TIME Military

How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS

IRAQ-CONFLICT
MOHAMMED SAWAF / AFP / Getty Images Iraqi Shiite fighters battle Sunni Islamic State militants north of Baghdad May 26.

The U.S. decision 12 years ago has provided the enemy with some of its best commanders and fighters

After nearly a year of air strikes led by the U.S. and ground attacks by the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is proving to be a far more cagey and cunning foe than the Pentagon ever expected. A big reason for its success is the George W. Bush Administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army shortly after the 2003 invasion—without the knowledge or consent of either the Pentagon or President.

It’s a jarring reminder of how a key decision made long ago is complicating U.S. efforts to fight ISIS and restore some semblance of stability to Iraq. Instead of giving Iraq a fresh start with a new army, it helped create a vacuum that ISIS has filled. Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general and chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, said keeping the Iraqi army intact was always part of U.S. strategy. “The plan was that the army would be the foundation of rebuilding the Iraqi military,” he says. “Many of the Sunnis who were chased out ended up on the other side and are probably ISIS fighters and leaders now.” One expert estimates that more than 25 of ISIS’s top 40 leaders once served in the Iraqi military.

General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, says the U.S. could have weeded Saddam Hussein’s loyalists from the Iraqi army while keeping its structure, and the bulk of its forces, in place. “We could have done a lot better job of sorting through that and keeping the Iraqi army together,” he told TIME on Thursday. “We struggled for years to try to put it back together again.”

The decision to dissolve the Iraqi army robbed Baghdad’s post-invasion military of some of its best commanders and troops. Combined with sectarian strains that persist 12 years later, it also drove many of the suddenly out-of-work Sunni warriors into alliances with a Sunni insurgency that would eventually mutate into ISIS. Many former Iraqi military officers and troops, trained under Saddam, have spent the last 12 years in Anbar Province battling both U.S. troops and Baghdad’s Shi’ite-dominated security forces, Pentagon officials say.

“Not reorganizing the army and police immediately were huge strategic mistakes,” said Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff and architect of the “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007. “We began to slowly put together a security force, but it took far too much time and that gave the insurgency an ability to start to rise.”

The U.S.-ordered dissolution of the Iraqi army was a major error. But it was compounded by former Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki’s wholesale firing of Sunni commanders in favor of more compliant, if less competent, Shi’ites during his 2006-2014 tenure. That turned what was supposed to have been a national army into little more than a sectarian militia that took orders from the Prime Minister’s inner circle. “Malaki went into that army and pulled out all of its distinguished leaders, whose guys were devoted to them, and put in these cronies and hacks,” Keane said. “And those guys pocketed the money that was supposed to be used for training.”

So how did the Iraqi army come to dissolve? The Bush Administration tapped Paul Bremer to head the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority on May 11, 2003. Twelve days later, he issued an order wiping away the Iraqi military, with a pledge to build a new one from scratch, untainted by any ties to Saddam’s regime. The army’s end quickly led to civil unrest, a growing insurgency and a U.S. occupation that would last eight years and cost the lives of 4,491 American troops.

Things would have been different if the Iraqi army had been scrubbed of Hussein’s loyalists, but otherwise permitted to exist, military officers believe. “I think it would have caused us to spend less time in Iraq—I think we would have been to leave a lot sooner than we were,” said Odierno, who commanded forces in Iraq during three tours between 2003 and 2010. “I think it would have given a better chance for Iraqis to come together.”

Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army has been shrouded in mystery. James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, conducted one of the most detailed autopsies into the decision. “President Bush had agreed with military planners that the Army was essential for the internal and external security of the country,” Pfiffner wrote in the professional journal Intelligence and National Security in 2010. “When asked in 2006 by his biographer…about the decision, Bush replied ‘Well, the policy was to keep the army intact. Didn’t happen’.” Pfiffner suggests the decision made by Bremer actually came from Vice President Dick Cheney. (“It may have been a mistake,” Cheney said in 2011 without confirming it was his decision.)

Over the past year, ISIS has seized hundreds of U.S.-built Iraqi military vehicles given to Baghdad by the U.S. government. But history shows that the U.S., beyond providing ISIS with war machines, also made a fateful decision that gave ISIS some of its best commanders and fighters.

