In Brief

Iraq picks Fouad Massoum as president in bid to unite nation

But selection of new prime minister expected to be 'more fraught' as Islamic State retains grip on north

Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum has been elected as Iraq's president as part of Baghdad's attempt to present a more united front to Islamic State militants.

Massoum, a 76-year-old former guerrilla fighter against Saddam Hussein's regime, replaces Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who became president in 2005.

Parliamentary negotiations to choose the new leadership in Baghdad have dragged on for weeks, as violent extremists continue their quest to establish a hard-line Islamic caliphate.

Yesterday, Iraqi officials said the choice of Massoum was a vital step in presenting a united front against the Islamic State, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis).

Since 2003, Iraq's president has always been a Kurd, while the prime minister is a Shia and the parliamentary speaker is a Sunni Arab.

The presidency, which is largely ceremonial, is the second major government post to be filled after Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni, was elected as parliamentary speaker last week. But the next political step, the selection of a new prime minister, will be "more fraught", says the New York Times.

Since militants seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, fears have grown that Iraq could break into three nations: a Kurdish state in the north, a largely Shi'ite area in the centre and south, and a Sunni state in the west.

The current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, insists he will seek a third term after proving popular in April's parliamentary elections, but he has come under growing criticism at home and abroad for favouring Shi'ite interests and failing to unite the factions of Iraq.

Whether Maliki is selected or not, the New York Times says there is a growing sense that much of the country is "likely to remain beyond the control of a Baghdad government for some time".

Hours before the presidency vote, an attack near Baghdad killed more than 60 people. Later two car bombs in the centre of the city killed dozens more. Yesterday, reports also surfaced that the Islamic State was ordering women and girls to undergo genital mutilation, but the militants have since dismissed the story as propaganda based on a fake document.

Islamic State bombs and executes its way to Baghdad

22 July

With world leaders focused on Ukraine and Gaza, Islamic militants in Iraq look closer to fulfilling their threat to march on Baghdad.

The extremist group, which has changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) to the Islamic State, has claimed responsibility for a wave of car bombs in Baghdad, which killed at least 27 people on Saturday. The attacks are said to be the most significant since the extremist group captured Mosul in June.

The group, which has declared a new Islamic "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq, is now believed to have almost 20,000 fighters among its ranks.

The United Nations says at least 5,576 Iraqi civilians have been killed this year in the violence and has accused Islamic State fighters of a range of atrocities that it said could amount to war crimes.

Yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that two women accused of adultery had been stoned to death by the Islamic State in the jihadist-controlled Syrian province of Raqqa. The executions were described as the first of their kind by the group.

In Mosul, hundreds of Christian families have been forced out of their homes after Islamic State fighters said they would be killed if they did not convert to Islam or pay a "protection tax".

The warning was read out in Mosul's mosques on Friday afternoon, and broadcast through the city on loudspeakers. Hundreds of people, including children, the elderly and disabled, left on foot in Iraq's "searing summer heat", many of their belongings robbed by militants, says the Daily Telegraph.

Islamic State fighters had reportedly been tagging Mosul's Christian houses with the letter N for "Nassarah", the term with which the Koran refers to Christians.

The group has used violence to take over towns in the north, sometimes kidnapping families to hold communities to ransom, and boosted their arms and equipment along the way.

Meanwhile, a relatively small force is surging south to Baghdad, says Reuters. It adds that the Islamic State is "crushing resistance across northern Iraq so successfully that its promise to march on Baghdad may no longer be unrealistic bravado".

Isis fighters declare new 'Islamic state' in Iraq and Syria

30 June

Isis militants have formally declared a new caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and demanded that all Muslims "pledge allegiance" to its leader.

In an audio recording posted on the internet, a spokesman for Isis said the new Islamic state would extend from Aleppo in northern Syria to the Diyala province in eastern Iraq.

The group said that from now on it would be known as "the Islamic State". The head of Isis Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared as the "leader for Muslims everywhere", to be known as "Caliph Ibrahim".

The announcement has sparked fears that more British-linked citizens could travel to the Middle East to fight with the Sunni Muslim group.

Professor Peter Neumann, from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, told The Guardian that the announcement was a "declaration of war" – not only against the west but also al-Qaeda.

