TIME foreign affairs

Death Count Rises As Parties Scramble for Israel-Gaza Ceasefire

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with Hamas leader to promote a deal proposed by Egypt

JERUSALEM — The death toll continues to rise as a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel becomes more and more elusive.

At least 100 Palestinians have been killed since the start of Israel ground offensive, according to Palestinian officials in Gaza.

Among the dead is a family of eight, killed by Israeli tank fire in the northern Gaza Strip last night, adding yet another tragedy to the now 11-day-old Israeli Operation Defensive Edge, which has killed more than 340 Palestinians. Most of the dead are civilians, including at least 73 children. According to the UN, more than 50,000 people in Gaza have been displaced from their homes, but there are no refugees as Gazans are unable to leave the tiny coastal territory.

“My children ask me questions about why this is happening and I don’t have any answers,” says Mahfouz Kabariti, who lives near the Gaza seafront with his wife and six children. The buzz of Israeli drones, which are now a constant backdrop to the frequent sound of explosions, can be heard through the phone. “I can see the Israeli navy ships from my window.”

As Israel’s navy fired from the sea and the air force struck Gaza from above, Israeli troops engaged with Hamas fighters on the border Saturday after eight militants tried to enter Israel from the territory through an underground tunnel.

“This illustrates that our concerns are real,” said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Lerner says the IDF has already destroyed 5,000 of the 10,000 rockets it believes Hamas has in its arsenal. Israel now has thousands of troops inside Gaza and says it will widen its offensive, which aims to crush Hamas’ infrastructure.

“We have our hands full to complete these missions,” Lerner said.

At least two Israelis were killed Saturday after militants breached the territory’s northern border, bringing the Israeli death toll to five. The Israeli army says they have identified at least 20 tunnels on the Gaza-Israel border, and that militants planned to sneak into Israel with the aim of committing attacks.

While the Israeli army battled Hamas fighters, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Qatar and will meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to promote a ceasefire proposed by Egypt. After years of division, a unity deal was struck in April between Abbas’ Fatah party–which rules in the West Bank–and Hamas, but this military escalation has put a new wedge between the factions.

So far all these diplomatic efforts have been in vain. Israel claims it launched its ground offensive only after Hamas rejected several ceasefire offers. Israel’s cabinet voted to approve a ceasefire deal earlier this week, but it was turned down by Hamas.

“We rejected the Egyptian initiative because it wasn’t fair, giving the Israelis whatever they want,” said Ehab Hussein, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. “Nobody can accept that when you are getting hit and killed, that at the same time you should stop defending yourself without getting anything.”

Hamas is looking for more than just an end to hostilities. The leadership wants to gain new conditions from any deal to end the fighting.

“It’s not strange things we are asking for. We are saying, give us our freedom. Lift the siege. Open the borders. Implement the past agreement of 2012 and the agreement of the prisoner exchange,” said Ehab al-Hussein, in reference to prisoners who were re-arrested this month after being released in the swap for Gilad Shalit in 2011.

Egypt has been trying to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas in Cairo, but some speculate that Egypt is not a neutral mediator. Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has an ongoing campaign in his country to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent organization, and many argue his sympathies lie with Israel. However, Hussein says they have not shut down that channel.

UN secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is expected in Israel today in attempt to push for a ceasefire.

“Hopefully we will reach something,” said Hussein, “because we didn’t want this war. The Israelis started it.”

TIME Iraq

In the Midst of Iraq’s Chaos, the Kurds Inch Towards Independence

Kurdish protesters
Iraqi Kurdish protesters display the flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region on July 3, 2014. Safin Hamed—/AFP/Getty Images

Militants from ISIS are threatening Iraq's capital of Baghdad, but in autonomous Kurdistan, things have never been better

As the Iraqi army continues to battle Sunni militants for control of its territory―with forces from the Islamic State not far outside the capital of Baghdad―Kurdish President Masoud Barzani is sitting comfortably in quiet Erbil. After over a century of demands for independence, Kurds may be closer than to securing their statehood. “In Kurdistan we have a government that is functioning, a parliament that is meeting and professional, dedicated Peshmerga forces,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Department of Foreign Relations. “In Iraq you have none of that.”