TIME Military

Pentagon Rhetoric About Ramadi’s Fall Risks U.S. Credibility

IRAQ-CONFLICT-ANBAR
Sabah Arar—AFP/Getty Images Ramadi residents flee their city after ISIS fighters took control of it on Saturday.

Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet if you're not winning

When generals start playing with syntax, hold on to your wallets. “The ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) was not driven out of Ramadi,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday. “They drove out of Ramadi.”

That grammatical shift from the passive to the active voice—Dempsey boasts a master’s degree in literature from Duke, after all—highlights just how badly Iraq’s U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is now going.

“We saw this movie—it was called Vietnam,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who began his career in that country in 1967, advising South Vietnamese marines. “They are losing credibility. We went through this in Vietnam where we touted pacification and winning all these battles while strategically losing the war.”

The growing disconnect between what’s happening on the ground, and what U.S. military leaders say is happening on the ground, has consequences. “For the last 13 years, even though we have not done well in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the American people have stayed with the military,” Bing West, a one-time Marine infantryman and former assistant defense secretary, says. “But if the American people now see a gap between the reality and what the military is telling them, then you end up with the corrosiveness that we saw in Vietnam.”

Dempsey’s verbal twist—implying that ISIS didn’t force some of Iraq’s best troops out of the city, but, thanks in part to American training, they left in a crafty and bold military move—comes on the heels of a Friday briefing at the Pentagon that Saturday revealed to be close to fiction.

“We firmly believe [ISIS] is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria,” Marine Brigadier General Thomas Weidley told Pentagon reporters in a teleconference from the region. “The Iraqis, with coalition support, are making sound progress,” Weidley, chief of staff of Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS operation, added. “The coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq as they conduct operations in Ramadi.”

The next day, after a series of bombings, ISIS fighters took over Ramadi after Iraqi troops fled, collecting a half-dozen U.S.-provided tanks and 100 vehicles abandoned by the Iraqis in their rush to drive out of the capital of Anbar province. ISIS forces killed an estimated 500 Iraqi troops and civilians, while 25,000 residents fled the city. In addition to Ramadi, they now occupy the major Iraqi cities of Mosul and Fallujah.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 11.23.52 AM

Pentagon officials argue that the long-term U.S. strategy—stepped-up (re)training of Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. and allied air power—ultimately will prevail. They note that they have said from the start that the anti-ISIS campaign could take three years. The U.S. joined the fight last August, and has been flying nearly-daily air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. There’s a push “for a narrative about success, and that the strategy is fine, that influences different echelons of our government and military to not go outside that narrative,” says Derek Harvey, a one-time Army intelligence officer now at the University of South Florida. “That disconnect risks undermining their credibility.” The retired colonel, who worked for Army general David Petraeus, believes the U.S. focus on vehicles destroyed “measures progress by elements that are irrelevant and meaningless.” The U.S.-led effort is additionally handicapped because it has been done half-heartedly. “A bad strategy that is not properly resourced has a zero chance of success,” he says.

The Pentagon has deployed about 3,000 U.S. troops to train Iraqi forces, although President Obama has restricted their efforts to areas well behind the front lines. That means they can’t call in air strikes and gather front-line intelligence that could give Iraqi forces a critical advantage. Zinni contends a relatively small U.S. combat force on the ground inside Iraq could destroy ISIS, but Obama’s aversion to casualties has ruled that out. “Everybody with any kind of military experience in the Pentagon knows damn right well that this strategy isn’t going to work because you’re counting on breaking his will and there’s no sign of that happening,” he adds. “This strategy has got to bring up Vietnam, where they were saying, `Give us time, we’ll kill enough of them and hit a tipping point.’ The problem is they have not found the tipping point.”

The American people, following more than a decade of war, may not be in the mood for another two years of fighting with an unreliable ally. The Pentagon is doing what it can despite the restrictions the White House has imposed. But the over-selling of military progress in battling ISIS is the first step in a treacherous march toward disillusionment that the U.S. military has now begun.

