TIME Foreign Policy

Back to Iraq

Our war against al-Qaeda-style extremism isn't over. It may have only just begun

Ryan Crocker, who probably knows the region better than any other living American diplomat, cut to the chase about the situation in Iraq:

“This is about America’s national security…We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the ISIS leader, “have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”

We’ve been in a fight for more than a decade, too. It began as a just attempt to retaliate against those who attacked America on September 11, 2001. It was proportionate, at first–if not terribly effective when it came to taking out Osama Bin Laden. The war against Al Qaeda should have been a special forces operation, from start to finish. But the flagrantly disproportionate Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq changed all that…and the Obama surge in Afghanistan didn’t help much, either. Suddenly we found ourselves locked in the middle of civil wars in both countries (or perhaps I should say, “countries”). The President was right to extricate our combat troops from those futile fights.

But the rise of ISIS (or ISIL, if you prefer) has changed the game again. We are back to the original enemy: a reconstituted version of untrammeled Sunni extremism, which–as Crocker says–poses a direct terrorist threat to the United States, a threat we cannot afford to ignore.

Yes, we’re sick of war, sick of the region and particularly sick of Iraq–but, as seemed clear in the days after 9/11, and less clear since, this is a struggle that is going to be with us for a very long time. It doesn’t need to be the thunderous, all-consuming struggle that the Bush-Cheney government made it out to be. It will require a strategic rethink of who our friends and enemies actually are in the region. (As others have suggested, we may find that Iran is part of the solution rather than part of the problem–this is one case where America’s and Israel’s national security interests may diverge). And it will require a far smarter response than our first attempts to deal with Al Qaeda. It will have to be measured, proportionate–an insinuation rather than an invasion, acting in concert with true allies who also understand the threat and are capable of sophisticated covert operations.

During a conference call with a National Security Council expert yesterday, a reporter asked why this mission to protect the Kurds and Yazidis, and the Americans in Erbil, was different from the chaos in Libya, where we evacuated our embassy staff from Tripoli. The answer should be obvious: the chaos in Libya is a civil war among competing tribes. It is part of a regional struggle to redraw the straight lines on the maps that were drawn by Europeans 100 years ago. It will be a bloody fight for a generation and, in most cases, will be peripheral to our national interests. But when a terrorist group establishes an actual state, as seems to be the case with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it is an entirely different story. The world cannot tolerate a safe haven from which attacks can be launched against religious minorities, as is now happening, or against other countries (including the US)–which is the stated intent of the ISIS leadership. That is why we took action against the Taliban government in Afghanistan 13 years ago. The urgency is no less now–and, indeed, is perhaps greater, given the honed strength of this extremely well-armed and well-funded terrorist organization.

There has been, and probably will be, endless debate about who “lost” Iraq. We don’t have the luxury of wasting time or political energy on that now. What’s needed is a clear and united sense of purpose…as clear and united as it was on September 12, 2001. Our war against Al Qaeda-style extremism isn’t over; it may have only just begun.

TIME Iraq

U.S. Launches Strikes Against Militants in Iraq

But Obama says no U.S. troops will be headed back to Iraq

Updated 5:32 p.m. E.T. on Aug. 8

American military aircraft launched three waves of airstrikes against militants in northern Iraq on Friday, the Pentagon said, marking the first direct U.S. military action in Iraq since 2011.

The bombings came after President Barack Obama opened the door to military action in Iraq to protect the Kurdish-controlled city of Erbil, home to a U.S. consulate and several American advisors, from the advancing militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The first attack, which took place at about 6:45 a.m. EDT, involved a pair of F/A-18 fighters which “dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday. ISIS “was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil where U.S. personnel are located,” Kirby added.

