Kurds stick with independence vote, ‘never going back to Baghdad’

A boy rides a bicycle with the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq. (Reuters)
Updated 25 September 2017
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Kurds stick with independence vote, ‘never going back to Baghdad’

ERBIL, Iraq/ISTANBUL: Iraq’s Kurds will go ahead with a referendum on independence on Monday because their partnership with Baghdad has failed, Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani said on Sunday, shrugging off international opposition to the vote.
In response, the Iraqi government asked the autonomous Kurdish region to hand over control of its international border posts, its international airports and called on foreign countries to stop importing Kurdish crude oil.
It asked “the neighboring countries and the countries of the world to deal exclusively with the federal government of Iraq in regards to entry posts and oil,” according to a statement from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s office.
The United States and other Western powers have urged Kurdish authorities in the oil producing region to cancel the vote, arguing that it distracts from the fight against Islamic State.
Turkey and Iran have also kept up the pressure to stop the vote, with presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani speaking by phone and expressing concern that it will “bring chaos in the region,” according to Erdogan’s office.
Barzani, at a news conference at his headquarters near Erbil, dismissed the worries of Iraq’s neighbors, committing to respect laws on international boundaries and not seek to redraw the region’s borders.
“We will never go back to the failed partnership” with Baghdad, he said, adding Iraq had become a “theocratic, sectarian state” and not the democratic one that was supposed to be built after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The vote, expected to result in a comfortable “yes” to independence, is not binding and is meant to give the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) a mandate to negotiate secession with Baghdad and the neighboring countries.
Barzani said Iraq’s Kurds would seek talks with the Shiite-led central government to implement the expected “yes” outcome, even if they take two years or more, to settle land and oil sharing disputes ahead of independence.
Abadi’s government in Iraq regards the referendum as anti-constitutional and in a televised address on Sunday he said it “could lead to ethnic divisions, exposing (the Iraqis) to disastrous dangers that only God knows.”

Earlier, Iranian authorities stopped air traffic to Iraqi Kurdistan’s international airports at Erbil and Sulaimaniya in response to a request from Baghdad, Fars News Agency said. Iran also started war games at the Kurdish border.
Speaking by telephone with Abadi, Iran’s Rouhani voiced support for Iraq’s national unity and territorial integrity, the state news agency IRNA reported.
“Iran fully supports Iraq’s central government,” Rouhani was quoted as telling Abadi.
On Saturday, Turkey’s parliament voted to extend by a year a mandate authorizing the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey has also vowed political, economic and security steps without specifying what they are, but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim reinforced the message on Sunday.
Turkey is the transit route of all crude exported by the landlocked Kurdistan region of Iraq.
“Turkey will never ever tolerate any status change or any new formations on its southern borders,” he said in a speech in the capital Ankara. “The KRG will be primarily responsible for the probable developments after this referendum.”
But Barzani said Ankara “won’t benefit” economically should it close the border with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Tehran and Ankara fear the spread of separatism to their own Kurds. Iran also supports Shiite groups who have been ruling or holding key security and government positions in Iraq since the U.S-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein.
Barzani said Kurds will “keep extending their hand” to Iran and Turkey, even if they do not reciprocate. He said he recently met in the Kurdish region Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani, who came to convince him to delay the vote.
The KRG has resisted calls to delay the referendum by the United Nations, the United States and Britain who fear it could lead to unrest in disputed areas like multi-ethnic oil-rich Kirkuk, as well as distracting from the war on Islamic State.
But the Iraqi Kurds say the vote acknowledges their crucial contribution in confronting Islamic State after it overwhelmed the Iraqi army in 2014 and seized control of a third of Iraq. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who control Kirkuk were given instructions not to respond to any provocation meant to disrupt the vote, but they will defend the region if attacked from outside, he said.
The US embassy in Iraq warned its citizens that there might be unrest during the referendum, especially in disputed areas like Kirkuk, also claimed by the Iraqi central government.
The Iranian military drills, part of annual events held in Iran to mark the beginning of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, were launched in the Oshnavieh border region, according to Iranian State broadcaster IRIB.
Turkey’s military said on Sunday its aircraft launched strikes against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq’s Gara region on Saturday after spotting militants preparing to attack Turkish military outposts on the border.


