US Says 30% of ISIS-Held Territory Recaptured in Iraq

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An Iraqi man attaches the coffin of a victim of bomb blasts that exploded the previous day in the Jisr Diyala neighborhood, on the southeastern edge of Baghdad, as mourners prepared for the funeral in the holy central city of Najaf on February 25, 2015. The bombs were set off on a main street of a suburb of the Iraqi capital killing at least 22 people and wounding dozens. AFP/Haidar Hamdani

Published Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Updated at 6:43 pm (GMT+2): Iraq has recaptured roughly a third of its territory from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday.

Kerry’s statement comes as Kurds in neighboring Syria advanced further against the militant group, as 1,000 Christian families fled the area.

“Approximately 30 percent of the territory that had been gained by ISIL has now been restored to Iraqi hands, and we are training the Iraqis and preparing for the moment where they can do more,” America’s top diplomat said in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

Kerry said “thousands” of ISIS leaders “have been taken off the battlefield” as part of the coalition’s efforts to beat back and ultimately destroy the militants.

The US-led coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states was formed several months after ISIS swept across northern Iraq in June, seizing swathes of territory and proclaiming a caliphate in parts of the country as well as regions in neighboring Syria.

In the symbolic Syrian town of Kobane alone, the group lost up to 1,000 fighters as it sought to wrest control of the border town from Kurdish defenders, Kerry said.

"We came in with very significant strikes, but more importantly, we came in and diplomatically worked with the Turks and with the Kurds, and made it possible for peshmerga to be able to pass through a corridor and come into Kobane and reinforce it," he added.

"And by continuing the strikes and joining in that effort, ISIL ultimately had to admit, it lost. They were defeated."

Despite claims of successes by the US-led coalition, the air campaign — which so far has cost the Iraqi government more than $260 million — remains the subject of debate, with critics pointing to ISIS advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.

Moreover, many critics opposed to US-led coalition involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Western and Gulf allies played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

Kerry’s testimony follows the request of Obama administration for congressional authorization that would directly provide the authority to go after ISIS.

Kerry said the authorization for use of military force is an opportunity to show the US bipartisan support in the fight, and that the administration does not want to see the authorization get bogged down in individuals’ concerns about what powers the president should have.

“What we want is as large a vote as possible for Congress to say Daesh deserves to be defeated, and we're committed to the fight,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Asked by Senate Foreign Relations Committee lawmakers about the language of a draft resolution that President Barack Obama sent to Congress, Kerry said there was "no way" for the text to be used to justify long-term wars.

"This is a pretty straightforward prohibition without curtailing exigencies and leaving that sufficient level of fuzz that the other side can't decide, 'Oh, we got a safe haven here. We can do whatever we want,'" he said. "Rest assured, there is, in our judgment, no way possible for this language to be misinterpreted and allow a kind of mission creep that takes us into a long-term war."

Iraq has plunged into chaos since the US invasion in 2003, turning the country into a hub for extremist groups.

In its latest move in attempting to deal with the dire humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the United Nations on Tuesday appointed Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis as Secretary General Ban Ki-moon‘s new special envoy for Iraq and head of the UN assistance mission there.

Kerry’s comments come as the militants face mounting pressure from local military forces backed by Iraqi security forces, backed by Kurdish troops, pro-government volunteering fighters, and tribesmen on the ground.

ISIS abducts 100 near Tikrit

Meanwhile, local tribal leaders said on Wednesday that ISIS fighters had abducted 100 tribesmen near the city of Tikrit, apparently to neutralize suspected opponents before a widely expected army offensive.

Iraqi soldiers and pro-government militias have been massing for days in preparation for an attack on ISIS strongholds along the Tigris River to the north and south of Tikrit, hometown of executed former president Saddam Hussein.

Tikrit, about 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of Baghdad, has been controlled by the jihadist group since they swept through northern Iraq in June, scattering Iraq's security forces.

Tribal leaders said ISIS had detained 42 tribesmen in the village of Rubaidha on Tuesday whom they suspected of being ready to take up arms against them.

"They broke into the houses and asked for mobiles," said Hatam al-Obeidi, a Rubaidha resident who escaped to the town of Tuz Khormato on Wednesday.

"They were checking everything in the mobiles that might show that the owner is against them," he said, adding that his own telephone had been returned to him after a gunman told him he was "clean."

Last week, insurgents detained 56 men accused of belonging to a government-backed militia, said Abu Kareem al-Obeidi, who left Rubaidha for the neighboring Diyala province to avoid abduction.

The militants initially set up a headquarters in Rubaidha, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Tikrit, after their June offensive, but pulled out after army helicopters mistakenly bombed the house of the local sheikh beside their base.