With the autonomy granted to the KRG under the Iraqi constitution, Kurds have managed an entity that looks more like a functional state than many long-established nations in the region. They secure their own borders and are sidestepping Baghdad to exporting their own oil. Their independent police force even monitors speeders with traffic cameras.

In central Erbil, the Kurdish de-facto capital, Hoshang Assad wheels his car through the streets. The 26-year-old taxi driver explains how Kurds have all the trappings of a modern nation-state. “We have our own language, our own culture and our own land,” he says. “We have a good economy now, we have oil, we have everything we need to make our state.”

But while Kurds believe they are a nation now in everything but name, those outside its borders are less sanguine about the possibility of true independence. Assad’s car seats are covered with massive American flags and like many Kurds he recite praise for the US, the Kurds oldest, and at times only, ally. Washington, though, hasn’t exactly been a cheerleader of Kurdish independence. “In 2003 the U.S. wanted the Kurds to give up federalism and give up their Peshmerga forces. The Kurds refused,” said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in Britain. “Imagine what Erbil would look like today if they had given up the Peshmerga…ISIS would be flying its black flag in Erbil.”

In the past three weeks, the Peshmerga have fortified the Kurdish frontiers and moved into contested areas like oil-rich Kirkuk, even as Iraq’s national army fled invading fighters from ISIS. And as the black flags of ISIS stake claim to neighboring towns, the sun-crested Kurdish flag still flies above the secured streets of Kurdistan. Since 1945, when the Kurds briefly had an independent state, this flag has represented Kurdish aspirations for statehood. But after years of fighting alongside U.S. troops, implementing U.S.-favored free market economics and now allowing hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees to take shelter in their territory, Kurds may deserve a sportsmanship trophy―but it may not earn a seat at the United Nations. “The U.S. has invested so much time and treasure into the idea of Iraq as we know it,” said Stansfield. “The collapse of Iraq will be seen as a waste of American life and money.”

But Bakir, who was with the Kurdish delegation in Washington this week, believes that the latest crises may cause the U.S. to change its position. “The U.S. has seen the difference between Erbil and Baghdad,” said Bakir. He says the Kurds are now on a two-track approach, still willing to compromise with the Iraqi government in Baghdad―but also ready to make their moves toward independence. “Baghdad always promises Kurds the world when Baghdad is weak,” says Stansfield. “And then as soon as Baghdad is strong enough to re-impose its authority over the Kurds then it comes back with its engines.”

The idea of splitting up the country, whose borders were drawn by colonial authorities Britain and France a century ago and defined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, is uncomfortable for many―particularly neighboring states like Turkey with large Kurdish minorities of their own, pushed up against the aspirational state’s borders.

“Kurdish national aspirations will not stop in Zakho,” says Hosham Dawod, an Erbil-based researcher for the French National Center for Scientific Research, referring to the Kurdish town that sits on the Turkish border. “They will cross the border. Right now this Sykes-Picot map is looking very weak.”

And while Iraqi Kurdish leaders caution that their national aspirations are confined to land within Iraq’s current borders, there is worry among regional and international powers that Kurdish independence could have a domino effect. Iran and Syria both have large Kurdish populations. Amid the chaos in Syria, Kurds have asserted a degree of control in their villages, and Iran may fear all this will inspire its own Kurdish minority. Stansfield says Iran also benefits from having a weak Shia-led state next door.

But with Iraq in turmoil it is possible that Turkey will get onboard, preferring a pragmatic Kurdish state to a caliphate on its southern border. Already, the Turks have helped the Kurds export oil through their territory and signed a 50-year gas deal with the KRG―acts frowned upon by Baghdad. Currently, the Kurds are exporting around 100,000 barrels per day, but that’s not enough to support a new state of over 6 million people. Israel has become a natural market for this oil, but it’s not clear who else will buy all those barrels, as many countries fear buying from the Kurds would cause Baghdad to cut off its much larger exports.

And while the Kurds have created relative autonomy and prosperity in their enclave, their finances are less secure. Baghdad has withheld millions of dollars in transfer payments to Erbil since January over oil the sales and Kurdish civil servants are still waiting for paychecks the KRG doesn’t have the money to write. Nonetheless, jumping off a sinking Iraq may offer a better path to prosperity than staying within its borders. “The political landscape has changed and the balance of power has changed,” said Bakir. “There is a new reality and that requires a new policy and a new approach.”

