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Gunfire cuts short celebrations at recaptured Mosul mosque
By Emmanuel Duparcq
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) June 30, 2017

Iraq PM thanks top Shiite cleric for role in anti-IS war
Baghdad (AFP) June 30, 2017 - Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Friday thanked Iraq's top Shiite cleric for his role in the war against jihadists, crediting him with saving the country and setting the stage for victory.

Three days after Mosul fell to the Islamic State group in 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis to volunteer to fight the jihadists, a step that helped to halt their sweeping offensive.

But the call also leaves a complicated legacy, leading to a resurgence of Shiite militias that have carried out abuses and the establishment of new paramilitary groups, both of which could be a source of future instability.

Abadi issued a statement expressing his "deep thanks and gratitude" to Sistani for "his great and continuing support to the heroic fighters."

The cleric's 2014 call for volunteers "saved Iraq and paved the way for victory" over IS, Abadi said

Abadi's message comes as the battle to retake second city Mosul nears its conclusion -- a redemption for forces that performed poorly there three years before.

Sistani made the call via a representative speaking at Friday prayers on June 13, 2014, days after multiple Iraqi divisions collapsed in the face of the IS assault in the north.

"Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose," he said.

It sparked a flood of volunteers who were organised under what became known as the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation forces -- an umbrella group for pro-government paramilitaries that is officially under the command of the country's premier.

But pre-existing Shiite militias that took part in the brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian bloodshed that plagued Iraq in past years were also placed under the Hashed al-Shaabi banner and have played a major role in operations against IS.

These groups provided a pool of capable fighters that Baghdad could rely on to combat IS.

But they have also carried out abuses including kidnappings and summary executions in Sunni Arab areas that ultimately undermine Iraq's efforts to counter the jihadists.

The Hashed al-Shaabi's role after the war against IS ends is a key question, and the forces could be a source of instability.

Rivalries could lead to violence between units, and Hashed fighters have already clashed with Iraqi Kurdish forces in the country's north.

The Hashed may also have a political impact, with some commanders potentially seeking to translate military success into political capital in the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Iraqi soldiers snap victorious "selfies" and pose with a captured Islamic State group flag at the Mosul mosque where jihadist chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi once spoke.

"Where is Baghdadi?" they say, taunting the absent jihadist leader at the site of his triumphal 2014 appearance, the only time he is known to have appeared in public as the head of IS's now-crumbling cross-border "caliphate."

They hold the jihadists' flag upside-down because "this is the flag of the defeated" IS, and declare that the special forces will remain -- a play on one of the group's slogans.

The euphoria, however, is short-lived, with incoming fire putting an end to the celebrations.

There is a burst from a Kalashnikov assault rifle, followed by a shot from a sniper that strikes the entrance of the mosque, then another shot, and another burst.

The members of Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) return to the safety of their armoured vehicles and soon leave the area, where one of their own was killed and three more wounded by an IS sniper the evening before.

After seizing Mosul in June 2014, a black-robed Baghdadi appeared at Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri and called on Muslims to obey him, making the site a potent symbol of the jihadists' rule.

As Iraqi forces closed in, IS blew up the mosque and its famed leaning minaret, which was affectionately known as Al-Hadba (the hunchback), leaving the site in ruins when it was recaptured on Thursday.

"We came close to the mosque and minaret but the enemy brought them down," says Ali Dhiaa, a sergeant in the CTS who sadly contemplates the damage.

"These were icons for us. By taking them down, the enemy blew up the civilisation," Dhiaa says.

Shots echo through the area, and then a dull explosion is followed by a huge cloud of smoke, marking the site of an air strike carried out by Iraq or the coalition of countries supporting its forces in the battle.

- Mountains of debris -

Several other strikes follow in the next half hour.

Reaching the area required Dhiaa to manoeuvre his black armoured vehicle through mountains of debris in what remains of Mosul's Old City: an ocean of rubble and crushed vehicles where the final scenes of the battle for Iraq's second city are unfolding.

Only the base of Al-Hadba minaret now remains, and while its dome is still standing, there is a gaping hole in the structure under it, and two-thirds of Nuri mosque has been destroyed.

The half naked, burned corpse of a jihadist lies in front of a ruined store near the remains of the mosque.

The minaret, which was completed in 1172 and had been listing for centuries, is featured on Iraq's 10,000-dinar banknote and was the main symbol of Mosul, giving its name to countless restaurants, companies and even sports clubs in the city.

Its loss left the country in shock, but the destruction had been widely anticipated, with commanders saying IS would not have allowed Iraqi forces to score a hugely symbolic victory by recapturing the site.

IS claimed on its Amaq propaganda agency that the site was hit in a US air strike, but the US-led coalition said it was the jihadists who had "destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq's great treasures".

Even after IS destroyed it, recapturing the Nuri mosque has provided a boost to Iraq's forces and government, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declaring that the jihadists' "caliphate" is coming to an end.

Iraqi forces made a rapid advance to retake the symbolic site, but must still brave sniper fire for celebratory visits for now.

US court halts deportations of Iraqi nationals
Chicago (AFP) June 27, 2017
A US judge has halted deportations of all Iraqi nationals - some set to be removed as early as Tuesday - on the grounds they could be tortured or killed if returned to the Middle Eastern country. US District Judge Mark Goldsmith on Monday expanded nationwide an earlier order affecting mostly Chaldean Christians who were arrested in immigration raids in the state of Michigan, alarming local ... read more

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Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century

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