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Fury in Ankara, Anxiety in Erbil, Distress in Baghdad: Sinjar Declares Autonomy amid Kurdish Independence Vote

Situation Report – Democratic Autonomy has been declared in the Niniveh governorate town of Shengal (better known as Sinjar). This announcement spiked furry at Ankara, distress at Baghdad and anxiety…

Situation Report – Democratic Autonomy has been declared in the Niniveh governorate town of Shengal (better known as Sinjar). This announcement spiked furry at Ankara, distress at Baghdad and anxiety at Erbil that has an independence referendum scheduled for this Autumn. There is an utmost potential that the tinderbox of ethnic, sectarian and regional rivalries of Sinjar could escalate in a battlefield orchestrated by regional stakeholders intending to prevent the independence referendum from taking place.

 

The Declaration of Shengal/ Sinjar

The declaration came at a press conference attended by Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly Co-chairs Hisên Hecî Nefso and Rîham Hıço, Democratic Administration Board Co-chairs Hecî Hesen Pîso and Nehlê Yusif Hefsun, Deputy Co-chair Yardımcısı Kurdê Elî Ezîz, YBŞ (Shengal Resistance Units) Commander Seîd Hesen Seîd, Êzîdxan Asayish member Faris Herbo Xidir and Shengal Youth’s Assembly Co-Spokesperson Îbrahîm Omer, according to ANF (you can find the full communique here).

Press conference held by the Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly through which autonomy was proclaimed for Sinjar/ Shengal.

The declaration invoked the right of the Yezidi/ Êzidîs people for self-determination, mentioning their “most ancient faith and cultural society in history” because of which they “have suffered repeated genocides”, especially mentioning the ethnic cleansing, forced conversion, sex slavery and mass killing at the hands of Da’esh (ISIS). The tragedy began in early 2014 when ISIS was emerging in both Iraq and Syria; in March 2014, the jihadists captured the town of Sinjar administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) but majority populated by Yazidis. The later, took shelter on the near-by Sinjar mountain, becoming encircled and under siege from the terror group. ISIS and its radical and puritarian interpretation of Islam  considers the Yazidis as being “devil worshipers” and therefor legitimizes, in their insane and made-up jurisprudence, to brutalize them as they chose to: from mass-killing to sex enslavement. The tragedy was designated as a genocide by the United Nations, the United States (by both Trump and Obama administrations) and many other countries.

To their defense came the United States that deployed in August 2014 Special Forces and advisors, alongside the British Special Air Service (SAS) to asses options and plan an evacuation of the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, sparking the first air strikes conducted by the Pentagon against ISIS.  On the ground, salvation came through the Kurdish factions as the KRG’s rulling party KDP, and its military force, the Pashmerga but also rival Marxist guerilla and outlawed PKK-backed by the PUK – the opposition party. Sinjar was liberated in October 2015, lifting the siege on the Yazidi population and also cutting a major supply route from Raqqa (ISIS’s capital) to Mosul (ISIS’s largest city). Since then, both Pashmerga and PKK began contesting the turf. The fighters of PKK backed the formation of the Sinjar Alliance, a joint command room between the the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), the Êzîdxan Women’s Units (YJÊ) – the two Yazidi militas formed in 2007 after the exact model of the Syrian Kurdish YPG/ YPJ groups – and themselves. While the Pashmerga inflicted political pressure backed by their military foothold in the area, somewhat also enforcing Ankara’s protests regarding PKK’s presence in the area. There have been times when the two camps clashed in the Sinjar area, forcing additional displacement from the Yazidis.

Close to 10,000 Yazidis have been killed, kidnapped  by ISIS, even more than this have been also affected or displaced. A study published in academic journal PLOS Medicine found that 3,100 were murdered, with almost half executed by gunshot, beheading or being burned alive, while the rest died from starvation, dehydration or injuries during the Da’esh siege on Mount Sinjar. While 6,800 of them have been kidnapped, most of them (women) being forced into sex slavery.  The same studies suggest that over 2,5% of the estimated 400,000 population of Yazidi has been exterminated by ISIS.

Map of the situation in Mount Sinjar (2014). Source: unknown

 

Sinjar: A Second ‘Qandil’ in the Eyes of Turkey

Turkey fears that a Sinjar controlled by the PKK could become a strategic node for a permanent logistics and paramilitary corridor from the PKK’s homebase in the Qandil mountains (north-eastern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan bordering Iran) all the way to the Syrian boundary, providing the outlawed group with a superior capacity to move and assert its interest against Turkish national security concerns and in regards to the Kurdish population in northern Syria, where they benefit from an allegiance and organizational link with the YPG, Iraq and overall the entire region coordinated through KCK format established as of 2004.

Ankara is also pitted in a difficult situation, as their primary partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has not backed down in face of pressure from holding the announced independence referendum. This ballot will also involve Sinjar, regardless of its disputed status in relation with the Iraqi government from Baghdad, therefore the KDP needs a sensitive approach towards the Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly in order to secure their cooperation in the interest of expanding the referendum. On the other hand, both President Erdogan and Prime-Minister Yildirim announced that Turkey will not let Sinjar become “a second Qandil” referring to the safe-heaven held by the PKK on the Iraqi-Iranian border from which the outlawed group has launched repeated attacks in Turkey’s southeastern province for the past decades. They are currently awaiting for the KDP to solve the issue as promised, while not resisting to tease that a second, military option also exists.

Worth to mention that KDP hosts a significant amount of Turkish troops in the area and that Ankara has a training camp at Bashiqa where hundreds of Sunni tribesmen and Pashmerga soldiers have been trained. In a bid to prevent further Turkish actions, the KDP and its Syrian Kurdish allies sought in March to dislodge the PKK from Khanasor by entering YBS controlled area, but failed. Later on in April 2017, Turkish fighter jets targeted PKK and YBS militants in the area, but ended up killing 6 KDP Peshmerga instead.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted n August 21st that his government is considering joint military action with Iran against the PKK. “[The] PKK terror organization has a foot in Iran,” Erdogan said, speaking to reporters ahead of an official visit to Jordan. “They always cause harm to Iran and us. … We believe if the two countries cooperate, we can reach a conclusion in a much shorter period of time.” Iranian-backed PMU’s are kilometers away in northern Iraq, both at the Syrian border after they secured the Umm Jaris crossing, and at Tel Afar, where together with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have just launched an offensive to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Tel Afar, as the post-Mosul nexus. More on the situation post-Mosul in this analysis.

On August 24th, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli issued two major threats in regards to the situation in Northern Iraq“Turkey should cooperate with Iran to destroy PKK terrorists located in Northern Iraq,” In relation to the upcoming referendum which will be held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, Bahçeli said that it is unacceptable and that it should be considered as a cause of war for Turkey.

Brief Geopolitics of Kurdistan: Can It Break Free of the Constraint Theory?

On June 7th, 2017, after high-level consultations between political factions, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani announced that a date has been set for the Independence referendum to take place: 25th of September. KRG already enjoys a large extent of self-governing features such as an own parliament, armed forces and jurisdiction, however the relations with the central government with Baghdad has always been sour.

