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IRAQ WARS
Rockets hit Baghdad Green Zone after deadly protest
By Ammar Karim and Jean-Marc Mojon
Baghdad (AFP) Feb 11, 2017


UK sees IS being ousted from Iraq towns this year
Arbil, Iraq (AFP) Feb 11 - British Defence Minister Michael Fallon said Saturday in Iraq that he expected to see the Islamic State group expelled from the country's major towns by the end of 2017.

"We expect to see Daesh (IS) expelled from the major towns and cities of Iraq during the course of the year," he told reporters in Arbil, the capital of Iraq's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan.

Iraqi forces are nearly four months into a massive operation to retake nearby Mosul, which is the country's second city and where IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" in 2014.

The jihadist organisation then controlled around a third of Iraq, but federal and allied forces have since retaken around two thirds of that territory and Mosul is IS's last major stronghold.

After retaking the eastern side of Mosul last month, Iraqi forces are currently preparing to launch an assault on the part of the city that lies west of the Tigris River.

Commanders expect the battle to be fierce because the narrow streets of the Old City will complicate operations and the western side also harbours some traditional jihadist bastions.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said around the new year that he expected his forces would need three more months to rid the country of IS.

Most observers argued that the premier's prediction was optimistic, however, with Mosul alone threatening to bog down Iraqi forces way past that target.

Retaking the northern city would deal a death blow to the "caliphate" and any claim that IS is still running a "state", but the group retains control of several populated areas.

In Iraq, IS still holds Hawijah, a large town southeast of Mosul, and the town of Al-Qaim on the western border with Syria.

When Iraqi forces retake Mosul, the jihadists' last major hub will be the city of Raqa in neighbouring Syria.

"The situation in Syria is more complicated, given the continuation of the civil war there," Fallon said.

A 60-nation coalition led by the United States has carried out thousands of air strikes in support of the war on IS and provided assistance and training to thousands of Iraqi forces.

Britain is a key member of that coalition, together with France, Italy and Australia.

Fallon said the Royal Air Force had struck 300 targets in and around Mosul since the operation to retake the city began on October 17.

French jihadist Kassim targeted in Mosul strike: Pentagon
Washington (AFP) Feb 10 - French jihadist Rachid Kassim, suspected of inspiring several attacks in France, was targeted in a coalition air strike near the Iraqi city of Mosul, but his death is not yet confirmed, the Pentagon said Friday.

Earlier in the day, several French media reports had reported Kassim's death.

"We can confirm that coalition forces targeted Rashid Kassim, a senior ISIS operative, near Mosul in a strike in the past 72 hours," said Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway.

"We are currently assessing the results of that strike and will provide more information when it becomes available."

In Paris, a high-ranking official involved in counterterror operations told AFP on condition of anonymity there was not "absolute confirmation" of his death, but that the probability was high.

Kassim, who is in his 30s, is believed to have inspired an attack last year in which a senior French policeman and his partner were knifed to death and another in which an elderly priest's throat was cut.

He is suspected of using the encrypted Telegram app to direct attacks on France from IS-controlled territory in Iraq or Syria.

Originally from Roanne in the Loire Valley, Kassim is suspected of guiding the attacks in France from Syria and has launched on the internet numerous murderous appeals.

Rockets were fired at Baghdad's Green Zone Saturday after Iraq's most violent protest in years saw seven people killed in clashes between police and demonstrators advancing on the fortified area.

The body coordinating security operations in Iraq said several Katyusha-type rockets were fired from within Baghdad at the Green Zone, which houses most of the country's key institutions.

"Several Katyusha rockets fired from the Baladiyat and Palestine Street areas landed in the Green Zone," the Joint Operations Command said in a statement, without specifying who fired them.

Police and interior ministry officials confirmed to AFP that several rockets were fired at the area but could not specify what the presumed target was nor whether there were any victims.

"Several rockets, maybe six or seven, struck the Green Zone. I can hear the siren is being sounded in the area," Maysoon Damaluji, a lawmaker who lives in the protected area, told AFP.

A diplomat who also lives in the Green Zone said he heard four blasts.

Several main roads were closed and extra security was deployed across Baghdad late Saturday.

The Green Zone is a vast area in central Baghdad that houses the prime minister's office, the presidency, parliament and several major embassies, including the huge US mission.

Although it could not be ascertained that both events were linked, it also shelters Iraq's electoral commission, whose replacement was a key demand of the thousands of protesters in the city earlier Saturday.

The rally, mostly attended by supporters of cleric Moqtada Sadr, started peacefully but some protesters subsequently broke away and attempted to force their way past a police cordon to reach the Green Zone.

- Deadly protest -

Security forces posted on a bridge over the Tigris River used tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to repulse the protesters.

"There were seven dead as a result of the violence. Two of them are from the security forces and the other five are protesters," a police colonel told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He said more than 200 were hurt in the chaos. Most were protesters suffering from tear gas inhalation, but at least 11 had more serious injuries caused by bullets and tear gas canisters.

Sadr supporters accusing Iraq's political class of corruption and nepotism broke into the so-called Green Zone twice in 2016, storming the prime minister's office and the parliament building.

Saturday's demonstrators received a de facto green light to escalate their protest in the shape of a statement from the Najaf-based Sadr.

"If you want to approach the gates of the Green Zone to affirm your demands and make them heard to those on the other side of the fence... you can," he said.

Sadr, a mercurial Shiite who once led a rebellion against US occupation but has more recently spearheaded an anti-corruption protest movement, eventually called for restraint but warned Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi not to turn a deaf ear.

"I urge him to deliver those reforms immediately, listen to the voice of the people and remove the corrupt," he said in a statement.

Abadi said the violence would be investigated and those responsible for it prosecuted.

The protest, the latest in a series across the country over the past few days, was focused on demands for electoral reform ahead of provincial polls slated for September.

- Partisan commissioners -

"Our action will get tougher, even if that involves physically taking over the commission," Abu Haidar, a protester wearing traditional Arab dress, told AFP before the rally turned violent.

The electoral commission issued a statement asking for protection from the premier's office and the international community.

The protesters want the members of the electoral commission to be replaced, on the grounds that they are all affiliated to political parties and that the body supervising nationwide ballots was therefore anything but independent.

They also want the electoral law to be amended to give wider representation to smaller parties in the country's elected bodies.

Sinan al-Azzawi, a popular Iraqi actor, was among those who addressed the protest before the violence broke out.

Politicians "are profiteers and their only loyalty is to the countries they used to live in but not to Iraq", he said, referring to the Saddam-era exile of many of the country's current leaders.

"Those politicians, they created an electoral commission based on sectarian quotas. It has nine commissioners who belong to political entities... It's not independent," he said.


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