Kirby said later on Friday that the second attack happened “shortly after 10 a.m. EDT,” and involved a drone targeting a “terrorist mortar position.” “When [ISIS] fighters returned to the site moments later, the terrorists were attacked again and successfully eliminated,” Kirby said, confirming the first ISIS casualties at the hands of Americans. The third strike, about 80 minutes later, involved four F/A-18s delivering laser-guided bombs on in two bombing runs on “a stationary [ISIS] convoy of seven vehicles and a mortar position near Erbil.”

The decision to strike was made by a U.S. Central Command commander pursuant with Obama’s authorization to strike if necessary to protect Erbil, Kirby said. Obama announced late Thursday he had authorized strikes to protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq in addition to airdrop missions to assist thousands of Iraqi refugees fleeing ISIS, which in recent days has carried out a deadly offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.

“We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad,” Obama said Thursday from the White House. But Obama ruled out any U.S. ground forces becoming involved in the battle against ISIS.

“American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” he said. Hundreds of American troops are already in Iraq, advising Iraqi security forces and protecting U.S. facilities.

It was not clear Friday whether U.S. advisers assisted in targeting the ISIS artillery piece.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday afternoon “The President has not laid out a specific end date” to his authorization to strike. Earnest added that the administration will evaluate the situation regularly and is not seeking any additional money for Iraq.

House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement Friday that “the President’s authorization of airstrikes is appropriate, but like many Americans, I am dismayed by the ongoing absence of a strategy for countering the grave threat ISIS poses to the region.”

“Vital national interests are at stake, yet the White House has remained disengaged despite warnings from Iraqi leaders, Congress, and even members of its own administration,” Boehner added. “The president needs a long-term strategy – one that defines success as completing our mission, not keeping political promises – and he needs to build the public and congressional support to sustain it.”

TIME Foreign Policy

How Obama Evolved on the Issue of ‘Genocide’ in Iraq

President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department following the U.S. -Africa Summit in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department following the U.S. -Africa Summit in Washington, Aug. 6, 2014. Doug Mills—The New York Times

Hard choices for a gun-shy President

As a first-time presidential candidate in 2007, Barack Obama built his campaign around a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Nothing could shake him from his plan to end what he called a “dumb” war. At a New Hampshire campaign stop that July, Obama was asked whether he might delay a pullout if it meant preventing outright genocide in Iraq.

No, Obama said. “[If] that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done.”

Almost exactly seven years later, Obama has ordered military action in Iraq “to prevent a potential act of genocide,” as he put it in his public remarks Thursday night.

For now, that action will consist of airlifting supplies to thousands of members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious sect, trapped atop a mountain and surrounded by the fanatical Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS). But it could also include air strikes against those ISIS fighters.

Did Obama flip-flop on a matter as serious as genocide? That would be too glib a conclusion. Seven years after Obama’s comments in New Hampshire, Iraq is a different place. The U.S. Army is long gone, and taking action there doesn’t prolong an ongoing occupation. Nor is Obama ordering anything like a reinvasion of the country. He has authorized — though not yet specifically ordered — only limited strikes against ISIS fighters in the region. “We are not launching a sustained US campaign against [ISIS] here,” a senior Administration official told reporters Thursday night.

What’s more, Obama’s new urgency, while framed mainly in humanitarian terms, is about something broader. Obama is also prepared to use air strikes to prevent Sunni militants from storming the Kurdish capital of Erbil — a vital city to an important regional ally, and one the U.S. would protect even if dozens of U.S. diplomats and military advisers were not stationed there. If Obama decides to strike at ISIS, then, he’ll have strategic and national security reasons, as well as humanitarian ones, to do so.

But even if Obama did act solely to protect the Yazidi, that would be consistent with the quasi doctrine for humanitarian action he described when he ordered air strikes in Libya in March 2011. The Libya intervention may now be remembered mainly for the long NATO air campaign that eventually toppled Muammar Gaddafi. But remember that Obama justified acting not to end Gaddafi’s regime, but to protect the people of Benghazi from impending slaughter — “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world” — at the hands of Gaddafi forces who had encircled the city. (It is a particularly bitter irony for Obama that Benghazi is now synonymous with tragedy and scandal, and not the rescue of thousands of innocent lives.)