(a) The rule of Saddam Hussein threatened the mere existence of the Kurds in northern Iraq, exacerbating armed conflicts and insurgencies in face of chemical attacks and attempted genocides by the Ba’ath authority. The conflict was in a dead-end as the many negotiations between KDP, PUK and Ba’ath failed to produce anything than temporary ceasefires. The situation only improved after the United States launched Operation ‘Provide Comfort’  in 1991 which sought to deter Iraqi attacks on the Kurdish population by implementing a no-fly interdiction in the airspace and a safe-zone on the ground which at the mission’s end in 1996, fully established today’s self-ruling Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

  • In the post-Saddam Hussein era, the divisive Maliki government challenged the economical and political structures and functionality of KRG through its policies. The Maliki cabinet refused to send the block grants that pay for the salaries of the region’s civil servants, or have boiled tensions over the city of Kirkuk at a near-war level, especially since the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) abandoned their positions when ISIS stormed Northern Iraq, creating a vacuum,that in Kurdish eyes, served the area on a plate to the jihadists while the Iraqis were making a run for it. Although deployment of the Pashmerga and the appointment of the comprise government of Abadi loosened up the situation, disagreements remained due to the Kurdish advancement outside the territory of KRG essentially annexing new turf under their jurisdiction, and in regards to the oil exports and revenue.
  • Of course, most of Baghdad’s hostility towards the KRG post-2003 came from the oil disputes, which is also strongly related with the status of Kirkuk. As the central government applies ultra-centralized policies in regards to oil production and exports, the KRG tried to by-pass the Constitution and independently sell oil through separate deals (as with Turkey, for example) while not returning any taxes or revenues to Baghdad, as long as possible. This stirs a never-ending line of blames and justifications between the two intra-state actors heavily dependent on oil exports. In reality, Article 111 and 112 from the Iraqi Constitution related to energy issues clearly states that ‘oil and gas shall be propriety of all Iraqi people in all regions and provinces’ […] ‘The Federal Government should jointly manage oil and from current fields with the governments of the producing regions and provinces, provided that the proceeds from these shall be allocated fairly and proportionately with the population distribution throughout the country’. KRG is entitled to 17% of these revenues.

(b) Iraq’s oil politics is a decisive input in understanding the state of affairs within and around the country. In 2003 the estimated capacity would have put Iraq in equal terms with Saudi Arabia, or even past it taking into account the vast potential of unexplored reserves. This Brooking analysis lists some of those statistics: the Petroleum Economist Magazine estimates that there were as many as 200 bbl of oil in Iraq; the Federation of American Scientists estimates 215 bbl; a study by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University claimed that Iraq has 220 bbl of undiscovered oil; and another study by the Center for Global Energy Studies and Petrolog & Associates offered an even more optimistic estimate of 300 bbl. Fellow partners from OPEC fell threatened by Iraq’s vast potential and they have good reasons to be so.

(c) World Oil informed two months ago that Iraq was the top crude supplier to India for a third month in May, shipping 1 MMbpd. Iraqi supplies accounted for 23% of India’s purchases last month, up from an average 19% in the previous four months, while Saudi Arabia’s share fell by 1% to 17%, the data showed. Oil producers are facing increasing competition in major markets like China and India as OPEC as those are the fastest-growing and potentially-largest consumer markets. India’s $2-trillion economy imports more than 80% of its crude requirement and the IEA expects it to be the fastest-growing consumer through 2040.

view of Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, as seen from Hotel Divan, a popular spot for the Kurdish elite and foreign businessmen. In the foreground is the long-stalled development Empire World, a casualty of the economic crisis now facing the region. (Jake Naughton/GlobalPost Investigations)

(d) Deepening our understanding of the oil problem, it should be mentioned that a significant part of Iraq’s wealth and deposits are also situated in the North, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the ‘territorial belt’ disputed with Baghdad. According a highly-insightful analysis from the Revenue Watch Institute, the southern-most region of Basra accounts for 59% of Iraqi oil reserves (65 bbl), Kirkuk comes second with 12% (13 bbl), while KRG’s total is only 3%, including the oil fields in Erbil, Dohuk and Suleymaniyah. Looking in stark contrast, northern Iraq did not enjoy the same stability as the southern lands, namely Basra where skyscrapers and luxurious malls are being built, a significant portion of the oil fields in Kirkuk are damaged or outdated and only operate at half their capacity. Kirkuk’s joker card its the undiscovered/ unexploited deposits which maintain optimism and attract investments from international energy giants.

On the other hand, the prospects of KRG-based oil looked fairly pessimistic for investors in the past years, as revisions over some oil fields found more water than oil, reducing the deposit’s projected potential. Consequently, decision makers at Erbil decided to maintain the massive oil fields located in Kirkuk in the post-liberation period. And while energy-reasons are not the most PR-friendly justification, the historical ones are. Kirkuk was a Kurdish majority city up to the rule of Saddam Hussein who forcefully displace them and encourage Sunni Arabs to populate the region instead. Over the course of dozens of years, this social engineering still casts a shadow over Kurdish-Arab Sunni relations.

(e) Geoeconomic-wise, the KRG’s oil potential and independent dealings are conditioned by two complex actors, Turkey and the Iraq.  While Ankara holds the soul pipeline towards its industrial port in Ceyhan used as a hub for further exports and transports, benefiting from a somewhat dependency of the Kurds towards their transitional posture, Baghdad controls the roads and pipelines capable of transporting the products to other regional markets or integrated networks of roads. In an exclusive Reuters article, the region’s minister for natural resources, Ashti Hawrami, said that to avoid detection Kurdish oil was often funneled through Israel, transferred directly between Greek commercial ships off the coast of Malta, and decoy ships used to make it harder for Baghdad to track. However Baghdad did fill a lawsuit against Greek company Marine Management Services over its involvement in these dealings. But even to by-pass Baghdad, KRG needed to help of Turkey.

(f) Looking at trade figures, Kurdistan’s Board of Investments informs that imports account for 85% of the estimated US$5.0–5.5 billion of annual external trade in the Kurdistan Region.  Most imported goods are consumed in the Region and are not re-exported as value-added products. The largest external trading partner for KRG is Turkey and most of products consists in food and consumables.

(g) Translating this data over the disputed areas and into demographics, the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC) in Kurdistan reports that:

  • 6 million people in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed territories such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Sinjar, Makhmour and Khanaqin have the right to vote in the referendum.
  • 48% of the Kurdistan Region’s land is still disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, and some 2.7 million people live in the disputed territories.

 

End Notes

(1) Looking at these figures we can conclude that for an independent Kurdistan the possession of Kirkuk, Sinjar and other disputed areas is key. However, given Iraq’s and Turkey’s disapproval towards the vote, and subsequently, leverage over Erbil (trade, energy, infrastructure) the referendum could simply result into a sterile non-actionable outcome if the expected “Yes” camp will win. Both Ankara and Baghdad can simply block Kurdish oil exports and isolate the region as wanted, even before talking about a military solution. Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak already said that the referendum would harm energy cooperation with the KRG, which pumps hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day to Turkey’s Ceyhan export terminal.

According to the constraint theory, there are a number of clear geographical, statistical inputs that can predict an actor’s behavior, there have been enough cases (example: Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015) that ignored strong trade ties, energy dependency or political comfort, on the grounds that third effects could overthrow the second ones, and unlock a better prospect. In this logic, while Erbil knows that the referendum could be disastrous for the country’s trade and economics due to geopolitical constraints as immediate secondary effects, it could also judge the long-term prospects as being an opportunity of emergence which is nothing short or rational thinking however dangerous would it be to roam through an adverse Middle Eastern quagmire.

(2) It is not clear if PKK’s influence over the Sinjar Council that recently proclaimed autonomy will exercise any kind of negative effect over the referendum. It may be the case that PKK wants to assert itself in the region before an independent Kurdistan emerges, in a bid to softly challenge KDP’s authority. However, this uncontrolled enthusiasm could actually put in danger the referendum by attracting a Turkish economic boycott against the KRG, or military intervention targeting the Sinjar Alliance, which is exactly the scenario that Masoud Barzani, KDP President, fears and tries to prevent through a combination of military pressure, shuttle diplomacy and effectively, stalling time. Ankara might not see the proclamation of autonomy in Sinjar as an organic right to self-determination of persecuted Yazidis, but a political instrumentation from the PKK to achieve influence in the area.

