Iraqi forces complete takeover of Kirkuk after clashing with Kurds

Iraq’s federal armed forces have benefited from the huge Western investment in training, according to analysts. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2017
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Iraqi forces complete takeover of Kirkuk after clashing with Kurds

BAGHDAD/KIRKUK: Iraqi forces took control on Friday of the last district in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk still in the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters following a three-hour battle, security sources said.
The district of Altun Kupri, or Perde in Kurdish, lies on the road between the city of Kirkuk — which fell to Iraqi forces on Monday — and Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq that voted in a referendum last month to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes.
A force made up of US-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service units, Federal Police and Iranian-backed fighters known as the Popular Mobilization began their advance on Altun Kupri at 7:30 a.m. (0430 GMT), said an Iraqi military spokesman.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from the town, located on the Zab River, after battling the advancing Iraqi troops with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, Iraqi security sources said. Neither side gave immediate information about casualties in the fighting.
The Iraqi central government forces have advanced into Kirkuk province largely unopposed as most Peshmerga forces withdrew without a fight.
The government advance has transformed the balance of power in northern Iraq and is likely to scuttle the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who voted overwhelmingly on Sept. 25 to secede from Iraq and take the oil fields of Kirkuk with them.
The fighting at Altun Kupri marked only the second instance of significant violent resistance by the Kurds in Kirkuk province. Dozens were killed or wounded in the previous clash on Monday, the first night of the government advance.
Altun Kupri is the last town in Kirkuk province on the road to Irbil, lying just outside the border of the autonomous region established after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraqi forces are seeking to re-establish Baghdad’s authority over territory which the Kurdish forces occupied outside the official boundaries of their autonomous region, mostly seized since 2014 in the course of the war on Daesh militants.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, called on Friday for the state to protect Kurds in northern Iraq, a rare political intervention by a figure whose words have the force of law for most of Iraq’s Shiite majority. Al-Sistani’s call, issued at the Friday prayer in Kerbala by one of his representatives, came amid reports of abuses against Kurds in areas evacuated by the Kurdish Peshmerga including Kirkuk, Tuz Khormato and Khanaqin.
Tens of thousands of Kurds fled Kirkuk and Tuz to the two main cities of the Kurdish autonomous region, Irbil and Sulaimaniya, according to Kurdish officials.
The UN expressed concern on Thursday at reports of forced displacement and destruction of Kurdish homes and businesses, mainly in Tuz.
In Khanaqin, near the Iraq-Iran border, a Kurdish demonstrator was killed and six others wounded by Iraqi security forces on Thursday as the Kurds were protesting against the takeover of their city, the local mayor said.
Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution allows the Kurds self rule in three mountainous northern provinces and guarantees them a fixed percentage of Iraq’s total oil income, an arrangement that saw them prosper while the rest of the country was at war.
Although Kirkuk is outside the autonomous region, many Kurds consider it the heart of their historic homeland and its oil to be their birthright. Its loss makes their quest for independence appear remote, since it would leave them with only about half the oil revenue they had sought to claim for themselves.
Kurdish Peshmerga moved into Kirkuk without a fight in 2014, taking over positions left by Iraqi army as it fled in the face of Daesh militants.


Gaza: Palestinian territory ravaged by war and poverty

Updated 3 min 44 sec ago
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Gaza: Palestinian territory ravaged by war and poverty

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: The Gaza Strip, run by Islamist movement Hamas, is a poverty-stricken and overcrowded Palestinian coastal enclave under a crippling blockade by Israel, with which it has fought several wars.
After Israel tightened the blockade on Tuesday by suspending fuel deliveries amid fears of a new all-out conflict, here is some background.
On the Mediterranean coast, Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories on the planet with around two million Palestinians squeezed into 362 square kilometers (140 square miles).
After the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949, Gaza came under the administration of neighboring Egypt.
It was seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.
In 2005 Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers, ending 38 years of occupation.
But it imposed a blockade in 2006, restricting the cross-border movement of people and goods following the capture of a soldier by Hamas militants on Israeli territory.
The blockade was tightened a year later after the Islamists ousted troops loyal to the rival Fatah faction of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
The only entrance to Gaza not controlled by Israel is at Rafah on the Egyptian border. This too has been almost completely closed since jihadists launched an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula after the military overthrew Egypt’s elected Islamist president Muhammad Mursi in 2013.
In May 2018 Israel began working on a “new and impenetrable” coastal barrier just north of Gaza to prevent the possibility of Palestinians entering by sea.
The Gaza Strip has almost no industry and suffers from a chronic lack of water and fuel. Its GDP losses caused by the blockade are estimated at more than 50 percent, the World Bank says.
Unemployment stands at 45 percent and more than two-thirds of the population depends on aid.
A reconciliation deal in 2017 between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority raised hopes of an improvement in the harsh conditions in the enclave, but talks have stalled.
In January 2018 UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned the Gaza Strip was on the verge of “full collapse.”
Donors in March greenlighted a project to build a desalination plant in Gaza, where more than 95 percent of water is unfit for drinking due to overpumping of groundwater.
Israel has carried out several military operations against Palestinian militants in Gaza, with thousands killed.
“Operation Hot Winter” in February-March 2008, in response to the killing of an Israeli by a rocket fired from Gaza, left more than 120 Palestinians dead in just days.
It led to weeks of unrest, with rocket fire from Gaza and attacks from Israel, in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed until a truce in June.
A vast air offensive, “Operation Cast Lead,” was launched in December 2008 to stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. It ended with a cease-fire in January 2009 and 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
In November 2012 “Operation Pillar of Defense” kicked off with a missile strike that killed top Hamas commander Ahmed Jaabari. In the ensuing eight-day flare-up, 177 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed.
In July 2014 Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge” to stop the rocket fire and destroy tunnels used for smuggling and the movement of militants.
It lead to a war that left 2,251 dead on the Palestinian side and 74 on the Israeli side.