, it is a terrorist organization and we should see who is backing it,” he stressed.

“The PMF operates in Mount Sinjar and against Tal Afar. There are around 400,000 Turkmen in Tal Afar, some of whom are Shi’ite and others are Sunni. The population has been dispersed and the same thing is happening in the Iraqi capital,” he noted.

Nineveh MP Haneen al-Qaddo condemned the Turkish president’s statements, saying: “We cannot remain silent over them.”

“Erdogan’s hostile policies are still ongoing and he will pay their price sooner or later,” he declared.

Moqtada Sadr to Dissociate his Military Arm

Iraq

Baghdad- “Iraqi Cleric and Leader of Sadrist Movement Moqtada al-Sadr is expected to announce the dissociation of Saraya al-Salam, the military arm of his bloc, during his speech infront of his followers in Baghdad on Friday,” an official in the Sadrist Movement told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He added that the aim of Sadr step is to halt a potential riot called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and to support the government as well as to reveal bona fide towards the post-ISIS phase.

Saraya al-Salam is part of the joint armed factions in the war against ISIS and is located in Saladin and Samarra. Sadr announced forming it on June 10 2014 after ISIS seized wide space of Iraqi territories.

Back then, he said that its mission was to protect the sacred places in Iraq including mosques, churches, places of worship and shrines. The group consists of up to 40,000 fighters and around 6,000 of them are affiliated to the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Expectations of Sadr announcing dissociating Saraya al-Salam comply with what was previously announced by him on the fate of PMF after the ISIS phase is over.

Sadr called for integrating Popular Mobilization Forces discipline members with the security forces so the thereof can maintain its “stability, force and sovereignty through enacting a customized system.” He also stressed that arms in Iraq should be captured and handed out to the state through strict and clear mechanisms.

Sadrist Movement sources affirmed that its leader will urge in his speech to keep on the demonstration and calls for reforms.

Sadr followers have been protesting in Baghdad since a year in demand for “reforms and fighting corruption” – they also carried out a demonstration before the Council of Representatives and raided it end of April 2016.

Iraqi Forces Capture Mosul Bridge, Close in on State Buildings

Iraq

Mosul – Iraqi forces captured the second of Mosul’s five bridges on Monday, giving a boost to their onslaught on ISIS remaining stronghold in the western part of the city.

All of Mosul’s five bridges have been destroyed but the capture of the remaining parts on the West bank of the Tigris facilitates the movement of forces progressing up the river that cuts Mosul in two.

The bridge seized, al-Hurriya, is the second after one located further south. Its capture shields the back of the forces advancing toward a nearby complex of government buildings.

“In the coming hours our forces will raise the Iraqi flag over the governorate building,” Federal Police Brigadier General Shaalan Ali Saleh told Reuters.

“We control the western end of the bridge,” said a media officer with Rapid Response, the elite unit of the Interior Ministry leading the charge toward the complex.

Recapturing the area would help Iraqi forces attack the militants in the old city and mark a symbolic step toward restoring state authority over Mosul, even though the buildings are destroyed and not being used by ISIS.

The militants have barricaded streets with civilian vehicles and rigged them with explosives to hinder the advance of Iraqi forces that were also met with sniper, machinegun and mortar fire, as well as explosives dropped from drones.

The Iraqi military believes several thousand militants are among the remaining civilian population, which aid agencies estimated to number 750,000 civilians at the start of the latest offensive.

Lined up against the militants in Mosul is a 100,000-strong force of Iraqi troops, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and factions of Popular Mobilization Forces.

Iraqi Security Forces Storm Mosul Airport

Mosul

U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces closing in on the ISIS-held western half of Mosul attacked the city’s main airport and a nearby military base, state television stated.

Counter-terrorism service (CTS) troops and elite interior ministry units known as Rapid Response descended towards the airport early on Thursday.

“Our forces started a major operation early this morning to storm the airport of Mosul and the Ghozlani base to dislodge ISIS terrorists. We can confirm that the Mosul airport militarily has fallen and it’s a matter of short time to fully control it,” CTS spokesman Sabah al-Numan told state TV.