(3) Secretary of Defense James Mattis signaled Washington’s nuanced stance on this matter by announcing on August 23rd at Baghdad that they are committed to preserve the unity of Iraq, while the later meeting at Erbil with President Masoud Barzani he only suggested that the dialogue with the Iraqi government should continue on that matter. In addition to this, Iran and Syria also oppose a Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq fearing that a domino effect could vacuum their Kurdish-populated territories as well – also a vital concern of Turkey.

The unanimous decision taken by all Kurdish parties to support the referendum shows a rare moment of Kurdish unity throughout history, which could cancel any external soft-or-smart power effort to disrupt KRG’s affairs.

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Battle for Raqqa, Vol.2 – Live Journal

T-intelligence (Ti) continues the ‘Battle for Raqqa’ daily journal feed with a fresh new entry that will try to improve based on previously provided feedback from you, the audience. You…

T-intelligence (Ti) continues the ‘Battle for Raqqa’ daily journal feed with a fresh new entry that will try to improve based on previously provided feedback from you, the audience. You can find the first volume, here, and read all about the methodology employed, the source/ reference policy and subsequently about the daily entries, stretching from the assault on June 6, 2017 to the later encirclement and to the sustained efforts within the Old Town, until August 1, 2017.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the multi-ethnic group of Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen or Syriac militias led by the Kurdish YPG, are supported by the U.S.-led International anti-ISIS Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’. Upon finalizing the battle, Raqqa will be handed over the Raqqa Civil Council as an interim power that will end its term in 2018 when democratic elections are scheduled to be held.


Mission has ended. 

October 17, 2017 (Overview)

It’s over.

The U.S.-led Coalition backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have put an end to the ISIS rule in Raqqa and liberated the last districts controlled by the terror group.

Major military operations in Raqqa are finished but they are now clearing the city of sleeper cells — if they exist — and mines,” Talal Salo, spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told CNN. The SDF is a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters. “The situation in Raqqa is under control and soon there will be an official statement declaring the liberation of the city.”

Click to ‘View as’ to see a wider format.

What remains as tactical objectives for the triumphant party is to hunt the remaining sleeper cells, defuse IEDs and overall, restore security to the city. Inevitable, further small operations will continue, but the battle for the city is a sealed deal. In accordance to the protocol established before the battle, the city will be handed over to the Raqqa Civil Council, which took responsibility to assure the transition period until the first elections in 2018. The city will also be a part of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Amid the final success, the latest fights had the SDF pitted against remaining jihadists around the Municipal Stadium, and throughout the central-northern parts. Weary and condemned to defeat, sustaining an enhanced combined air and ground assault, some 350 jihadists surrendered just today to the Coalition. The fighters were brought to a prison in Tabqa where they await trail.  Additionally, there are rumors that some ISIS fighters have been allowed to leave for other territories (possibly Deir ez-Zor), especially after a video emerged showing them leaving the National Hospital.

ISIS still controls areas in eastern Syria, (Deir ez-Zor province), contested by the Loyalists and the US-backed SDF; a small pocket in northern Hama disputed with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (unofficial Al-Qa’ida affiliate), and in Anbar province, notably around the cities of al-Qa’im and Rawah – pressured by the Iraqi Security Forces backed by the US-led Coalition.

Most of the SDF personnel in Raqqa, especially the battle-hardened and experienced YPG elements, should normally be transferred to Deir ez-Zor province, in order to assist Operation Jazzira Storm, currently spearheaded by allied native Arab Sunni tribes, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) and local of-shoot Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC). More about that operation here.

The activist group ‘Raqqa is Slaughtered Silently’ that represented a resistance voice in the city throughout the years of Da’esh occupation, has issued another critical tweet addressing the number of civilian casualties (claims to be 1,000) and destruction left behind (claims 90%) by the SDF’s and YPG’s way of conducting the battle. While RISS had traditionally supplied interesting insights, their anti-SDF bias is widely known due to ethnic divergences over the region. Ti is not able to confirm the claimed facts and figures.

Coincidental, the end of the battle for Raqqa comes at the Coalition’s 3rd anniversary. In this regard, the Coalition Spokesperson listed on Twitter some facts and figures of their efforts against ISIS:

  • liberated 87% of the terror group’s territory,
  • that amounts for 6,5 million people freed under their ruthless rule;
  • degraded ISIS’ ability to finance their operations, cutting oil revenues by 90%,
  • reduced the flow of foreign recruits traveling to ISIS-held areas from 1,500 people/ month, to nearly zero per day,
  • liberated the self-proclaimed ‘capital’ of ISIS, Raqqa.

Also, as a personal note, the Coalition destroyed the will of the enemy to continue fighting, a fact exposed by the repeated requests of Da’esh to be allowed to evacuate or surrender – something unprecedented some months ago.

On the other hand, the price for this victory was costly. Airwars estimated in September that around 1,000 civilians were killed since June 6 at the start of the campaign; while the number is unconfirmed by the Coalition, which slammed Airwars in the past for unsubstantiated figures, we can still assess that at least 500-700 non-combatant deaths have occurred. While the population’s well-being is a central concern for all civilized actors, the use of human shields and mines by ISIS, and the difficulty in telling the difference between combatant and non-combatant on today’s hybrid battlefield has sparked significant difficulties, if not made it impossible to completely reduce the civilian loss.

According to the the Telegraph, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor put the overall death toll for the battle at 3,250, including fighters and civilians, but said hundreds were still missing or unaccounted for. Personal and open-source assessments of SDF casualties put estimates around 400.

With the Raqqa Civil Council assuming the post-conflict reconstruction,  the Raqqa Internal Security Forces (RISF) formed at Ain Issa on May 17, will patrol the streets of the city – overseeing a steady transition in the security landscape.

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Although October and September were poorly reported upon if not at all, the update frequency from June 6, 2017 to early September has been overall sustained on a daily basis.

SDF victory celebration at the Al-Naim circle, a place where ISIS would conduct brutal executions and beheadings.


September 8-24, 2017 (Overview)

After successful fights inner Raqqa and on its outskirts, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have boxed the remaining jihadists in the upper-north districts of the city. Yesterday on December 23rd, the US-backed forces have even liberated al-Firdous neighborhood reaching the southern end of the Municipal Stadium. 

The enemy is significantly weaken and lost morale, information suggest that many have already surrendered to the Coalition. Just last week alone, the SDF captured 84 city blocks in Raqqa, marking a swift advance that maintained an intense effort that crippled the jihadist defensive lines and inner ranks throughout the city. The dramatic falls of ISIS in Raqqa intensified on September 19th, when the SDF captured the Grain Silos and closed the northern lines. Only so that the next day, the complete liberation of the ex-Division 17th HQ and the hills around it to be confirmed as secured. Subsequently, nearly 80 percent of the ex-self proclaimed capital of the “islamic state” has been liberated by the indigenous multi-ethnic SDF supported by the US-led Global Coalition against ISIS “Inherent Resolve”. Some sources indicate that the actual gains amount to 90 percent of Raqqa.

One thing is sure, the battle for Raqqa will end this year. And with that, more assets and personnel will become available to contribute to the already launched operation “Cizre Storm” targeting ISIS fighters in Deir ez-Zor province.

