TIME Iraq

Iraq Has a Summer Camp That Trains Shiite Boys to Fight ISIS

Mideast Iraq Shiite Militia Children
Khalid Mohammed—AP In this March 15, 2015 file photo, a young Shiite volunteer militiaman stands near a vehicle on his way to the battlefield against Islamic State fighters in Tikrit, Iraq.

It's yet another way minors are being dragged into Iraq's brutal war with the ISIS

BAGHDAD — In the steamy Baghdad night, sweat poured down the faces of the Iraqi teens as they marched around a school courtyard, training for battle against the Islamic State group.

This is summer camp in Iraq, set up by the country’s largest paramilitary force after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric issued an edict calling on students as young as middle-school age to use their summer vacations to prepare to fight the Sunni extremists.

Dressed in military fatigues, 15-year-old Asam Riad was among the dozens of youths doing high-knee marches, his chest puffed out to try to appear as tall as the older cadets.

“We’ve been called to defend the nation,” the scrawny boy asserted, his voice cracking as he vowed to join the Popular Mobilization Forces, the government-sanctioned umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias.

“I am not scared because my brothers are fighting alongside me.”

With dozens of such camps around the country, hundreds of students have gone through the training though it is impossible to say how many went on to fight the Sunni extremists since those who do so go independently.

This summer, The Associated Press saw over a dozen armed boys on the front line in western Anbar province, including some as young as 10. Of around 200 cadets in a training class visited by the AP this month, about half were under the age of 18, with some as young as 15. Several said they intended to join their fathers and older brothers on the front lines.

It’s yet another way minors are being dragged into Iraq’s brutal war as the military, Shiite militias, Sunni tribes and Kurdish fighters battle to take back territory from Islamic State militants who seized much of the country’s north and west last year. The Sunni extremists have aggressively enlisted children as young as 10 for combat, as suicide bombers and as executioners in their horrifying videos. This month, Human Rights Watch said that Syrian Kurdish militias fighting the militants continue to deploy underage fighters.

Among those training in the streets of Baghdad, 15-year-old Jaafar Osama said he used to want to be an engineer when he grows up, but now he wants to be a fighter. His father is a volunteer fighting alongside the Shiite militias in Anbar and his older brother is fighting in Beiji, north of Baghdad.

“God willing, when I complete my training I will join them, even if it means sacrificing my life to keep Iraq safe,” he said.

The training program could have serious implications for the U.S.-led coalition, which provides billions of dollars in military and economic aid to the Iraqi government but has distanced itself from the Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. does not work directly with the Popular Mobilization Forces, but the group receives weapons and funding from the Iraqi government and is trained by the Iraqi military, which receives its training from the U.S.

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 says the U.S. cannot provide certain forms of military support, including foreign military financing and direct commercial sales to governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support paramilitaries or militias that do.

When informed of the AP findings, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying the U.S. is “very concerned by the allegations on the use of child soldiers in Iraq among some Popular Mobilization forces in the fight against ISIL,” using an acronym for the militant group. “We have strongly condemned this practice around the world and will continue to do so.”

For Iraq’s Shiite majority, the war against the Islamic State group — which views them as heretics to be killed — is a life-or-death fight for which the entire community has mobilized.

Last year, when IS took over the northern city of Mosul, stormed to the doorstep of Baghdad and threatened to destroy Shiite holy sites, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the public to volunteer to fight. So great was his influence that hundreds of thousands of men came forward to join the hastily-established Popular Mobilization Forces along with some of the long-established Shiite militias, many of which receive support from Iran.

Then, on June 9, as schools let out, al-Sistani issued a new fatwa urging young people in college, high school and even middle school to use their summer vacations to “contribute to (the country’s) preservation by training to take up arms and prepare to fend off risk if this is required.”

In response, the Popular Mobilization Forces set up summer camps in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods from Baghdad to Basra. A spokesman for the group, Kareem al-Nouri, said the camps give “lessons in self-defense” and underage volunteers are expected to return to school by September, not go to the battle front.

A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister’s office echoed that. There may be “some isolated incidents” of underage fighters joining combat on their own, Saad al-Harithi told the AP. “But there has been no instruction by the Marjaiyah (the top Shiite religious authority) or the Popular Mobilization Forces for children to join the battle.” ”

“We are a government that frowns upon children going to war,” he said.

But the line between combat training and actually joining combat is blurry, and it is weakly enforced by the Popular Mobilization Forces. Multiple militias operate under its umbrella, with fighters loyal to different leaders who often act independently.

At the training camp in a middle-class Shiite neighborhood of western Baghdad earlier this month, the young cadets spoke openly of joining battle in front of their trainers, who did nothing to contradict them.

