ISIS and the United States exchanged accusations over the destruction of Mosul's historic Grand al-Nuri Mosque on June 21. Army Major General Joseph Martin, head of the US-led coalition's combined joint forces land component, called destruction of most of the mosque and its famous leaning minaret "a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq," adding that "responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS." However, ISIS claimed in a statement on its Amaq news agency that US aircraft destroyed the mosque. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said blowing up the mosque was "an official declaration of defeat" by ISIS. The ancient landmark with its famous leaning minaret was where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" in 2014. It was from the medieval mosque that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new "caliphate" three years ago.
Authorities in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region have announced that the northern territory will hold a referendum on independence, with a date of Sept. 25 set for the vote. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), announced the decision on Twitter June 7. The referendum on secession from Iraq will be held in the three governorates that officially make up the Kurdish region (Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk) and in the areas disputed by the KRG and Baghdad but currently under Kurdish military control—most notably the potential flashpoint of oil-rich Kirkuk. (Al Jazeera, June 8) (See map)
Several civilians were killed June 8 when US-led air-strikes reportedly targeted Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital in northern Syria, with white phosphorus—banned by the Geneva Convention as a weapon of war. The reports came both from Syrian state media and local activists on the ground in Raqqa, who posted footage online, showing the skies of above the city lit by a rainfall of glowing ordnance. The report comes as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are preparing a final offensive to take Raqqa. (Xinhua)
Iraq's Interior Ministry has launched an investigation into human rights violations carried out against civilians by its special forces while fighting the Islamic State in Mosul. The allegations were initially reported by Ali Arkady, an Iraqi photographer with Der Spiegel who accompanied the Interior Ministry's Emergency Response Division (ERD), a unit closely backed by the US-led coalition. During operations against IS, Arkady said he witnessed the killing, torture and rape of suspects. Arkady's piece featured photos of torture scenes that included people hanging from ceilings with their arms tied behind their backs. After days of such abuse, ERD commanders would execute the detainees with a technique Arkady says the unit's personnel learned from US instructors during military training. Brig. Gen Saad Maan, the Interior Ministry's spokesman, said "legal measures will be applied...against wrongdoers."
Over the past month, air-strikes carried out by the US and its coalition partners in Syria have killed the highest number of civilians on record since the bombing campaign began in September 2014, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A total of 225 civilians, including 36 women and 44 children, were killed in the period between April 23 to May 23 by the Observatory's count. At least 122 ISIS fighters and eight members of militias loyal to the Syrian regime were also killed in US-led strikes over the same period.
The Trump administration is in talks with Baghdad on keeping US troops in Iraq after the fight against ISIS in the country is over, the Associated Press reported May 5. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are discussing "what the long-term US presence would look like," a US official told the AP. The official said "several thousand... similar to what we have now, maybe a little more," troops would stay in the country, but added that discussions were in early stages and "nothing has been finalized."
Following last week's Turkish air-strikes on Kurdish forces in northern Syria, the autonomous administration in the region is said to have issued a call for a "no-fly zone." Tev-Dem, the self-governance structure for Syria's Kurdish autonomous zone, reportedly issued the call after Turkish raids killed at least 20 fighters of its militia force, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Because US-backed Kurdish forces are basically calling for international protection from US ally Turkey, this development further heightens the contradictions that Washington faces in northern Syria. It is telling that the Tev-Dem statement is aggressively touted by Kremlin mouthpiece Sputnik. It has also been reported by Syria Deeply and UPI.
The Turkish military carried out air-strikes overnight on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) forces both in Iraq's Sinjar mountains and in northeastern Syria, ostensibly to prevent these regions from being used as a staging ground for attacks within Turkey. "To destroy these terror hubs which threaten the security, unity and integrity of our country and our nation and as part of our rights based on international law, air-strikes have been carried out….and terrorist targets have been struck with success," the Turkish army said in a statement. (Reuters) US State Department spokesman Mark Toner responded: "We are very concerned, deeply concerned that Turkey conducted air-strikes earlier today in northern Syria as well as northern Iraq without proper co-ordination either with the United States or the broader global coalition to defeat IS.... We have expressed those concerns to the government of Turkey directly." The US continues to back the YPG Kurdish-led militia in Syria, which is allied with the PKK guerillas in Turkey—placing Washington in an increasingly contradictory position. (BBC News)