"For ideological jihadists, the caliphate is the ultimate aim, and Isis – in their eyes – have come closer to realising that vision than anyone else. On that basis, Isis leaders believe they deserve everyone's allegiance," he said. "This could be the end of al-Qaeda. It depends on how they respond. Unless they come out fighting, this could mark the end of Bin Laden's vision and his legacy."

The "inflammatory declaration" comes as Iraqi government forces are attempting to retake the city of Tikrit from the militants, reports the Financial Times. On Sunday, government forces received the first batch of military jets ordered from Russia, bolstering their counter-attack against the militants.

In a separate development, the BBC reports that Israel has called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state in response to the gains made by Isis.

In a speech in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Kurds "are a nation of fighters and have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence".

Iraq crisis: break-up of country inevitable, warn Kurdish leaders

25 June

The break-up of Iraq is all but inevitable, Kurdish leaders have warned, despite America's push to create a more inclusive government in Baghdad.

Kurdish president Massoud Barzani said that the rapid territorial gains made by Isis militants has created "a new reality and a new Iraq".

He called on Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign, blaming the violence on his "wrong policies". It was "very difficult" to imagine Iraq staying together, he said.

The Kurds have used the opportunity presented by the Isis assault to take over disputed territories in Kirkuk, Nineveh, Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, including the oil fields around Kirkuk and other newly discovered oil or gas fields.

Barzani made his comments as US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in a bid to persuade Kurdish leaders to form a unified government with the two other dominant groups in the country, Sunni and Shia Muslim Arabs. This is seen as a condition for US military support, but Maliki has today rejected the call for a unified government.

But Kerry left the meeting in no doubt that Kurdish leaders felt that a settlement for the country was in jeopardy, says The Times.

Some Kurdish officials have even raised the possibility of pressing for independence, although this is opposed by the US and neighbouring Turkey.

On the battlefront, the Isis attacks have slowed but government forces look unlikely to regain lost territory. The death toll in Iraq has topped 1,000 in less than three weeks since Isis began its advance through the north of the country, according to the UN.

The first batch of 300 US military advisers being sent to Iraq have now arrived, while British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond is on a visit to the Middle East to reassure allies of Britain's commitment to security in the region.

Isis 'seizes oil refinery' as John Kerry presses Nouri al-Maliki

24 June

Isis fighters claim to have taken full control of Iraq's largest oil refinery following a ten-day assault.

The Baiji refinery, located between the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, supplies a third of Iraq's refined fuel and is one of the country's most important strategic assets.A rebel spokesman said the complex would be handed over to local tribes to administer, while the advance towards Baghdad would continue.The militants have now captured all border crossings to Syria and Jordan and are marching towards a vital dam near Haditha.The surge continues as US Secretary of State John Kerry visits Irbil, in northern Iraq, where he will hold talks with Kurdish leaders today.Kerry is in the country to urge the country's feuding leaders to form a government and confront the militants – a mission dubbed the "save Iraq tour" by some US journalists.He has promised support to Iraq if the country's leaders can unite. "The support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq's leaders take the steps needed to bring the country together it will be effective," he said.BBC correspondent Jim Muir says there are "urgent efforts" behind the scenes to get parliament to meet on 1 July and to agree in advance who will be the new prime minister."Everybody I speak to says this will not be Nouri Maliki but one of about three other figures acceptable to Iran and America, which has a key role to play in trying to broker a deal," says Muir.Maliki has been criticised for focusing power among his Shia allies and excluding other groups including Sunni and Kurdish communities.

Meanwhile, The Times reports that Isis is using American military hardware in its surge to transform the Middle East. According to rebel commanders, US-made Humvees captured during the militants' surge have been used to attack Syrian rebels near Aleppo for the first time.

John Kerry arrives in Baghdad in midst of major Isis offensive

23 June

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad today, as Isis militants continue their offensive across Iraq, taking control of much of the country's western frontier.

The main mission for Kerry, the highest ranking US official to visit Iraq since the insurgency, will be to push for Iraqi unity and stability. He will meet with the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and top Sunni and Kurdish leaders in a bid to push for a power-sharing arrangement.