Neighborhood youths spent their evenings in training every night during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended in mid-July, with mock exercises held every few days since then for those who wish to continue.

The boys ran through the streets practicing urban warfare techniques, since the toughest battles with the Islamic State group are likely to involve street fighting. They were taught to hold, control and aim light weapons, though they didn’t fire them. They also took part in public service activities like holding blood drives and collecting food and clothing.

Earlier this summer, at one of the hottest front lines, near the IS-held city of Fallujah in western Anbar province, the AP spoke to a number of young boys, some heavily armed, among the Shiite militiamen.

Baghdad natives Hussein Ali, 12, and his cousin Ali Ahsan, 14, said they joined their fathers on the battlefield after they finished their final exams. Carrying AK-47’s, they paced around the Anbar desert, boasting of their resolve to liberate the predominantly Sunni province from IS militants.

“It’s our honor to serve our country,” Hussein Ali said, adding that some of his schoolmates were also fighting. When asked if he was afraid, he smiled and said no.

The fight they are engaged in has been brutal. IS atrocities are the most notorious and egregious, including mass killings of captured soldiers and civilians. But Shiite militias are said to have committed abuses as well. In February, Human Rights Watch accused individual Shiite militias under the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella of “possible war crimes,” including forcing Sunni civilians from their home and abducting and summarily executing them.

In June, the United Nations Children’s Fund called for “urgent measures” to be taken by the Iraqi government to protect children, including criminalizing the recruitment of children and “the association of children with the Popular Mobilization Forces.”

The U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons report Monday in which it lists foreign governments identified over the past year as having armed forces or government-supported armed groups that recruit and use child soldiers. Those governments are subject to restrictions in the following fiscal year on certain security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment. The report lists Syria, but not Iraq.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, said that if the Shiite militias are using children as fighters, “then the countries that are supporting them are in violation of the U.N. Convention” on the Rights of the Child.

“If you are supporting the Iraqi army, then by extension, you are supporting the PMF,” she said.

Iraq has a long history of training underage fighters. Under Saddam Hussein, boys 12 through 17 known as “Saddam’s lion cubs” would attend monthlong training during summer breaks with the goal of eventually merging them into the Fadayeen — a paramilitary force loyal to Saddam’s Baathist regime.

The Iraqi army restricts the age of its recruits to between 18 and 35, a policy that rights groups say is enforced. But there is no law governing the Popular Mobilization Forces. A draft law for the national guard, a force geared toward empowering Sunni tribes to police their own communities, purposely omits any age restrictions, lawmakers saying they want to open it to qualified fighters over age 35.

The U.N. convention does not ban giving military training to minors. But Jo Becker, the advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that it puts children at risk.

“Governments like to say, ‘Of course, we can recruit without putting children in harm’s way,’ but in a place of conflict, those landscapes blur very quickly,” she said.

Once in a combat situation, children are plunged into the horrors of war, she said. “They don’t have a mature sense of right and wrong and they may commit atrocities more easily than adults.”

TIME Military

U.S. Prepares to Fly Deeper into Syrian Civil War

Operation Northern Watch Enforces No-Fly Zone
Air Force / Getty Images A U.S. Air Force F-16 leaves a Turkish base in 2002 for a mission over Iraq. Soon they are likely to be flying similar assignments over Syria.

ISIS is the target, but U.S. pilots could also be at risk

The U.S. flew “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq for more than a decade before the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. U.S. warplanes kept Iraqi aircraft out of the sky, and targeted Iraqi air-defense systems that threatened to shoot. Now, along with neighboring Turkey, the U.S. is planning to launch something similar over a stretch of northern Syria.

Eliminating Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria along a strip of the Syrian-Turkish border is the key goal, opening up a safe haven for tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the country’s four-year-old civil war that has killed more than 200,000. Whether the move hastens the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad—or leads to the shootdown and possible capture or death of an American pilot—remains unknowable.

Institute for the Study of WarThe striped section of the map is the proposed “no-ISIS zone.”

U.S. officials stressed Monday that Washington and Ankara are planning to step up bombing of ISIS targets on the ground, and not create a formal no-fly zone, which would bar Syrian warplanes from bombing runs. “It’s not a no-fly zone—it’s a bombing campaign,” says retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, who oversaw the Iraqi no-fly zones as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. He doesn’t think such a bombing campaign will have much effect. “We see how well a year of bombing has worked in Iraq,” where ISIS remains in control of much of the western part of the nation.