“If the battle is going against you—and it is—do not put yourself in the position where the credibility of the U.S. military is undermined,” West says of Dempsey’s drive-time comment. “If it doesn’t look good, say nothing.”

TIME Syria

See the Ancient Syrian City of Palmyra That Was Just Captured by ISIS

The Syrian town of Palmyra is home to Roman ruins, which experts fear ISIS could destroy

After months of fierce fighting, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) captured the town of Palmyra northeast of Syria’s capital Damascus on Thursday, leaving the group in control of more than half of the country’s territory—and raising fears among experts that its fighters will begin smashing spectacular ancient sites.

Read more: ISIS Must Be Stopped From Destroying Ancient City, U.N. Says

TIME Syria

ISIS Must Be Stopped From Destroying Ancient City, U.N. Says

Part of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syria in 2014.
Joseph Eid—AFP/Getty Images Part of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syria, in 2014

ISIS's takeover of Palmyra means they control more than half of Syria

After months of fierce fighting, ISIS captured the town of Palmyra northeast of Syria’s capital Damascus on Thursday, leaving the group in control of more than half of the country’s territory — and raising fears among experts that its fighters will begin smashing spectacular ancient sites.

Set on the strategic road linking Damascus to Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, Palmyra contains ruins dating back 2,000 years from what was once one of the most prosperous and culturally rich cities of the Roman Empire. Until war erupted in 2011, thousands of tourists visited the site, which adjoins the modern-day town of Palmyra. In the middle of the ancient city is a colonnaded street, and nearby is a huge ancient amphitheater, and towering ancient temples with monumental arches and columns.

Those are all irreplaceable historic treasures, say cultural experts. “Any destruction of Palmyra is not just a war crime, it will mean an enormous loss for humanity,” Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural organization, said in a video appeal early Thursday, just hours before the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, seized control of the city. “We just have to make everything possible to prevent its destruction. We need total mobilization of the international community.”

ISIS’s capture of Palmyra comes after months in which its fighters have systematically destroyed ancient ruins and artifacts, including smashing statues in the museum of Mosul, which the group captured last June. ISIS claims the antiquities, which far predate the arrival of Islam, represent idol worship, which violates the group’s ideals. Both Iraq and Syria were key trading centers for the ancient empires and contain numerous important sites.

Quantities of ancient artifacts have also been lost to looting and smuggling, with Syrians selling them to criminal networks across the border for trade on international markets. UNESCO staff have helped Syrians to ferry artifacts out of the war zone, and have trained Interpol, border officials and even art auctioneers in how to detect looted items. “We’re doing a lot of effort on all movable objects to get them to safer places,” says Karim Hendili of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in Paris. UNESCO declared the ancient city a world heritage site in 1980.

As ISIS fighters steadily closed in on the city in recent weeks, Syrians began a furious effort to smuggle out to safety whatever antiquities they could, in order to prevent them being destroyed, should Palmyra fall. The effort began two months ago and accelerated this month as ISIS’s victory looked increasingly likely, according to Cheikmous Ali, of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, a volunteer group that has coordinated clandestine rescues for ancient items in areas now controlled by ISIS. Ali told the BBC on Thursday that the group had managed to remove many antiquities from Palmyra. “Some objects are still there,” he said. “It is not 100% empty.”

But experts cannot say for sure how much of Palmyra’s ancient treasures might have been lost or destroyed in years of war. Indeed, they might well have to wait until ISIS posts video from the ground, before knowing the true extent of what has been lost, or is at risk. “As long as we cannot go on the ground to assess accurately it is difficult to say,” Hendili tells TIME. “What we know is that recently the fighting between the Syrian government and the extremists got closer and closer to the site. But the site is very big, with an oasis and a citadel. We will have to cross-check before we know the situation.”

TIME Syria

ISIS Continues Its String of Victories By Taking the Ancient Ruins of Palmyra

The Syrian town of Palmyra is home to beautiful Roman ruins, which experts fear ISIS could destroy

(BEIRUT)—Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq.

The Islamic State’s capture of the town of Palmyra late Wednesday was a stunning triumph for the militant group, only days after it captured the strategic city of Ramadi in Iraq’s largest Sunni province.