In announcing his Libya action, Obama explained that the U.S. can’t intervene everywhere something awful is happening. But, he argued, the U.S. should intervene in those cases where limited military action is likely to save many lives with low risks:

It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

Mount Sinjar today has much in common with the Benghazi of 2011. The U.S. can act in a limited way to prevent a great atrocity (and, in this case, with the support of the national government — which the senior Obama official says would give any air strikes legitimacy under international law).

Why not Syria? Or for that matter the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the Central African Republic, or anywhere else that innocents are dying every day? Because, Obama would surely say, the nature of those conflicts make limited U.S. intervention with clear and achievable goals impossible.

In his 2007 comments about genocide, Obama at least seemed to imply that, because the U.S. can’t prevent slaughter everywhere, it shouldn’t take humanitarian action anywhere. But as President he has adopted a different point, first in Libya and now in Iraq: Just because we intervene in some places doesn’t mean we have to intervene everywhere.

That doesn’t make for a very tidy doctrine. Nor will it console the miserable people of Syria. But it will bring jubilation to the terrified thousands on Mount Sinjar, for whom salvation is now coming.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Authorizes Air Strikes, Humanitarian Aid in Iraq

Iraqis arrive at a peshmerga controlled checkpoint between Irbil and Mosul after fleeing villages near Mosul in fear of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant attacks.
Iraqis arrive at a Kurdish peshmerga controlled checkpoint between Irbil and Mosul after fleeing in fear of ISIS attacks, Aug. 6, 2014. Adam Ferguson—The New York Times/Redux

“America is coming to help"

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he has authorized U.S. air strikes against militants in Iraq to prevent them from moving on the Kurdish city of Erbil and to protect tens of thousands of refugees in northern Iraq. Obama said American forces had also airdropped food and water to the refugees under siege by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“America is coming to help,” Obama said during a brief televised address from the White House late Thursday night, describing the actions as “limited strikes” to assist Iraqi forces in reaching the refugees and to protect American forces who are advising the Iraqis in Erbil. The refugees have taken shelter atop the Sinjar Mountains after Kurdish forces were pushed back by the Islamist group last weekend.

Officials said U.S. air strikes have yet to actually take place, and Obama, who has taken pains to avoid re-engaging in a conflict from which he withdrew American troops in 2011 even as militants have taken control of large swaths of the country, said no ground forces would be part of the operation, other than the military advisers he authorized two months ago. “As Commander in Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he said.

“American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” Obama added.

White House officials spent much of Thursday evening notifying lawmakers of the action, but Obama decided against seeking specific congressional authorization for the intervention. The White House chief of staff also called House Speaker John Boehner.

“When many thousands of innocent civilians are in danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to help, we will take action,” Obama said. “When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.”

Congressional Republicans, who have been critical of Obama’s 2011 withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, praised the latest action.

“I am encouraged that American forces are providing humanitarian relief to threatened populations, including Christians and other religious minorities in northern Iraq,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers are with our men and women in uniform who are in harm’s way tonight carrying out this mission. It is important to remember that [ISIS] threatens not just Iraqis but also the security of the United States and our allies in the region as it consolidates its control of territory that can be used as a base from which to launch attacks.”

A senior Administration official reiterated that the U.S. would be prepared to act anywhere in the country, even in Baghdad, the capital. “If we see action anywhere in Iraq that threatens our personnel and facilities we stand prepared to take targeted action,” the official told reporters. The official said Obama would rely on his authority as Commander in Chief to protect U.S. troops in Erbil as the legal basis for the strikes, should they be necessary. The official described the humanitarian operation as a “unique and urgent” effort to prevent “the prospect of an act of genocide.”