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Feed interrupted…  


September 7, 2017

Fighting continue to concentrate on the Amin district of central Raqqa, where the SDF foiled an ISIS counter-attack. Also a significant amount of ammo and equipment was captured from the jihadists that was originally looted form the forces of the Syrian Regime.

The U.S.-led Coalition conducted 11 strikes in Raqqa, destroyed 11 ISIS fighting positions, a command & control node and suppressed three fighting positions.


September 6, 2017

The Civil Registry Building was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) while in a previously liberated part of Sina’a, the Baghdad Gate was also fully cleared from ISIS elements. The Coalition backed forces advanced under the continuous harassment from ISIS snipers. The cohort is pushing towards the central parts of Raqqa.

The U.S.-led Coalition conducted eight (8) strikes, destroyed 13 ISIS fighting positions; damaged five fighting positions and suppressed two fighting positions. Additional 38 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.


August 31- September 5, 2017

The Coalition backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have managed to sustain a continuous advancement of carving into ISIS-held territory with no setback of successful counter-attacks from Da’esh. The paramount of this effort was marked on September 2 when the full liberation of Raqqa’s Great Mosque was announced consequently fully clearing the city’s Old Town.

In this respect, on September 3, the SDF managed to liberate al-Moroor district, further boxing the jihadists between Raqqa’s open hills and the city’s northern limits, also eroding their lines of defense. CNN issued an exclusive drone video showing the destruction of Raqqa.

On August 31st, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 15 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 11 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 10 fighting positions, three logistics nodes, two vehicles and a command & control center. Additional 31 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

On September 1st, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 17 strikes in Raqqa, engaged four ISIS tactical units; destroyed 16 fighting positions, three logistics nodes, two command & control nodes, and a SVBIED. Additional 12 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Five more strikes were also reported on September 3rd.

On September 2nd, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 19 strikes in Raqqa, engaged five ISIS tactical units; destroyed five fighting positions, four logistics nodes, three IEDs, two staging areas, a mortar system, a vehicle, a command and control node. Additional five strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.  Ten more strikes were reported on September 4th. Also 11 more strikes were reported on the 5th.

On September 3rd, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 21 strikes in Raqqa, engaged nine ISIS tactical units; destroyed 13 fighting positions, two pieces of ISIS communications infrastructure, two vehicles, a SVBIED, a command & control node, and a logistics node. Additional four strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.  One more strike was reported on the 5th. Ten strikes were also reported on the 6th.

On September 4th, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 23 strikes in Raqqa, engaged seven ISIS tactical units; destroyed 20 fighting positions, four oil stills, three oil tanks, two logistics nodes, and a command & control node; and suppressed two fighting positions. One additional strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Additional 15 strikes were reported on the 6th.

On September 5th, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 25 strikes in Raqqa, engaged an ISIS tactical unit; destroyed 22 fighting positions, three ISIS communications infrastructure items, and a logistics node; damaged three fighting positions; and suppressed four fighting positions. Additional 15 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.


August 30, 2017

In an interesting development, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) managed to cut cordon off Muroor district by capturing the main street that cuts between them in diagonal. Around 200 civilians were rescued by the SDF from the Children’s Hospital area and were transported to Kobani. Panorama Garden from Diriyah district was also captured by the advancing SDF.

In addition to a large quantity of ammo and weapons captured from ISIS in southern Raqqa, the Turkish-made HAR 66 surfaces again to the terror group’s stockpile.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 17 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 11 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 15 fighting positions, two command & control nodes, a logistical node, and an IED factory. Additional 18 strikes were reported the next day. Two more strikes reported on September 1st.


August 29, 2017

Snipers of the SDF have taken the rooftops of southern Muroor district and especially on top of the Mwasa Children’s Hospital to prevent unexpected counter-attacks by Da’esh.  Other active fronts were Nahdah, were previous efforts to carve through ISIS-held territory proved successfully, al-Mooror and al-Tashih districts.

Nowruz Ahmed from the military council of the U.S.-backed and YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spoke to Reuters, in what she said was her first interview with the media, about the ‘Great Battle’ launched on June 6 to liberate Raqqa from ISIS. “We cannot determine the time period in which the battle of Raqqa will end precisely because war has its conditions. But we do not expect it to last long, and according to our plans the battle will not take longer than two months from now,” Ahmed said.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 46 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 30 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 66 fighting positions, five heavy machine guns, five vehicles, three anti-air systems, three medium machine guns, two command & control nodes, an ISIS HQ, a weapon cache, a SVBIED and damaged 8 fighting positions. Additional 16 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. The total now amounts to 62 strikes, just below the 63-strikes record reached the day before.


August 28, 2017

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fully liberated al-Mansur district, thereby completing the capture of Raqqa’s Old Town. The most difficult part of the anti-ISIS fight here is over; jihadists have been now pushed to other districts with the hope to further isolate them in open field, making them clean targets for the U.S.-led aviation.

Commander of the Manbij Military Council (MMC) of the SDF was killed in clashes with ISIS in the battle for Raqqa.

In parallel, SDF managed to liberate more streets in Nahdah district.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 12 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 6 ISIS tactical units; destroyed nine fighting positions, logistics nodes and a VBIED. Additional 48 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 3 strikes were reported on the 30th. Total: 63 strikes, a new record for the Coalition’s activity.


August 27, 2017

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the Global anti-ISIS Coalition confirmed that SDF have captured the Children’s Hospital in Maroor district, even though data about such a liberation debuted online two days ago, probably waited for the local forces to consolidate and implement a firm control.

Coalition and Kurdish YPG launched a crackdown on Raqqa’s Hawks Brigade chief due to his cooperation with Regime forces during the Syrian Arab Army’s operations in rural southern Raqqa governorate.

A group of 24 nurses who have been training for 4 months at Rojava’s Health Academy in Serêkaniyê arrived in Raqqa to complete the final phase of their education 12 nurses were sent to Raqqa’s eastern front while another 12 were dispatched to the east.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 29 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 13 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 19 fighting positions, five logistics nodes, three vehicles, three ISIS HQs, two VBIEDs, and two command & control nodes. Additional 24 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Two new strikes were reported in the 29th strike release.


August 26, 2017

#SDF controlled Zahraa School in Thakana neighborhood and the market area till Mitafawekin School. Liberation remains idle despite ongoing clashes in remaining Mansur district, Nahdah and around al-Maroon. Added humanitarian relief was made possible and more civilians managed to escape disputed areas for the safety of the city’s outskirts. De-mining efforts continue throughout liberated neighborhoods.

al-Rashid district in Old Town

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 18 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 4 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 14 fighting positions, six logistic nodes, and three vehicles. Additional 22 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 2 strikes were reported on the 28th strike release.


August 25, 2017

An early-morning offensive by the Syrian Democratice Forces (SDF) assaulted ISIS position in Nahdah district and liberating significant turf in the neighborhood. Through this military effort, the SDF have captured an ISIS-held munitions factory in the area, consisting of missiles and around 100 mortar rounds. Anti-radiation Kh 28, R-27 Vympel, and Totchka are some of them. Also, many of those missiles contain Cyrillic writing on them, most probably of Russian origin, scavenged by Da’esh from captured Regime bases and garrisons.U.S. B-52 carpet bomber was spotted above Raqqa’s airspace.