TIME Iraq

The Iraqi Government Seems Helpless to Stop ISIS’s New Caliphate

The Sunni militant group says it has created its own Islamic empire. Their hold is less than secure, but Iraq's government seems helpless

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With the upload of an audio recording, radical Sunni militants on June 29 declared a new Islamic caliphate, a religious superstate, stretching from eastern Iraq to the Syrian city of Aleppo. The group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is now simply the Islamic State, dropping the names of the two countries whose sovereignty it doesn’t recognize.

After weeks of laying claim to Iraqi territory, the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said on Sunday that they had everything necessary to proclaim their state. The Caliph — or leader — is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born ISIS leader who appears to be giving al-Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a run for his money. “Listen to your leader and obey him,” said al-Adnani in the online statement. “Support your state, which grows continuously.”

But despite massive Sunni discontent with the Shi‘ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a caliphate run by a Caliph whose location is unknown and whose representatives regularly order beheadings may still be too much for many Iraqis. “They put up the new rules at all the mosques,” said one resident of Mosul, an Iraqi city that has fallen to ISIS. “Now it’s no smoking, no argileh pipes, and they sent the women home from government jobs.”

Even more troubling than the strict Shari‘a law ISIS is known to enforce with public lashings and executions is the militant group’s assertion of sovereignty over the territory it controls. There are many Islamists and well-armed Sunnis within ISIS’s self-declared borders who won’t be keen to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi and his black flag.

Until now, Sunni tribes and the old guard of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party have been playing along with ISIS against a common enemy: Baghdad and al-Maliki’s Shi‘ite-led government. But “there are a lot of tribes that don’t want to be part of a caliphate,” said Kenneth Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. And it may be their resistance, rather the Iraqi army, that will prove the true obstacle for ISIS. “This is exactly the thing back in 2006 when they were al-Qaeda in Iraq that got them in to trouble and helped push the Sunni tribes back into the arms of the Americans.”

But as ISIS defends its new territory, its assertion of dominance may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as an increasing number of fighters join the group seen as winning on the ground. “The events of the last three weeks have really boosted ISIS’s stock among the global jihadist movement,” said Pollack. “These guys took Mosul. When was the last time al-Qaeda did anything that impressive? So if you’re some young would-be jihadi I think there is a good likelihood you’re going to choose ISIS as opposed to the old al-Qaeda.”

ISIS fighters continue to battle Iraqi government troops, particularly for the strategic northern city of Tikrit. Despite outnumbering the jihadists, the Iraqi national army has retaken little ground, and is desperately reaching out to the international community for military support. Russia was quick to deliver a small fleet of warplanes over the weekend, and U.S. advisers are already in country to support the Iraqi military.

But al-Maliki’s choice of military force rather than political negotiation is failing, and calls for him to step down here are being heard in Tehran, and even in Iraq among his Shi‘ite support base. On July 1 Iraq’s parliament will reconvene and there will be a lot of pressure on al-Maliki to make the concessions suggested by U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and British First Secretary of State William Hague when they visited Iraq recently. Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities say the current government has a sectarian agenda and the Kurds are more interested in autonomy than a new deal with Baghdad.

“We are in a new reality now, and it’s clear Iraq will never be ruled by one man, one sect, or party,” said Hiwa Osman, an analyst and writer based in Erbil. “The new Iraq is to be managed, not ruled. Managing the relationships between the various regions is the only way forward if the country wants to stay together.”

A political solution out of the parliament tomorrow is unlikely. Not only has al-Maliki shown he’s unwilling to compromise, but Osman says those Sunnis who will be sitting in the opening session on Tuesday don’t have the necessary influence in the areas of the newly declared caliphate.

“If they were really the players, they would be on the ground in Mosul, in Tikrit, in Nineveh,” said Osman. “Not in Baghdad.”

TIME Iraq

Life in Mosul Gets Back to Normal, Even With ISIS in Control

Demonstrators chant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16, 2014.
Demonstrators chant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16, 2014. AP

Residents of the Iraqi city say little has changed since the takeover, as the militants aim to gain the trust of the Sunni population

Two weeks ago, Governor Atheel Nujeifi oversaw the city of Mosul and its surrounding province of 3.8 million people. Today, he’s holding meetings on the eighteenth floor of a luxury hotel in Erbil, some 50 miles away from Mosul.