Another official said the Iraqi air force, not the U.S., had targeted ISIS militants in air strikes. “It was swift, it was effective,” the official said in describing the recent ISIS offensive into northern Iraq, which has taken the group to the outskirts of Erbil. “They acted with tremendous military proficiency.”

Officials said further humanitarian drops have been authorized by Obama, should they be necessary. “We will continue to provide airdrops, should we see a need, and we expect that need to continue,” the first Administration official said.

A senior defense official confirmed the operation late Thursday after it had been completed, hours after reports — denied by the Pentagon — emerged of U.S. aircraft striking ISIS forces in northern Iraq.

“I can confirm that tonight, at the direction of the Commander in Chief, the U.S. military conducted a humanitarian assistance operation in Northern Iraq to air-drop critical meals and water for thousands of Iraqi citizens threatened by [ISIS] near Sinjar,” the official said. “The mission was conducted by a number of U.S. military aircraft under the direction of U.S. Central Command. The aircraft that dropped the humanitarian supplies have now safely exited the immediate airspace over the drop area.”

Most of the refugees are members are ethnic Yazidi, who, until this weekend, had been protected by Kurdish forces who control much of northern Iraq. But Kurdish forces have been unable to reach the refugees and the Iraqi government appealed to Washington for assistance.

Multiple U.S. planes were involved in Thursday’s operation, the Pentagon said, including one C-17 and two C-130 aircraft, which dropped 72 “bundles” of supplies flying at low altitude over northern Iraq. They were escorted by two F/A-18 aircraft launched from bases in the region. According to the Pentagon, 5,300 gallons of drinking water and 8,000 meals ready to eat were dropped to the refugees in an operation that took less than 15 minutes.

TIME Iraq

Pentagon Denies Reports of Airstrikes on ISIS Militants in Iraq

Thousands flee Iraq's Mosul
Thousands of Yazidi and Christian people flee Hamdaniyah town of Mosul to Erbil after the latest wave of ISIL advances that began on Sunday has seen a number of towns near Iraq's second largest city Mosul fall to the militants on August 6, 2014. Mustafa Kerim—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Also claims reports the U.S. had begun humanitarian air drops to people in need in northern Iraq are false

Updated 6:13 p.m. E.T.

The Pentagon denied reports Thursday that it had begun conducting airstrikes on Sunni targets in Iraq or humanitarian air drops to thousands of members of a persecuted religious minority under siege from militants in the northwest of the country.

The New York Times, citing Kurdish officials, reported that U.S. forces bombed at least two targets in northern Iraq. The McClatchy news agency also reported aerial bombings outside the town of Kalak in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, stating that Kurdish media had described jets as American bombers.

But the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said on Twitter that the press reports were “completely false.” The Pentagon also denied a report, by ABC News, that the U.S. had begun humanitarian air drops to people in need in northern Iraq.

Earlier on Thursday, a defense official told TIME that the Iraqi government had begun airdrops in northern Iraq and that it was considering providing “direct assistance wherever possible.” Multiple news outlets, including CBS News and the New York Times, reported Thursday that airdrops or airstrikes were among the options under consideration.

Thousands of people from the Yazidi minority—considered “devil worshippers” by the advancing Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS)—have fled their homes in the Sinjar region in northwestern Iraq and are holed up in mountains around the town of Sinjar, according to the United Nations, where they face dehydration and hunger. The UN said on Tuesday that some 40 children have died.

“According to official reports received by UNICEF, these children from the Yazidi minority died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days.”

TIME Iraq

Kurdistan Isn’t About to Leave Iraq Amid ISIS Fighting

It might be too costly for the Kurds to say goodbye to Iraq

The Iraqi Kurds’ recent territorial gains have sparked widespread speculation that they may soon be able to realize the Kurdish dream of statehood. Over the past few weeks, excited Kurds around the world have rallied in support of independence. But secession is a difficult and costly course.
 