SDF also advanced on Maroor district, freeing the Children’s Hospital.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 24 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 15 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 20 fighting positions, two logistics node, two command & control centers, a VBIED, an ISIS UAS, an ISIS HQ; and suppressed a tactical unit. Additional 31 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 4 strikes were reported on the 27th strike release. Total number: 59


August 24, 2017

Around 24 jihadists were killed last night in al Mansur, al Moroor, Nadah and Bitani districts, while SDF received 3 casualties. Fighting throughout the day saw the Syrian democratic Forces attempting to push the frontline as westwards as possible in Mansur district. Air strikes and artillery targeted the area around the “Security Box” in a bid to soften the terrorist’s defensive positions. Clashes were also reported in Nahdah neighborhood and resulted in 5 losses for ISIS. Roj Mine Control Organization (RMCO) defused many ISIS mines (IEDs) planted inside Raqqa civillians homes to slow down SDF advance in city.

Clocktower in al-Rashid district: up (2015) vs. down (present).

SDF also liberated the square around the Clock Tower, where ISIS has been holding the public executions and were the heads or bodies of those killed were exposed. The United Nations called for a humanitarian pause to allow an estimated 20,000 trapped civilians to escape from the Syrian city of Raqqa, and urged the U.S.-led coalition to rein in air strikes that have caused casualties. However, ISIS is not bound to any kind of pause, such an option is unrealistic.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 5 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 4 ISIS tactical units; destroyed five fighting positions. Additional 41 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release, engaging 31 ISIS tactical units, destroying 31 fighting positions, an ISIS HQ, three vehicles, an IED, an anti-air artillery gun, and a command & control node. Other 11 strikes were reported in the 26th strike release. Total number: 57


August 23, 2017

In an interview for ARA News, Bret McGurk said that around 2,000 ISIS fighters are left in Raqqa, and that city is 55-60% liberated by the SDF. Also, he pointed out that the Coalition gathered around 10 Terrabytes of intelligence on ISIS, and that together with Interpol they have built a data base of 19,000 known foreign fighters, local assets, sympathizers etc.

Map of the Battle for Raqqa as of 23rd of August, 2017 // all rights reserved to Transylvania Intelligence

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 9 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 7 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 11 fighting positions a vehicle.


August 22, 2017

In an extraordinary course of events, SDF managed to defeat ISIS in the Old Town and capture the rest of Rashid district, and therefore almost the entire territory walled within the city’s medieval core. Through this, the SDF made sure that the closing fights of this battle will not be prolonged or stalled as the ISF did in Western Mosul’s old districts, therefore pushing the jihadists in the open. Dozens of civilians were able to escape the now near-fully liberated old town.

In addition, SDF managed to even push the frontlines west of the Old Town, around 100 meters to Qusad al-Mu’taz Street, video bellow, and at the roundabout on Quwatli street:

The U.S.-led Coalition conducted 14 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 13 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 26 fighting positions, an ISIS HQ, a command & control node, and engineering equipment used by the jihadists. Additional 27 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Three (3) more strike were also reported in the 26th strike release. One more strikes reported in the 27th strike release.


August 20-21, 2017

Clashes occurred all over Raqqa. ISIS suicide bomber Abu Yusuf al-Hindi detonated himself in north-eastern Romaniah district, a much more lower intensity location of the battle. In the districts of Mahda and Muroor SDF managed to advance and inflict casualties in the jihadists. Thousands of civilians have been vaccinated in Raqqa amid Polio outbreaks.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 21 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 14 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 22 fighting positions, two UAS staging areas, two heavy machine guns, a vehicle and an explosive cache on August 20th. Additional 33 strikes reported in the next day’s strike release.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 20 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 13 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 24 fighting positions, a vehicle, a logistical node and ISIS communication towers. Additional 21 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Additional 2 strikes were reported on the 24th. Other 3 strikes reported only in the 26th strike release.


August 19th, 2017

Syrian Democratic Forces captured several checkpoints both in Rashed neighborhood and Derayah. The fighters advance slowly but surely, in order to avoid IEDs and other booby-traps set up by ISIS. While the positions in the Old Town are on one hand, consolidated by the half controlled by SDF, and disputed in those streets in the western parts, still under ISIS control, the SDF distributed leaflets in Mansoor informing civilians to evacuate and the jihadists to surrender.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 5 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 2 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 3 fighting positions. Additional 36 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release, that engaged 22 ISIS tactical units, destroyed 29 fighting positions, and several other assets or battle vectors. Additional 6 strike reported on the 21st. One additional strikes reported on the 22nd. Another additional strikes reported in the 26th strike release.


August 18th, 2017

A new batch of supplies arrive in Northern Syria on route to support the anti-ISIS effort in Raqqa.

Special Presidential Envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, Brett McGurk met with representatives of the Raqqa Civil Council in Ain Issa.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 19 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 17 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 20 positions, anti-air system, and a command & control node. Additional 20 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Additional 4 strikes were were reported on the 20th. One additional strike reported on the 21st.


August 17h, 2017

Clashes between the SDF and ISIS continued throughout the night in Shahadeh district. US-backed forces managed to take an ammunition depot from the jihadists in that area. In the city center, SDF manages to hold and consolidate the ground capture in the Old Town and captures the entire al-Quwalti street that separates Rifaq and Mahdi neighborhoods. On the other hand, significant attempt of counter-attack launched by ISIS were dealt with success by the SDF on several fronts, while also managing to open several safe passages for civilians to flee.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 18 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 12 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 29 fighting positions, three ISIS communication lines and two logistical nodes. Additional 19 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.  Additional 3 strikes were reported on the 19th.


August 16h, 2017

Clashes continued in al Mansur, al Rashid, Shahadeh and Darayeh neighborhoods, killing 46 jihadists. Four SVBIED have been also neutralized before they could be detonated. OIR Spokesperson said that 55% of the city is now in SDF hands.

According to an article in Reuters, The current number of Arabs in the SDF is around 24,000 with 31,000 Kurds; just since November, U.S. trained 5,000 local Arabs from Raqqa to join the ranks of SDF. This day marked the 1 year anniversary of the liberation of Manbij, significant celebrations took place in the city, now administered by the Federation of Northern Syria. Interesting war stories of the SDF in Raqqa can be read through this insight-full article.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 20 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 16 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 17 fighting positions, a logistics node, an IED, a command & control node, an UAS and a vehicle. Additional 23 strikes were also reported in the next day’s strike release. Additional 5 strikes were reported on 18th strike release. One more strike was reported in the 26th strike release.


August 15h, 2017

Around 95 jihadts have been neutralized in the intense and ongoing clashes in Raqqa’s Old Town. Humanitarian situations in some parts have improved, many civilians managing to escape, however the overall outlook is dire, being the 62nd day without water. SDF managed to destroy an ISIS SVBIED before detonating itself, close to the Children’s Hospital in near the Security Box, near Shahadah/ Furat, where the jihadists tried to open an offensive.

Drone footage captures moment when U.S. air strikes hits ISIS position in Raqqa.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 11 strikes against ISIS in Raqqa, engaging seven ISIS tactical units; destroying 30 fighting positions, a logistics node and a UAS. Additional 37 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 4 strikes were reported in the strike release of August 17th. This marks the day with the highest air strike count from the entire campaign: 52.


August 4-14th, 2017

In this long 10-days span fights continued in the disputed Old Town as well as in the near-central districts. Little progress has been achieved given the fortified positions of the jihadists and the urbanized area that the SDF is now operating in. Without a doubt, the U.S-backed fighters are well deep into the most difficult terrain of the anti-ISIS effort, needing to push the jihadists out of the city and off the Earth, while also preventing casualties both in SDF and of the civilians.

Following intensified efforts in Nezlat Shahadeh and Hisham Abdulmalik districts in 6-9 August, on the 10th, the SDF managed to capture the small ISIS pocket there and united the eastern and western fronts through the southern axis near the Euphrates banks

. SDF fighters congratulated and saluted each other as they met. Capitalizing on this new enforced posture of SDF personnel south of the Old Town, sustained operations have began targeting the city’s central districts with night raids, air strikes and shelling.

