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Greatest threat to building peace in Iraq is not Isis – it’s Donald Trump picking a fight with Iran

- 1509630239 hashd iraq military - Greatest threat to building peace in Iraq is not Isis – it’s Donald Trump picking a fight with Iran


“Fake facts!” exclaimed a senior Iraqi official in exasperation, as he pointed to photographs online allegedly showing the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Kirkuk, orchestrating the Iraqi government retaking of the city last month. He said that in reality the picture, tweeted by a Kurdish leader as evidence of Iranian hegemony, dates from 2014.

The greatest threat to the growing stability of Iraq is the differences between the US and Iran being fought out politically – and even militarily – in Iraq. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an interview with The Independent earlier this week that his greatest concern is a US-Iran crisis. He added that “it is not my job to solve their differences, but it is my job to prevent their confrontation inside Iraq”. He hoped that mutual denunciations by Washington and Tehran would turn out to be rhetorical.

Given US hostility to Iran, the Baghdad government is alarmed by what it sees as an attempt to portray it as an Iranian proxy manipulated by Mr Soleimani and reliant on the Shia paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). “Today’s offensive by Iraq, PMU Shia militia commanded by Iranian IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] on Kirkuk have sadly started a new war in Iraq & Kurdistan,” reads a tweet from Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader and former Iraqi foreign minister, last month.

The senior Iraqi official said that Mr Soleimani never meets Mr Abadi or anybody else of real importance in Baghdad and has also failed to get an audience with the Shia supreme religious authority, Ali Sistani, in the holy city of Najaf. He said: “In fact, Iranian influence over the Hashd has been going down over the last two years because they are no longer paying most of the groups, aside from Ketaeb Hezbollah.”

The propaganda war is intense and unscrupulous, with Kurdish leaders in Irbil and much of the Arab media claiming that Iran pulls the strings in Baghdad, though the US is the government’s main military ally. The PMUs are portrayed as sectarian death squads which are leading the offensive into Iraqi Kurdistan. One video posted online purports to show the Kurds blowing up a bridge over the Lesser Zaab river at Altun Kupri, where Kurdish and Iraqi forces confront each other, to block the PMUs advancing into the Kurdish heartlands. In reality, the bridge is still standing and the much-watched video is of an entirely different bridge in Topeka, Kansas being destroyed in a controlled explosion to make way for new construction.

The US has always been paranoid about Iranian influence in Iraq, and tends to conflate Iraqi Shia fighting for their community and variant of Islam with proxies under the control of Iran. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on a visit to Baghdad last month, said the Hashd should “go home”, apparently believing that its members were IRGC fighters from Iran. Mr Abadi speaks out vigorously in defence of the Hashd, but says he is determined that they must be under strict government control.

The power of the Hashd has become more limited today than when they were created as a mass movement three years ago, by a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Sistani – though several paramilitary organisations like the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Ketaeb Hezbollah have a much longer history. This was in June 2014 when the Iraqi army had lost Mosul to Isis and looked as if it would be unable to defend Baghdad.

The Hashd was central in defending the capital and in early counter-offensives against Isis, but has increasingly had a secondary role in military operations which are now led by the highly trained and experienced Counter-Terrorism Force (CTF). In the nine-month siege of Mosul, the Hashd occupied territory outside the city, but the assault was led by the CTF, Federal Police and Emergency Response Division. There were no Hashd units in Kirkuk city earlier this week, though they do have joint checkpoints with the army along the road back to Baghdad.

The Hashd, who are part of the Iraqi security forces and paid for by the state, are becoming less independent and less influenced by Iran because the Iraqi government is much more powerful than it used to be. But there is no doubt that Sunni and Kurds are frightened of them and they have a nasty reputation for sectarianism and criminality. For all their claims to be obedient to the state, there is an Iraqi saying that there are four givers of the law in Iraq: the government, the religious authorities, the tribes – and the Hashd.

Qais al-Khazali, 43, the leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shia paramilitary group, denies that it is under the control of Iran or is sectarian. Dressed in a white turban and black robes, he answers questions swiftly and articulately, showing a moderation that feels out of keeping with his violent past. Once a lieutenant of the nationalist populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, from whom he split in 2004, he set up Asaib Ahl al-Haq which rapidly gained a reputation for ferocity and close links to Iran. Arrested by the British in 2007, he was released in exchange for a British hostage in 2010. Speaking in his office in Najaf in an interview with The Independent, he was keen to emphasise that his group were neither sectarian nor pawns of Iran. “It is one of their lies,” he says in response to the charge of sectarian killings. “There has been no sectarian cleansing. I am adamant – we did not bring in any Shia families to a Sunni area.”