As IS took Palmyra, government forces collapsed in the face of the attacks and Syrian soldiers were seen fleeing the area, activists said. In Damascus, state TV acknowledged that pro-government forces had withdrawn from the town.

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the extremists overran the archaeological site, just to the southwest of the town itself, shortly after midnight Wednesday.

An activist in Homs who goes by the name of Bebars al-Talawy also said that IS now controls the ruins at Palmyra. Both activists said that the militants had not damaged the site so far.

The ruins at Palmyra are one of the world’s most renowned historic sites and there were fears the extremists would destroy them as they did major archaeological sites in Iraq. The UNESCO world heritage site is famous for its 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and other ruins and priceless artifacts. Before the war, thousands of tourists a year visited the remote desert outpost, a cherished landmark referred to by Syrians as the “Bride of the Desert.”

Many Palmyra residents were fleeing the town toward the city of Homs and the capital, Damascus, according to Talal Barazi,

Barzai, the governor of the central province of Homs, which includes Palmyra, told The Associated Press that the Syrian army is now outside the town, from where it is targeting Islamic State reinforcements.

“We have not received any news about (the archaeological site’s) destruction,” Barazi said. “We hope that there will be no massacres in the city or damage to the ruins.”

Palmyra has a population of some 65,000 people, according to Barazi. He added that 1,300 residents fled over the past days and more were trying to leave on Thursday.

In taking the town, IS also overran Palmyra’s notorious Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian dissidents have been imprisoned and tortured over the years.

An amateur video posted online showed IS fighters setting a giant poster of President Bashar Assad, allegedly inside the prison in Palmyra, cheering as flames rose around them against the night sky.

The video and its location could not be independently verified but appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.

Al-Talawy, the Homs activist, said the government had recently transferred thousands of detainees from the Palmyra prison to a jail near Damascus.

But he added that IS extremists freed some of those who were still inside by the time they captured the prison. He could not provide any definitive figures but there were believed to have been thousands prisoners still there.

TIME Syria

U.S. Kills Senior ISIS Commander in Syria Raid

U.S. commandos also captured the ISIS leader's wife

(BEIRUT)—In a rare ground attack deep into Syria, U.S. Army commandos killed a man described as the Islamic State’s head of oil operations, captured his wife and rescued a woman whom American officials said was enslaved.

A team of Delta Force commandos slipped across the border from Iraq under cover of darkness Saturday aboard Black Hawk helicopters and V-22 Osprey aircraft, according to a U.S. defense official knowledgeable about details of the raid. The official was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Americans intended to capture a militant identified by U.S. officials as Abu Sayyaf. When they arrived at his location, a multi-story building, they met stiff resistance, the U.S. official said, and a firefight ensued, resulting in bullet-hole damage to the U.S. aircraft.

Abu Sayyaf was killed, along with an estimated dozen IS fighters, U.S. officials said. No American was killed or wounded.

Before the sun had risen, the commandos flew back to Iraq where Abu Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf, was being questioned in U.S. custody, officials said. The goal was to gain intelligence about IS operations and any information about hostages, including American citizens, who were held by the group, according to Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council.

Abu Sayyaf was described by one official as the IS “emir of oil and gas,” although he also was targeted for his known association with the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

U.S. officials said it was likely, given Abu Sayyaf’s position, that he knew about more than just the financial side of the group’s operations.

Despite the U.S. claims, much about the IS figure was in question. The name Abu Sayyaf has rarely been mentioned in Western reports about the extremist group and he is not known to be among terrorists for whom the U.S. has offered a bounty. The name was not known to counterterrorism officials who study IS and does not appear in reports compiled by think tanks and others examining the group’s hierarchy.

The U.S. official said Abu Sayyaf’s death probably has temporarily halted IS oil-revenue operations, critical to the group’s ability to carry out military operations in Syria and Iraq and to govern the population centers it controls.

But U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, cautioned against exaggerating the long-term gain from killing Abu Sayyaf.

He said IS, like al-Qaida, “has proven adept at replacing its commanders and we will need to keep up the pressure on its leadership and financing.”