In the meanwhile, SVBIED attacks from ISIS tried to weaken SDF presence in the western parts of the Old Town, even near the Old Mosque. Despite these efforts, on March 12, SDF managed to capture Mahdi and al-Rifa districts, which amount to more than half of Raqqa’s Old Town, including the Old Mosque. These is not just an intelligence tactical plan, but also an outstanding achievement that the SDF managed to actually apply it. In contrast, Iraqi Security Force (ISF) did a major mistake by cornering the last remnants of ISIS in the Old Town of Mosul, heavily urbanized and basically a maze of narrow streets packed with IEDs, tight corners, tall buildings and enough cover and door-to-door situations, to stall the battle for months and cost additional lives of civilians and soldiers. The last four three months of the battle for Mosul took place in the Old Town. What SDF is attempting (successfully for now) is conduct an early liberation of the Old Town, in order to push the last remnants of ISIS in the opened areas of Raqqa, which make them an easier target for the sweep & clean closing operations of the battle.

Before the liberation of Mahdi and al-Rifa, сommander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Hafal Jabbar, said that SDF need 4 more months to capture Raqqa city. And according to U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, Brett McGurk, there are ‘2,000 ISIS fighters left in Raqqa’ while Colonel Ryan Dillon, a Coalition spokesperson said: “Fighting in Raqqa continues to be intense, as fanatical ISIS dead-enders and foreign terrorist fighters left to die use the dense urban environment to try to cling to territory”.

Another interview with Bret McGurk said: ‘we know that a lot of foreign fighters are concentrated in the city of Raqqa, and our mission is to make sure that they cannot escape. Our mission is to make sure that any foreign fighter, that came from another country to fight here for ISIS in Syria, they will die here in Syria. If they’re in Raqqa, they’re going to die here in Raqqa. For Syrian who might have been swapped up with ISIS and want to surrender, the Raqqa Civilian Council here [interim political authority for Raqqa] last week pardoned 80 Syrians last week. So that is something that Syrians can work out.’

In Derek, self-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria, authorities now print school manuals in Kurdish.

On the 13th and 14th, desperate SVBIED attacks of ISIS in consolidated western district of Romaniah, Abdul Malik and counter-offensive in the Old Town, that failed to repeal SDF personnel from their positions.

Coalition uses Apache attack helicopters to rain down hell on ISIS positions in Raqqa.

Strike list of the U.S.-led Coalition:

August 4th –  27 strikes engaged 19 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 17 fighting positions, three tactical vehicles, a vehicle, two heavy machine guns, a mortar system, a weapon cache, a command & control node, a SVBIED facility, and a SVBIED. Additional 4 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 5h – 21 strikes engaged 15 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 13 fighting positions, two vehicles, two heavy machine guns, a front-end loader, UAV site, and a sniper position. Additional 5 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 2 strikes was reported in the strike release on the 7th.

August 6th – 9 strikes engaged 9 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 7 fighting positions, an HQ and a SVBIED facility. Additional 8 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 7th – 18 strikes engaged 16 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 17 fighting positions, a tunnel and  two vehicles. Additional 6 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 8th – 12 strikes engaged 10 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 7 fighting positions, two vehicles, one front-end loader, an ISIS communication tower and communication equipment. Additional 7 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 9th– 14 strikes engaged 9 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 27 fighting positions, five command & control nodes, two heavy machine guns, a mortar system, a vehicle, and an IED factory. Additional 16 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 10th – 33 strikes engaged 14 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 21 fighting positions, four command & control nodes, three ISIS communication nodes, two IEDs, a logistics node and an ISIS communication facility. Additional 2 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 11th – 26 strikes engaged 19 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 35 fighting positions, two vehicles, an HQ, and a communication line. Additional 11 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 12 – 15 strikes engaged 14 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 3 command & control nodes, two HQs, an UAV launch site and a vehicle. Additional 21 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 13 – 16 strikes engaged 11 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 3 fighting positions, an anti-aircraft artillery system, a logistical node, a heavy machine gun, a vehicle and an IED. Just one additional strike was reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 2 strikes were reported only on the 26th strike release.

August 14 – 27 strikes engaged 19 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 59 fighting positions, two heavy machine guns, a mortar system, an IED and a logistical node. Additional 32 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. This might be the day with the highest air strike count since the battle started: 59.


August 3rd, 2017

Raqqa civillians being evacuated from conflict zones are joyful as they spot SDF reinforcement convoy heading towards the city:

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 15 strikes against ISIS in Raqqa, engaging 10 ISIS tactical units; destroyed seven fighting positions, three mortar systems, two sections of Rafiqah wall, two vehicles, two anti-air artillery, heavy machine gun, and explosive cache; damaged five supply routes; and suppressed a jihadist tactical unit. Additional 13 strikes on August 3rd were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another strike was reported on the strike released issued on the 5th.


August 2nd, 2017

SDF elements further push to consolidate on their wins in all fronts. In Raqqa’s Old Town, they assault the Ateeq Mosque, where according to Raqqa 24, was followed a counter-attack that killed 11 SDF elements.

In Rawda district, SDF fighters foiled an IS attack with 2 VBIEDs that they destroyed before reaching their targets. While limited fire fights also took place south of the Sugar Factory. Furthermore, SDF has liberated al-Muna Mosque, Bustan Garden, Micro-bus Station and Kerala from ISIS in the neighborhood of Hisham Bin Abdulmelik, southern Raqqa and north of the Euphrates. Eight jihadists have been neutralized. Also, SDF is working on opening humanitarian corridors by conducting sweep&clean ops in Nazlat Shahadah.

ISIS claimed two SVBIED attacks on SDF positions in Muklathla district, one suicide bomber looks underage. Attack only injured fighters, reporter capture immediate aftermath on tape.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 14 strikes against ISIS in Raqqa, engaging 10 tactical units, destroyed 9 fighting positions, two vehicles, a supply cache, a SVBIED, a mortar position, an ISIS UAS site, and a electricity generator. Four additional strikes on August 2nd have been reported in the next day’s strike release.


August 1st, 2017

The defensive posture of ISIS in Raqqa has become weary and seasoned. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) managed to pull huge wins in the southern sectors. For one, they managed to capture the district of Nazlat Shahadah, while also managed to push through the ex-Government headquarters located in Barid, therefor securing the banks north of the New Bridge. On the other hand, SDF captured the Political Security Zone in Hisham bin Abdulmalik neighborhood in order to link the two southern flank of the city, further tightening the grip on the Old Town.

A former rapper now ISIS member threatens Rome and Istanbul on a video addressing Donald Trump, while their propaganda also released several new videos showing SVBIED attacks against SDF targets in Raqqa. Arab Sunni Rebel group, part of SDF, Jaysh al Thuwar will include female fighters within their ranks taking the example of YPG with YPJ.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 7 strikes against ISIS in Raqqa, engaging 4 tactical units, destroyed 4 fighting positions, two ISIS headquarters, and IED, a ammunition cache, and a fuel supply point. Additional 17 strikes conducted on the 1st, have only been reported on the next day.

 

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Iraq after Mosul: Coping with a Difficult Diagnosis

Situation Report – After 3 years of ISIS occupation, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, has been completely liberated. The 9-months long battle saw Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) alongside allies, Shi’a…

Situation Report – After 3 years of ISIS occupation, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, has been completely liberated. The 9-months long battle saw Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) alongside allies, Shi’a PMU and the U.S.-led Coalition fighting their way block-to-block from the rigged, mined bridges of East Mosul, to the Euphrates river crossing of early 2017, liberation of the International Airport and the later fully encirclement of the remaining ISIS fighters in the Rafidyian, Sheik abu al Ula neighborhoods that form the city’s Old Town in the West.

