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Vol. 78/No. 33      September 22, 2014

Kurds battle Islamic State
as US widens strikes in Iraq
(lead article)
For several weeks, Kurdish forces have been pushing back Islamic State forces in northern Iraq and in the process strengthening their fight for a homeland. At the same time, the Barack Obama administration is expanding military operations in an escalating war that has also drawn in Baghdad, sectarian Shiite militias and Tehran into the battle against Islamic State.

Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, recaptured the strategically important Mount Zartak Sept. 6. The mountain overlooks a plain that stretches to the Iraqi city of Mosul, which the reactionary Islamic State forces overran in June. Its capture is not only important for defense of the increasingly autonomous Kurdistan, Kurdish elite commander Gene Aziz Oweisi told BBC, but “for the Iraqis it’s important too because it’s a step towards taking back Mosul.” The ground operation was assisted by U.S. airstrikes.

The following day the U.S. military expanded its airstrikes into Anbar province near the Haditha Dam, about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, repelling attempted advances by Islamic State forces. Since Aug. 8, the Pentagon has conducted more than 140 airstrikes over the past month.

The Pentagon plans to widen U.S. airstrikes in northern and western Iraq and step up efforts to train, advise and equip the Iraqi military under its new centralized government, as well as to provide limited aid to Kurdish fighters.

As for dealing with the Islamic State’s base of operations in Syria, “It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years,” said Secretary of State John Kerry at a NATO meeting in Newport, Wales, Sept. 5. “But we’re determined it has to happen.”

Meanwhile, toilers in Syria continue to bear the brunt of a three-and-a-half-year civil war with murderous brutality inflicted on civilians by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad; Islamic State, which controls one-third of the country’s territory; and other formations.

At the NATO meeting Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with government officials from Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark, all of which agreed to back the fight against the Islamic State. On Sept. 8, the 22-member Arab League voted to combat Islamic State forces, though it didn’t explicitly back U.S. military action.

The Canadian government in early September dispatched several dozen military advisers to Iraq to work with the nearly 1,200 U.S. military personnel in the country, which include special operations forces based in the Kurdish city of Erbil.

London, Paris and Berlin announced they were sending much-needed military equipment to Peshmerga, but little has arrived yet at the front, reported Kurdish news agency Rudaw. Planes carrying military aid are required to first land in Baghdad for inspection before being rerouted to Erbil.

While Tehran is not officially included on Washington’s emerging “coalition” list, both governments are backing the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. And while neither the U.S. nor Iranian rulers want to see the establishment of an independent Kurdistan, both are providing some aid to Kurdish forces. When Islamic State forces overran some towns in Iraqi Kurdistan in early August, the Iranian government “was the first state to help us” with weapons and equipment, Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani told Agence France-Presse.

The Kurds are an oppressed nationality of some 30 million people living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They’ve been denied a homeland since the carving up of the Middle East by London and Paris following World War I.

Kurds from Iran also joined the battles alongside Iraqi Kurdish forces. Members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Turkey continue to fight under Peshmerga command. The Islamic State combatants “are very scared of death because they are only here to kill people,” Felice Budak, 24, one of a sizeable number of female PKK combatants told Stars and Stripes. “I don’t mind doing it over and over again. I’ve already fought in Turkey, Iran and Syria.”

Efforts by Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to form a government have been fraught with conflict over the rights of Kurds in the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. Earlier this year Baghdad stopped paying wages to KRG employees in retaliation for Kurds independently exporting oil through Turkish ports. One such Kurdish tanker with some 1 million barrels of crude has been waiting off the Texas coast since late July while Baghdad wages a court battle to gain control of it.

Origin of ‘Islamic State’
The Islamic State has grown by taking advantage of resentments among Sunnis over discrimination and marginalization under the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the U.S.-led invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Much of the Islamic State’s core military leadership is drawn from Baathist Party military officers who served under Hussein. Other components include foreign Islamist zealots and fighters from Arab Sunni tribes from Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, for example, members of the Dulaim tribe, comprising 3 million people, held anti-government rallies in 2012. Maliki cracked down on them, leading the tribe to revolt. Eventually many came to back the offensive waged by Islamic State.

The civil war in Syria began as a popular rebellion in March 2011 against Assad’s repressive rule. Raqqa was the first of Syria’s 14 provincial capitals to be liberated by the Free Syrian Army opposition coalition. Residents formed community groups to support the rebellion, including women’s rights organizations.

The city was heavily bombarded by Assad forces, and the Free Syrian Army, which received next to no outside aid, came under fire by anti-Assad Islamist forces that got aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. Islamic State forces, backed by pledges of allegiance from 14 Raqqa clans, took control of the city in November 2013 and much of the surrounding province since then.

As Islamic State was tightening its grip in July 2013, some 300 Raqqa residents took to the streets to protest the group’s kidnapping of oppositionist Feras Al Haj Saleh.

“The overwhelming proportion of civilians are opposed to the Islamic State, and more than half of those are more than against it, they are outraged,” said Raqqa resident Jimmy Shahinian, 25, last August, according to the Syria Deeply website. But “ISIS has the guns.”  
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