His security detail sits at the end of the hall, his eyes locked on Nujeifi’s door, and a handgun tucked under his shirt.

“They have made maybe ten attempts on my life,” said Nujeifi, who left Mosul with his entourage of 20 armed guards when militants under the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took the city on June 10.

The group now controls swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory including two major Iraqi cities, Mosul and Tikrit, and have launched an offensive to take over the country’s largest oil refinery. Initially, hundreds of thousands of people fled Mosul, but within days many residents returned to the city to live under the rule of a group so radical even Al-Qaeda distanced itself from the fighters. And to many, it’s a distinct improvement.

“Do you know how it was in Mosul before ISIS came? We had bombings and assassinations almost everyday. Now we have security,” said Abu Sadr, who asked to be identified by a nickname, from his home in Mosul’s Hay Al Sukar neigbourhood. “I’m going to work, going to the market, like normal, and people are coming back to the city.”

According to Abu Sadr it is basically life as usual in Mosul. There is little of the tyrannical Islamic Sharia enforcement the group’s name has become synonymous with. Abu Sadr has seen Pakistani, Afghani and Syrian fighters amid the Iraqi ISIS recruits, but says the fighters have yet to adorn the city with their signature black flag. They fly them only above their checkpoints, which some residents say are fewer than the army had there, two weeks ago.

“The streets are a bit quiet, some people are staying inside,” he said.

That doesn’t mean things are easy under ISIS control. The internet has been cut and residents complain of limited fuel and water, and 22 hours per day without electricity, while temperatures hit above 110 °F. “Since June 10, no fuel has come into Mosul,” Nujeifi, the city’s governor, says. Lines are now forming outside petrol stations in the adjacent Kurdish territory, as Mosul residents come to buy fuel and return.

ISIS has tried to nominate a new governor from among the ranks of old Baathist officers, but no one was willing, according to Nujeifi. “They all refused because they know there is no future with ISIS,” he said. “They are not able to run the city by themselves.”

But for many in Mosul who despised the rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government from Baghdad, a lack of services is not the most important thing. “We don’t have water or power but we have security,” said Omar, who came to Erbil from his native Mosul on Tuesday, a week after ISIS took the city. The streets of Mosul are calm, he said, and he only left for his job as a chef at this hotel in Kurdish Erbil. “They are not making any problems with the local people. ISIS only came for the army.”

The army didn’t stay. Iraqi troops abandoned their posts leaving a trail of weapons and uniforms. This week ISIS posted a series of gruesome photos online, claiming the mass execution of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. The photos could not be verified, but came amid a wave of documented killings of army, police and civilians connected to al-Maliki’s government.

Some say this is a taste of what is to come in Mosul, and other places where the black flag of ISIS now flies. “ISIS has only been 10 days in Mosul…wait six months,” interjects Hassan, a Syrian from the city of Raqqa, standing at the hotel. “At first they make you love them, but wait.”

ISIS seized control of Raqqa in 2013, after the city was captured by Syrian rebels. Hassan says the first months were relatively normal. But soon ISIS imposed strict Sharia law, mandating conservative dress and prayer and burning piles of cigarettes, which are seen as sinful. Those who broke the rules received public lashings.

“I think we are all waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. That it hasn’t dropped yet may be less a matter of ideology than one of resources, he says. If ISIS wants to build its Islamic caliphate from Mosul to Raqqa, it will need more than just the few thousand fighters it’s estimated to have in Iraq.

“They have made some remarkable gains, but they are still really few in number and trying to control an enormous amount of space,” says Pollack. “And they have a lot of competition in the form of the other Sunni militant groups and the Sunni tribes.”

In Syria, ISIS now fights both the government of Bashar Al-Assad and other rebel groups. Facing the Sunni tribes of Iraq, and their latent military power, would put their new gains at riskso in places like Mosul, ISIS is staying on its best behavior. This approach seems to have brought them into a cautious alliance with the Sunni population that was disenfranchised for years by al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government. But at some point ex-Baathist nationalism and ISIS’s Islamic aspirations may clash.

