Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Iraq snapshot

Wednesday, March 18, 2015.  Chaos and violence continue, the assault on Tikrit remains on hold, Mosul gets leafleted about an upcoming assault, no progress on Iraq's political front, some attention is focused on Human Rights Watch's report on the human rights abuses (War Crimes) carried out by Iraqi forces, and much more.

Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth Tweets:

  • As noted in yesterday's snapshot, Human Rights Watch has issued a new report entitled "After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli" which documents the abuse of human rights (War Crimes) being carried out in Iraq by security forces.  From the report:

    Peshmerga officers told Human Rights Watch they saw 47 villages in which militias had destroyed and ransacked homes, businesses, mosques, and public buildings. Residents told Human Rights Watch that the militias included the Badr Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, Kita’ib Hezbollah, and Saraya Tala’a al-Khorasani, and that they destroyed numerous villages between the towns of al-Khales, in southern Diyala province, and Amerli, about 50 kilometers to the north in Salah al-Din province.
    Satellite imagery corroborates witness accounts that in many cases Iraqi government forces and militias targeted the same villages and towns in which, supported by coalition air strikes, they had fought ISIS in the weeks before they lifted ISIS’s siege of Amerli. Satellite imagery showed that most of the damage they inflicted on these towns and villages after they lifted the siege resulted from arson and building demolition.
    On the basis of field visits, interviews with more than 30 witnesses, and analysis of photographs and satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch found that an area that included 35 villages and towns showed extensive destruction caused by fire, explosives and heavy earth moving equipment. The evidence showed that most of the damage occurred between early September and mid-November 2014. Using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified over 3,800 destroyed buildings in 30 towns and villages, including 2,600 buildings likely destroyed by fire and a further 1,200 buildings likely demolished with heavy machinery and the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives. This destruction was distinct from damages resulting from air strikes and heavy artillery and mortar fire prior to ISIS’s retreat from Amerli, which Human Rights Watch separately identified using the satellite imagery. Human Rights Watch’s field research together with the satellite imagery analysis indicates that militias engaged in deliberate and wanton destruction of civilian property after the retreat of ISIS and the end of fighting in the area.

    In the four towns and villages that Human Rights Watch visited, researchers found evidence of extensive fire damage limited to the interior of buildings that would not be detectable in satellite imagery, indicating actual fire-related building damages are likely to be substantially higher than 2,600 in the affected 30 towns and villages assessed. On the basis of witness statements and analysis of satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch believes this damage was likely the result of arson perpetrated by pro-government forces.

    For a change, an HRW report on Iraq is getting serious media attention.  For example,  Missy Ryan (Washington Post) notes the report:

    Shiite militias and Iraqi government forces burned and looted dozens of villages, abducting at least 11 local residents, in the wake of a U.S.-supported operation against the Islamic State last year, a human rights group has charged in a new report.

    Kareem Shaheen (Guardian) includes these comments:

    “Iraq can’t win the fight against Isis’s atrocities with attacks on civilians that violate the laws of war and fly in the face of human decency,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
    “Militia abuses are wreaking havoc among some of Iraq’s most vulnerable people and exacerbating sectarian hostilities.”

    Of the Shi'ite forces doing the terrorizing, AFP observes, "The units have played a key role in the fight to drive IS back, but relying on such groups further entrenches them in Iraq, giving them an expanded power base that will be difficult to dislodge."

    Anne Barnard (New York Times) uses the HRW findings as a jumping off point to note what's taken place during the current Tikrit offensive:

    During the current Tikrit offensive, video clips from the town of Albu Ajeel, where many militiamen believe villagers aided in the massacre, showed burning shops and buildings and a uniformed man declaring, “Burn them, burn them.” Few residents appear to have returned.

    And while that attention is needed, the world continues to look the other way as the Iraqi government continues to daily bomb the residential neighborhoods of Falluja.  This action is a legally defined War Crime (it's known as collective punishment).  Then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began the bombings in January of 2014.  In September of 2014, new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced he had stopped the bombings.

    But he hadn't and the bombings continued.

