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Mosul victory in 'days' as IS falls back in Syria
By Emmanuel Duparcq with Layal Abou Rahal in Beirut
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.

Iraq will declare victory over the Islamic State group in Mosul during the "next few days," a senior commander said Friday, as the jihadists fell back in neighbouring Syria.

IS, which declared a cross-border "caliphate" encompassing swathes of Iraq and Syria three years ago, is now facing twin offensives in Mosul and Raqa, its two most emblematic strongholds.

But while the loss of the two cities would be a major blow to IS, it would not mark the end of the threat posed by the group, which is likely to return to insurgent-style attacks that were its hallmark in years past.

"In the next few days, we will announce the final victory over Daesh," Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a senior commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, told AFP in Mosul, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

However, there has often been a gap between the declaration of victory and the actual end of fighting in a given area in the course of Iraq's multi-year war against IS.

Iraqi forces launched the gruelling battle for Mosul on October 17, advancing to the city and retaking its eastern side before setting their sights on the smaller but more densely populated west, where IS still holds limited territory.

Assadi estimated that there are between 200 and 300 IS fighters left in the city, most of them foreigners.

His remarks on victory in Mosul came as IS withdrew from a series of villages in Syria's Aleppo province where President Bashar al-Assad's forces are advancing.

"IS withdrew from 17 towns and villages and is now effectively outside of Aleppo province after having a presence there for four years," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Regime forces had been advancing through a sliver of southeastern Aleppo province around a key highway linking Hama province to the southwest and Raqa province further east.

A Syrian military source in rural Aleppo confirmed the withdrawal.

- IS escape route cut -

"The military operation is ongoing and Daesh withdrew from the Aleppan countryside towards rural territory in Hama and Raqa," the source told AFP.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are also fighting to retake Raqa, IS's de facto capital in the country.

On Thursday, they cut off IS's last escape route, trapping the jihadists inside the city.

"The SDF has been able to completely encircle Raqa," Abdel Rahman said.

The SDF broke into Raqa on June 6 after spending months chipping away at jihadist territory around the city.

Its fighters have since captured two eastern and two western districts of the city and are pushing towards its centre, where IS fighters are holding tens of thousands of civilians.

Around 2,500 jihadists are fighting in the city, according to British Major General Rupert Jones, a coalition deputy commander.

In Mosul, Iraqi forces captured the iconic Nuri mosque on Thursday, the site where IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only known public appearance in 2014, calling on Muslims worldwide to obey him.

IS blew up the mosque and the famed Al-Hadba (hunchback) leaning minaret last week as Iraqi forces closed in.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the recapture of the mosque as a sign of IS's impending defeat.

"We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state," Abadi said in an English statement on his Twitter account.

The US-led coalition against the jihadists also said that the end of the battle was near.

Speaking about an announcement of Mosul's recapture, coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said that: "I can't put a timeline on that for them, but I see it closer to days than a week or weeks."

He praised the Iraqi forces's "grit and determination" and said coalition support would help bring "an imminent liberation".

The end of the battle will usher in a whole new set of challenges for Iraq, including retribution against residents of the city suspected of having IS ties -- an issue highlighted by the UN rights office on Friday.

"We are seeing an alarming rise in threats, specifically of forced evictions, against those suspected of being (IS) members or whose relatives are alleged to be involved with (IS)," spokesman Rupert Colville said.

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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