ISHM: August 18 – 24, 2017


Key Takeaways:

  • As Tal Afar Operations Begin, PMU Participation Remains Uncertain – On August 20, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched their long-anticipated effort to clear Tal Afar of ISIS militants. The ISF estimate that one to two thousand ISIS militants remain in the city, located 80 kilometers west of Mosul in Ninewa Province. The Iraqi Air Force dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets on the city, instructing an estimated 40 thousand civilians to stay away from combat zones (Tal Afar’s original population is over 200 thousand). According to a spokesperson for the ISF, 302 ISIS fighters have been killed and 31 neighborhoods of the city cleared as of August 24. However, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis met with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi later in the week to discuss the ongoing operations, emphasizing that the fight to clear ISIS from Iraq is “far from over.” more…
  • Tal Afar Evacuations Pose Challenges for UN, Aid Agencies – The estimated 40 thousand civilians trapped in Tal Afar are facing the difficult decision of staying where they are and face a lack of food, water, health access, and other basic necessities, or attempt to flee the city and risk being caught in the crossfire during a 10 to 20 hour walk to safety in temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). According to one woman rescued at a mustering point outside the city, “We left because we were afraid of the airstrikes. We were so afraid for the children. The road was steep and rocky and old people were dying. It was so hard to walk and the road smelled of dead bodies.” more…
  • Kurdish Flag Flies in Kirkuk as Calls to Postpone Independence Referendum Widen – This week, an Administrative Court in Baghdad sided with a group of Iraqi Turkmen who complained that the flag of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) should not fly over government buildings in Kirkuk, as the government there should represent all members of the multi-ethnic region, not just Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdish flags have flown on government buildings since a March 28 decision by the Kirkuk Provincial Council. Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim refused to comply with the order to remove the flags, a symbolic statement ahead of the proposed September 25 referendum on KRI independence. The participation of Kirkuk in that referendum and inclusion in the KRI is a tense issue between Erbil and Baghdad. On August 20, Reuters reported that the Kurdistan Regional Government may postpone the referendum if it can win economic concessions from Baghdad. Such a delay would appease Turkey, the United States, and several other members of the international community who have called for a delay. However, President of the KRG Massoud Barzani later indicated that the vote will take place as scheduled, for now. more…
  • Aid Finally Reaches Western Mosul; U.S. Moves to Assist with IED Removal – On August 21, the International Committee of the Red Cross conducted the first major distribution of aid relief in western Mosul since the city was overrun by ISIS militants in 2014. ICRC distributed food, water, and other essential goods to over 64 thousand civilians. Smaller relief efforts have been coordinated by relief agencies and the Iraqi Government in western Mosul, but not to the present scale. Lt. General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S. campaign against ISIS, announced that the United States military will assist private contractors in locating unexploded ordinance and other IEDs littered throughout the region. Estimates suggest that it may take as many as 25 years for western Mosul to be completed cleared of IEDs. more…
  • PKK Pushes for Greater Authority in Sinjar – On August 21, the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Administrative Council, a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)-affiliated group and rival faction to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) called for “democratic autonomy” and a “free and democratic life for all Yazidis” in the traditional Yazidi homeland of Sinjar. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a staunch foe of the PKK, said that his government is considering a joint military campaign with Iran against the PKK and their affiliates. The administration of Sinjar is a burgeoning regional problem as regional actors vie for control, and surviving Yazidi communities look to resettle after ISIS. (For more on Sinjar, read our recent analysis and for more on Yazidi community resettlement, listen to our recent podcast). more…
  • Airstrikes Continue in Western Anbar, Despite Some Objection – U.S.-led international coalition airstrikes continued to target munitions depots and ISIS militant movements in the Anbar cities of Qa’im, Ana, and Rawa this week. The Head of Ana District Council, Abdul Karim al-Ani, demanded that the airstrikes on his city cease, however, citing the destruction of civilian homes and infrastructure. As operations to clear Tal Afar begin, Iraqi security officials have indicated that they will continue to allocate resources to degrading ISIS’s control in Anbar, in preparation for eventual operations to retake these last ISIS outposts in the area. more…

For more background on most of the institutions, key actors, political parties, and locations mentioned in our takeaways or in the stories that follow, see the ISHM Reference Guide.