Many Kurds long for an independent Kurdistan, but only in Iraq has the dream come close. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds have built a semi-autonomous region with their own regional government (the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG), armed forces (peshmerga) and an oil-dependent economy that has attracted big foreign investors. But the KRG is still bound to Iraq, and has been restrained by its disputes with Baghdad over territory and oil exports.
 
The Kurds appeared to gain an edge on some of those disputes when the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) took over Mosul last June, pushing the Iraqi army to abandon many of its positions north of Baghdad. Upon the army’s withdrawal, peshmerga swiftly seized most of Kirkuk, an oil-rich province contested by Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Assyrians. Many commentators have suggested that with Kirkuk in hand, the KRG could declare independence. Some even went so far as to argue that the disintegration of Iraq at the hands of ISIS would benefit the Kurds by enabling them to declare independence.
 
Others, still, have surmised that the Kurds will secede for financial reasons. Baghdad has slashed the KRG’s budget, citing objections to its moves to unilaterally produce and export oil. Last week, an American judge ordered the seizure of a tanker carrying Kurdish oil that parked 60 miles off the coast of Texas. The judge ultimately could not enforce her order, but the incident nonetheless reinforced the U.S.’s objection to Kurdish oil sales abroad. A KRG official told Reuters that after the ruling that “buyers will now start to step back and think twice before purchasing Kurdish crude.” Unable to sell oil abroad, and with a diminished budget, the thinking goes, the Kurds will secede to expand their economic options.
 
Yet, despite these motivations, the Kurds have not seceded from Iraq. Yes, KRG President Masoud Barzani has called for an independence referendum, much to the excitement of the largely pro-independence Kurdish population. But at the same time, more quietly, he has been overseeing negotiations to send Kurdish politicians to Baghdad to help form a new Iraqi government. The KRG is pursuing a dual track policy: bargaining to stay part of Iraq on more advantageous terms while also developing the option of secession.
 
Behind Barzani’s populist appeals, secession is clearly the KRG’s Plan B for now. A closer look at the very real danger ISIS poses to Kurdistan, the complexity of the Kirkuk question, the economic calculations of the KRG and the regional and international context reveals why.
 
The idea that Iraq’s losses to ISIS will be the Kurds’ gains in terms of statehood is a shallow one. ISIS poses a grave risk to Kurdistan’s hard-won security, and could thwart Kurdish efforts to build an independent state. The group now controls significant territory on two of Kurdistan’s borders – with Iraq and Syria. Although ISIS has largely set its sights on Baghdad, while targeting Christians, Shi’ites and other religious minorities to impose its will in areas it controls, the Kurds have reason to worry. ISIS has targeted Kurds in both Syria and Iraq, and last week seized three towns from the peshmerga in northern Iraq. Iraq Kurds have joined jihadis in Syria – young men who may return home and pose security risks there.
 
Equally rash is the idea that, with Kurdish forces now in control of most of Kirkuk, the dispute over the province has been simply “resolved overnight.” Kirkuk’s status has been contested for decades, and its competing communities are unlikely to give it up to an independent Kurdistan without a fight. Moreover, ISIS controls the Arab parts of the province in the south, and a growing number of peshmerga have been killed fighting to keep the group at bay. Perhaps most crucially, the fate of Kirkuk’s oil remains to be decided. The Kurds seized two oil fields in the province and have started to pump Kirkuki crude into their own oil infrastructure, exacerbating the long-standing dispute with Baghdad over oil management.
 
In addition to the risks of secession, the KRG is confronted with tantalizing incentives to remain part of Iraq. Iraq at full export potential would be one of the most oil-rich countries in the world. The KRG, in theory entitled to 17% of the country’s national budget, is keen to leave that door open for the future. Until recently, Kurdistan’s receipt of that money accounted for a good part of the economic boom the region is known for today.
 
