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Jerome Starkey

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad

The battle to retake Iraq’s second-largest city is expected to be months away, and will succeed only if there is a popular uprising against Islamic State militants who hold sway, a senior military official said yesterday.

Lieutenant-General Qassim Atta said Iraq’s armed forces could never recapture Mosul without the support of the local people, and some of the 53,000 policemen who, he said, had simply melted away when the militants advanced in June. “It is difficult to give a timetable, but it will depend on the people of Mosul,” he said. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

A carpenter, a taxi driver and a university student are among those forming Baghdad’s last line of defence.

Barely a mile beyond the city’s airport, along the steep banks of a canal known as the Saddam River, volunteer soldiers aged 16 to 60 live in tents next to earth defences .

They are ready, they say, to fight Islamic State (formerly known as Isis).

One of them is a lieutenant-colonel who quit the Iraqi army in protest over a scandal involving fake bomb detectors.

Another is a Christian whose family live in Canada, and a third owned a photography shop, but was moonlighting with the militia. (Read more…)

Iraq-3659.jpg on Flickr.

Badr Brigade on the barricades, in Baghdad’s last line of defence

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Islamic State militants are not plotting to attack the United States, according to America’s most senior military commander. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if they were, then “the United States would deal with it”.

Speaking on a flight to Afghanistan, General Dempsey appeared to douse fears about the ambitions of Islamic State (formerly Isis) and the need for US airstrikes inside Syria. (Read more…)

Iraq-3645 on Flickr.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of Iraq’s Asaib al-Haq militia

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

One of Iraq’s most powerful commanders has warned Britain and America not to get involved in the fight against Isis, saying that his militia and the armed forces could handle the terrorists.

Qais al-Khazali, who was captured by the SAS and jailed by US forces during the occupation of Iraq, said that the Islamic State (Isis) was a common enemy that would unite his nation. He echoed claims that US airstrikes had not been authorised by the Iraqi government. “We don’t want fighters from other countries. We will fight,” Sheikh al-Khazali said. “We don’t want fighters from Iran, Saudi Arabia or America.” (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Islamic State militants have captured a strategic airbase in eastern Syria and launched a fresh assault on Iraq’s largest refinery in a two-pronged offensive just days after they were repulsed from the Mosul dam.

After three failed attempts last week to breach the perimeter of Tabqa airbase in eastern Syria, Isis fighters stormed it yesterday and raised their black flag over the sprawling complex. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Armed men stormed a Sunni mosque northeast of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 70 people during Friday prayers, amid fears that the country was racing towards another civil war.

Police blamed Shia militias for the attack on Sunni worshippers in Diyala province, which came as the country’s top Shia cleric urged Iraq’s leaders to put aside their sectarian ties.

The attack in Imam Wais, about 120 miles northeast of Baghdad, came as Islamic State (formerly Isis) militants stoned one of their fighters for adultery in Mosul.

Residents said the extremists — who beheaded the American journalist James Foley — had started issuing passports and ID cards under the auspices of their self-styled caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria. It was the first time the Sunni extremists, who espouse a medieval strand of Islam, had stoned one of their fighters in Iraq, but similar killings have been reported in neighbouring Syria, where they are fighting forces loyal to President Assad and more moderate rebel groups. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey in Baghdad and Sara Williams in Irbil

A wealthy Iraqi sheikh tried to buy almost 100 women held hostage by Islamic State militants (Isis), as part of a failed plot to win back their freedom.

Thousands of women and children from Iraq’s Yazidi sect were taken hostage when the Islamic militants captured parts of the country’s north — prompting an international mission to reach thousands trapped on Sinjar mountains in the north of the country.

Fellow Yazidis claim some of those captured have been sold into slavery or presented as gifts to fighters. Isis have reserved particular hatred for the Yazidi sect, whom they accuse of “devil worship”. The Yazidis, whose origins are linked to ancient Zaroastrianism, are thought to number fewer than a million world-wide.

Sheikh Abullah al-Yawar, an MP from Iraq’s second city Mosul, said he established contact with a hostage who managed to keep her mobile phone. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad and David Charter

Saddam Hussein’s henchmen must be brought back into government as part of an urgent process of national reconciliation if Iraq hopes to defeat the extremist Sunni militants who have captured large areas of the country’s north, a former prime minister said yesterday.

The Baath party faithful were, by and large, professionals “who have the respect of the Iraqi people”, Ayad Allawi told The Times. They had to be brought back into the fold or Iraq would be dismantled along sectarian lines, he said. Without reconciliation, US airstrikes would backfire and the militants of Isis (Islamic State) would flourish.