He says that American forces should leave Iraq because they are no longer needed. “They don’t want to leave, but we can force them to,” he says. “We have experience in resistance. If there is a mandate from the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi people, then we will stand up to them.” This would be the sort of nightmare envisaged by Mr Abadi, in which Iraqi Hashd – which the US believes are under Iranian direction – start killing American soldiers.

As for the role of Iran and Mr Soleimani in the taking of Kirkuk, Mr Khazali says that they were supportive to Mr Abadi and Iraqi government forces. “The reason the Prime Minister gets the credit is because he galvanised a great force to show he was serious.” He says that what Mr Soleimani did was to pass on to the Kurds that Mr Abadi really meant business and they would not be able to resist.

As for the future of the Hashd, he says that “in future it should be completely amalgamated with the Iraqi military and should not be involved in politics.” Much here will depend on whether or not there is a prolonged confrontation with the Kurds in northern Iraq, in which case Baghdad will continue to need large military forces, including the Hashd. As of Thursday, Baghdad is threatening to end a truce and take military action after the failure of talks about the central government taking control of the borders of Kurdistan.

Speaking of more general developments in Iraq, Mr Khazali made an interesting point. He said that after the US invasion of 2003, it was the Shia and the Kurdish communities, long opposed to and oppressed by Saddam Hussein, who held power. But this Kurdish-Shia bloc was dissolved when the Kurds voted for independence in the referendum on 25 September, and cannot be rebuilt. He says it might be time for the Shia community to look to the Sunni rather than the Kurds as their new partners in running Iraq. Asked if he thought the era of wars in Iraq was over, Mr Khazali, replied: “Iraq is similar to Alice in Wonderland – you cannot predict what is going to happen next.”

Independent

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Middle East

Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive

- 1516747391 tirkey syria tank - Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive


The US is trying to prevent the fighting in Afrin between Turkish forces and Syrian Kurds spreading east into the main Kurdish enclave in Syria where US troops are based. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters not just from Afrin, but from Manbij, a strategic town west of the Euphrates.

“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “If the US does not stop this, we will stop it.”

Some 6,000 Turkish troops backed by 10,000 Free Syrian Army fighters controlled by Turkey are seeking to fight their way into the isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin in northern Syria. Their progress has so far been slow, with thick cloud hindering air strikes in the hilly terrain. The YPG and Turkish-led forces have been fighting for the Bursaya Hill, with the summit, which overlooks the eastern side of Afrin town, changing hands several times.

The US has so far given muted support to its Kurdish allies in Syria, who provided the ground troops for the successful campaign against Isis. The US has supported the YPG during the war against Isis with massive air power, military equipment and some 2,000 specialised US troops.

The US is hoping to keep the present fighting confined to Afrin, which is separate from the bulk of Kurdish territory. There have never been any US military forces in this enclave, though there were Russian observers that have now been withdrawn. But if Turkey attacks Manbij then the US will have to decide if it is going to be seen as betraying its Kurdish ally or risk a military confrontation with its Nato partner Turkey.  

The Kurdish authorities in north-east Syria are calling for a mass mobilisation in defence of Afrin. But they already have large numbers of experienced combat troops previously fighting Isis that they can deploy if they wish. “The Turkish state has been trying to enter north Syria for days, but it will not be able to,” said Siyamund Walat, a YPG general. “We have forces in Afrin, thousands… they are protecting the border and the people. If necessary all the soldiers will go to Afrin.”

It may be in the interests of the Syrian Kurds to prolong the fighting in Afrin so international diplomatic pressure increases on Turkey to end Operation Olive Branch, as it calls its campaign. On the other hand, Afrin is cut off from the rest of the Kurdish-held area and the one supply road to the south is held by the Syrian Army. Syrian soldiers have been refusing to allow refugees from Afrin through their checkpoints to reach Kurdish areas in Aleppo city 25 miles away.

Explosions as Turkey confirms airstrikes on Afrin, Syria

The Turkish campaign only became possible when Russia agreed not to oppose it and, above all, allowed Turkish jets to operate in Syrian airspace. This is under Russian control west of the Euphrates. The long-contemplated Turkish assault was finally provoked by the US announcement last week that its forces would be staying in Syrian Kurdish territory for the foreseeable future. This de facto guarantee of the Kurdish statelet, directed against the Syrian government and Iran by the US, radically changed the strategic balance in Syria. The US had assured the Turks since the end of 2014 that its military cooperation with the YPG was purely tactical, directed against Isis and would end when Isis was defeated.