Gaza massacre probe: Human rights advocates accuse Israeli military of whitewash

Israeli airtrikes in areas such as Rafah in 2014 caused massive damage. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 August 2018
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Gaza massacre probe: Human rights advocates accuse Israeli military of whitewash

  • The Israeli investigation identified over 110 dead — including 42 militants and up to 72 civilians who were "unintentionally killed"
  • The 2014 war was the third and most devastating round of fighting between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military said its investigation into one of the bloodiest incidents of the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip found no criminal wrongdoing by Israeli forces and there were no grounds to prosecute any troops.
The announcement drew condemnations from Palestinians and human rights advocates, who accused the military of a whitewash.
The investigation focused on an Aug. 1, 2014, battle in the southern Gaza town of Rafah that erupted after an Israeli military officer was feared abducted by Palestinian militants during a cease-fire. Over 110 Palestinians were killed in daylong fighting, and Palestinian witnesses had complained of heavy and indiscriminate shelling by Israeli forces.
Following what it called a comprehensive investigation, the army said its military advocate general (MAG) determined "a criminal investigation is not warranted into the incidents that occurred during the fighting."
Fearing a soldier had fallen into enemy hands, Israel invoked its "Hannibal" procedure — a protocol that allowed the heavy use of force to prevent the capture of a comrade. Israeli forces attacked the area with artillery fire, tanks shells and airstrikes.
At the time, Palestinian residents described a terrifying ordeal as they fled their homes and searched for cover amid heavy shelling of their neighborhood, located on the outskirts of the city. Human rights groups identified 121 people killed and accused Israel of committing war crimes by allegedly using disproportionate or indiscriminate force and failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants.
The Israeli investigation identified over 110 dead — including 42 militants and up to 72 civilians who were "unintentionally killed." In one instance, it said 16 civilians were killed in an airstrike on a family home that was targeted due to faulty intelligence.
But it said all of its actions had "clear and legitimate military purposes" and found no evidence that attacks were indiscriminate, aimed at civilians or motivated by revenge.
"The MAG did not find that the actions of the IDF forces that were examined raised grounds for a reasonable suspicion of criminal misconduct," it said.
"The MAG found that the IDF's policy with respect to the use of firepower during the fighting — whether by tanks, by artillery and mortars, or from the air — accorded with Israeli domestic law and international law requirements."
The "Hannibal" directive was canceled by the military in 2016 following heavy criticism. Last year, the military introduced a revised version.
Human rights groups have accused the Israeli military of ignoring or covering up wrongdoing in its investigations over the years. B'Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, condemned the latest findings.
"The military advocate general proves again that no matter how high the number of Palestinians killed is, nor how arbitrary the circumstances of their killing by the military was, the Israeli whitewash mechanism he heads will find a way to bury the facts," it said.
Wael Al-Namla, who lost three family members that day, said the army's findings were "crazy." Al-Namla, as well as his toddler son, both lost legs in the shelling as well.
"They were bombing us from the ground and air randomly. They did not just violate the human rights, they forgot that there were humans in Rafah," he said.
"I want an independent international investigation that can guarantee my rights."
The 2014 war was the third and most devastating round of fighting between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers. Over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of civilians, and widespread damage was inflicted on Gaza's infrastructure. During the 50-day war, 73 people were killed on the Israeli side and continued rocket fire on Israeli cities disrupted life throughout large parts of the country.
The Palestinians are seeking to press war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The court's prosecutor has opened a preliminary investigation, but not made a decision on whether to move ahead with a case.
A key factor in that decision could be whether the prosecutor believes Israel's own investigations into actions by its troops are credible.