As Tal Afar Operations Begin, PMU Participation Remains Uncertain

On August 18, a spokesperson for the Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) forces, Ahmed al-Asadi, announced that 20,000 PMU soldiers would participate in the battle to retake Tal Afar, although he did not specify which organizations under the PMU umbrella would supply those forces. Asadi emphasized that the PMUs would not pursue ISIS into Syria, an issue that came to the fore in May, when PMUs captured the al-Walid border crossing in Anbar and used it to launch operations into Syria against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) fighters that they said were attacking them across the border. Tal Afar lies just 75 kilometers from Syria, at a strategic midpoint between the foreign border to the west and the city of Mosul to the east.

On August 20, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that he intended to reduce the size of the Iraqi military, including a drawdown of PMU forces, after the fight against ISIS was over. He cited financial concerns and “fears over the militarization of society” as motivators for this decision, and said that he intended to refocus resources on reconstruction and reconciliation after the war was over. While he noted that no final decisions had been made, he indicated that many military divisions, including some PMUs, might be employed in rebuilding Iraq after the war is over.

On August 20, Iraqi forces launched a long-awaited offensive to retake Tal Afar, 80 kilometers west of Mosul, from ISIS militants. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) began clearing villages surrounding the city that morning, with coalition-aligned PMUs working alongside them. The ISF, PMU forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga have surrounded the strategic city, which lies between Mosul and ISIS-controlled portions of Syria, for months as Iraqi and coalition airstrikes have hit ISIS targets in preparation for the beginning of ground operations. Official estimates of ISIS’s fighters in the city range between 1,000-2,000, but an elaborate series of trenches, barricades and sniper nests will likely make progress difficult and costly. Iraqi forces will face the difficult task of balancing their military objectives against humanitarian concerns for the tens of thousands of civilians still in the district – many of whom are likely to be used as human shields by ISIS. Sectarian concerns also complicate the operations: the city is predominantly Sunni Turkmen, and neither they nor their supporters in Turkey fully trust the overwhelmingly Arab, Shiite, and Iranian-backed PMUs that have voiced their desire to take a major role in the operations to clear the city. Those PMUs have been accused of human rights violations and war crimes with sectarian motives in the past, and while the ISF is cautiously accepting their support in this fight, they have indicated that Iraqi government forces will take the lead. Operations to retake Tal Afar were delayed as forces regrouped and recovered from the brutal fight in Mosul, which reportedly claimed the lives of 1,400 Iraqi servicemen and injured 7,000 more. In addition to Tal Afar, ISIS still controls the city of Hawija, in Kirkuk province, and three smaller border towns in Anbar: Qaim, Rawa, and Ana.

On August 21, Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization PMU, announced that he believed that roughly half of the ISIS fighters in Tal Afar were foreigners that had traveled to Iraq to fight for ISIS, though he did not specify how he came to that conclusion. He estimated that roughly 1,600-2,000 fighters remain in the city, a figure that roughly matches estimates from Iraqi and coalition sources that put their forces at 1,000-2,000 fighters.

On August 21, the Iraqi Air Force dropped “hundreds of thousands” of leaflets on Tal Afar, announcing the beginning of the operations to retake the city and warning citizens to stay away from combat zones to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Those citizens have little say in where they go, however, since ISIS has trapped them in the city and likely intends to use them as human shields to limit the Iraqi forces’ ability to use airstrikes and explosive ordnances. Between 10,000 and 50,000 civilians are believed to remain in the city, whose original population was 200,000 before ISIS’s arrival in 2014.

On August 21, the Badr Organization announced that it had seized a neighborhood northwest of Tal Afar, working in conjunction with the Iraqi Federal Police. The Badr Organization is an Iraqi political party with a military wing that falls under the PMU umbrella. The organization is supported by and closely aligned with Iran, and has proved to be one of the most effective fighting forces in the war against ISIS, though they have been accused of summary executions and forced displacements of Sunni civilians in the past.

On August 22, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Interior Minister Erfan al-Hayali to discuss operations against ISIS as Iraqi and Coalition forces begin the operation to retake Tal Afar. Mattis emphasized that despite recent victories, the fight was “far from over,” using the same language of the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who cautioned against premature celebration when Iraqi forces retook Mosul. Mattis said that as Iraqi forces retake the last ISIS-held cities, he anticipates fighters to flee to eastern Syria for a last stand.

On August 22, Iraqi government-aligned forces seized an ISIS training center east of Tal Afar. The 11th Brigade PMU and the 9th Division of the Iraqi Army worked together to seize the facility, in an operation that highlighted the power-sharing arrangement between forces directly controlled by Baghdad and the more loosely organized PMU forces. On August 22, Iraqi forces seized the al-Kask oil refinery and two nearby villages in the ongoing operations to clear Tal Afar of ISIS militants. The news was announced by Iraqi Lieutenant General Abdul Amir Yarallah, commander of the operations to clear Tal Afar, in a brief press release.