The chance of clashes between Syria and U.S. and Turkish aircraft will be more likely once details of the new zone are hammered out and stepped-up U.S.-Turkish attacks on ISIS targets begin. “I think they’ll tell the Syrians to just stay out of the air space,” Zinni says of U.S. and Turkish commanders. “They’ll issue a demarche: ‘If you shoot any air defense weapons at us, we’ll nail you.’ That’s what we did to the Iraqis.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the Syrians aren’t challenging U.S. warplanes. “There is no opposition in the air when coalition aircraft are flying in that part of Syria,” he said. “The Assad regime is not challenging us; [ISIS] doesn’t have airplanes … they’re not being shot at.”

But that’s hardly a guarantee. U.S. commanders will ensure their flight crew fly high and well clear of any known Syrian air-defense threats to minimize the chance of a U.S. pilot being shot down and—in the worst case—falling into ISIS’s hands and murdered. But accidents and snafus can occasionally happen. “We never even had a plane scratched,” Zinni says of the more than 200,000 U.S. flights in the Iraqi no-fly zones from 1992 to 2003. “It was absolutely remarkable.” (Unfortunately, this record was marred by the 1994 shootdown of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters, killing all 26 aboard, by a pair of U.S. Air Force F-15s.)

Conflicting loyalties and priorities complicate the more aggressive campaign. Last week, after a suicide bombing blamed on ISIS killed 30 in a Turkish border town, Turkey began flying air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, and gave the U.S. long-sought permission to launch air strikes from Turkish bases. Turkey, a NATO ally, is growing increasingly concerned with ISIS on its doorstep, the growing refugee problem, and military successes by its Kurdish minority, some elements of which are seeking their own state.

Kurdish forces control most of the Syrian-Turkish frontier, and the Turkish government views them as a threat much like ISIS. Ankara is also more interested in toppling Assad than battling ISIS. “If there is one person who is responsible for all these terrorist crimes and humanitarian tragedies in Syria, it is Assad’s approach, using chemical weapons, barrel bombs against civilians,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN. His government has called for a NATO meeting Tuesday to discuss the ISIS fight.

U.S. and Turkish air power are expected to be used to reinforce Syrian rebels on the ground who are battling ISIS, creating a 68-mile “no-ISIS zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border. “Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army will be strengthened…so they can take control of areas freed from [ISIS], air cover will be provided,” Davutoglu told Turkey’s A Haber television news channel.. “It would be impossible for them to take control of the area without it.”

U.S. officials have been complaining since the Pentagon began bombing ISIS targets a year ago of a dearth of reliable partners on the ground, in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS drove the U.S.-trained Iraqi army out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, a year ago, and the U.S. has trained only about 60 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS’s 30,000-strong force.

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Forces Retake University From ISIS

Mideast Iraq United States anbar
AP In this Thursday, July, 23, 2015 photo, Iraqi Army soldiers patrol with new U.S.-made weapons and armored vehicles in an eastern suburb of Ramadi, backed by Shiite and Sunni pro-government fighters and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against Islamic State group positions in Anbar province, Iraq.

The battle was part of its push to reclaim territory across the Anbar province

(BAGHDAD)—Iraqi government forces recaptured Anbar University from the Islamic State militant group Sunday after hours of fierce clashes, provincial officials said, as part of its push to reclaim territory across the embattled province.

The university, located 5 kilometers (3 miles) south of Anbar’s provincial capital, the militant-held city of Ramadi, was under the full control of government forces, which had entered the complex early Sunday amid intense combat with the militant group.

Athal al-Fahdawi, a provincial councilman said a number of buildings in and around the university complex have been badly damaged or destroyed, but that the militants retreated. Another Anbar councilman, Faleh al-Issawi, told The Associated Press that about two dozen Islamic State fighters were killed in the clashes. He declined to provide more details.

The Iraqi military launched a large-scale operation this month to retake Anbar province, in which most of the biggest cities are held by the Islamic State group. The loss of Ramadi in mid-May recalled the collapse of Iraqi security forces last summer in the face of the Islamic State group’s blitz into Iraq that saw it capture a third of the country, where it has declared an Islamic caliphate.

A U.S.-led coalition has launched more than 3,000 airstrikes in Iraq, many of them in Anbar province. The fall of Ramadi was the latest defeat on the ground calling into question the Obama administration’s hopes of relying solely on airstrikes to support the Iraqi forces in expelling the extremists.

Government-backed forces, which include the Iraqi military, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes, are also currently assembling around the militant-held city of Fallujah, which was the first major city in Iraq to fall to the militant group in early 2014.

Troubles first began for Anbar University in June 2014 when militants stormed the campus, briefly taking students hostage before withdrawing from the school amid gunfire. Ramadi was long under the protection of the local tribes and government-backed forces, which managed to hold on to the city longer than most others in the province.