With the city’s homecoming, inevitable strategic questions were raised in regards to the situation in Mosul, Niniveh and in whole of Iraq: Where is the state going? Can the society recover? And where to defeat ISIS next? Overall, the main questions is: What to expect next? I hope that this analysis can answer some of those questions.

 

Context: ISIS falls in Mosul

This was one of the largest urban battles in modern history, stretching from the ‘traditional’ urban guerrilla type of warfare to conventional, systemic tactics. Although asymmetric elements dominated the battlefront, such as the hostile informational environment perpetuated by ISIS, bomb drones or SVBIEDs, that slowed down and even halted at times the operations. I have extensively covered the tactics employed by ISIS in West Mosul in the anaylsis ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t: Radiography of ISIS’s Desperate Tactics in Mosul’s Operational Playground’.

Between 400,000 and 1,000,000 civilians are estimated are believed to have been displaced by the battles, and lower than 400,000 to have been remained within the city. The dense urban setting used by the jihadists as fortifications and the many innocent people as human shields, made it impossible to fully contain collateral damage and minimize the destruction brought to the city itself, although in West Mosul and notably in the Old Town, few structures have remained in place, leaving just dust and rubble behind. The Governor of Niniveh said for Rudaw: “The damage in the right bank[west Mosul], compared to the left bank is 30 times more. […] I mean here the destruction of the city’s infrastructure, the houses of the people, and the government offices.” In addition, Mahdi al-Alaq, chief of staff at the Iraqi Prime Minister also told reporters that their estimates of rebuilding Mosul stands at 50$ billions.

The battle gathered around 100,000 anti-ISIS forces, stretching from Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Pashmerga militiamen and Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) fighters to form an unlikely but temporary alliance in order to combat the jihadists. They suffered at least 770 casualties (some say even above 1,000) in the whole battle while combating several thousands of ISIS fighters (reports indicate around 10-12,000) which are considered to have been entirely neutralized.

This truly was one of the largest urban battles in modern history.

Damage in Mosul’s Old Town (source: AFP)

 

Short Retrospective:

In 2014 ISIS was on the offensive, spearheading attacks as close as Baghdad’s airport, after consolidating control in cities as Ramadi, Fallujah, Haditah and almost completely controlling the border with Syria and Jordan, while also retaining a minimal foothold on the Saudi boundary as well.

On June 9th, 2014, around 75,000 Iraqi Security Forces and Federal Police mass deserted and abandoned their posts to the jihadist offensive in Mosul, leaving over 1,000,000 people under a brutal Salafist apparatus that self-proclaimed itself as a ‘Caliphate’. From the stronghold established in Mosul, the terrorists expanded through the multi-ethnic governorate of Niniveh, shared for hundreds of years by Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis and Turkmens, Sunni and Shi’a. With Anbar province already subdued, the fall of Mosul proceeded the capture of Tikrit (capital of Salah ad-Din) and parts of Kirkuk by ISIS, moving later south-east to Diyala; gradually surrounding Baghdad.

It should be acknowledged that Shi’a militias played a decisive role in protecting the capital and the ‘urban belt’ surrounding it, when the Iraqi Army either mass-deserted from cities, or were weakened, weary to be successful enough.

Both Iraq’s capital and KRG’s (Kurdistan Regional Government) capital (Erbil) were within a comfortable reach of ‘Islamic State’s’ fighters, whilst also establishing a foothold on the Iranian border. The United States faced a dramatically degraded security environment than it left that was quickly leveraged in regional geopolitical ambitions. First came Malaki’s demise, followed by the United States led-Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’ and Iran’s own anti-ISIS campaign that got involved to cleanse Iraq from ISIS;  both powers competing to become the main backer of Baghdad’s new installed ‘compromise’ government of Abadi. While in the north, CENTCOM began exclusively coordinating with KRG’s Pashmerga militia and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).

First step was to relieve pressure on Baghdad through targeted campaigns that challenged the terror organization’s consolidated postures in Ramadi and Falluajh, but also against possible sleeper cells within the capital. Due to the continued sectarian tensions and tribal politics that catalyzed the rift in 2012 in the first place stirring anti-governmental protests and anti-Shi’a sentiments, this endeavor was a challenge for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as well.  

Throughout 2015 and up to mid-2016, the ISF concentrated on (a) liberating the main cities of Anbar that could threaten the capital and (b) prevented the terrorist elements from keeping their ‘safe haven’ in the ‘Sunni Triangle’ (Baqubah-Ramadi-Tikrit). Aided by Shi’a militias they continued their path up north, through the multi-ethnic Niniveh region. Having the Kurdish Pashmerga already cut off the main supply route (via Sinjar) of Mosul with Raqqa in November 2015, by mid-2016, when ISFs and allies spearheaded their way to Mosul, ISIS was dramatically on the defensive not even managing to pull off counter-attacks. Therefore in late-October/ early-November ISF stormed East Mosul starting off the battle.

The United States refurbished and repaired the trashed Qayyarah West Air Base, just 60 km south of Mosul, so that air assets could be stationed there in order to provide sharp and around-the-clock air sorties. Throughout the fight, attack helicopters, drones and fighter jets have been employed by the US-led Coalition and by the Iraqi Air Force.

East Mosul was liberated by late-January 2017 so that on February-March 2017, ISF could cross the Tigris into the western banks, and managing to capture the International Airport. Within that time frame, they did not only manage to consolidate ground in the western districts, but also managed to close the last supply corridors and avenues of escape, through the countryside and suburbs of West Mosul. This encirclement came late, which also added to the slow progress registered by the ISF, only after did ISIS became increasingly entangled and asphyxiated, sheltering into the Old Town, which they transformed into ‘no man’s land’.

 

The Final Push for Victory

After a steadfast last push by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) that lasted for the past six weeks and basically crumbled their hideouts, ISIS had nowhere else to hide or flee. The remaining hundreds of fighters (200-300) have been mostly neutralized. On July 9th, 2017, ISF liberated the Old Town, and ISIS lost its last foothold in Mosul. Many fighters tried to escape by swimming through the Tigris River, but Prime-Minister Abadi assured us that his men had shot at them. He personally came by a helicopter to announce the end of the Caliphate while his soldiers planted the Iraqi flag on the western banks of the Tigris river through the dust of what only suggest was the Old Town.

Civilians and soldiers alike celebrated throughout the country, from Mosul to Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad. However, the most symbolic gesture was when ISIS blew up the al-Nuri mosque in an attempt to frame the Coalition for it and to disseminate propaganda. That was the exact place where on June 29th, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the formation of the ‘Caliphate’. He was filmed, at that time, showing abandoned Iraqi army badges and vehicles left by fleeing soldiers, as he added: “There is no army in the world that can withstand the soldiers of Islam,”.

Defeat and move to Tel Afar

Now, ISIS acknowledged its defeat, while also suggesting that the Turkmen-Arab town of Tel Afar is their next HQ. In accordance to this policy, their online and social media propaganda focused on the ‘irrelevance of losing land’, which I can say from an empirical perspective by identifying a significant influx of ISIS propaganda on Twitter focusing on these kind of messages.

