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Monday, May 18, 2015

IS jihadists take Ramadi but pinned back in Palmyra

Shi'ite forces ordered to deploy after fall of Iraqi city Mon, May 18 04:38 AM EDT image BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Shi'ite paramilitaries were preparing to deploy to Iraq's western province of Anbar on Monday after Islamic State militants overran the provincial capital Ramadi in the biggest defeat for the Baghdad government since last summer. A spokesman for the paramilitaries, which are known as Hashid Shaabi, told Reuters they had received orders to mobilize, but details could not be revealed for security reasons. "Now that the Hashid has received the order to march forward, they will definitely take part," said Ali al-Sarai, a member of the Hashid Shaabi's media wing. "They were waiting for this order and now they have it." Ramadi is dominated by Sunni Muslims. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi signed off on the deployment of Shi'ite militias to attempt to seize back the area, a move he had previously resisted for fear of provoking a sectarian backlash. The city's fall marked a major setback for the forces ranged against Islamic State: a U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi security forces, which have been propped up by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias It was also a harsh return to reality for Washington, which at the weekend had mounted a successful special forces raid in Syria in which it said it killed an Islamic State leader in charge of the group's black market oil and gas sales, and captured his wife. While the Iraqi government and Shi'ite paramilitaries recaptured the city of Tikrit from Islamic State last month, the major northern city of Mosul remains under the control of the Islamists. Islamic State said that in Ramadi it had seized tanks and killed "dozens of apostates", its description for members of the Iraqi security forces. Earlier, security sources said government forces evacuated a military base after it came under attack by the insurgents, who had already taken one of the last districts still holding out. It was the biggest victory for Islamic State in Iraq since security forces and Shi'ite paramilitary groups began pushing the militants back last year, aided by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition. TARGET OF OPPORTUNITY U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed confidence that the Islamic State takeover of Ramadi would be reversed in the coming weeks. He told a news conference in Seoul that Ramadi had been a target of opportunity for the Islamist militants. "I am convinced that as the forces are redeployed, and as the days flow in the weeks ahead, that's going to change, as overall (they) have been driven back ... I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed." The U.S. Defense Department tried to play down the impact on the broader Iraq military campaign of an Islamic State seizure of the city. "Ramadi has been contested since last summer and ISIL now has the advantage," Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith said, using an acronym for Islamic State. She said the loss of the city would not mean the overall Iraq military campaign was turning in Islamic State's favor, but acknowledged it would give the group a "propaganda boost". "That just means the coalition will have to support Iraqi forces to take it back later," Smith said, adding that the United States was continuing to provide them air support and advice. The Iraqi government had vowed to liberate Anbar after routing the militants from Tikrit. But the security forces, which partly disintegrated under an Islamic State onslaught last June, have struggled to make progress in the vast desert province. An officer who withdrew from the besieged army base said the militants - known in Arabic as Daesh - were urging them via loudspeaker to discard their weapons, promising to show mercy in return. "Most of the troops withdrew from the operations command headquarters and Daesh fighters managed to break in from the southern gate," the officer said. "We are retreating to the west to reach a safe area". "TOTAL COLLAPSE" Earlier on Sunday, Anbar provincial council member Athal Fahdawi described the situation in Ramadi as "total collapse". It was one of only a few towns and cities to have remained under government control in the desert terrain, which borders Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. Islamic State, which emerged as an offshoot of al Qaeda, controls large parts of Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed caliphate where it has massacred members of religious minorities and slaughtered Western and Arab hostages. A senior Israeli intelligence official said that before U.S.-led coalition forces began operations against the group, its revenues were running at about $65 million a month, more than 90 percent of which came from its oil business and the rest from locally imposed taxes and ransom money. Since then, monthly revenues had fallen to about $20 million, of which about 70 percent is from oil and the rest from taxes and ransom. The United States and its allies have been pounding the militants for months with air strikes in Iraq and Syria. In the 24 hours up to 1.00 a.m. ET on Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition carried out seven air strikes near Ramadi. (Reporting by Baghdad Bureau; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and David Brunnstrom in Seoul; Writing by Giles Elgood; editing by David Stamp) ========================================================================== AFPBy Karim Abou Merhi with Rana Moussaoui in Beirut | AFP – 11 hours ago.. . . . A Syrian army soldier fires artillery shells towards Islamic State group jihadists in Palmyra on May 17, 2015 View Photo . AFP/AFP - A Syrian army soldier fires artillery shells towards Islamic State group jihadists in Palmyra on May 17, 2015 .. . . . .Residents of Ramadi flee their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province View Photo . Residents of Ramadi flee their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State group militants … .Map of Iraq locating Ramadi and Anbar province View Photo . Map of Iraq locating Ramadi and Anbar province .A member of the Iraqi interior ministry's anti-terrorism forces stands guard on a vehicle outside the Habaniyah military base, near Anbar province's capital Ramadi, on May 8, 2015 View Photo . A member of the Iraqi interior ministry's anti-terrorism forces stands guard … .Map and illustrations detailing the latest clashes in Syria View Photo . Map and illustrations detailing the latest clashes in Syria .A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on May 17, 2015 shows the ancient oasis city of Palmyra View Photo . A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on May … .. . . The Islamic State group sealed its capture of Ramadi Sunday after a dramatic pullout by Iraqi forces but was prevented by Syrian troops from taking the heritage site of Palmyra. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi urged government forces to hold fast in Ramadi and prevent IS from making further gains, saying they would have air cover and Shiite militia reinforcements. The effective loss of the capital of Iraq's largest province of Anbar marked one of Baghdad's worst setbacks since it began a nationwide offensive last year to reclaim territory lost to the jihadists in June 2014. IS said in an Internet post it fully controlled Ramadi, after a local official admitted the operations command centre there had fallen. "God has enabled the soldiers of the caliphate to cleanse all of Ramadi... after storming the 8th brigade. They (now) control it along with a battalion of tanks and missile launchers and in addition to the Anbar operations command," the IS statement said. Muhannad Haimour, spokesman and adviser to the provincial governor, said "Anbar operations command has been cleared". A colonel among troops who had withdrawn added: "Daesh has just taken full control of all main security bases", using an Arabic acronym for IS. The United States said it was still monitoring tough fighting in parts of Ramadi and described the situation as "fluid and contested." "It is too early to make definitive statements about the situation on the ground there at this time," Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann told AFP. Abadi said troops, tribesmen and elite forces "must hold their positions and preserve them and not allow Daesh to extend to other areas in Ramadi", spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said. - 'Continuous air cover' - "There is continuous air cover that will help ground troops there hold their positions while waiting for support from other forces and the Popular Mobilisation Units," he said of an umbrella group for Shiite militias. The International Organization for Migration said around 24,000 people had been forced from their homes in three days of violence in the Ramadi area. Haimour said at least 500 people, both civilians and military, were killed in the jihadist offensive. A local Anbar province official said Abadi had approved the dispatch of the Popular Mobilisation Units known as Hashed al-Shaabi to Anbar. "The provincial council of Anbar decided to call on Hashed al-Shaabi, which operates under the umbrella of the commander in-chief of the armed forces," said Mahdi Saleh al-Numan, security adviser to the Anbar governor. The move marks a U-turn from the Sunni province's previous opposition to resorting to the Shiite force. Shiite militia groups flashed messages on their respective TV channels vowing to flush IS out of Ramadi within days. The jihadists used a wave of suicide car bombings to take most of the city and raised their black flag over the provincial headquarters. Taking full control of Ramadi, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Baghdad, would be the most significant victory this year for IS, which has suffered a string of setbacks elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. - Setback in Syria - On Sunday IS faced another setback across the border in Syria where government forces drove them out of the ancient oasis town of Palmyra, home to a UNESCO world heritage site. "IS's attack was foiled," provincial governor Talal Barazi said after troops routed the jihadists from the northern part of the modern town of Palmyra which they had seized on Saturday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said, however, that IS fighters were still just a kilometre (less than a mile) from the archaeological site and its museum housing priceless artefacts. It said nearly 300 people have been killed in four days of fighting -- 123 soldiers and their allies, 115 IS fighters and 57 civilians. Syrian antiquities chief Mamoun Abdulkarim expressed relief that IS did not attack Palmyra as it has done in centuries-old sites in Iraq. "We have good news today, we feel much better," Abdulkarim he said. UNESCO has urged both sides to spare Palmyra, which it describes as one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. Meanwhile, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said a rare US raid Friday on one of Syria's largest oilfields killed 32 IS militants, including four top leaders. "The US operation killed 32 members of IS, among them four officials, including IS oil chief Abu Sayyaf, the deputy IS defence minister, and an IS communications official," he said. American officials have said "about a dozen" people were killed in the operation by Iraq-based US commandos trying to capture Abu Sayyaf. ===========================

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