On August 22, Najmaddin Karim, the Governor of Kirkuk province, announced that Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces were ready to invade Hawija, and that he hoped that “there is a unified military effort to free [Hawija and its surroundings] after Tal Afar.” Hawija has remained under ISIS control since 2014, and political and military leaders in the province have pushed aggressively for more attention and resources from Baghdad to clear the city ever since the end of operations in Mosul in July.

On August 23, a spokesperson for Joint Operations Command denied reports that PMU forces were not being permitted to partake in the battle for Tal Afar. The declaration was in response to rumors circulated on August 21 that PMUs were being denied fighting roles in an effort to ensure PMUs were not fighting in areas that the International Coalition was conducting airstrikes. The coalition has a longstanding policy against airstrikes in areas that PMUs are active in, due to the difficulty of coordinating with them to avoid friendly fire incidents. The Joint Operations Command did acknowledge that some PMU divisions were being reassigned to take part in operations in Anbar, where the fight against ISIS is also active.

On August 23, Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization PMU, said in a press statement that progress in Tal Afar was “good,” and that he believed there was a breakdown in ISIS command in the district that was allowing the Iraqi forces to clear many neighborhoods relatively quickly. He said that tensions between local and foreign fighters within ISIS were flaring up and leading to coordination issues and desertions, though it was unclear where such deserters would flee to. Unlike in the battle for Mosul, Iraqi forces have not left any escape routes for ISIS fighters to flee.

On August 23, ISIS members razed their own headquarters in the district of Tal Afar, apparently responding to orders from ISIS leadership in the city, who are telling their fighters to retreat to “safer places.” An offensive started on Sunday by Iraqi and coalition forces has already cleared over half a dozen neighborhoods in the district of Tal Afar, and forces are closing in on the city itself, which is reported to be heavily reinforced and packed with over 10,000 civilians, to be used by ISIS as human shields.

On August 24, a spokesperson for the Iraqi forces fighting in Tal Afar, Yahya Rasool, announced that 302 ISIS fighters had been killed and 31 neighborhoods have been retaken since the start of operations in the district on August 20. In addition,numerous vehicle-based IEDs, booby-trapped houses, and other militant weaponry have been destroyed. Rasool, who is a spokesperson for Iraq’s Joint Military Command that is coordinating the Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS, also highlighted the cooperation between PMU and ISF forces, noting that many neighborhoods were taken through joint operations between the two groups.

Tal Afar Evacuations Pose Challenges for UN, Aid Agencies

On August 20, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande, released a statement regarding the thousands of civilians fleeing Tal Afar due to conflict related displacement, and the extreme risk that they face. An estimated 30,000 people have fled Tal Afar as a result of Iraqi military advances on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) held city. “We don’t know how many civilians are still in the areas where fighting is occurring, but we are preparing for thousands more to flee in coming days and weeks. Conditions are very tough in the city. Food and water are running out, and people lack the basic necessities to survive” said Grande. Civilians who flee the city, face journeys between 10- 20 hours in extreme heat to reach mustering points, arriving extremely dehydrated and exhausted. Grande expressed her concern for those fleeing the city, stating, “We are deeply worried about the extreme risks that families are facing. Everything has to be done by the parties to the conflict to avoid civilian casualties and ensure people have the assistance they are entitled to under international humanitarian law.” Currently, the Iraqi government is leading the humanitarian mission for Tal Afar by providing transportation and aid, yet Grande urges the international community to step up funding for humanitarian partners to support the people of Tal Afar.

On August 20, the United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a report on the current humanitarian crisis in Tal Afar. The report stated that an estimated 40,000 people remain in the district of Tal Afar, as official military operations to retake the city began on August 20. To date, 30,000 civilians have already fled the city in anticipation of the operation, yet thousands more expected to flee as fighting intensifies. Civilians who have managed to escape the fighting are escorted to the mustering points in Masaid, Buweyr, and Talmajan, in order to receive emergency assistance. Water and food supplies are running extremely low within the city and as the fighting intensifies, and the safety of civilians trapped in the city are of grave concern.  In addition to being able to provide aid for those expected to flee, the lack of adequate health care at mustering points remains a top concern, With limited transportation abilities and capacities at internally displaced persons (IDP) sites, many civilians are expected to be extremely vulnerable and face protection challenges in the upcoming weeks.