    Today, Iraqi Spring Media notes Falluja General Hospital received nine dead and wounded from the latest bombings by the Iraqi government.  They also note that the bombings have left dead at least 2399 people (332 children, 184 women among them) and at least 4080 injured (484 children and 381 women among them).

    The Human Rights Watch report did mean the State Dept's Jen Psaki was forced to mouth some meaningless words today.

    QUESTION:  There’s a report just came out today from the Human Rights Watch talking about the militia attacks destroyed villages.  It’s their reports about after liberation came destruction.  And I know that you’ve answered that question about that and the human rights abuse by the militias in Diyala and other areas, and U.S. sent delegations in the past to Baghdad and Erbil to check on that.  Have you got any result on those investigations that Prime Minister Abadi said he will conduct investigation on that?

    MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think, one, we understand that the prime minister’s office has responded to the Human Rights Watch report, noting that the legal measures were taken against individuals who committed human rights abuses in Amirli such as the destruction and looting of civilian property as well as those accused of kidnapping civilians.  So there has been action taken in that regard.  Obviously, there are newer reports we’ve spoken to recently that they are certainly looking into.
    We can’t confirm the allegations in the Human Rights Watch report regarding potential abuses, but we agree that the long-term solution to the instability Iraq faces right now requires the political leadership to make the kinds of decision that’s – decisions that will unite the country and not promote sectarianism.

    Political leadership, Jen sputters.  She's attempting (and failing) to go with "political solutions" -- what US President Barack Obama declared was the only answer back in June.  Haider al-Abadi became prime minister in August.

    He's proven very good with words.

    But words are empty and meaningless when there's no follow through.

    That's true of his announcing the end of the government bombing Falluja's residential neighborhoods on September 13th when the bombings continued.

    It's true of his announcing an end to the oil dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

    Monday, Rudaw reported on how those words still haven't transferred into reality leading the KRG to issue a statement this week:

    Baghdad cut off the Kurdistan Region’s share of the federal budget in January last year, placing a severe strain on the Kurdish government that is at war with the Islamic State (ISIS) and is grappling with received 1.4 million refugees from Syia and the rest of Iraq.
    The deal signed in December – at a crucial time when both Baghdad and Erbil are at war with the Islamic State (ISIS) – was meant to have mended months of strained ties and disagreements over Kurdish oil exports. The 2015 federal budget had promised the resumption of payments to Erbil to turn the regional government.
    The KRG statement complained that Baghdad was not sticking to its end of the bargain.
    It noted that Erbil is “on track” with its promised delivery of Kurdish oil at Ceyhan, and was “also facilitating the export of otherwise stranded oil produced by the North Oil Company in Kirkuk.”
    The statement added that, in line with its commitment to the terms of the 2015 federal budget, the KRG had until the end of February met almost 97 percent of its agreed supply of crude oil to SOMO at the Turkish port.
    “The KRG in turn expects the federal government to honor its obligations under the budget law and to provide the KRG with its legal monthly entitlement to its share of the budget, including the agreed special allocation of funds for the Peshmerga forces,” the statement said.
    “To date, the federal government has provided the KRG with less than 20 percent of its share of the budget for January and nothing for February,” the statement noted.

    The oil deal has proven to be nothing but empty words -- something Jen Psaki knows a great deal about.

    Here she is prattling away about the oil deal on November 13th:

    QUESTION: Have you seen reports that the Kurds and the Iraqis – or the government in Baghdad have reached an oil agreement?

    MS. PSAKI: Yes. Yes, I have.

    QUESTION: Do you have any response to that?

    MS. PSAKI: We welcome the announcement that an agreement has been reached between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to take initial steps at finding a fair and comprehensive solution on the management of Iraq’s hydrocarbon resources. We urge that these steps be taken as soon as possible to build trust as Iraqi leaders continue to discuss remaining issues in the coming days toward a just and constitutional solution that will allow all Iraqis to benefit fairly and equitably from Iraq’s hydrocarbon sector.
    We are encouraged by this development and the willingness of officials in Baghdad and Erbil to address these complex issues directly and earnestly. We understand that this is the first of many steps that will be required to reach a comprehensive agreement, and the United States will continue to serve as a neutral broker and facilitator to the extent desired by the leadership of both Iraq and the KRG.