A U.S. Treasury official told Congress in October that IS militants were earning about $1 million a day from black market oil sales alone, and getting several million dollars a month from wealthy donors, extortion rackets and other criminal activities, such as robbing banks. Kidnappings were another large source of cash.

U.S. airstrikes in Syria since September have frequently targeted IS oil-collection facilities in an effort to undermine the group’s finances.

IS controls much of northern and eastern Syria as well as northern and western Iraq, despite months of U.S. and coalition airstrikes and efforts by the U.S.-backed Iraqi army to retake territory. IS holds most of the oil fields in Syria and has declared a caliphate governed by a harsh version of Islamic law.

Also Saturday, activists said IS fighters pushed into the Syrian town of Palmyra, home to famed 2,000-year-old ruins.

The U.S. Army raid occurred one day after the U.S.-led campaign to roll back IS gains in Iraq suffered a significant setback in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. IS fighters are reported to have captured a key government building in Ramadi and have established control over a substantial portion of the city, officials have said.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, in a written statement Saturday praising the raid into Syria, said he was “gravely concerned” by the IS assault on Ramadi and that it threatened the stability and sovereignty of Iraq.

IS has made major inroads at Iraq’s Beiji oil refinery complex in recent days. Reports vary, but U.S. officials have said IS is largely in control of the refinery, as well as the nearby town of Beiji. It’s on the main route from Baghdad to Mosul, the main IS stronghold in northern Iraq.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Washington announced the raid, followed soon after by word from the White House.

Meehan, the NSC spokeswoman, said in a statement that the woman who was freed, a Yazidi, “appears to have been held as a slave” by Abu Sayyaf and his wife. She said the U.S. intends to return her to her family.

IS militants captured hundreds of members of the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq during their rampage across the country last summer.

A senior Obama administration official said Umm Sayyaf was being debriefed at an undisclosed location in Iraq to obtain intelligence about IS operations. The official was not authorized to discuss details of the operation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The raid was the first known U.S. ground operation targeting IS militants in Syria. A U.S.-led coalition has been striking the extremists from the air for months, but the only previous time American troops set foot on the ground in Syria was in an unsuccessful commando mission to recover hostages last summer.

Syrian state TV earlier reported that Syrian government forces killed at least 40 IS fighters, including a senior commander in charge of oil fields, in an attack Saturday on the Omar field — where the U.S. raid was said to have taken place. The Syrian report, which appeared as an urgent news bar on state TV, was not repeated by the state news agency. State TV didn’t repeat the urgent news or elaborate on it.

U.S. officials said they had no knowledge of a Syrian raid and that the U.S. did not coordinate its operation with the Syrian government. Meehan said the Syrian government was not informed in advance of the raid. The U.S. has said it is not cooperating with President Bashar Assad’s government in the battle against IS.

“We have warned the Assad regime not to interfere with our ongoing efforts against ISIL inside of Syria,” Meehan said, using another acronym for IS. “As we have said before, the Assad regime is not and cannot be a partner in the fight against ISIL. In fact, the brutal actions of the regime have aided and abetted the rise of ISIL and other extremists in Syria.”

An NSC statement said President Barack Obama authorized the raid upon the “unanimous recommendation” of his national security team.

The administration clearly is concerned by the resilience of IS even as officials publicly express confidence that the extremists cannot sustain their territorial gains and ultimately will be defeated.

Saturday’s raid came as IS fighters have advanced in central and northeastern Syria. Activists said IS fighters pushed into Palmyra, home to famed 2,000-year-old ruins, after seizing an oil field and taking control of the water company on the outskirts.

IS said fighters took full control of Saker Island in the Euphrates River near Deir el-Zour, a provincial capital in eastern Syria split between IS and government forces.

TIME Syria

Undeclared Chemical Weapons Traces Reported at Syrian Military Site

Children react after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Assad near the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus
Bassam Khabieh—Reuters Children react after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad near the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus on May 6, 2015.

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said to have found sarin and VX nerve agents

International inspectors reportedly discovered traces of chemicals used to make weapons at a Syrian military research site that had not been declared.

Reuters, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, reports that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons took samples in December and January from a Syrian military research site that tested positive for chemical precursors used to make sarin and VX nerve agents.