On August 22, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), expressed their concern for the protection of civilians in the ISIS held city of Tal Afar, 80 kilometers west of Mosul. Humanitarian access has been blocked from Tal Afar ever since ISIS took over the city in 2014. Conditions in the city are very difficult, with food and water running out, electricity facilities diminishing and lack of adequate healthcare available. Reports from the city reveal that people have been surviving on unclean water and stale bread for months. Families continue to flee Tal Afar as fighting has intensified with a new military advance by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in the city. Those who continue to flee face great risk, as many dead bodies can be see along evacuation routes to mustering sites, either dying of dehydration or exhaustion or by extremist groups. People who choose to leave the city have to walk to safety, oftentimes walking upwards of 20 hours without food and water in scorching hot temperatures, that can often reach up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). Those who are most vulnerable, such as children, the elderly and the ill, are forced to remain trapped in the city, as they are not physically able to complete the journey. Some of those who have made it to mustering points had sustained injuries from sniper fire or exploding mines while escaping the city, then forced to complete the journey wounded. The UNHCR expressed high concern for the possible use of civilians as human shields and the possible execution of those captured by ISIS militants while attempting to flee the city, as similar strategy was used by the extremist group during military operations in Mosul. In addition, there is  great concern regarding reports of a rising popular sentiment for collective punishment and abuse towards those fleeing from Tal Afar, as individuals have perceived them as being associated with, or sympathetic to extremist groups. Reports indicate that IDPs who have fled the city are being denied access to safety in locations that do have the capacity to take them in, as reports of harassment, revenge attacks and abuse of these families continue.

On August 23, Oxfam International, an international charitable NGO focussed on sustainable on development, reported on the mass displacement of families fleeing Tal Afar. Traumatized women and children told Oxfam how people died walking for days through the desert in 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) trying to reach safety. “We left because we were afraid of the airstrikes. We were so afraid for the children. The road was steep and rocky and old people were dying. It was so hard to walk and the road smelled of dead bodies,” described Ahlam Ibrahim, who fled the village of Mzra’a near Tal Afar. Nahida Ali told Oxfam how she walked for two days straight without food, water, and in the blistering heat, to reach a mustering point. “ISIS took my husband two days ago as we tried to escape. We wanted to leave a month ago but ISIS wouldn’t let us. If they saw a family leaving they would take the men. We saw a lot of people killed; that’s why we were so afraid,” said Ali. Oxfam is urgently calling on all parties in the conflict to ensure the protection and safety of civilians from harm’s way.

Kurdish Flag Flies in Kirkuk as Calls to Postpone Independence Referendum Widen

On August 17, several members of the Iraqi Turkmen front filed a complaint to Iraq’s Administrative Court regarding the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) decision to raise the Kurdish flag alongside Iraqi flags on government buildings on March 28. The council’s vote was controversial and provoked widespread outcry, and at the time, several Turkmen and Arab representatives boycotted the session. Kirkuk’s government is made up of several different factions representing the three major ethnic groups in the province, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen. An administrative Court in Baghdad accommodated their complaint, and ordered that the Kurdish flags be removed from government buildings. The flag dispute in Kirkuk is especially significant because Kirkuk is a disputed province, claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad, and local government officials are divided over whether or not to participate in the upcoming Kurdistan referendum.

On August 18, a delegation from the Iraqi Parliament’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) bloc met with Iraq’s National Alliance leader Ammar al-Hakim, in order to discuss the political future of Kirkuk. According to MP Ala Talabani, “The meeting witnessed the discussion of the provincial and Parliamentary elections in Kirkuk governorate, and the strengthened coordination between the Parliamentary blocs.”  

On August 20, Reuters reported that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is considering postponing the referendum on independence from Iraq, currently set for September 25. According to Mala Bakhtiar, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a major political party in the KRG, the Kurdish delegation currently visiting Baghdad may be convinced holdto  off the vote. Most foreign actors, including the U.S., have called on the KRG to postpone the vote. In addition, there is a possibility that Baghdad can help the Kurds with their outstanding debt: according to Reuters there are an estimated “$10 to 12 billion, about equal to the KRG’s annual budget, owed to public works contractors and civil servants and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters whose salaries have not been paid in full for several months.”  The Kurds have been facing an economic crisis since Baghdad stopped paying their portion of the Iraqi federal budget in 2014, in protest to Kurdish oil exports to Turkey.  Then in 2015 the Kurdish population increased by 28% within 12 months due to the influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs), a  figure that has likely grown substantially since then. Currently, the KRG is in desperate need of economic assistance; however, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani continues to resist the call to postpone the vote.