—————-

Yacoub reported from Amman, Jordan.

TIME Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Says Air Strike Has Killed al-Qaeda Operative

Ash Carter, Otto Liller
Carolyn Kaster—AP U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, center, stands as he observes Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service forces participate in a training exercise at the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service Academy on the Baghdad Airport Complex on July 23, 2015

The airstrike killed Abu Khalil Al-Sudani on July 11

(IRBIL, Iraq) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says a U.S. airstrike has killed a senior Al-Qaeda operational commander in eastern Afghanistan.

He said in a statement Friday that the airstrike killed Abu Khalil Al-Sudani on July 11.

Carter called Al-Sudani a senior shura member and head of Al-Qaeda suicide and explosive operations, and said he is directly linked to plots to attack the United States.

He said Al-Sudani also directed operations against coalition, Afghan and Pakistani forces, and maintained a close association with Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda.

Carter added that two other “violent extremists” were killed in the airstrike. He did not name the two others.

The strike was in the Bermal district of Paktika province.

TIME Iraq

Defense Secretary Ash Carter Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

Carter boards his plane at Queen Alia Airport in Amman
Carolyn Kaster—Reuters U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, joined by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ron Lewis, right, and Chief of Staff Eric Rosenbach, left, boards his plane at Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan on July 23, 2015, en route to Baghdad.

It is Carter's first visit to Iraq since he took office in February

(BAGHDAD) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived unannounced in Baghdad on Thursday to assess the government’s progress in healing the country’s sectarian divisions and hear the latest on support for the Iraqi army’s coming attempt to recapture the key city of Ramadi from the Islamic State.

It is Carter’s first visit to Iraq since he took office in February.

His first stop on a daylong visit to the Iraqi capital was the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service Academy. He spent about 20 minutes there, watching Iraqi soldiers in their trademark all-black uniforms maneuver and fire at silhouette targets at a firing range. Some wore partial or full-face masks.

Carter told the Iraqi counterterrorism commanders: “Your forces have performed so very well, so very bravely. And I know that you have suffered great losses too, but I just wanted to tell you that it is very clear to us in Washington what a capable force this is. So it’s a privilege for us to be your partners.”

Carter is not expected to announce any major change in U.S. strategy or increase in U.S. troop levels. The approximately 3,360 troops now in Iraq are largely involved in training Iraqi troops, advising Iraqi commanders on battle plans, and providing security for U.S. personnel and facilities. The U.S., joined by several coalition partners, also is conducting airstrikes daily to chip away at the Islamic State’s grip on large parts of Iraq.

The visit, however, comes at an important moment for the Iraqi government, which has announced a counteroffensive to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. The actual assault on the city has not yet begun, but a Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said it could start within several weeks.

The Ramadi campaign will be a crucial test not only for the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but also for the U.S. strategy of relying on Iraqi security forces, operating in coordination with U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, to overcome the smaller Islamic State forces. President Barack Obama has opted not to commit U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq, saying the only lasting solution is for Iraq to fight for itself.

American military leaders have said they would recommend to Obama that he approve moving U.S. military advisers and perhaps special operations forces closer to the front lines if they believed it would make a decisive difference at certain stages of the Iraqi campaign. But Warren said no such recommendation has yet been made. Obama’s critics in Congress complain that he is missing an opportunity to swiftly defeat the Islamic State by not sending U.S. ground combat troops or at least placing military advisers with Iraqi units to make them more effective.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Iraq last weekend, supports Obama’s approach. He told a congressional hearing July 7 that he realizes the Islamic State’s threat to the U.S. homeland “could increase” as a result of what he called a patient U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria.

“But I also would suggest to you that we would contribute mightily to ISIL’s message as a movement were we to confront them directly on the ground in Iraq and Syria,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State and alluding to the risk of enhancing the group’s ability to recruit fighters.

After Iraqi troops abandoned Ramadi in early May, handing the Islamic State its biggest battlefield victory of 2015, Carter caused a stir in Iraq when he said its army “just showed no will to fight.” That frank assessment exposed a central Iraqi weakness born of the country’s sectarian split.

Carter noted then that the Iraqi forces were not outnumbered in Ramadi, yet they abandoned their weapons and equipment, including dozens of American-supplied tanks, armored fighting vehicles and artillery pieces. They became part of the Islamic State’s arsenal and were then targeted in U.S. airstrikes.

The Islamic State will again be outnumbered when, as expected, the Iraqi army makes a renewed assault on Ramadi. Warren, the Pentagon spokesman who is traveling with Carter, said there are between 1,000 and 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Ramadi. He would not say how many Iraqi troops are likely to undertake the Ramadi counteroffensive, but he said there are “several thousand” available in the area right now.