“ISIS alone is never going to be able to hold this territory, never mind conquer more,” said Pollack. “Right now they are minding their Ps and Qs because they are trying to recruit and trying to expand their control.”

TIME Iraq

Thousands of Iraqis Flee to Kurdish Territory to Escape Unrest

Iraqi Refugees Mosul
Children and families at a newly made refugee camp near Khazar check point in Mosul, Iraq on June 11, 2014. Barcroft Media/Landov

Families fled as Mosul fell

What was last week just a dusty plot of land next to a Kurdish military checkpoint in northern Iraq is now a temporary home to at least 500 Iraqis who fled Mosul as Islamist militants took their city.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has rapidly taken swathes of Iraqi territory since the start of its ongoing assault. It also vows to take the capital of Baghdad.

“We left our home at 5 a.m.,” said Miriam, who did not want to give her last name. She fled Mosul with her husband and four children, and her family’s now among the hundreds at the Kurdish site. “The neighbors told us that by 8 a.m. they were in our house.” Miriam’s husband often worked as a driver for police and army personnel, and friends told them ISIS was making threats against him. “As we left we were stopped at an ISIS checkpoint,” she said. “There was one Iraqi and one Syrian.”

ISIS is now in control of Mosul as well as stretches of land from Falluja in western Iraq to the eastern edge of Aleppo in Syria. It also controls parts of the Iraq-Syria border.

As ISIS entered Mosul, the national Iraqi army put up little resistance, with many abandoning their posts, stripping off uniforms and leaving weapons and military vehicles — some American-made — in the hands of the militants.

“They came on white pick-up trucks. All of them in the back with their modern weapons,” said Loay Annaqi, who also fled Mosul. “As ISIS came in, the army left. They just fired a few mortars.”

Annaqi and his family are now staying in one of 100 tents in this camp. The floor and walls are made of plastic sheets and they bake under the harsh Iraqi sun. They don’t have running water or electricity. Yet, Annaqi says he never wants to go back to Mosul, fearing ISIS wants to consolidate these lands and establish an Islamic state.

“Every place they go they put up their black flag,” said Annaqi.

But most feel safe here in the Kurdish territory. In recent days the well-trained Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have successfully battled ISIS around Kirkuk, the contested oil-rich city in the north, and some here now see Kurdish military strength as a bargaining chip for the sovereignty-seeking Kurds.

As ISIS moves toward Baghdad, Iraqi politicians and religious leaders are calling on citizens to defend their cities, heightening fears that Iraq could face a fresh, all-out civil war along a Sunni-Shi’ite divide. ISIS is a radical Sunni Islamist group too extreme even for al-Qaeda, which distanced itself from the militants last year.

But ISIS has sympathy here. Discontent with the Shi’ite-lead government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is rife, particularly among the Sunni population. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is primarily Sunni. Sitting in a refugee tent, Abu Mohamed, who didn’t want to use his real name, says al-Maliki is worse than ISIS.

“Since al-Maliki took over power he did nothing for us. No services. Just jailing people and oppressing people,” he said, echoing the complaints of many Iraqi Sunnis. “We have bad, and we have worse.”

Mohamed’s eldest daughter sits in the corner. Her husband was killed by a militant group in 2012 while he was working with the Iraqi government. But despite losing his son-in-law, Mohamed still says ISIS is better than al-Maliki, revealing deep sectarian tensions.

“I left because I have a family and was worried about the violence to come,” said Abu Mohammed. “So far ISIS is not targeting civilians. They target the army, the police and government institutions.”

But there have been many reports of attacks and summary executions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are now around 300,000 Iraqis taking refuge in Kurdish territory. Catherine Robinson, a UNHCR spokesperson,says Kurdish residents have welcomed the refugees with blankets, groceries and even hot meals.

However, there are decades of tensions between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. In their semi-autonomous region, Iraqi Kurds have achieved relative prosperity and security. It’s unclear how far the Kurdish welcome will stretch if Arab refugees continue to pour into their territory.

“We are still seeing people crossing the border, leaving the Mosul area, fearing there might be more violence in the coming days,” said Robinson. “At this point we are bracing ourselves for more people.”

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