On August 21, Ahmed Akaria, head of the Brotherhood faction in the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) bloc, rejected the decision of the Administrative Court in Baghdad to remove Kurdish flags in the disputed Kirkuk Province. The Brotherhood holds the majority of the seats in the KPC, and wield significant political influence. This is the latest move in the ongoing flag dispute: Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic city, full of Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds; and the pre-existing ethnic tensions have been particularly strained amid the preparations for both the Kurdistan referendum, and the Iraqi provincial elections.  

On August 21, the Iraqi Parliament voted to postpone the vote on the Election Law due to inconclusive debates over the Kirkuk region, which have been raging for the past few weeks. Last week, Iraq’s Parliament debated Article 37 of the Election Law, which detailed the voting process in the disputed province of Kirkuk, which has not held elections since 2005. The Arab and Turkmen components insisted on postponing the elections for another four years, and advocated for the repeal of Article 45, which enforces power-sharing between the ethnic groups, and distributes seats between Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds by 32% each, and Christians as 4%.  In addition, the Kurdish bloc argued that Kirkuk should be annexed to the Kurdistan Region. Kurdish MP Mohammed Othman commented that “all negotiations and discussions with the Arabs and Turkmen have failed,” and that the current provincial election crisis has revealed “a new mechanism put forward by the Kurdish bloc to resolve the issue.” The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) insists that Kirkuk be a part of the upcoming referendum on independence from Iraq and Kurdish Parliamentary elections, set for September 25 and November 1 respectively; at the same time, Baghdad insists that Kirkuk vote in the Iraqi Provincial and Parliamentary elections, set for April 2018.  

On August 22, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, arrived in Baghdad on an official visit, where he met with a number of top officials including Iraqi President Fuad Masum, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Jabouri, and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari. Cavusoglu is scheduled to visit Erbil later this week, where he will meet with President Masoud Barzani and Turkmen Iraqi politicians in order to discuss the incoming Kurdish referendum, and the escalation of tensions in the region.

On August 22, Kirkuk Governor Najim al-Din Karim stated that the Iraqi Parliament cannot resolve the fate of local elections in the Kirkuk province. Parliament has not yet voted on the Election Law concerning the province of Kirkuk, which lies in the disputed region and is claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad. Karim sent out a press release, saying that “the political fate of Kirkuk will not be resolved by the referendum process, which will take place on September 25, but on Article 140 of the [Iraqi] Constitution.”

On August 22, U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis arrived in Erbil to meet with leaders of the KRG, in order to discuss the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the upcoming Kurdistan referendum. This meeting comes after his unannounced visit to Baghdad earlier this week. During his visit to Erbil, Mattis urged Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani to “cancel the referendum,” stressing that if the KRG continues to pursue the referendum at this time, it will result in a suspension of aid to Peshmerga forces.  His message that echoes that of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other major international actors including the UK, Turkey, and the EU. Last year, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was reached between the Pentagon and the KRG which provided Kurdish forces with weapons and ammunition worth  hundreds of millions of US dollars. In response, Barzani stressed that the referendum will not be an obstacle to the fight against ISIS “in any form.” In addition, a security official in the KRG stated that, “We can’t cancel [the referendum] because it would just be a disaster. The president would be paying a big political price for cancelling the vote in exchange for, at this state, nothing.” Since the referendum was announced this past June 7, Barzani has been adamant about holding the referendum, and not complying to international and regional demands to postpone what the Kurds consider their legitimate and natural right to secede.

On August 23, the Kurdish Supreme Committee for the referendum held a meeting with President Massoud Barzani, to discuss the results of the recent negotiations in Baghdad. The Committee decided to form a sub-committee in order to codify the rights and demands of the KRG in order to prepare for the formation of an independent state and constitution. In addition, the Committee decided to send delegations to neighboring countries in order to give the necessary guarantees that the referendum will be successful.

On August 23, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani commented that one round of negotiations with Baghdad does not resolve anything, adding that “the referendum was a bold decision, and it is very dangerous…the Kurds have agreed on a partnership with Iraq to open a new page, but unfortunately there has been no change in the mentality of power in Baghdad.” This speech was conducted in the aftermath of the recent KRG-Iraqi negotiations in Baghdad; as of now, it is unclear if Barzani will yield to widespread international demands to postpone the referendum.

On August 23, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu arrived in Erbil, where he is expected to tell KRG officials that their current decision to hold a referendum on independence this September is “wrong” and that Ankara expects Erbil to cancel the vote. In the past, Cavusoglu has said that “Our expectations from Erbil is clear, that is the cancellation of the referendum, as the interests and future of the Kurds lies in a united Iraq.” In addition, he said that Turkey is ready to act as mediator between the two parties.

