Kerry says Syrian opposition has key role against ISIL (LIVE BLOG)



An Iraqi Christian family fleeing the violence in the village of Qaraqush take refuge at a community center in the Kurdish city of Arbil in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 26, 2014.




UPDATE: 6/27/14 4:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/27/14 2:40 PM ET

Iraq's top Shia cleric calls for prime minister to be chosen by Tuesday

Reuters — The most influential Shia cleric in Iraq called on the country's leaders on Friday to choose a prime minister within the next four days, a dramatic political intervention that could hasten the end of Nouri al-Maliki's eight year rule. 

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who commands unswerving loyalty from many Shias in Iraq and beyond, said political blocs should agree on the next premier, parliament speaker and president before a newly-elected legislature meets on Tuesday.

Sistani's intervention makes it difficult for Maliki to stay on as caretaker leader as he has since a parliamentary election in April. That means he must either build a coalition to confirm himself in power for a third term or step aside.

Sistani's message was delivered after a meeting of Shia factions including Maliki's State of Law coalition failed to agree a consensus candidate for prime minister.

UPDATE: 6/27/14 2:20 PM ET

US drones over Baghdad as Iraq battles for Tikrit 

Agence France-Presse — The United States confirmed Friday it was flying armed drones over Baghdad to defend Americans, as Iraqi forces fought for a strategic university and launched air strikes in militant-held Tikrit.

A senior American official said that the US military was flying "a few" armed drones over Baghdad to defend American troops and diplomats in the city if necessary.

But officials said the drones would not be used for offensive strikes against the Sunni Arab militant offensive, led by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but involving other groups as well. 

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces swooped into Tikrit University by helicopter on Thursday, and a police major said that there were periodic clashes there on Friday.

A senior army officer said Iraqi forces were targeting militants in Tikrit with air strikes to protect forces at the university and prepare for an assault on the city.

UPDATE: 6/27/14 11:20 AM ET

More than 150 men were killed in Tikrit, Human Rights Watch says

Reuters — New York-based Human Rights Watch said that between 160 and 190 men were killed in at least two locations in and around Tikrit between June 11 and 14.

It said that the death toll could be much higher but the difficulty of locating bodies and getting to the area had prevented a full investigation.

Pictures posted on HRW's website showed a row of men lined up face-down in trenches being shot by gunmen.

"The photos and satellite images from Tikrit provide strong evidence of a horrible war crime that needs further investigation," Human Rights Watch emergencies director Peter Bouckaert said in a statement.

"They and other abusive forces should know that the eyes of Iraqis and the world are watching."

It was not immediately possible to get comment from ISIL.

UPDATE: 6/27/14 11:00 AM ET

Kerry says Syrian opposition has a key role against ISIL

Reuters — US Secretary of State John Kerry told Syrian rebel leader Ahmad Jarba on Friday that the moderate opposition he heads would be important in repelling ISIL, the Al Qaeda offshoot which is fighting in both Syria and Iraq.

Kerry is visiting the Middle East to press regional leaders to tackle the threat from Islamist militants in both conflicts — a task given greater urgency by the situation in Iraq, where ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has captured a series of towns and cities.

"We have even more to talk about in terms of the moderate opposition in Syria, which has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL's presence," Kerry told Jarba in a meeting at Jeddah airport at the start of a brief trip to Saudi Arabia.

UPDATE: 6/26/14 4:25 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/26/14 4:20 PM ET

Kerry asks Gulf states to do what they can to help Iraq

Reuters — The United States urged Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates on Thursday to do what they can to encourage Iraq to form an inclusive government to tackle Islamist militant forces threatening to tear apart the country.

In a frenetic round of meetings in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry briefed his counterparts about US intelligence-gathering on potential targets in Iraq aimed at beating back the insurgency, according to senior State Department officials.

He made clear Washington had not decided whether to launch air strikes "but reserves the right to do so," the officials told reporters, adding that none of the countries offered military assistance.

The foreign ministers of the three Arab states expressed concerns with the current Shia Muslim-dominated leadership in Iraq, the officials said. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long had chilly relations with Sunni Muslim-led Gulf states, which view him as too close to Shia Iran.