Regional and international interests also confine the Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan is a landlocked region with powerful neighbors who have long been masters at power plays across borders. Iran and Turkey are opposed to Kurdish independence, fearing that their own restive Kurdish populations may be inspired by the Iraqi Kurds’ example. These two regional superpowers can – and, if history is anything to go by, will – attempt to sabotage any moves toward independence. More broadly, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would struggle to acquire international recognition — Arab states and the U.S. are defiantly opposed to any breakup of Iraq.
 
Erbil and Baghdad are playing a high-stakes game of chicken. The KRG is threatening independence, but in actuality is pushing to stay part of Iraq on terms that would essentially allow it to act as a de facto independent state and as a federal Iraqi region, in different situations. This would involve an agreement in which Baghdad, and in principle the U.S., lifts opposition to Kurdish oil sales abroad, recognizes Kurdish control of Kirkuk, and guarantees the deliverance of Kurdistan’s full share of Iraq’s budget. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, has not budged, and has instead inflamed tensions by accusing the Kurds of running a conspiracy to bolster ISIS. Barring a swerve, the Kurds may be pushed to pursue secession – but only as a troublesome contingency plan. At least at first, a breakaway Kurdistan may look more like Somaliland – a self-declared independent state that is internationally recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia – than South Sudan: widely recognized, including by its parent state, Sudan.
 
Iraq is a failing country. The Kurds are better off than the rest of the country, but their own weaknesses and limitations curb their chances of triumphantly breaking away from it – until and unless there is no longer an Iraq to break away from.
 
Cale Salih is an analyst specializing in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

TIME Iraq

Be Captured and Killed, or Risk Dying of Thirst: The Awful Choice Facing the Refugees of Sinjar

Thousands flee Iraq's Sinjar
Thousands of Iraqis flee from the town of Sinjar, near the city of Mosul, to Erbil and Dohuk after armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State seized the town early on August 4, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Iraqis are trapped on a barren mountain without water or aid. If they descend, they risk being massacred by Sunni militia

With the world’s focus on the conflict in Gaza, little international attention is being paid to an appalling humanitarian crisis unfolding in Iraq.

In the country’s far northwest, tens of thousands of people fleeing the Sunni extremist group Islamic State have been trapped on a mountain for days without water or other supplies. The refugees, primarily from the country’s Yazidi religious sect, have begun to die from dehydration and exposure, with no relief in sight.

They face an excruciating dilemma — attempt to flee and risk being captured and killed by insurgents, or remain on Mount Sinjar in the hope that aid will somehow get through.

“A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” said Nickolay Mladenov, special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, in a statement released earlier this week. “The Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government should urgently restore their security cooperation in dealing with the crisis.”

Humanitarian workers say there is no way to deliver supplies to the area outside of intermittent airdrops being conducted by the Iraqi Air Force.

“It’s not possible to get to them by road, obviously because ISIS controls the access roads, so nobody can go, they cannot leave,” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, told TIME by phone from northern Iraq on Wednesday.

“It’s going to take a few more days before things coalesce into a more coordinated response.”

On Tuesday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that at least 40 children holed up on the mountain had died as result of dehydration.

“These children from the Yazidi minority died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days,” said Marzio Babille, a UNICEF representative, in a statement. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 25,000 children still stranded in and around Sinjar.

Islamic State, which is notorious for its hatred of any group that does not abide by its fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, is particularly harsh on the Yazidi, who follow an ancient religion with resemblances to Zoroastrianism.

Reports and photos posted by Islamic State earlier appeared to show summary executions of Yazidi men.

The insurgents have “been behaving in a very brutal way with everybody,” says Rovera. “With the Yazidi, it’s worse, simply because the Yazidis’ religion [is] considered devil worship.”

Earlier this summer, Islamic State, along with a smattering of Sunni militias, launched a blitzkrieg throughout northern Iraq capturing large swaths of territory along both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Since then, the militant group has enforced its brand of draconian rule over their territory — targeting religious minorities and destroying troves of prized cultural and religious artifacts deemed heretical.