On August 23, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that to fly the Kurdish flag over official buildings in Kirkuk “is in violation of the Iraqi constitution.”  During his visit in Erbil, Cavusoglu stressed that “I came [to Iraq] to assure that we support the unity of Iraq completely,” and “the interests of the Kurds to be apart of a unified Iraq.”  Both Turkey and Iran have been staunchly opposed to the raising of the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk, and consider it illegal.

On August 23, Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim refused to comply with Iraq’s decision to remove the Kurdish flags from Kirkuk government buildings. Karim stated that “The decision will have no effect in Kirkuk…the Kurdistan flag will fly high.” In addition, Karim has been a longstanding supporter of holding the Kurdistan referendum within the Kirkuk region.

On August 23, deputy head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Hakuna Abdullah, condemned the order to remove the Kurdish flag from atop government buildings in Kirkuk. He stated that “the flag of Kurdistan will remain above all the government buildings in the Kirkuk province,” asserting that “any judicial, legislative, and executive decisions the Iraqi government has taken [in the region]…will not be implemented.”

Aid Finally Reaches Western Mosul; U.S. Moves to Assist with IED Removal

On August 18, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon is pursuing options to declassify the location of undetonated American bombs in Mosul, which failed to discharge during military operations to clear the city of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Western Mosul remains littered with booby traps and undetonated improvised explosive devises (IEDs) left by ISIS fighters, in addition to undetonated American bombs, or “dud bombs”, that were dropped by U.S. warplanes as part of the anti-ISIS coalition during the military operation in Mosul, but were never exploded. Longstanding rules state that the coordinates of the undetonated bombs are kept secret for 25 years, yet Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the U.S. campaign against ISIS, is looking to lift the rule, as the information could help make the taunting and dangerous task of making the city livable again, easier.Janus Global Operations, has been assisting with the ordnance removal in Mosul. Janus removal specialist have been discovering IEDs and makeshift explosives are found ubiquitously throughout the city: in residential homes, laboratories at Mosul University, milling machines at cement factories, in refrigerators and stoves, and even concealed in children’s stuffed animals. As a final act of desperation, ISIS had purposely scattered IEDs throughout the city, as a last resort weapons system, to make it as difficult as possible to for Iraqis to return back to their normal lives. Ordnance removal teams have uncovered so many IEDs in Bashiqa, a town eight miles east of Mosul, that United Nations Development Program officials arriving and departing the town have to drive in a “circuitous route” to avoid being blown up. Locating the American “duds” will be a much easier task once there is a way to bypass the 25 year declassification period. “We want to help clear explosive remnants of war from Mosul, and from all the places we’re helping the Iraqis fight…so we’ll find a way to do it,” said General Townsend. Defense officials claim that if they are able to release the coordinates of the duds in Mosul, those that have been left behind in Fallujah and Ramadi would probably also be  declassified as well. Although the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah have been cleared of ISIS a little over a year ago, they remain littered with unexploded ordinances, emphasising the taunting task ahead of demining Mosul.

On August 18, Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi’s office admitted that a security unit in Mosul committed “abuses” against civilians during the offensive to clear the city ISIS militants.  As previously reported in ISHM, news of the abuse and torture carried out by the elite Federal Police Emergency Response Division (ERD), first appeared in a report by German news magazine Der Spiegel, documenting torture and interrogation techniques. “The committee has concluded that clear abuses and violations were committed by members of the ERD,” read a statement that was issued by Abadi’s office. Iraqi journalist, Ali Akrady documented  the ERD committing grave human rights abuses including torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings of Mosul civilians. The ERD was one of several government security forces to that was backed by the US- led coalition that cleared ISIS out of Mosul.

On August 18, a top U.S. commander in Iraq announced that for the first time ever, the United States Military would be assisting private contractors in locating unexploded bombs dropped by the anti-ISIS coalition during military operations in Mosul.  Mosul remains littered with booby traps and undetonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by ISIS fighters, that could be triggered at the slightest moment. Although the location of “duds” or unexploded bombs that were dropped by the coalition make up a small amount of explosives that have ridden the city, Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the US campaign against ISIS, ensured that the U.S. “will find a way through” in being able to bypass the 25 year classification period.  90% of western Mosul’s Old City has been reduced to ruins during intense fighting to clear the final remnants of ISIS fighters in the city. Estimates suggest that it may take 25 years for western Mosul to be completely cleared of explosives.