His call came after Haider al-Abadi, the country’s new prime minister, was asked to build an “inclusive government”, and Germany said it would join international efforts to arm Kurdish fighters battling Isis in the north. It is the first time Germany has supplied weapons to a proxy in a warzone.

Dr Allawi also urged the Iraqi government to free Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Saddam’s defence minister, in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation. He was sentenced to death in 2007 for his part in the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad

Islamic State militants who executed the American journalist James Foley have released a propaganda video that appears to show hundreds of young men from the Yazidi sect converting to Islam in northern Iraq.

It shows the men repeating the chants of a mullah, clad in black, with a Kalashnikov and a shoulder holster over his robes.

“Men, women and children have converted and … they are happy,” the bearded preacher tells the camera, flanked by two younger fighters.

The video, which is stamped with the Islamic State’s distinctive black flag, cuts from the courtyard of a mosque to a garden, to the shaded verandah of a building that could be a school, or a police station, where almost a hundred young men are sitting cross-legged, learning to pray. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Islamic State militants fought off an assault by the Iraqi army yesterday in the home town of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, an illustration of how tough it may be to unseat them in some of their newly acquired territory.

Residents in Tikrit, 160km north of Baghdad, said the Islamic State (Isis) militants captured two tanks and a number of armoured vehicles as they repulsed a two-pronged offensive by the Iraqi forces.

The attack on Tikrit came after Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi special forces, with help from American drones and fighter jets, recaptured Iraq’s largest dam, in the north of the country. President Obama praised the operation to retake Mosul dam as a “major step forward”, but he urged Iraq’s fractured government to forge a united front quickly, because “the wolf is at the door”.

The president pledged not to be drawn into a third Iraq war, yet the defeat in Tikrit, without US air support, underlined Iraq’s reliance on foreign military might.

As the Iraqi army withdrew to a military base in Awja, residents said that an Isis convoy laden with anti-aircraft guns arrived to reinforce their positions. “They started shooting in the air, celebrating the victory,” Abu Sediq, a resident, said.

Isis captured huge swathes of Iraq in June, partly because it was able to exploit the grievances of the Sunni minority, who felt victimised by the Shia regime in Baghdad.

Their lightning advance forced more than a million Shia Muslims, Christians and followers of the Yazidi sect to flee their homes, prompting the United Nations to begin a huge aid mission.

Tarek al-Hashemi, a former vice-president, warned that his country was on the cusp of partition and the only way to avert a civil war was to give Saddam’s Baath party a place in the government. He said the American policy of “de-Baathification”, in the wake of their 2003 invasion, had stripped the country of powerful, professional civilian administrators. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad

Christian leaders in Iraq said that their faith would be obliterated in communities as old as the church itself unless international troops and more airstrikes drove the Islamic State (Isis) from the country.

Catholics and Anglicans said that they had lost confidence in the Iraqi government to afford them any protection after tens of thousands of Christians were forced to flee their homes on the Nineveh plains in the face of an Islamic militant advance.

Thousands of Yazidis, members of an ancient sect, have also fled their homes around the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq after Isis gave them an ultimatum: convert to Islam or die.

“No one wants another country’s soldiers to enter their own country, but we live in very bad times,” said Father Meyassr Behnam, of St George’s Chaldean Church, Baghdad. “We want international forces to protect the villages in Ninevah because the government doesn’t care about us.” (Read more…)

The Times
Sara Elizabeth Williams, in Irbil and Jerome Starkey in Baghdad

British aircraft flying over northern Iraq fed intelligence to the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi special forces as they fought to retake the Mosul dam, soldiers involved in the operation said.

A Kurdish colonel, who spoke anonymously, said that the information was relayed to a command post in Arbil, the largest city in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, and then on to the soldiers around Mosul.

The revelations came after Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, said that the RAF deployed Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft alongside Tornado bombers to monitor Islamic militants, who have captured huge areas of Iraq since their advance in June.

Soldiers from The 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment were also sent to Arbil, Mr Fallon said, on a short reconnaissance mission last week.

Iraqi officials claimed to have captured the Mosul dam by nightfall on Sunday, hours after they launched a bloody ground offensive against Islamic State (Isis) militants. However, witnesses said that militants were still holed up inside the compound on Monday afternoon. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Fighter jets, drones and helicopter gunships pounded militant positions around Iraq’s largest dam yesterday, as Kurdish and Iraqi fighters fought to retake it from the Islamic State.

Kudrish officials said their forces had routed most of the militants from the Mosul dam by nightfall, marking one of the most significant defeats for IS fighters since they seized swathes of northern Iraq in June.

However eyewitnesses and local commanders said they advanced very slowly, because of homemade bombs and booby traps left in the jihadists’ wake. (Read more…)