On Sunday, at least 200,000 people fled the Sinjar region as militants loyal to Islamic State routed Kurdish forces.

Thousands of refugees have made it to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in the far north of the country, but supplies are being stretched by the day as the displaced crowd into refugee camps, cramped apartments and mosques.

In the absence of strong military support from Baghdad, Kurdish militia fighters, including troops from as far away as Turkey and Syria, launched a massive counteroffensive on Tuesday in attempt to dislodge the heavily armed ISIS fighters from the northwest.

TIME Archaeology

Museum Finds Misplaced 6,500-Year-Old Human Skeleton in the Cellar

Ancient Skeleton
6,500-year-old human remains are displayed at the The Penn Museum, part of the University of Pennsylvania,, Aug. 5, 2014, in Philadelphia. The museum announced Tuesday that it had rediscovered in its own storage rooms a 6,500-year-old human skeleton believed to have been a man at least 50 who stood 5 feet, 9 inches tall. Matt Rourke—AP

But it had only been missing for 85 years, so

An archaeology museum in Philadelphia said Tuesday it found a 6,500-year-old human skeleton in its own basement.

Yes. Its own basement.

Researchers at the Penn Museum, which is associated with the University of Pennsylvania, said they found documentation for the human skeleton while digitizing old records. The remains are extremely rare and date to 4,500 BCE. They were unearthed by archaeologists around 1930 during an excavation of the ancient city of Ur in modern day Iraq beneath the city’s cemetery, itself dating back to 2,500 BCE, Reuters reports.

The skeleton, which scientists have named Noah, is roughly 2,000 years older than any other remains found at the excavation site. The find could give scholars a new depth of understanding into everyday life during the little-understood time period.

Noah’s remains indicate he was muscular, about five feet-ten-inches tall and died at 50 years old.

[Reuters]

TIME Australia

Bloodcurdling Images of Australian Jihadists Puts ‘Lucky Country’ on Edge

Australians protest Israeli attacks in Melbourne
Thousands of people stage a demonstration to protest the Israeli ongoing attacks in Gaza on July 26, 2014, in Melbourne, Australia. Recep Sakar—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Shocking photos emerge amid fears that the worsening conflict in Gaza will only prompt more young radical Muslims to enter the fray

The phenomenon of Australian jihadists fighting in the Middle East took a disturbing new turn last week when photos of a Caucasian man in mujahedin fatigues holding decapitated heads were posted on Twitter.

It follows the uploading last month of a YouTube video by the extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) of two men with thick Australian accents calling on Westerners to join their violent quest to create a Muslim caliphate.

One of the pair, a teenager from Melbourne identified in the video as Abu Bakr al-Australi, later detonated an explosive belt in a crowded Baghdad marketplace, killing five people and wounding 90 more. He was the second Australian suicide bomber praised by ISIS in recent weeks; an estimated 200 Australian jihadists are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The figure puts Australia in the unenviable position as the highest foreign per capita contributor to the conflict in the Middle East, and providing the largest contingent of foreign fighters from a developed nation. And there are fears that the worsening conflict in Gaza will only prompt more radical young Muslims to enter the fray.

“The government is gravely concerned by the fact that Australian citizens are heading to Iraq and Syria not only to fight but to take leadership roles,” Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in parliament last week. She paused before adding, “There’s a real danger that these extremists also come back home as trained terrorists and pose a threat to our security.”

The man holding the decapitated heads in the Twitter feed turned out to be Khaled Sharrouf, a boxer from Sydney who was jailed for four years in 2005 for his role in planning the most serious terrorist plot Australia has ever seen. Despite his notoriety, Sharrouf managed to flee while on parole in January by using his brother’s passport to board a flight from Sydney to Southeast Asia from where he made his way to Syria.