The advances come days after Iraqi forces officially launched the operation to drive ISIS out of Mosul’s western half.

The operation to recapture Iraq’s second largest city kicked off in October. In January its eastern half was announced as “fully liberated.”

Loss of Mosul will be the end of the Iraqi side of ISIS’s alleged “caliphate.”

The U.S.-led coalition has been a great support in backing Iraqi forces with air strikes and advisers on the ground.

On Thursday U.S. forces in armored vehicles were moving on the airport with Iraqi forces.

“We will reach it today God willing,” Brigadier General Abbas al-Juburi of the Rapid Response force stated to AFP just over a kilometre (less than a mile) from the airport.

According to military officials, Forces have made very quick advances since the start of the year, aided by new tactics and improved coordination.

International Rights Body Accuses PMF of Detaining Mosul Escapees

Baghdad- Human Rights Watch has accused Iraqi paramilitary militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces, of detaining men fleeing from Mosul. The rights body said that PMF units screen those escaping the conflict for membership of the terror group ISIS.

PMF militants, who lack in official training, have been abducting men fleeing the Mosul fighting and keeping them in unidentified detention centers for interrogation where, according to HRW, they are at “heightened risk of abuse, including arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.”

“In case after case, relatives are telling us that their male family members are being stopped by PMF fighters and disappearing,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“While we cannot know exactly what has happened to the men detained, the lack of transparency, particularly for their families as to their whereabouts, is cause for real concern.”

On the other hand, the second phase of the Mosul offensive has been accomplished successfully. The entire east side is now free from ISIS-hold, a spokesman for the joint special operations command, Brig.Gen. Yahya Rasoul, said.

Preparations for the third phase of the offensive, concerned with liberating the western side, are underway and effective in both military logistics and intelligence, Rasoul told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“We, for the first time, will use smart weapons (laser-guided weapons),” added Rasoul.

Witnesses in Mosul described the humanitarian situation in the east as degenerating, and that dozens of families in the eastern side have fled to remote areas, as a result of the random bombardment carried out by ISIS. The terror group has been attacking the eastern side, launching projectiles from their locations nestled in the western banks of the Tigris River.

Manhal Klak, an eastern Mosul resident, reported that terror group ISIS is targeting people with mortars and drones, prompting many to flee to distant regions.

Klak, who did not flee Mosul since ISIS’ takeover in September 2014, and was held hostage for three weeks by the group, says that Mosul’s conditions are complex and catastrophic.

The wave of severe cold has exacerbated matters, and as oil spiked to unbelievable prices, poor people resorted to cutting most trees in the gardens for warmth.

U.S. Congress Considers Labeling IRGC a Terrorist Group

Washington- U.S. Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Jim Inhofe are pushing for a bill that compels the Department of State to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, informed U.S. sources said.

A source who preferred to remain anonymous told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Cruz submitted a bill to enlist IRGC as a terrorist group – the anticipated success in this field will facilitate labeling other Shi’ite movements (for example, Houthis) as terrorists too.”

“Other armed Shi’ite movements in Iraq (Popular Mobilization Forces), Lebanon (the so-called Hezbollah) and Yemen (Houthis) are affiliated to the IRGC – Adding them to the same list of the IRGC, is certain,” according to the source.

Cruz submitted on Thursday a bill to enlist the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as an initial step to add more religious movements and organizations in the Arab region to the list of terror groups.

Asharq Al-Awsat received copies of the two bills on the IRGC and Muslim Brotherhood – the bills mention that the U.S. legal standards for classifying terrorist groups (outside the U.S.) are applicable in the case of IRGC.

The U.S. Department of State shall present a report within 30 days to clarify its stance.

As Cruz proposed the two bills in the upper chamber, Republican Rep. Michael McCaul dropped companion bills in the House.

“As obvious as that seems, for years the IRGC has been allowed to operate clandestinely using front companies and illicit networks to evade formal designation,” he said.

“The Obama Administration has chosen to turn a blind eye to these activities for the sake of a flawed nuclear agreement which Khamenei stated publicly would not alter Iran’s behavior,” he added.