The US is in the process of sending new military supplies to help Iraqi forces and is establishing two joint command centres with the Iraqi military to help coordinate intelligence gathering and military operations.

The first of 300 US military advisers will also arrive in Iraq within the coming days, but Washington has suggested it will not offer more robust help unless Maliki's Shiite-dominated government is replaced. Neighbouring Iran has indicated that it is not willing to concede such a change, dampening any lingering expectations of a US-Iranian collaboration in Iraq, reports the Washington Post.

Speaking about Isis on Sunday, President Barack Obama said: "What we can't do is think that we're just going to play whack-a-mole and send US troops occupying various countries wherever these organisations pop up. We're going to have to have a more focused, more targeted strategy."

The jihadist fighters, already in control of major Iraqi cities, including Mosul, Tikrit and Tal Afar, seized three border crossings into Syria and Jordan and four nearby towns over the weekend. The capture has effectively cut Baghdad's main land route to Jordan, a key ally of the United States.

Around 70 per cent of Anbar, Iraq's largest province, is now under the control of Isis, which has begun imposing Sharia law in the towns it controls. The Washington Post says the "stunning speed" with which the Isis fighters seized control of large portions of the country has "raised fears that the entire state of Iraq could soon collapse".

Barack Obama sends 300 military advisers into Iraq

20 June 

About 300 US military advisers will be sent to Iraq to help the country's embattled government hold off a lightning advance from Isis militants.

Insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) have seized several cities and are currently fighting against pro-government forces in fierce battles for the Baiji oil refinery and Tal Afar airport in northern Iraq. Production has been halted at Baiji, which supplies much of the country's domestic fuel, sparking panic buying in the northern regions, with long queues at petrol stations.

Military advisers, drawn from US special forces, will set up joint command centres with the Iraqi military in Baghdad and northern Iraq, to share intelligence and co-ordinate planning, and also go out into the field, reports the BBC.

The US is not thought to be at the stage of preparing air strikes, but President Barack Obama has said the US is prepared for "targeted and precise military action, if and when" required. He denied that American troops would fight in Iraq.

Obama blamed Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki for worsening the country's deep sectarian divide by failing to include Sunni and Kurdish interests in his policies. He said it was not America's place to choose Iraq's leaders but warned that "only leaders with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together".

Secretary of State John Kerry will visit the region to urge the Iraqi government to adopt more inclusive policies. A spokesman for Maliki has said he will not stand down.

Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the US, has warned of further bloodshed if Isis is not deterred. "Wherever they have the possibility, they will cleanse minorities, ethnic cleansing," he told The Guardian. Isis has executed Shia prisoners in Mosul, as well as Sunni imams who would not hand over their mosques, said Faily. "So what does that tell you? It tells you that they cannot coexist with others."

Iraq calls for US air strikes as Isis attacks biggest oil refinery

19 June 

Iraq has urged the US to stage air strikes on the Sunni insurgents currently trying to take full control of the country's largest oil refinery.

Fighters from Isis continue to control several towns and cities in Iraq, despite ongoing efforts from Iraqi troops to take back the city of Tal Afar.

Yesterday, the insurgents took over three-quarters of Baiji oil refinery, one of Iraq's most important strategic assets located between the cities of Mosul and Tikrit.

The refinery accounts for more than a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity so any lengthy outage could cause "long lines at the gas pumps and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq", says The Guardian.

Iraq's foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari appeared on television to issue an urgent plea. "We request the United States to launch air strikes against militants," he said.

According to The Independent, the US has ruled out military action until Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki stands down. Maliki is seen by the Sunni community as the main architect of its oppression and the US fears there can be no national reconciliation between Sunni and Shia until he resigns, says the newspaper.

US President Barack Obama has told Congressional leaders he does not need their approval for any military action in Iraq. But General Martin Dempsey, US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has warned that the fluid state of the Iraqi battlefield has left the US with incomplete intelligence, a factor that makes successful air strikes more difficult.

Meanwhile, Iran has pledged to do "whatever it takes" to protect holy Shia sites in Iraq against Sunni jihadists.

David Cameron warned yesterday that the crisis must not be dismissed as a foreign problem, adding that the militants trying to take Iraq territory are "also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom".