UPDATE: 6/26/14 4:15 PM ET

More US forces arrive in Baghdad

Reuters — Another 50 US special operations forces have arrived in Baghdad under the newly appointed command of a two-star general as the US military steadily ramps up an advisory mission aimed at helping Iraq battle back Sunni militants, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

The Pentagon said the first of two planned Joint Operations Centers in Iraq had also become activated, bolstering its ability to oversee US teams and gather information about the situation on the ground, including about Iraq's security forces.

"It will of course serve as a fusion center where information that's coming in from the various teams can be consolidated and it can be analyzed," said Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

UPDATE: 6/26/14 9:45 AM ET

Support for the Peshmerga grows among Iraq's religious minority communities

Al Jazeera's Mohammed A. Salih writes:

The Kurdish Peshmerga has been present here since the US-led invasion in 2003 and is now the force that many residents look to for protection against armed groups. ... the deadly mix of the rise of ISIL and the ongoing sectarian war between Sunni armed groups and the Shia-dominated Iraqi army has generated unprecedented support for the Peshmerga among vulnerable religious minorities here out of pragmatic considerations.

Read the story here

These are some of the Iraqi Christian families who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush and sought refuge at a community center in the Kurdish city of Arbil in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 26, 2014.



UPDATE: 6/26/14 9:25 AM ET

Iraqi PM says Syrian air strikes hit Syrian and not Iraqi territory, according to the BBC

Reuters — Syria has carried out air strikes inside Syria, not Iraqi territory this week, Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quoted on Thursday as telling the BBC according to a revised translation of the quote by the British broadcaster.

Earlier, the BBC published a story which said Maliki had said Syria has carried out air strikes inside Iraqi territory this week. Maliki spoke in Arabic.

The corrected quote said: "Syrian jets did strike Al-Qaim inside the Syrian side of the border. There was no co-ordination involved." Al-Qaim is the name of a town and a border post on the Iraqi frontier with Syria.

UPDATE: 6/26/14 9:10 AM ET

China says its still trying to evacuate workers from Iraq

Reuters — China said on Thursday that it was still trying to evacuate a small number of Chinese workers from Iraq, and that it was closely coordinating with the Iraqi government to ensure their safety.

The state-run Beijing Youth Daily, citing unidentified sources, said that more than 1,000 workers for a Chinese machinery company were trapped at a power station and that the Iraqi army had turned some of them away as their bus approached Baghdad.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it was not true that Iraq was not helping with evacuations, though she declined to confirm or deny the report about the trapped workers.

"The coordination and communication between China's embassy in Iraq and the Iraqi government and army is smooth," Hua said. "Our embassy in Iraq is in close touch with the relevant Iraqi bodies to ensure workers at Chinese companies can safety, smoothly and in a timely way be evacuated to safe places."

UPDATE: 6/26/14 8:30 AM ET

Iraq PM says Syria carried out air strikes inside Iraq, the BBC reports

Reuters — Syria has carried out air strikes inside Iraqi territory this week, Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quoted on Thursday as telling the BBC.

The article said Maliki confirmed that Syrian jets had bombed militants near the border town of al-Qaim.

Maliki said he did not ask for the raid but "welcomed" any strike against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militant group, the BBC said. Syrian state media has denied the country has carried out attacks on Iraq.

UPDATE: 6/25/14 4:20 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/25/14 4:10 PM ET

Indian Shia Muslims are prepared to go to Iraq to defend holy shrines

One of the biggest Shia groups in India says more than 25,000 Indian Shia Muslims have volunteered to fight in Iraq, The Telegraph reports

Dean Nelson, South Asia editor for The Telegraph, writes from New Delhi:

India's Shias said they would not stand by while Karbala is attacked again. Their recruits include bankers, students, doctors and engineers and their leaders have written to the Indian government to stress ISIS' support for terrorist attacks in India too.

Here's the full story.