Mr Erdogan is taking advantage of a wave of patriotic support in Turkey for the Afrin operation to arrest dozens of politicians, journalists and activists who are accused of criticising the offensive. Many of those arrested, often for critical media posts, belong to the pro-Kurdish HDP party. “Journalists are having their doors rammed down without anybody knocking,” said HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen. “People are [becoming] afraid of keyboards, pens, words and writing”

Independent

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Middle East

Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks

- acdbaa5482f0c834200ff60cc8e9a0ad L - Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks


ERBIL — Syrian Kurds will under no circumstances attend the Syrian National dialogue Congress in Sochi, said Aldar Khalil, the co-chairperson of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM).

Khalil said in an interview with Reuters that on one hand Russia consented Turkey’s attack on Afrin and on the other hand also invited the Syrian Kurds to participate in Sochi. 

“It is  contradictory,” he said, arguing that in such a situation, taking part in a Russian-brokered talk is of no significance.

He pointed out that the Kurdish participation in the congress is a weak possibility.

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Middle East

Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: ‘I will not be a partner to this barbarity’

- 1514968731 israel african migrants - Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: ‘I will not be a partner to this barbarity’


Three Israeli pilots have spoken out against the forced deportations of asylum seekers back to Africa, saying they would refuse to take control of planes involved the practice.

“There is no way that I, as an air crew member, will take part in flying refugees/asylum seekers on their way to a destination whose chances of survival after reaching it… are close to zero,” wrote pilot Shaul Betzer in a Facebook post and later on Twitter.

“Not much courage is required for such a mission, but I will not be able to do what is required of me in such a mission. As a pilot and as a human being.”

Pilot Iddo Elad posted a statement on his Facebook page a few hours later, declaring: “I will not be a partner to this barbarity.”

Both Facebook posts have been shared hundreds of times and attracted many comments, most of which support the men’s stance.

The public refusals come three weeks after the Israeli government ordered thousands of African refugees and migrants to leave the country within three months or face prison.

Thousands of Africans – many from Eritrea and Sudan – crossed from Egypt into Israel before it erected a fence along the border in 2013.

Many have fled conflict and persecution, but Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu has called them “infiltrators” and said they are mostly economic migrants whose numbers threaten the nation’s Jewish character.

According to Israeli charity Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an average of just 0.15 per cent of people who file asylum claims in Israel are ultimately recognised as refugees.

Under the new proposals, “infiltrators” will be offered $3,500 (£2,500) and a plane ticket to their home country or “a third country” – likely to be Rwanda or Uganda.

Israeli media has reported that some asylum seekers have faced torture or human trafficking after being sent to Rwanda and Uganda by the Israeli government.

Yoel Piterbarg, a former combat helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, was the first of the three men to speak out.

“The state of Israel is populated mainly by Jews who, in the near and distant past, were refugees in countries around the world,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Most went through the Holocaust, many were forcefully expelled from their countries, and many others emigrated out of a desire to improve their lives in better countries that agreed to accept them.”

He continued: “Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral, and leaders of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees, who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin.”

Mr Piterbarg has spoken out on human rights issues before in his role as a pilot.

In 2003, he was one of 27 Israeli air force pilots who refused to take part in further operations inside the Palestinian territories, describing the military’s actions in the occupied areas as “illegal and immoral”.

The statements published by the three men regarding the deportation of migrants are largely symbolic as El Al – the airline all three men are understood to work for – does not currently operate any routes to the countries in question.

“El Al does not fly any immigrants to Africa,” a spokesperson for El Al told The Independent.

“El Al has absolutely nothing at all to do with these flights. El Al pilots won’t be flying these immigrants.”

The airline does however have a code share agreement with Ethiopian Airlines, allowing passengers to book flights via El Al’s website from Tel Aviv to destinations across sub-Saharan Africa with a stop-off in Addis Ababa.

According to the spokesperson, no El Al crew are involved on any of those flights.

A petition calling on the Israel Airline Pilots Association and ground services staff at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to refuse to participate in the deportation of migrants and refugees has gathered more than 8,000 signatures.

The petition was partly inspired by news from Germany, where pilots stopped 222 deportations of asylum seekers between January and September last year.



Independent

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