The Syrian government last year handed over 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons after it pledged to eliminate its stockpile.

“This is a pretty strong indication they have been lying about what they did with sarin,” one diplomatic source said. “They have so far been unable to give a satisfactory explanation about this finding.”

The Hague-based OPCW did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Read more at Reuters

TIME Jordan

U.S.-Led Coalition Begins Training Syrian Rebels to Fight ISIS

Rebel fighters from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army take part in a military training on May 4, 2015, in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo.
Baraa Al-Halabi—AFP/Getty Images Rebel fighters from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army take part in a military training on May 4, 2015, in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo.

About 350 American forces will help train rebels in Jordan and three other countries

(WASHINGTON) — After months of delays and vetting, the training of Syrian rebels has started in Jordan as part of a broader effort to build a force capable of fighting Islamic State extremists, U.S. and Jordanian officials said Thursday.

Jordan is the first of four training sites to begin the instruction. The others are in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and Turkish officials have said that the training would start this weekend.

More than 3,750 Syrian fighters have volunteered for the training, and about 400 have completed the prescreening. U.S. officials have previously said that each training class could have up to 300 participants.

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed Momani told The Associated Press that the program to train the Syrians started “a few days ago.

“Jordan confirms that the war against terrorism is our war, and it’s the war of the Muslims and Arabs, first and foremost, to protect our interests and the security of our countries, peoples and the future of our children, and to defend our tolerant religion, ” he said.

There are about 450 coalition forces involved in the training at the four sites, including about 350 Americans.

U.S. officials discussed the program on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the training publicly.

The U.S. has spent months vetting the fighters to try to make sure that any enemy combatants or extremists are weeded out. Pentagon officials have said it would be a very deliberative process that initially identified specific rebel groups and then moved to a lengthy vetting program that checks each fighter individually.

The rebel fighters, who come from several moderate groups in Syria, will get training on basic military equipment and skills, including firearms, communications and command and control abilities.

The U.S. military has been launching targeted airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq since August, and expanded the campaign into Syria in September. The group has declared a self-styled Islamic state ruled by its strict religious views in territory it seized across much of Iraq and Syria, marked by a brutal campaign of mass murders, beheadings, torture and slavery.

Congress passed legislation authorizing the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels, providing $500 million for the U.S. to train about 5,000 fighters over the next year.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Jordan contributed to this report.

TIME Syria

Barrel Bombs Kill More Than 3,000 Civilians in Syria, Report Says

SYRIA-CONFLICT
BARAA AL-HALABI—FP/Getty Images A man carries a young girl who was injured in a reported barrel-bomb attack by government forces on June 3, 2014 in Kallaseh district in the northern city of Aleppo.

“I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere. It was how I imagine hell to be."

The Syrian army has dropped barrel bombs on schools, markets, hospitals and mosques throughout the northern city of Aleppo, killing more than 3,000 civilians since 2012, according to a new report.

The Amnesty International report finds that barrel bombs—an oil or fuel tank packed with shards of metal—have been dropped with growing frequency in recent months, forcing schools and hospitals to operate out of underground bunkers. Local activists recorded more than 85 barrel bomb attacks in the last month alone, according to the report.

“Widespread atrocities, in particular the vicious and unrelenting aerial bombardment of civilian neighborhoods by government forces, have made life for civilians in Aleppo increasingly unbearable, said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.

The report was based on eyewitness accounts from 78 former residents and 29 professionals, which were verified with video evidence of the devastation.

“I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere,” said one local factory worker after an attack on al-Fardous neighborhood in 2014. “It was how I imagine hell to be.”

TIME Syria

ISIS Has Gone But Kobani Is Still a Ghost Town

A Kurdish boy, center background, walks between buildings that were destroyed during the battle between the U.S. backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic State fighters, in Kobani, Syria on April 18, 2015.
Mehmet Shakir—AP A Kurdish boy, center background, walks between buildings that were destroyed during the battle between the U.S. backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic State fighters, in Kobani, Syria on April 18, 2015.