The U.S. accelerated and expanded its training effort in Anbar province earlier this summer, but Warren said that none of the Iraqi troops currently available for the Ramadi counteroffensive are among the nearly 7,000 regular Iraq army soldiers who have received U.S. training. He said the government has deployed those trainees elsewhere in the country, although he did not rule out that they might be added to the Ramadi force.

Warren said Iraqi security forces currently are carrying out “isolation operations” around Ramadi, meaning they are cutting off avenues of Islamic State resupply and reinforcement. Although under Iraqi command, the battle plan has been shaped to some degree by American advisers.

“We are beginning to isolate Ramadi from multiple directions,” Warren said, “… to place a noose around the city.” At a later stage — the timing of which he would not predict — the assault phase of the campaign will begin.

The loss of Ramadi was a major setback for Iraq, not just for the territory given up but for the psychological blow it inflicted on the security forces, whose confidence already was low. It also meant a delay in the push to retake a city of even greater strategic importance, Mosul in northern Iraq. Mosul has been in Islamic State hands since June 2014.

When Carter became Pentagon chief in February, replacing Chuck Hagel, U.S. military officials were talking openly about hoping the Iraqis would march on the city by May. Those hopes had faded even before Ramadi fell. Still, the current focus on recapturing Ramadi will eventually have to move to Mosul and other parts of western and northern Iraq if Obama’s vision of empowering a unified Iraq is to become reality.

TIME Iraq

Car Bombs Kill At Least 26 People in Baghdad

Civilians inspect damages a day after a car bombing hit the eastern neighborhood of New Baghdad, Iraq July 22, 2015.
Khalid Mohammed—AP Civilians inspect damages a day after a car bombing hit the eastern neighborhood of New Baghdad, Iraq July 22, 2015.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks

(BAGHDAD)—A pair of car bombs exploded Wednesday at crowded popular markets in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, killing at least 26 people and wounding 58, authorities said.

The first explosion took place in the impoverished neighborhood of al-Bayaa in southwestern Baghdad, a police official said. The blast killed at least 18 people and wounded 36, the official said.

Later Wednesday, a second car bomb detonated in the northeastern neighborhood of al-Shaab, killing at least eight people and wounding 22, police said.

Hospital officials corroborated the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief journalists.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Islamic State militant group frequently targets Shiite areas across the country, as well as military checkpoints and government installations. The radical Sunni group seeks to destabilize the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and targets those they view as apostates. They hold roughly a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in their self-declared “caliphate.”

On Friday, the militant group attacked a popular market in Iraq’s eastern Diyala province, killing 115 people — the majority of them Shiite — in what was one of the largest single attacks in Iraq over the past decade. Bombings occur almost daily in Baghdad, but violence has been relatively subdued in the capital since the height of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.

Large-scale military operations are currently underway in Iraq’s western Anbar province and in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, as the Iraqi military and the government-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Forces look to reclaim territory in the country’s Sunni heartland. A U.S.-led coalition is supporting the operation with airstrikes.

___

Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed to this report.

TIME Military

Unmanned Aerial Vengeance: Drone Takes Out Terrorist Linked to Marine’s Killing

Marines Mourn Fallen Comrade
David McNew / Getty Images Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the home base of Tony Sledd, honor him three days after he was killed in Kuwait in 2002.

Thirteen years after Kuwaiti ambush, Lance Corporal Sledd’s death is avenged

“If you target Americans,” President Obama warned terrorists during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday, “you will find no safe haven.” Like an explosive exclamation point, the Pentagon confirmed his pledge hours later, announcing that the U.S. military had killed Muhsin al-Fadhli. Thirteen years earlier, the military said, al-Fadhli played a role in the killing of Marine Lance Corporal Antonio “Tony” Sledd.

It was a lengthy wait, and one that may not bring much comfort to Sledd’s family, who complained he never should have died. But the nature of both killings—and the 4,656 days between them—highlights the unusual complications of a religion-fueled war, where traditional norms of warfare often don’t apply.

Sledd was 20 when he died on Oct. 8, 2002, on Faylaka Island, 20 miles east of Kuwait City in the Persian Gulf. He was killed by a pair of Kuwaitis who had infiltrated a U.S. military training exercise in a white truck and opened fire with their AK-47s.

USMCLance Corporal Antonio Sledd

Sledd’s killing has been described by some as the first American casualty of the second Iraq war. While the invasion was five months away, the Marines were practicing urban warfare on the island, readying for the conflict. The killers gunned down Sledd during a break in the training as he readied a makeshift baseball diamond, echoing the sport he played as a youngster in Hillsborough, Fla.