On August 21, the International Committee of the Red Cross conducted a major distribution of food, water and other essential goods in western Mosul, aiding more than 64,000 people. The large-scale distribution of aid was the first major delivery of aid to the western part of the city, ever since Mosul was overrun by the ISIS in 2014. Much of western Mosul had been destroyed by fighting as homes, schools, roads, electricity and water plants, hospitals and general infrastructure remain in ruins. Many people who have returned back to western Mosul after military operations were concluded in mid-July have returned back to finding entire neighborhoods inaccessible. With a scarcity in necessary goods, such as food and clean water, and in addition to high market prices, access to these goods are out of reach for many. Unexploded IEDs and unexploded ordnances hidden under the rubble of homes continue to detonate, posing a large threat to returnees.  Although military operations may have concluded, the humanitarian crisis in Mosul is still at large.

On August 22, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in conjunction with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) released a report that strongly called upon the Iraqi government to ensure that thousands of women and girls who survived rape by ISIS fighters receive the care, protection and justice that they deserve. Under domestic and international law, the Iraqi government has the obligation to ensure that all victims have access to justice and reparations, and ensuring that perpetrators  are held accountable for their actions under the appropriate legal framework. The Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have taken some positive steps towards supporting those who have been abused under the reign of ISIS, yet the criminal justice system fails to ensure the protection of victims. Both UNAMI and OHCHR call on the Iraqi government to implement sweeping institutional and legislative changes to facilitate access to justice for the victims. Those who have been raped and abused by ISIS fighters suffer great difficulties, as many victims lack the appropriate medical, financial, livelihood, social and psychological support. “The physical, mental, and emotional injuries inflicted by [ISIS] are almost beyond comprehension. If victims are to rebuild their lives, and indeed those of their children, they need justice and they need redress,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The report also voiced serious concern for marginalization and discrimination to those who have been raped by ISIS fighters, as many who choose to bear the child, face extreme discrimination and abuse, as well as the child itself. Families with children born to women in ISIS-held territories without a birth certificate or who have been issued legal documents by ISIS, face extreme discrimination and marginalization, due to perceived affiliations.  High Commissioner Hussein condemned the discrimination that these families face by stating, “Children who were born in [ISIS]-controlled areas have the same legal rights as any other Iraqi citizen and the government must ensure they are protected from marginalisation and abuse, neither exposed to discrimination through references on their birth certificate that they were born out of wedlock or have a father linked to [ISIS], nor left unregistered and at risk of statelessness, exploitation and trafficking.”

On August 22, the government of Iraq and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) officially reopened the al-Qasoor Water Treatment Plant in eastern Mosul. The al-Qasoor is the second largest water treatment site in eastern Mosul, providing safe drinking water for about 35% of residents. The plant provides fresh water to 24 neighborhoods, serving about 300,000 residents.

PKK Pushes for Greater Authority in Sinjar

On August 21, as Iraqi forces officially began their military operation to retake Tal Afar, Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of Parliament, called for the safety and protection of an estimated 3,000 Yazidis that are believed to be held captive by the Islamic State of Iraq al al-Sham (ISIS)  in the city. “We ask the leaders of the military and security forces to take precautions regarding the large number of kidnapped Yazidis still present in Tal Afar and its surrounding villages” said Dakhil. In 2014, ISIS committed  genocide against the Yazidis,  killing an estimated 3,000, while kidnapping 6,800, in a matter of days. The extremist organization continues to persecute the religious minority.  

On August 21, the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Administrative Council, a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) appointed group and traditionally rival faction to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), called for “democratic autonomy” and a “free and democratic life for all Yazidis” in the predominantly Yazidi region of Sinjar. Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish, however a religious minority, and their identity has often made them targets of persecution. The province of Sinjar is fraught with ethnic and territorial tensions: it lies within the disputed areas, claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil, and in addition it is the site of an ongoing turf war between the KRG, backed by Turkey, and the PKK, a group who is deemed as terrorists by Turkish authorities. The PKK administration declared that it will not allow the Kurdish referendum to take place in their region, including Khanasor, which is a strategic crossing point the PKK use to cross into Syria. While not having fully established control, the PKK government may be able to block the ballot boxes in their controlled areas. In 2007, the PKK established a Yazidi Militia called the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), local governing bodies in Sinjar, and an all-female force. While the majority of the town of Sinjar is controlled by pro-KDP Yazidis, the rest of the region has large pockets of pro-PKK groups. Tensions between the KDP and the PKK last flared in September 2014, when ISIS conducted a massacre of Yazidis in the area: the Yazidis claim that the KRG forcibly disarmed their communities, and that with the withdrawal of 7,000 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers in Sinjar rendered the YBS unable to defend the community in the face of genocide.    