Today more than 70 percent of Kobani lies in ruins

SURUC, Turkey — The battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani was a watershed in the war against the Islamic State group — Syrian Kurdish forces fought the militants in rubble-strewn streets for months as U.S. aircraft pounded the extremists from the skies until ultimately expelling them from the town earlier this year.

It was the Islamic State’s bloodiest defeat to date in Syria. But now, three months since Kobani was liberated, tens of thousands of its residents are still stranded in Turkey, reluctant to return to a wasteland of collapsed buildings and at a loss as to how and where to rebuild their lives.

The Kurdish town on the Turkish-Syrian border is still a haunting, apocalyptic vista of hollowed out facades and streets littered with unexploded ordnance — a testimony to the massive price that came with the victory over ISIS.

There is no electricity or clean water, nor any immediate plans to restore basic services and start rebuilding.

While grateful for the U.S. airstrikes that helped turn the tide in favor of the Kobani fighters and drive out ISIS militants, residents say their wretched situation underscores the lack of any serious follow-up by the international community in its war against ISIS.

“First, Islamic State fighters were holed up in our home and then the American planes bombed it,” said Sabah Khalil, pointing from across the border in Suruc, Turkey, to where her family house in Kobani is now a pile of crumpled cement.

“Who is going to help us rebuild? That’s what everyone is asking,” she added, sitting on a stone outside her tent, soaking in the spring sun as children in tattered shoes played nearby.

For four ferocious months, Kobani was the focus of the international media after ISIS militants barreled into the town and surrounding villages, triggering an exodus of some 300,000 residents who poured across the border into Turkey.

The battle for Kobani became the centerpiece of the campaign against ISIS. Dozens of TV crews flocked to the Turkish side of the border and from a hill, trained their cameras on the besieged town, recording plumes of smoke rising from explosions as the U.S.-led coalition pounded IS hideouts inside the town.

In late January, the Kurdish fighters finally ousted the Islamic State from the town — a significant victory for both the Kurds and the U.S.-led coalition. For ISIS, which by some estimates lost around 2,000 fighters in Kobani, it was a defeat that punctured the group’s image and sapped morale.

But the price was daunting.

Today more than 70 percent of Kobani lies in ruins. More than 560 Kurdish fighters died in the battles.

About 70,000 of the refugees have returned to the town and surrounding areas, some only to pitch tents outside their destroyed homes, according to Aisha Afandi, co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.

With no outside help, the Kurdish fighters use primitive tools to dismantle mines and booby traps left behind by ISIS militants. The rotting bodies of dead fighters are still trapped under the rubble, and as the weather gets warmer, there are concerns of spreading disease.

Afandi said an appeal for international donors and Kurdish communities everywhere will be launched at a Kurdish conference on Kobani, due May 2 in the mainly Kurdish-populated city of Diyarbakir in Turkey. There are also plans to transform parts of the town center into a museum, she added.

“It is important for future generations to remember the history that was made here,” she said over the telephone from Kobani.

Three times a week, when Turkish officials open the gate at the Mursitpinar border crossing for a few hours, refugees trickle back into Kobani.

On a recent day, a few dozen people carrying suitcases and bags were at the gate, waiting to cross. Vans loaded with mattresses and other belongings were lined up on a dirt road.

At the nearby Arin Mirxan camp in Suruc, named after a female Kurdish fighter in Kobani who is said to have carried out a suicide bombing against IS militants in October, the hopelessness is on full display.

Ali Hussein and his mother Zalikha Qader sit next to each other in the camp, eating roasted pumpkin seeds and wiling the time away.

In nearby “Tent Number 3,” Shahin Tamo, 21, takes care of his 7-year-old brother Sarwan, a skeletal child with large eyes who suffers from a serious neurological condition. They are here with their parents, two brothers and two sisters. Their Kobani home was looted and burnt.

“Everything is gone. Our house, my education, my future,” Tamo said. “Who will compensate that?”

At least once a day, camp residents go out to the main street to greet a procession bringing in fallen Kurdish fighters from inside Syria.

The bodies, in simple wooden coffins draped in the Kurdish red, white and green-color flag, are the tragic toll of still ongoing fighting back home between the main Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and ISIS militants in areas around Kobani.

“Your blood will not go in vain!” the refugees shouted in Kurdish.

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