As bizarre as Sheed’s death was, so was the way the U.S. military killed al-Fadhli, 34: with a drone strike July 8 as he traveled by vehicle near Sarmada in northwestern Syria. It took the Pentagon two weeks to confirm his death. “Al-Fadhli was the leader of a network of veteran al-Qaeda operatives, sometimes called the Khorasan Group, who are plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. He added that al-Fadhli also was “involved” in the 2002 attack “against U.S. Marines on Faylaka Island in Kuwait.”

While the Pentagon said al-Fadhli was “among the few” al Qaeda leaders who “received advance notification” of the 9/11 attacks before they happened, the attack on the Marines on Faylaka Island was the only U.S. death the Pentagon cited in the statement detailing al-Fadhli’s killing in which he was alleged to have played an active role.

U.S. GovernmentMuhsin al-Fadhli

Sledd was one of about 150 Marines on the island, from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard a flotilla led by the amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood.

The day before the attack, some leathernecks had spotted the two Kuwaitis who they believed killed Sledd and wounded a second Marine. “We weren’t expecting trouble,” one Marine recalled. “I thought they were probably just curious about Marines.”

The next day, the Marines began their training using blanks, with armed sentries standing guard. But when there was a break in the action, Sledd’s platoon turned in their live ammo, according to Marines who were there. After shooting Sledd and wounding Lance Corporal George Simpson, 21, of Dayton, Ohio, Anas al-Kandari, 21, and his cousin, Jassem al-Hajiri, 26, suspected Islamic militants, were killed by a second group of Marines after firing on them.

An Army medevac helicopter picked up Sledd, who had been shot in the chin and stomach, within 10 minutes. “Marines can be as tough as woodpecker lips, and I thought he was going to live,” his first sergeant said after seeing him just before the rescue chopper lifted off, bound for a military hospital in Kuwait City. “He squeezed my hand as hard as any healthy Marine could do.” But he died during surgery.

“Till this day I don’t think I did enough and I want to apologize to Sledd’s family and friends,” a Marine comrade posted on a memorial website in 2009, more than six years after his death. “It was my job to bring him back and I didn’t, I’m so sorry!”

Sledd’s parents were upset that their son died amid armed Marines in an allied nation. “There’s no way civilians should have been in that area where Tony was,” Tom Sledd told the Orlando Sentinel shortly after his son’s death. “They should have been challenged and shot before they got close enough to shoot Tony…he was a good boy. He didn’t have to die so young.” His mother, Norma, agreed. “Security perimeters were not set up, and that is why he lost his life,” she said. “They murdered my son.”

Ten months later, a corps probe agreed that proper security would most likely have prevented the young Marine’s death. Sledd’s parents couldn’t be reached for comment on the Pentagon announcement of al-Fadhli’s death.

Sledd, whose fraternal twin, Mike, was serving in the corps when his brother died, sent his mother an email shortly before the attack. “Tell everyone I love them and we are doing the best we can to protect y’all’s country,” it read. “Love, Big T.”

Earlier this month, his government did its best to return the favor.

U.S. Government
TIME Iraq

Children Told to Behead Dolls at ISIS Training Camps

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
Reuters A member loyal to ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014

"They told me it was the head of the infidels"

(SANLIURFA, Turkey) — The children had all been shown videos of beheadings and told by their trainers with the Islamic State group that they would perform one someday. First, they had to practice technique. The more than 120 boys were each given a doll and a sword and told, cut off its head.

A 14-year-old who was among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three times.

“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy, renamed Yahya by his ISIS captors, told The Associated Press last week in northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the IS training camp.

When Islamic State extremists overran Yazidi towns in northern Iraq last year, they butchered older men and enslaved many of the women and girls. Dozens of young Yazidi boys like Yahya had a different fate: ISIS sought to re-educate them. They forced them to convert to Islam from their ancient faith and tried to turn them into jihadi fighters.

It is part of a concerted effort by the extremists to build a new generation of militants, according to AP interviews with residents who fled or still live under ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The group is recruiting teens and children using gifts, threats and brainwashing. Boys have been turned into killers and suicide bombers. An ISIS video issued last week showed a boy beheading a Syrian soldier under an adult militant’s supervision. Last month, a video showed 25 children unflinchingly shooting 25 captured Syrian soldiers in the head.

In schools and mosques, militants infuse children with extremist doctrine, often turning them against their own parents. Fighters in the street befriend children with toys. ISIS training camps churn out the Ashbal, Arabic for “lion cubs,” child fighters for the “caliphate” that ISIS declared across its territory. The caliphate is a historic form of Islamic rule that the group claims to be reviving with its own radical interpretation, though the vast majority of Muslims reject its claims.