On August 21, the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Administrative Council, a local government created by the PKK, released a declaration which called for an autonomous Yazidi region, independent of the KRG. The statement called for the establishment of a Yazidi Coordination Authority group, which would operate under supervision UN and work towards creating an autonomous region in Sinjar.  However, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) is apparently unaware of this development.  A spokesman commented that “At this stage, all we can say is that we are closely following the developments.” In addition, the PKK declaration stated that forming their own Protection Units for Yazidis is a “legitimate right” to protect the community against future genocides. The PKK noted that the formation of their own militia is an indication that they “refuse giving legitimacy to the Peshmerga forces who were tasked to protect us [Yazidis] but did not defend.”

On August 21, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that his government is considering a joint military action with Iran against the PKK, saying that the PKK “always cause harm to Iran and us…we believe if the two countries cooperate, we can reach a conclusion in a much shorter period of time.” The PKK, who operate in both Turkey and Iraq, have long been a security threat to Turkey, who currently has several thousand troops in Iraqi Kurdistan. Last week, Iran’s military chief of staff Mohammad Hossein Bagheri visited Ankara. According to the pro-government Daily Turkiye, Bagheri suggested that the two countries launch a joint operations attack to drive PKK fighters out of Sinjar.

Airstrikes Continue in Western Anbar, Despite Some Objection

On August 19, the head of Ana’s district council in Anbar province, Abdul Karim al-Ani, demanded that the U.S.-led international coalition cease its airstrikes on his city, saying that they were destroying civilian homes and infrastructure. In an interview with a local news organization, he said that heavy shelling appeared to be targeting the homes of people unaffiliated with Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Ana has been under ISIS’s control since 2014.

On August 21, a U.S.-led international coalition airstrike destroyed an ISIS-run weapons manufacturing workshop in Qa’im, located in western Anbar. Qaim is one of the three major border towns that ISIS controls in Anbar, along with Rawa and Ana. As operations to clear Tal Afar begin, Iraqi security officials have indicated that they will continue to allocate resources to degrading ISIS’s control in Anbar, in preparation for eventual operations to retake ISIS’s last outposts there.

On August 21, a coalition airstrike killed ten ISIS members in Rawa, in western Anbar. Rawa is one of several towns still under ISIS’s control in Anbar, where security forces have struggled to stem the flow of militants and supplies across the long, porous border with Syria.

On August 22, a range of leaders in the security forces and tribal communities announced that the Trebil border crossing between Iraq and Jordan was “fully secured.” The border has been closed since ISIS seized control of much of Anbar province in 2014, but authorities on both sides of the border have indicated plans to reopen it some time this year. The current declaration may have been spurred by an August 21 declaration by Jordanian Interior Minister Ghalib Zu’bi,that Jordanian authorities were “ready” to reopen the border.

On August 23, the head of the Security Committee of Anbar’s provincial council called on Iraqi Minister of the Interior Qasim al-Araji to remove Anbar’s police chief, Major Hadi al-Razij, due to his “not cooperating with the Council of Anbar.” The security committee requested that he be replaced by a member of one of Anbar’s local tribes.

On August 24, ISIS members shelled the town of Rutba in western Anbar, though a security source said that they did not manage to injure anyone. About half a dozen mortar shells struck various areas throughout the city. Rutba, which lies 310 kilometers east of Ramadi, is one of several towns in western Anbar that is frequently the target of ISIS shelling and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks.

On August 24, Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) forces repelled an ISIS attack on a maintenance team working to repair electricity infrastructure 10 kilometers west of Rutba. The team was working along the road from Rutba to the Trebil border crossing into Jordan, raising security concerns, just two days after security forces and local community leaders declared the area “secure” in preparation for the eventual opening of the border.

IED Incidents and Resulting Casualties

08/24/17Bakriya neighborhood, western Baghdad13
08/23/17Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad00
08/21/17Radwaniya district, southwest of Baghdad14
08/21/17Daquq, 25 km south of Kirkuk06
08/20/17Jisr Diyala, east of Baghdad03
08/20/17Al-Alam, north of Tikrit11
08/19/17Husseiniya district, north of Baghdad05
08/19/17Qureitagh, eastern Ninewa19
08/19/17Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad11
08/19/17University district, western Baghdad
08/18/17Suweib district, southern Baghad 03
08/18/17Madayin district, southwest Baghdad04


Please note: some geographic locations represented are approximations and this map may not represent all incidents.

Derived from firsthand accounts and Iraq-based Arabic and Kurdish news sources, the Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor is a free publication of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center.

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