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IRAQ WARS
Pilgrims bring boom times for Iraqi gem traders
by Staff Writers
Najaf, Iraq (AFP) Sept 21, 2017


Mines hold up Iraqi advance against IS in western desert
Al-Rayhanna, Irak (AFP) Sept 20, 2017 - Mines and other ordnance buried by jihadists is slowing an advance by Iraqi forces in the country's western desert bordering Syria against one of the Islamic State group's last outposts.

"We're just a few hundred metres from (the town of) Anna but our biggest obstacle are mines and explosive devices planted by Daesh," Colonel Ahmad al-Dulaimi told an AFP reporter at the scene, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Members of Iraq's security forces and allied paramilitary units of the Hashed al-Shaabi, their uniform splattered in ochre, were making painfully slow progress, with some military vehicles sinking in the sand.

Anna, surrounded to the east, west and south, sat among scrawny trees on the horizon.

Black smoke billowed over the town from barrels of oil set ablaze by IS fighters to obscure the skies for US-led coalition warplanes and Iraqi helicopters supporting the Iraqi advance, amid intermittent automatic weapons fire.

General Abdelamir Yarallah, head of the anti-IS Joint Operations Command, announced Tuesday that "infantry units and armour backed by the Hashed al-Shaabi" had launched an offensive to retake Anna and nearby Al-Rayhanna village.

Anna, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of the border with war-torn Syria, is one of three towns in Anbar province of western Iraq still under IS control.

After Anna, Iraqi forces are expected to next target Rawa to the northwest and finally Al-Qaim, close to the border with the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor.

IS is under fire across the border in twin offensives mounted by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the United States.

Three years after IS took control of swathes of territory straddling the two Arab states, Iraqi forces are pushing to retake all areas seized by the jihadists, scoring their biggest victory in July with the recapture of the country's second city Mosul.

Iraq is also preparing to launch an assault against another of the jihadists' last remaining strongholds, the town of Hawija about 300 kilometres north of Baghdad.

Iraq begins offensive to retake IS bastion Hawija: PM
Baghdad (AFP) Sept 21, 2017 - Iraq has begun an offensive to retake Hawija, one of two remaining bastions of the Islamic State (IS) group in the country, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Thursday.

"At the dawn of a new day, we announce the launch of the first stage of the liberation of Hawija, in accordance with our commitment to our people to liberate all Iraqi territory and eradicate Daesh's terrorist groups," he said in a statement, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

"Greetings to all of our forces, who are waging several battles of liberation at the same time and who are winning victory after victory and this will be another, with the help of God," he said.

Iraqi forces have now forced IS out of all its Iraqi territories except Hawija, 300 kilometres (190 miles) north of Baghdad, and several pockets of territory near the border with Syria. The town was one of the first areas to fall under IS control in 2014.

Artillery fire was heard Thursday morning, with the army heading towards Sharqat, southwest of Hawija, an AFP reporter said.

Every time Mohammed al-Ghoraifi visits Najaf he returns with another precious stone on his finger. Like for many pilgrims visiting the Iraqi Shiite holy city, buying a gemstone ring is part and parcel of the experience.

Ghoraifi, sporting two weighty rings on the right hand and a third on the left on his latest visit, said they formed only a modest part of his collection.

The collection may have cost him a small fortune, but "the stones have enormous value, whatever the cost", said the 60-year-old pilgrim from Bahrain, wearing a white robe and bedouin scarf.

Ghoraifi's passion for gemstone rings from Najaf, set with agate stones, rubies or turquoise, is shared by most of the pilgrims, primarily from Iran, who visit the city to pray at Imam Ali's shrine.

Customers come from "Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Lebanon..." said shopkeeper Fayez Abu Ghoneim, 45.

In a city where several family businesses are renowned for the size and cut of their gemstones, pilgrims amble into Abu Ghoneim's shop right after visiting the mausoleum of Prophet Mohamed's son-in-law.

"Many of them buy a ring or a rosary as a souvenir of their pilgrimage for family or friends back home," said Abu Ghoneim.

- Competition from abroad -

In Najaf's main market, strategically located facing the golden gate of the mausoleum, the Shiite religious calendar controls the life of gemstone traders like Abu Ghoneim.

Major religious ceremonies for which millions pour into Najaf are boom times, especially as prices shoot up with the increase in demand, sending the most prized rings into the thousands of dollars price bracket.

But not all pilgrims are ready to fork out large sums.

Issa Mussa, a trader in his 70s, said business had declined because the market was being flooded with cheap imports from Turkey, China, Thailand and Iran.

"Now I've turned into a ring salesman whereas I used to be a jeweller," said Mussa.

As for Ali Anwar, he is proud to carry on the artisanal tradition of Najaf, which comes at a price.

"Turkish or Thai jewellery is sold by the gram, whereas a Najaf ring is sold individually, for between 40,000 and 50,000 dinars," or about $35 to $40 (29 to 33 euros) , not including the price of the stone, he said.

Some clients bring in their foreign-manufactured rings for the stones to be recut in Najaf's workshops.

Imported rings are sold by the armful, at a little over $10 apiece, during major religious holidays such as the Shiite holy month of Muharram or the annual commemoration of Arbaeen.

Customers and window shoppers pack the alleyways of the market, a maze of shops built in the yellow stone of the Karbala region and with the names printed in blue mosaic.

The market with its Islamic-inspired architecture plays host in the off-season mostly to Najaf's religious scholars and their students, both local and non-Iraqi, who are estimated to number 25,000.

Many of them wear one or several rings, most often on the right hand -- a sign of being a Shiite Muslim imitating Imam Ali.

- For health and good luck -

For pilgrims, the purchase of a Najaf ring is seen by many as the final rite.

As Sheikh Jassem al-Mandalawi, 42, explained to AFP, certain rocks bring "pardon, such as onyx from Yemen, while emerald is a portent of success".

A ring with a red agate stone or a sapphire can sell for 100,000 dinars or more, he said.

The "must-have" item is the Najaf quartz, a stone that looks like glass but is solid as rock, and which is found in the desert that encircles the city, explained Mohammed al-Shamarati, 30, a trader in precious stones.

Fadel Abu Abdullah, 50, said the stones he sells also have therapeutic powers.

"Yellow sapphire, for example, is good for the heart rate and can also treat jaundice in newborns," he said, while other stones can keep "bad fortune and evil spirits" at bay.

Shamarati said young single women bought his rings to help them find a husband.

For Abu Abbas, a 40-year-old from a remote area outside Najaf, a ring engraved with a verse from the Koran or one of the 99 names of Allah (God) can also protect the wearer.

"I often travel through desert areas and could be attacked with guns at any time," he said, as he scoured the shops for the right stone.

IRAQ WARS
Iraqi forces launch assault for last IS bastions in Anbar
Al-Sagra, Iraq (AFP) Sept 19, 2017
Iraqi security forces and paramilitary units launched a dawn assault Tuesday against one of the Islamic State group's last bastions in the vast western province of Anbar bordering Syria. The Joint Operations Command, which is coordinating Iraqi security forces battling IS, said an offensive had begun to retake the town of Anna and the nearby village of Al-Rayhanna. "Infantry units and ar ... read more

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Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century


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