“I am terribly worried about future generations,” said Abu Hafs Naqshabandi, a Syrian sheikh who runs religion classes for refugees in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa to counter ISIS ideology.

The indoctrination mainly targets Sunni Muslim children. In ISIS-held towns, militants show young people videos at street booths. They hold outdoor events for children, distributing soft drinks and candy — and propaganda.

They tell adults, “We have given up on you, we care about the new generation,” said an anti-ISIS activist who fled the Syrian city of Raqqa, the extremists’ de facto capital. He spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve the safety of relatives under ISIS rule.

With the Yazidis, whom ISIS considers heretics ripe for slaughter, the group sought to take another community’s youth, erase their past and replace it with radicalism.

Yahya, his little brother, their mother and hundreds of Yazidis were captured when ISIS seized the Iraqi town of Sulagh in August. They were taken to Raqqa, where the brothers and other Yazidi boys aged 8 to 15 were put in the Farouq training camp. They were given Muslim Arabic names to replace their Kurdish names. Yahya asked that AP not use his real name for his and his family’s safety.

He spent nearly five months there, training eight to 10 hours a day, including exercises, weapons drills and Quranic studies. They told him Yazidis are “dirty” and should be killed, he said. They showed him how to shoot someone from close range. The boys hit each other in some exercises. Yahya punched his 10-year-old brother, knocking out a tooth.

The trainer “said if I didn’t do it, he’d shoot me,” Yahya said. “They … told us it would make us tougher. They beat us everywhere.”

In an ISIS video of Farouq camp, boys in camouflage do calisthenics and shout slogans. An ISIS fighter says the boys have studied jihad so “in the coming days God Almighty can put them in the front lines to battle the infidels.”

Videos from other camps show boys crawling under barbed wire and practicing shooting. One kid lies on the ground and fires a machine gun; he’s so small the recoil bounces his whole body back a few inches. Boys undergoing endurance training stand unmoving as a trainer hits their heads with a pole.

ISIS claims to have hundreds of such camps. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented at least 1,100 Syrian children under 16 who joined IS this year. At least 52 were killed in fighting, including eight suicide bombers, it said.

Yahya escaped in early March. Fighters left the camp to carry out an attack, and as remaining guards slept he and his brother slipped away, he said. He urged a friend to come too, but he refused, saying he was a Muslim now and liked Islam.

Yahya’s mother was in a house nearby with other abducted Yazidis — he had occasionally been allowed to visit her. So he and his brother went there. They travelled to the Syrian city of Minbaj and stayed with a Russian ISIS fighter, Yahya said. He contacted an uncle in Iraq, who negotiated to pay the Russian for the two boys and their mother. A deal struck, they met the uncle in Turkey then went to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk.

Now in Dohuk, Yahya and his brother spend much of their time watching TV. They appear outgoing and social. But traces of their ordeal show. When his uncle handed Yahya a pistol, the boy deftly assembled and loaded it.

And he will never forget the videos of beheadings ISIS trainers showed the boys.

“I was scared when I saw that,” he said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to behead someone like that. Even as an adult.”

___

Jannsen reported from Dohuk, Iraq. Associated Press writers Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, and Vivian Salama in Eski Mosul, Iraq, contributed to this report

TIME Iraq

ISIS Suicide Attack at Iraq Marketplace Kills 115

At least 170 people were injured

(BAGHDAD)—An attack by the Islamic State group on a crowded marketplace in Iraq’s eastern Diyala province has killed 115 people, including women and children, in one of the deadliest single attacks in the country in the past decade.

The mostly-Shiite victims were gathered to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ended Friday for Iraqi Shiites and a day earlier for Iraqi Sunni Muslims.

Police said a small truck detonated in a crowded marketplace in the town of Khan Beni Saad Friday night in what quickly turned celebrations into a scene of horror, with body parts scattered across the market. At least 170 people were injured in the attack, police officials said, speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to brief the media.

Men quickly emptied boxes of tomatoes to use them for carrying the bodies of small children, witnesses said, while adult victims lay scattered around the attack scene waiting for medical assistance.

“Khan Beni Saad has become a disaster area because of this huge explosion,” Diyala resident Sayif Ali said. “This is the first day of Eid, hundreds of people got killed, many injured, and we are still searching for more bodies.”

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on Twitter accounts associated with the militant group.

Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, said Saturday that the attack has struck an “ugly sectarian chord,” and added that government is making “attempts to regulate Daesh’s terror from destabilizing Diyala security,” referring to the militant group by its Arabic acronym. But anger is rife in the volatile province, where a number of towns were captured by the Islamic State group last year. Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have since retaken those areas, but clashes between the militants and security forces continue.