The security breakdown has made Canberra redouble efforts to protect the nation from jihadists in the event they return home. Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office added ISIS to its list of terrorists organizations, making it a crime for an Australian to join them punishable with up to 25 years imprisonment.

On advice from intelligence agencies, the Foreign Ministry has canceled the passports of 40 Australians suspected of extremist links. More than $700 million in additional funding will be injected into customs and border patrol over the next six years. In 2015 the service will be streamlined under a tough new national-security agency named the Australian Border Force.

Professor Gary Bouma, acting director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Melbourne’s Monash University, agrees that returning jihadists pose “a very serious problem, as they will be ideologically energized.” But he adds some will have been pacified after witnessing the “hideous gore of battle and the unrighteousness of all sides.”

“The first thing that needs to happen is those people need to be reintegrated into society,” Bouma says. “That means counseling, getting them a job and ensuring their cultural and social needs are met. It’s a much healthier approach than isolating them.”

The leader of an Australian Muslim organization who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity says calling foreign combatants in Syria “terrorists” was wrong, as many had gone there to protect family members from President Bashar Assad’s repressive regime, which has unleashed torture, mass killings, starvation and chemical weapons upon Syrian civilians.

“The idea of them being terrorists just because they go to fight overseas, that is not a fair thing to say,” he says. “It’s also unreasonable to say just because they fought in Syria that they’re going to do the same thing when they come back home. There will always be one or two crazy fanatics among them, but they’re a minority. They’d have to be really misguided to try something here.”

Another community leader, Samier Dandan, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, has accused the government of double standards by outlawing those who fight in Syria while allowing others, namely members of Australia’s Jewish community, to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“It’s hard when you say something to one side, and they look and say ‘How come we’re not being treated the same?’ The law should be across everyone,” Dandan told the Australian Associated Press.

However, Rafael Epstein, author of Prisoner X, a book about an Australian lawyer who fought with the IDF and worked as an operative with Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, before going rogue, insists Dandan’s comparison is flawed.

“What he is saying is someone who fights for Israel will be just as radicalized and have just as many [warring] skills to pose a security risk to Australia,” Epstein says. “But the values under which someone would fight for Israel, a democratic country with the rule of law, are very different to the values someone would fight for under ISIS, and they’d be much closer to Australia’s values than ISIS’s.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott agrees. “The best thing we can do … is to ensure that jihadis do not come back to this country,” he said last month.

Whether that will be enough to maintain Australia’s record as one of the few major U.S. military partners in Afghanistan and Iraq to not have suffered a terrorist attack on its own soil remains open for discussion.

“U can’t stop me and trust me if I wanted to attack aus [sic] I could have easily,” tweeted convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf in a message taunting Australian federal police posted from the battleground in Syria. “I love to slaughter use [sic] and ALLAH LOVES when u dogs r slaughtered.”

TIME Iraq

Islamist Militants Raze Ancient Shrine in Mosul

The monument to the purported burial place of the prophet Younis was erected around 1393

The Islamist militants who now control a large swath of northern Iraq destroyed a centuries-old shrine purported to be the tomb of the Biblical figure Jonah Thursday.

Militants from the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rigged the Nabi Younus mosque with explosives and leveled it in front of a large crowd, AFP reports. The shrine was built at the purported burial place of Younis—known in the Bible as Jonah—and once displayed a tooth believers held to be that of the whale in which Jonah survived for a time.

The Sunni militant group ISIS, who subscribe to an austere form of Islam based on a strict interpretation of Shariah law, has declared a caliphate in northern Iraq after overrunning much of the country in recent weeks. The group has razed or damaged 30 shrines and 15 additional sites in and around Mosul, an anonymous official told AFP.

“But the worst destruction was of Nabi Yunus, which has been turned to dust,” he said.

The Nabi Younus mosque was erected atop the ruins of an old Christian church, which itself was built at the site of an ancient palace once located near the town of Nineva, located just across the Tigris River from Mosul.

 

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