UPDATE: 6/25/14 4:00 PM ET

UN endorses Iraq military force against militants

Reuters — The United Nations on Wednesday issued an unusual call for military force, with a senior UN official saying the advance of Islamist militants throughout the north and east of Iraq must be dealt with militarily, though success will hinge on a broad political consensus.

Nickolay Mladenov, who as UN special envoy to Iraq heads the world body's political mission there, said Iraq's key southern oil reserves remained safe. But he raised the estimated civilian death toll to at least 1,300 since the recent fighting began, up from Tuesday's estimate of more than 1,000.

His remarks came as hardline Sunni militants attacked one of Iraq's largest air bases.

UPDATE: 6/25/14 2:25 PM ET

Suicide bomber kills four people in the Kurdish-held Iraqi city of Kirkuk

Reuters — A suicide bomber killed four people and wounded 16 in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, police sources said on Wednesday, the first suicide attack since Kurdish forces occupied the city on June 12.

The bomber detonated the device when police stopped him as he tried to enter a crowded market in a mostly Kurdish neighborhood, the sources said. The dead included two Kurdish security personnel.

UPDATE: 6/25/14 11:45 AM ET

Keeping up morale or plain ol' PR spin?

UPDATE: 6/25/14 9:50 AM ET

Maliki rejects forming a unity government, calls it 'coup against the constitution'

Agence France-Presse — Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected forming a salvation government to confront jihadists whose sweeping offensive in the country was bolstered Wednesday when Al Qaeda's Syrian franchise pledged loyalty to them at a border town.

Maliki ruled out forming a national salvation government to confront the crisis, in a televised speech less than a week before parliament is to convene following April 30 elections, describing it as a "coup against the constitution and the political process."

"It is an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters," added Maliki, whose bloc won by far the most seats in the polls but fell short of an outright majority.

UPDATE: 6/25/14 9:10 AM ET

Meanwhile, a scary merger: Syria's Al Nusra Front pledges loyalty to ISIL

Agence France-Presse — Al Qaeda's Syrian offshoot issued a loyalty pledge on Wednesday to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant at a tinderbox town on the Iraqi border, a monitor said. The merger is significant as it opens the way for ISIL to take control of both sides of the border at Albu Kamal in Syria and Al-Qaim in Iraq, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

ISIL — which aspires to create an Islamic state that straddles Iraq and Syria — has spearheaded an lightening jihadist offensive that has captured swathes of territory north and west of Baghdad this month.

After months of clashes between the two sides, Al Qaeda's official Syrian arm the Al Nusra Front "pledged loyalty to ISIL" in Albu Kamal, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

"The pledge comes amid advances by ISIL in Deir Ezzor province" in eastern Syria on the Iraqi border, Abdel Rahman told AFP. An ISIL jihadist confirmed the reports on Twitter, and posted a photograph showing an Egyptian Al-Nusra Front commander shaking hands with a ISIL leader of Chechen origin.

Although both ISIL and the Al Nusra are rooted in Al-Qaeda, the two have been rivals for much of the time that ISIL has been involved in Syria's civil war since spring last year.

"They are rivals, but both groups are jihadist and extremists. This move will create tension now with other rebel groups, including Islamists, in the area," Abdel Rahman said.

Last month, the US recognized Al Nusra Front and ISIL as separate terrorist groups. GlobalPost's Priyanka Boghani writes:

The State Department noted that both groups were already designated as foreign terrorist organizations for several months, but "differences over management and tactics have led to an increase in violence between the two groups."

But now, ISIL's insurgency appears to be rekindling fractured relationships between the region's militant groups.

UPDATE: 6/25/14 8:50 AM ET

And here's how Iran's lending a hand to Iraq

The New York Times reports:

Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, has paid at least two visits to Iraq to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. And Iran has deployed about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders, and help mobilize more than 2,000 Iraqi Shiite militia members from the country’s south, American officials said.

UPDATE: 6/25/14 8:30 AM ET

Militants attack Iraqi airbase and seize oil fields

Reuters — Militants attacked one of Iraq's largest air bases and seized control of several small oilfields on Wednesday as US military experts arrived to set up an operations center to help Iraqi security forces counter a mounting Sunni insurgency.