“We went out to the market for shopping and preparations for the holiday Eid in order to receive holiday cheer,” said another resident, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution. “But this joy has turned to grief and we have lost family, friends and relatives, all because of this government’s failure to provide us with security.”

Security forces were out in full force across Diyala on Saturday, with dozens of new checkpoints and security protocols immediately implemented in the wake of Friday’s attack.

“This horrible carnage is truly outside all boundaries of civilized behavior,” Jan Kubis, the special representative of the United Nations mission in Iraq, said Saturday.”

The Sunni militant group has been behind several similar large-scale attacks on civilians or military checkpoints as it seeks to expand its territory. The group currently controls about a third of Iraq and Syria in a self-declared caliphate.

In August last year, at least 64 people were killed in an attack on a Sunni mosque in Diyala in what locals believed was a retaliatory attack against Diyala tribes that refused to proclaim loyalty to the Islamic State group.

The United States has spent billions arming and training the Iraqi military, but it performed poorly last year when Islamic State militants swept across western and northern Iraq, routing four divisions. The U.S. and a coalition of nations have been conducting airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria since last year, but it has not stopped the group from making advances. The militants recently captured the city of Ramadi, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria.

Diyala, which borders Iran, is the only province in Iraq where Iranian jets are known to have conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State group earlier this year.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a roadside bomb on a commercial street in Baghdad’s Dora district Saturday killed four people and wounded seven. North of Baghdad, a roadside bomb on a commercial street in al-Rashidiya killed three people and wounded 11.

Meanwhile, reports emerged Saturday that the Islamic State group used projectile-delivered poison gas against Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria on several occasions last month.

Joint, on-site investigations by two U.K.-based organizations — Conflict Armament Research (CAR) and Sahan Research — concluded that IS forces used chemical agents to attack Iraqi peshmerga forces and Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on June 21, 22 and 28.

In the Syria attacks, IS militants launched 17 artillery projectiles against YPG forces stationed to the south of the village of Tell Brak in Hassakeh province. The projectiles released a chemical agent which induced in some cases loss of consciousness and temporary, localized paralysis. Twelve YPG personnel were hospitalized. Another seven projectiles were also launched into civilian residential areas in Hassakeh.

In the Iraq attack, IS forces fired a projectile containing a liquid chemical agent at a peshmerga checkpoint near the Mosul Dam, triggering symptoms among the Iraqi forces that included headaches, nausea and light burns to the skin.

The findings on the attacks in Syria were confirmed by an YPG statement issued Saturday. The type of chemical used is not known. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported an apparent IS chemical attack on June 28.

There have been several allegations that the Islamic State group has used chlorine previously in both Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State group, which controls a third of Syria and Iraq in its self-declared caliphate, has not commented on the claims.

TIME Iraq

Iraq Begins Operation to Oust ISIS from Anbar

Iraq ISIS
Reuters Members of Iraq's Shi'ite paramilitaries launch a rocket towards Islamic State militants in the outskirts of the city of Falluja, in the province of Anbar, Iraq on July 12, 2015.

It is not the first time the Iraqi government has announced an operation to retake the western province

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government began on Monday a long-awaited large-scale military operation to dislodge Islamic State militants from Iraq’s western Anbar province, a military spokesman announced.

The spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, said in a televised statement that the operation started at dawn Monday and that government forces are backed by Shiite and Sunni pro-government fighters. Rasool didn’t clarify whether the U.S.-led international coalition is taking part.

This is not the first time the Iraqi government has announced an operation to retake Anbar — where several key towns, including the provincial capital Ramadi, remain under IS control. In May, authorities announced an operation to retake Ramadi, but there has not been any major progress on the ground since then.

The Islamic State group, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014 and captured Ramadi in May. Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists in recent months with the help of the air campaign, scored a major victory in recapturing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit last month.

In a brief statement, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, vowed to “take revenge from Daesh criminals on the battlefield… and their cowardly crimes against unarmed civilians will only increase our determination to chase them and to expel them from the land of Iraq.”

During the past few weeks, the troops have been moving to cut the militants’ supply routes and to surround and isolate Ramadi and Fallujah.

Rasool didn’t provide any further details on the ongoing operations. By noon, the country’s state TV reported government forces recapturing villages and areas around Fallujah.

Meanwhile Monday, the IS group claimed responsibility for Sunday’s series of bombings in Shiite areas of the capital, Baghdad, that killed at least 29 people and wounded 81 others, according to the IS-affiliated Aamaq news agency.

Iraq is going through its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Islamic State group controls large swaths of the country’s north and west after capturing Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul and the majority of Anbar province.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com