The sheikh then asked the militants to leave, residents said.

Iraq's military said around 2,000 militia fighters known as the Popular Mobilization had arrived near Tikrit in preparation for a major operation against ISIS.

Raed Jabouri, governor of Tikrit's Salahuddin province, said on Tuesday that 5,000 fighters from the security forces and the Popular Mobilization — formed last year with Iranian support after the rout of the army — would join "the operation to liberate Tikrit."

Witnesses said ISIS had on Wednesday blocked three main entrances to the south, west and north of Tikrit with 4-meter (12-foot) concrete blast walls.

They also covered a bridge across the Tigris with about 1 meter (three feet) of sand in the hope of absorbing the impact of bombs.

The witnesses saw a stream of SUV vehicles, apparently containing detainees, heading north towards the northern, ISIS-controlled city of Mosul.

Syrian Kurds cut ISIS supply line near Iraq as Christians flee in fear

Right across the border, Kurdish fighters pressed a big offensive against ISIS in northeast Syria on Wednesday, cutting one of its supply lines from Iraq, as fears mounted over the fate dozens of Christians abducted by the hardline group that recently beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.

The Syriac National Council of Syria said ISIS had seized 150 Assyrian Christians from villages in al-Hasaka province in a mass abduction coinciding with the offensive in the same region by Kurdish forces backed by US-led airstrikes.

Hundreds more Christians have fled to the two main cities in Hasaka province, according to the Syriac Council and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is tracking the conflict.

Osama Edward, director of the Sweden-based Assyrian Human Rights Network, said that nearly 1,000 Assyrian Christian families had fled in fear following the abduction.

"Since Monday, 800 families have taken refuge in the city of Hasaka and another 150 in Qamishli," a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, Edward told AFP.

Edward said that, according to his sources in the community, ISIS militants had kidnapped "between 70 and 100 people, mainly women, children and the elderly."

Meanwhile, Jacques Behnan Hindo, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Hasaka-Nisibi, accused Turkey of preventing Christians from fleeing Syria while allowing jihadists responsible for their persecution to cross its border unchecked.

"Every day, families are emigrating from Damascus by plane because of the blockade we have around us," the bishop said on Vatican Radio. "In the north, Turkey allows through lorries, Daesh fighters, oil stolen from Syria, wheat and cotton: all of these can cross the border but nobody (from the Christian community) can pass over."

According to a UN report published in November, Turkey has been singled out as a major transit point for ISIS’ oil deliveries, with trucks often returning to Iraq or Syria with refined products.

ISIS has targeted members of religious minorities as well as anybody who does not swear allegiance to its self-declared "caliphate." The group last week released a video showing its members beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

The abductions in Syria follow advances by Kurdish forces against ISIS in areas of the northeast near the Iraqi border — an area of vital importance to the group as one of the bridges between land it controls in Iraq and Syria.

"They want to show themselves strong, playing on the religion string, at a time when they are being hit hard," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who runs the Observatory, speaking by telephone.

The Assyrian Christians were taken from villages near the town of Tal Tamer, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the northwest of the city of Hasaka. There has been no word on their fate. There have been conflicting reports over where the Christians had been taken.

"These were peaceful villages that had nothing to do with the battles," said Naser Haj Mahmoud, a Kurdish official in the YPG militia in northeastern Syria, speaking by telephone from the city of Qamishli.

Some Christians are fighting under the umbrella of the YPG in Hasaka province, but not in that area, he added.

The new Kurdish offensive launched at the weekend was focused on dislodging ISIS from areas some 100 kilometers (60 miles) further to the east, including Tal Hamis, a town that is one of its strongholds.

The Observatory said at least 132 ISIS fighters had been killed in the fighting since February 21. Mahmoud, the Kurdish official, said seven members of the Kurdish YPG militia had been killed, including one foreigner.

In a telephone interview from the city of Qamishli, he said the YPG had cut a main road linking Tal Hamis with al-Houl, a town just a few kilometers from the Iraqi border.

"This is the main artery for Daesh," he said. The Kurdish YPG seized more than 100 villages from ISIS in the area, he added.

"We believe we will finish the battle of Tal Hamis in this campaign," he added.

The Syrian conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators. Islamists have since poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

ISIS, al-Qaeda Syria branch al-Nusra Front, other Islamist brigades, and rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army have taken part in the Syrian war, fighting across the country against the Syrian army and pro-government fighters, including members of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

According to the United Nations at least 210,000 have been killed in the conflict, and half of Syria’s 22 million citizens have fled their homes.

(AFP, Reuters, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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