In northern Iraq the Sunni militants extended a two-week advance that has been led by the hardline Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but also includes an amalgam of other Sunni groups angered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rule.

They blame him for marginalizing their sect during eight years in power. The fighting threatens to rupture the country two and a half years after the end of US occupation.

US Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraqi officials to form an "inclusive" government during a visit this week and urged leaders of the autonomous Kurdish region to stand with Baghdad against the onslaught.

UPDATE: 6/24/14 4:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/24/14 3:00 PM ET

US military advisers start their mission in Baghdad, which Kerry says isn't 'intervention'

Agence France-Presse — The first teams of up to 300 US military advisers have begun their mission in Baghdad to assist the Iraqi army in its fight against Sunni extremists, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Admiral John Kirby told reporters that "we have begun to deploy initial assessment teams" and two teams of about 40 troops "have started their new mission."

The first two teams were drawn from the US embassy in Iraq, and an additional 90 troops had arrived to set up a joint operations center in Baghdad, Kirby said. Another 50 troops were due to deploy in the next few days, he added.

"These teams will assess the cohesiveness and readiness of Iraqi security forces, hire headquarters in Baghdad, and examine the most effective and efficient way to introduce follow-on advisers," he said.

The advisers would relay their findings to commanders within "the next two to three weeks."

UPDATE: 6/24/14 2:45 PM ET

The death toll mounts as air raids kill 38 people

Agence France-Presse — Iraqi air strikes killed at least 38 people on Tuesday as security forces held off attacks on a strategic town and an oil refinery, officials and witnesses said.

In the town of Baiji, north of Baghdad, morning air strikes killed at least 19 people and wounded at least 17, officials said, while further raids in the evening killed six more.

The officials said the dead and wounded were civilians, and it was unclear if there were any casualties among the militants who were the target of the strikes.

In the Husseibah area of Anbar province, west of Baghdad, another air strike killed seven militants and six civilians, witnesses said.

UPDATE: 6/24/14 1:00 PM ET

Gunmen kill Kirkuk's city council chief Munir al-Qafili

Agence France-Presse — Gunmen killed the city council chief of Iraq's ethnically divided northern oil hub of Kirkuk on Tuesday, a police commander and a doctor said. Munir al-Qafili, a well-known and respected official, was shot dead on his way home in the east of the city.

Kirkuk lies at the heart of a swathe of disputed territory that Kurdish leaders want to incorporate into their autonomous region in the north.

Sunni Arab opposition to the claim has helped fan a spectacular offensive that has seen militants seize a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, include several mainly Sunni Arab towns in Kirkuk province.

Federal security forces withdrew in the face of the militant onslaught, allowing Kurdish troops to take control of Kirkuk city and other areas of the province. Kirkuk has a diverse population with a significant Turkmen community as well as Kurds and Arabs.

UPDATE: 6/24/14 11:45 AM ET

ISIL is recruiting young Kurds

Abigail Hauslohner, reporting for The Washington Post from Halabja in Iraq, noted that ISIL has been recruiting Kurdish youth — some from Halabja — recently. Hauslohner writes:

The young men's allegiance to the extremist militant group represents a potential danger for the Kurds, who share the jihadists’ resentment of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government but who are wary of the extremists now massed on the edge of their territory. The Kurds have hoped to keep their largely autonomous region in northern Iraq from getting tangled up in the country’s increasingly bloody conflict.

Read the full story on The Washington Post.

UPDATE: 6/24/14 11:00 AM ET

UN says more than 1,000 people have been killed in Iraq this month

Reuters — At least 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed and roughly the same number injured in fighting and other violence in Iraq in June as Sunni militants swept through the north, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

Victims include a number of confirmed summary executions committed by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and prisoners killed by retreating Iraqi forces.

At least 757 civilians were killed and 599 injured in the northern provinces of Nineveh, Diyala and Saladdin from June 5-22, UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

"This figure – which should be viewed very much as a minimum – includes a number of verified summary executions and extra-judicial killings of civilians, police, and soldiers who were hors combat," he said. Others died in shelling and cross-fire.