Isis poses 'most serious threat' to Britain's security, says PM

18 June

The Isis insurgency in Iraq is the "most serious threat" to Britain's security, Prime Minister David Cameron has warned.

Isis militants have seized several Iraqi cities and are reported to have made advances in the west, with new fighting in the city of Ramadi.They temporarily took control of parts of Baquba, a city less than 40 miles north of Baghdad, the closest the fighting has come to the Iraqi capital so far, but were reportedly pushed back by Iraqi forces. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, residents are stockpiling food and water, increasing prices dramatically.

Cameron said yesterday that the number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, including those from the UK who might try to return, poses a "real threat" to Britain.

"No-one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of Isis is the most serious threat to Britain's security that there is today," he told a news conference.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also appeared on television yesterday, alongside Sunni Muslim and Kurdish leaders, making a plea to non-state forces to lay down their arms. He also accused Saudi Arabia, which is largely Sunni, of backing Isis.

However, the BBC says Maliki's call for national unity is unlikely to have much effect as he has openly sponsored the formation of Shia Muslim militias to fight alongside regular Iraqi troops.

"The danger of the present fight-back by Shia volunteers is that they will victimise ordinary Sunnis, and make them feel that Isis is the only group that can protect them," says BBC world affairs editor John Simpson. "In other words, this has the potential to turn into a clear-cut religious war, with the possibility of mass 'cleansing' of civilians and brutality on a large scale."

According to the Wall Street Journal, President Barack Obama wants to avoid air strikes for now, partly because the US lacks sufficient information to hit its intended targets. Instead, Obama is opting to provide intelligence to the Iraqi military and seek support from regional allies.

Isis: Barack Obama sends 275 military personnel to Iraq

17 June

The US is sending up to 275 "military personnel" to provide security for the US embassy and other staff in Baghdad, as extremists threaten to advance on the capital.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) have seized a number of Iraqi towns and cities in the past week and carried out hundreds of executions that "almost certainly amounted to war crimes", according to the United Nations.

President Barack Obama yesterday told Congress that up to 275 troops could be sent to Iraq to assist in the temporary relocation of some staff from the US embassy. Around 170 of those forces, who are "equipped for combat", have already arrived and another 100 soldiers will be on standby in a nearby country, such as Kuwait, until they are needed.

The announcement comes as USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious transport dock ship, arrived in the Persian Gulf on Monday to join an aircraft carrier, a destroyer and a guided-missile cruiser. The White House is reportedly considering sending a contingent of special forces to train and advise Iraqi troops, but has ruled out sending ground forces "back into combat in Iraq".

Talks between the US and Iran also took place in Vienna yesterday on the sidelines of separate negotiations about Iran's nuclear programme, but these were described as "short" and "inconclusive". It was the first time the two nations have collaborated over a common security interest in more than a decade, reports The Guardian.

Messages from Washington were mixed, with secretary of state John Kerry refusing to "rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability", but the Pentagon later releasing a statement to rule out military coordination with Iran.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Isis fighters have been receiving help from local tribes who reject the Islamists' extreme ideology but sympathise with their goal of ousting the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

Isis: US expected to open talks with Iran over Iraq crisis

16 June

The US is expected to open talks with its long-time adversary Iran this week about the extremist insurgency in Iraq.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) have seized the north-western Iraqi town of Tal Afar and swept through towns in the Tigris valley north of Baghdad, but have stopped short of the capital city.

They bragged on Sunday that they had executed up to 1,700 Shiite Iraqi soldiers captured during their advance and posted a series of graphic images on social media as evidence. One picture shows armed men wearing black Isis bandanas pointing their guns toward a group of men lying face down in a ditch.

If the claims are true, pressure could increase on Shiites to retaliate, raising the prospect of a broader sectarian war in Iraq, says the Wall Street Journal.

The US and Iran have publicly committed to provide military support to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki if requested. President Barack Obama is yet to decide a course for possible military action, but the US has beefed up security at its Baghdad embassy, repositioned military equipment throughout the region and sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his government was open to cooperating with the US in Iraq.

Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari in a phone call on Saturday, according to the State Department.