    QUESTION: Do you know or can you speak to what the U.S. involvement as a neutral facilitator was in getting to this point? Do you know?

    MS. PSAKI: I – that’s a great question. I’d have to talk to our team about our involvement in the last couple of days. Obviously, we’ve been encouraging both sides for some time to resolve this issue, but I can see if there’s more on that front to report.

    QUESTION: Ambassador McGurk was in Iraq. Did he play any role to facilitate this agreement?

    MS. PSAKI: Say that one more time?

    QUESTION: Ambassador Brett McGurk was in Iraq a few days ago.

    MS. PSAKI: Yes, he was. It’s a great question. I don’t have any details on his involvement. Obviously, this was largely negotiated between the KRG and the Government of Iraq. We’ve certainly been encouraging them to resolve this for some time. I can see if there’s any more to read out about his involvement.

    And nothing's happened on that 'deal' since November.

    The White House has been pushing for a national guard for Iraq since last summer.  The basic notion would have the Kurds over the Kurdish area (they already are) and Shi'ite brigades over Shi'ite dominant areas and Sunni brigades over Sunni dominant areas.

    They've been pushing for that since last summer.


    Monday, All Iraq News noted the bill on the National Guard would be read (again) in Parliament.

    That's all that ever happens.

    It gets read in Parliament.

    Still not passed.

    Where's the progress?

    The political process, like the assault on Tikrit, is stalled.

    Having taken 12 days to reach Tikrit (and, turns out, just the edges of the city), the assault was quickly put on pause as officials began whining that (a) reinforcements were needed and (b) US air strikes were needed.

    Though the assault remains on hold, the propaganda never ends.

    NINA noted yesterday:

    Secretary General of al- Jihad and Construction Movement Hassan al-Sari stressed on Tuesday that the liberation of Tikrit operations are going on as planned and there is no pause in military operations.

    Also spinning madly is Haider al-Abadi.  All Iraq News notes today:

    he Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi assured that the security and military operations in Salah-il-Din province are going on according to set schedule.
    Statement by Abadi's office quoted him as saying while meeting several military commanders "Liberating Tikrit is possible now but we are keen in protecting the civilians and preparing for a perfect spread for the soldiers in the positions of the battle field."
    Abadi clarified "The changes of some security commands do not mean that those commands are not qualified but this is required in the military techniques in order to push new blood."

    Abadi warned from "listening to rumors of those who do not want good things for Iraq." 

    Is anyone taking Haider seriously?

    Has anyone taken him seriously since late last year when he visited the United States and declared publicly that there were plans to attack NYC's public transport?

    Loveday Morris (Washington Post) reports today:

    Meanwhile, the pause in fighting in Tikrit has stirred doubts about whether pro-government forces can beat the Islamic State in street battles. Karim said the military decided to stall its advance to put in place a plan that would “guarantee fewer casualties.”
    Workers in a cemetery in the southern city of Najaf, where many pro-government Shiite fighters are taken for burial, have said that as many as 60 fighters were dying a day at the peak of operations in Tikrit.

    The pro-government forces are yet to enter the city center, but they have reclaimed a string of towns and villages in Salahuddin province, buoying morale among the about 20,000 militiamen who have joined the fight. A few hundred Sunni tribesmen also participated.

    Yet to enter the city center.

    So 18 days after the assault on the city started, they've still not made it to the city center.

    This has not been a successful operation or anything to instill hope for future ones.

    Despite the fact that the Tikrit assault remains on hold, Haider's eager to start more assaults.

    All Iraq News reports that planes dropped leaflets on Nineveh Province today warning that combat will begin shortly.  Mosul's the key city in the province.  The Islamic State seized control of Mosul last June. Alsumaria publishes the actual memo dropped on Mosul which instructs residents to step forward and identify not only members of the Islamic State but also collaborators.  There are reports that trenches have been dug around Mosul by the Islamic State to ward off easy access to the city.

    Some of today's violence?  All Iraq News notes a Safwan car bombing left 3 people dead and five more injured.  NINA notes 1 person was shot dead west of Baghdad and 2 corpses were discovered in eastern Baghdad.  Margaret Griffis ( counts 79 violent deaths across Iraq today.