UPDATE: 6/24/14 08:45 AM ET

Kerry urges Kurdish leaders to save Iraq from collapse

Reuters — US Secretary of State John Kerry held crisis talks with leaders of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday urging them to stand with Baghdad in the face of a Sunni insurgent onslaught that threatens to dismember the country.

Iraqi security forces fought Sunni armed factions for control of the country's biggest oil refinery 200 km (120 miles) north of Baghdad, under threat for nearly two weeks since militants overran northern cities.

Kerry flew to the Kurdish region after a day in Baghdad on an emergency trip through the Middle East to rescue Iraq after a lightning advance by Sunni fighters led by an Al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

US officials believe that persuading the Kurds to stick with the political process in Baghdad is vital to keeping Iraq from splitting apart. "If they decide to withdraw from the Baghdad political process it will accelerate a lot of the negative trends," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

More from GlobalPost: The 5 big winners in Iraq, land of opportunity

Kurdish leaders have made clear that the settlement keeping Iraq together as a state is now in jeopardy. "We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq," Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said at the start of his meeting with Kerry.

Earlier, he blamed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's "wrong policies" for the violence and called for him to quit, saying it was "very difficult" to imagine Iraq staying together.

The 5 million Kurds, who have ruled themselves within Iraq in relative peace since the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, have seized on this month's chaos to expand their own territory, taking control of rich oil deposits.

Two days after the Sunni fighters launched their uprising by seizing the north's biggest city Mosul, Kurdish troops took full control of Kirkuk, a city they consider their historic capital and which was abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi army.

The Kurds' capture of Kirkuk, just outside the boundary of their autonomous zone, eliminates their main incentive to remain part of Iraq: its oil deposits could generate more revenue than the Kurds now receive from Baghdad as part of the settlement that has kept them from declaring independence.

More from GlobalPost: Ahmed Chalabi pushed for the US invasion of Iraq. Will he be the country's next PM?

Some senior Kurdish officials suggest in private they are no longer committed to Iraq and are biding their time for an opportunity to seek independence. In an interview with CNN, Barzani repeated a threat to hold a referendum on independence, saying it was time for Kurds to decide their own fate.

New government

Washington has placed its hopes in forming a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad that would undermine the insurgency.

Kerry aims to convince Kurdish leaders to sign on. In Baghdad on Monday Kerry said Maliki assured him the new parliament, elected two months ago, would sit by a July 1 deadline to start forming a new government. Maliki is fighting to stay in power, under criticism for the ISIL-led advance. Baghdad is racing against time as the insurgents consolidate their grip on Sunni provinces.

The Baiji refinery, a strategic industrial complex in northern Iraq, remained a frontline early on Tuesday. Militants said late on Monday they had seized it, but two government officials said troop reinforcements had been flown inside the compound and fended off the assault. Local tribal leaders said they were negotiating with both the government and Sunni fighters to allow the tribes to run the plant if Iraqi forces withdraw.

One of the government officials said Baghdad wanted the tribes to break with ISIL and other Sunni armed factions, and help defend the compound. The plant has been fought over since last Wednesday, with sudden reversals for both sides and so far no clear winner.

The past three days saw Baghdad's forces abandon the entire western frontier with Jordan and Syria, leaving Sunni fighters in control of some of the most important trade routes in the Middle East. For the insurgents, capturing the frontier is a dramatic step towards the goal of erasing the modern border altogether and building a caliphate across swathes of Iraq and Syria.

More from GlobalPost: If Erbil's so safe, why is everyone at the gas station?

An Iraqi government official said troops had recaptured two border crossings but Sunni fighters said they still held them. US President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers to Iraq but held off granting a request by Maliki's Shia Muslim-led government for air strikes.

The insurgency has been fuelled by a sense of persecution among many of Iraq's Sunnis, including armed tribes who once fought Al Qaeda but are now battling alongside the ISIL-led revolt against Maliki's Shia-led government.

Maliki's State of Law coalition won the most seats in the election in April but still needs support from rival Shia factions as well as Kurds and Sunnis to keep him in power.


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