Even some of Obama's harshest Republican critics have voiced their support for talks with Iran, arguing that Isis poses a much greater short-term threat to America's national security interests.

"Why did we deal with Stalin? Because he was not as bad as Hitler," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN. "The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn't fall."

However, Israeli and Arab officials have warned that the US will not be able to maintain a tough line on the nuclear issue if it is cooperating with Tehran in Iraq.

Iraq crisis: will the SAS be sent in?

14 June

The SAS may be deployed to fight the growing crisis in Iraq, says the Daily Telegraph. Foreign secretary William Hague says Britain is “looking urgently” at ways to help, “for example with counter-terrorism expertise”.

This could mean the deployment of advisers from British Special Forces such as the SAS and intelligence agencies including MI6. The SAS was used in Libya in 2011, where it advised rebel forces.

As ISIS insurgents threaten to take Baghdad, both Britain and the US are considering a range of options in response. President Barack Obama says he will “review options” over the weekend, including the use of air strikes.

Obama says said he will make a decision "in the days ahead" on the options, amid growing speculation that the Pentagon is drafting plans for possible air strikes against the Islamist rebels.

However, he added a note of caution, saying: "The United States will do our part, but ultimately it's up to the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems.”

Meanwhile, the governor of Mosul he would welcome US support in ousting Islamist militants from Iraq. Atheel al Nujaifi told Sky News: "We need to have weapons. We need to have political support. (But) we don't like the American army to come into Iraq and to occupy Iraq another time and turn back to the same problem that happened before."

Iraq: Obama 'won't rule out anything' to stop Isis terrorists

13 June

Barack Obama has said he is looking at "all options" to help Iraq fight the extremists who have overrun Iraqi cities to within striking distance of Baghdad.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) took over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit this week and have vowed to let battle "rage" in Baghdad.

According to the Washington Post, the White House is considering airstrikes against the extremists, as well as expanding intelligence and targeting assistance for Iraqi military forces. "I don't rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in Iraq, or Syria for that matter," said Obama.However, the White House has insisted it has no intention of sending in ground troops to Iraq, where the achievements of America’s eight-year war are rapidly being undone. "Iraq is breaking up," says The Independent's Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn. Kurds have taken full control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, while the Iraqi government's rule is "evaporating as its 900,000-strong army disintegrates".Cockburn believes foreign intervention is more likely to come from Iran, a fellow Shia-majority state, than the US, but he warns that the Iraqi government will find it "very difficult to reverse the defeats of the last week".Meanwhile, in Mosul, Isis has issued an 11-point charter spelling out the creation of an Islamic state. Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs have been banned, thieves will have their hands amputated and women must stay indoors except in cases of emergency, the charter says."Whoever hated us yesterday is safe, unless he rejects, fights or abandons Islam," it adds, but those who oppose their new rulers will be "killed, crucified or have their hands and feet cut off".

Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor, says that if Isis can hold Mosul and consolidate its presence in the city it would be "the most significant act by a jihadist group since al-Qaeda attacked the US on 11 September 2001".


Isis: battle will rage in Baghdad, say militants

12 June 

The UN Security Council has condemned an attack by extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) on two major Iraqi cities, Mosul and Tikrit.

Militants took over Mosul on Tuesday, freeing more than 1,000 prisoners and kidnapping almost 50 staff from the Turkish consulate. Around 500,000 people, up to half of them children, have been forced to flee their homes, according to Unicef. The charity described the situation as "dire and worsening by the moment" with thousands of children taking refuge in schools, hospitals and mosques outside the city, many without adequate water, sanitation or shelter from the heat.

Isis, now deemed one of the most powerful terrorist groups in the world, has since been consolidating positions in Tikrit, hometown to former leader Saddam Hussein. Government forces have stalled the militants' advance near Samarra, a city just 68 miles north of Baghdad, but the BBC suggests there could be an offensive from the west, where Isis controls the city of Falluja, 43 miles from the capital. An Isis spokesman has promised that the battle will "rage" on Baghdad and southern cities home to the country's Shia Muslim community, regarded by Isis as "infidels".

The developments are seen as a big step towards the group's goal of establishing an Islamic state across the Syria and Iraq border and a major blow to Iraqi authorities trying to quell the fast-spreading insurgency. 



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