    We'll close with this from the UNHCR:

    ERBIL, Iraq, March 17 (UNHCR) Following last year's turmoil in northern and central Iraq, the political and security progress in Iraq remains positive, but UNHCR Representative in Iraq Neill Wright believes it will take many more months before this is reflected in an improvement in the daily lives of most Iraqi citizens. Meanwhile, the numbers and needs of Syrian refugees and Iraqis displaced within their country are expected to continue growing throughout 2015 as there is no solution to the Syria crisis in sight, and efforts to degrade the capacity of militant forces will take time. At the same time, Wright notes, the funding prospects for humanitarian programmes in 2015 are bleak. UNHCR and its partners will have to increasingly focus on protection and assistance only for the most vulnerable. Wright answered written questions about these and other issues. Excerpts:

    What are the greatest challenges UNHCR faces in helping the forcibly displaced in Iraq?

    In addition to the funding shortfalls, the main challenge is to obtain safe access to persons of concern who are living in areas under the control of the Islamic State and other armed groups. Nearly 50 per cent of the Iraqi IDPs [internally displaced people] live in such areas especially in the governorates of Anbar, Salah al Din and Ninewa.

    Winter is almost over; would you say UNHCR was well enough prepared to cope with the winter weather?

    Due to the existing refugee response capacities in early 2014, the UN was able to rapidly build its response to the massive internal displacement that took place last year. I would not say that UNHCR was well enough prepared for the 2014-2015 winter, but the weather was not as severe as had been expected, and there were no major crises amongst the refugees and IDPs, largely due to the extraordinary hard work that UNHCR and its partners were able to do between October and December. I have no doubt that the winterization programmes saved many lives.

    Fierce clashes are under way in the Salah el Din district, particularly around Tikrit. Has UNHCR been able to help those displaced by the fighting?

    UNHCR has already responded to the new displacement resulting from the military offensive to liberate Tikrit [launched on March 1], distributing non-food items from its Baghdad warehouse through its partner, Muslim Aid. UN sister agencies and NGOs will continue to work together in support of the government to provide protection and assistance.
    Protection needs assessments are still under way to more effectively identify the numbers of newly displaced and their particular vulnerabilities. Access from Baghdad to deliver relief items requires movement through several insecure areas. Close attention to mitigating the risks for our brave field staff and those of our partners will be needed in the days and weeks ahead.

    Is UNHCR prepared for a further escalation in the fighting and displacement?

    UNHCR has developed contingency plans for large-scale displacement when the Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga [fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan] start their offensive to liberate [the northern city of] Mosul. Given the current funding constraints, the in-country capacity is inadequate, and we will have to depend upon the rapid deployment of global contingency stocks and emergency response teams if we are to respond effectively to this contingency.

    Are you worried about access to Iraqi Kurdistan for newly displaced people?

    In my meetings with politicians from the Kurdistan Regional Government, I know that they are committed to the principle of freedom of movement for all Iraqi citizens. Nevertheless, there have been instances where security agencies have denied access to Kurdistan in the past few months. I see this both as a reflection of the generous hospitality in 2014 diminishing and of concerns about terrorist infiltration amongst the security agencies, and not as a change in political policy.

    Given your extensive experience, how does this operation compare to other assignments and missions that you have been on?

    I never cease to feel proud of the work that UNHCR colleagues achieve in the most difficult, insecure and unpredictable environments, and those achievements are evident to me here in Iraq on a daily basis. There are many political, security and economic aspects of building a better future for Iraqi citizens that UNHCR cannot directly influence, but the UNHCR team here should take great pride in all it is doing to improve protection and provide relief from suffering for some two-and-a-half million people of concern to the High Commissioner for Refugees.

    UNHCR in Iraq now has just over 400 international, national and affiliate workforce staff. While this is a huge number by UNHCR standards worldwide, the UN declared the situation in Iraq to be a Level 3 Emergency in August 2014, and UNHCR has stepped up to the mark in responding effectively to the growing needs. Given the present financial situation, the High Commissioner [for Refugees António Guterres] has had no choice but to decide to cut staffing worldwide in 2015, and the Iraq operation will be reducing its staffing by some 5 per cent this year.