 

Diagnosis:

 (1) The liberation of Mosul does not guarantee peace in Mosul. For now, it is impossible to even estimate how many sleeper cells have remained in the city, posing an unpredictable and constant danger capable of taking several forms: from a trimmed and washed ex-‘mujahidin’ to an elderly woman holding a baby (recent case) or a radicalized wife of an ISIS fighter, deeming to commit attacks. The stabilization and pacification process will prove to be as difficult and tricky as the actual liberation was. In addition, the city is yet to be cleaned of mines or IED’s, which is a critical condition for the returning of refugees and internal displaced people back home, but also for the government to safely operate the reconstruction process. The population will face a housing problem, taking into consideration the level of damage inflicted throughout the whole city, a illiteracy one (being 3 years since schools have been closed) and ultimately, an economic issue; which could potentially spark a second wave of migration (internal or external).

(2) Iraq is still a fractured state with a divided society, fears and uncertainty will dominate. Iraq needs national-wide reconciliation process as its main strategic objective. As vaguely, cliché and ‘utopist’ as it sounds, that’s the only way Iraq can become ISIS-proof. Ultimately, Da’esh is simply a name, a placeholder, the ideology/ mentality is the real enemy that can shape-shift, as it did, from Al Qaeda in Iraq to ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ and later to ISIS. Such organizations emulate radical ideas as militant Salafism when they are given (unintentional) the chance to capitalize on the political-societal environment. For example (as June Cole competently points out), some of the Sunni press in Iraq has extensively focused on the damage that he ISF has done in Mosul, rather than on the victory achieved; collateral damage was the central theme for ISIS propaganda as well in the eve of Mosul’s liberation. For Baghdad, prevention and risk reduction is key, while for the Iraqis, societal resilience is the path. Easier said than done, especially since the local regional customs puts the family, the clan or tribe above the State. Subsequently, we can conceptualize the framework from a theoretical standpoint whereas the application remains under the volatile auspicious of the ‘trial and error’ methodology.

(3) There is still work to be done military-wise. The jihadists still have several strongholds in northern Iraq (Tel Afar and Hawja) and on the Euphrates River valley (al-Qa’im); the later still being directly linked with ‘safe havens’ in Syria, consolidated in Abu Kamal, Mayadin and Deir-Ezzor’s countryside. That effort will require a joint, synchronized venture with willing parties operating in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, that even if executed by the book, still could not guarantee the prevention of a long-term ISIS insurgency around the border.

(4) Given the geopolitical value that the border area provides, it is expected that the race for the border to intensify, consequently creating additional friction between the U.S. and Iran around the Syrian Civil War and the War against ISIS in Iraq. Both external powers have already under control a border checkpoint each, the Washington backed-Rebels control al-Tanf crossing, on the Syrian side of al-Waleed, while Teheran coordinated the liberation of al-Jaris crossing, west of Sinjar which has access to the Syrian Democratic Forces (U.S. backed)-controlled Hasakha province of Syria. Let’s call it a draw, for now, but the region is gradually intensifying in this high-stakes strategic game.

(5) Northern Iraq is a heated intersection of stakeholders and their competing objectives. This could potentially errupt in the upcoming battle for Tel Afar. The Kurdish Pashmerga dreams of expanding Kurdistan Regional Government’s borders, even publicly admitting that it will not cede back to Baghdad some of the liberate villages in the area; the Shia’s militias & Iranian advisers aspire for the border while Baghdad wishes to expand and project its sovereignty throughout all of its  territory. Above this entanglement comes the aspirations of secondary players, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and its ally PKK, wishing to expand its own influence over mount Sinjar, replicating a ‘second Qandil’ (as Erdogan described it) and establishing a ‘safe haven’ stretching from north-west Iraq to its east; which inadvertently would trigger a larger Turkish involvement (Ankara is still sour over being sidelined for the battle for Mosul) via allied Kurdish factions, as Pashmerga, Turkmen or Sunni militias trained at Turkey’s camp Bashiqa in northern Iraq. Tensions have already boiled in Sinjar between the KDP Pashmerga and PUK/PKK, that were also fueled by Turkey.  Also, Niniveh governorate is one of the main oil-rich territories of Iraq, therefor being a prospected region of economy, energy and commerce. This situation has the potential to play out in regards to who liberates Tel Afar and how; beyond the official narrative. 

 

Further Prospects:

While the Islamic State’s four main wilayats in Iraq are regressing and shrinking, notably: Wilayat al-Furat (western Anbar), Wilayat al-Jazzira (north-west of Niniveh), Wilayat al-Karkuk (parts of Tamim governorate) and Wilayat Dijlah (western Tamim, around Hawija), the ISF, Pashmerga and PMU’s are expected to concentrate firstly on two main strongholds: Hawija and Tel Afar.

Hawija: a medium sized town of around 500,000 inhabitants, mostly Arab Sunnis, located in the Tamim Governorate’s plains south of the Zagros mountains, east of the Tigris river and northeast of Baghdad, is the Islamic State’s most eastern territory. Together with several rural locations south of the governorate’s capital, Kirkuk, this ISIS-held pocket is completely surrounded by ISF and Coalition forces. 

Military sources from the Joint Operations Command told Al-Monitor that Hawija will be next after the fall of Mosul, but due to continued disagreements between ISF and Kurdish Pashmerga on a timelines and territory-control, the assault has been postponed several times. Similar to the whole ‘Sunni Triangle’ Hawija was both a Saddam Hussein loyalist stronghold and later an ISIS bastion, being the scene of the violent and deadly clashes between protestors and government forces in 2013. The city and its rural pockets became isolated from the rest of ISIS-held territory in mid-2016, when ISF cut-through Salah ad-Din in their way to establish a corridor from Baghdad to besiege Mosul.

The Kurds have the primary interest to push for the offensive to happen sooner than later, due to Hawija’s strategic node linking Mosul and Kirkuk and directly affecting the security in the KRG’s limits. In early 2017, Iraqi Police arrested several ISIS sleeper cells planted in the liberated city of Kirkuk and coordinated from Hawija, plotting to retake the city.

Tel Afar: Just 63 km west of Mosul and 52 km east of Sinjar, Tel Afar is another isolated pocket of the jihadists. The city itself numbers 200,000 people of Sunni Arabs but also a significant Turkmen population, or Shias.  The city and its rural outskirts have been surrounded by Iraq’s 9th and 15th Divisions in partnership with Popular Mobilization Units and Katib Hezbollah for several months, awaiting the approval for an assault. The situation in Tel Afar is somewhat more complex politically as the local militants have a autonomous drive or even aspirations to succeed from ISIS, as a rumors puts it.

During the Department of Defense Press Briefing held on July 13th, attended by Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, Spokesperson for Joint Operations Command; Brigadier General Halgwrd Hikman Ali, Spokesperson for the Peshmerga Forces, and Brigadier General Saad Maan, Iraqi Ministry Of Interior Spokesman, the Iraqi officials avoided to name the exact next target.

However, Transylvania Intelligence has reasons to believe the Tel Afar will be the focus of whatever combined or centered mission will proceed the liberation of Mosul.

 

End Notes:

  • Iraq needs a national wide, versatile, top-to-bottom reconciliation process if it wants to survive and evolve as a prosperous nation and as a secure state.
  • Building societal resilience while managing crisis from expanding are main components in order to prevent new Salafist-Jihadist shape-shifters to form from local gangs or rogue tribes.
  • The outcomes of the battle for Mosul will still pose significant security problems for the inhabitants. Such issues are: ISIS sleeper cells, left-behind IED’s & mines, extreme poverty, housing problems (at least half of the city is destroyed) and a perpetual hostile informational environment.
  • The surgical-military component needs to continue in order to vanquish ISIS from northern Iraq, namely from Tal Afar and Hawja but also to,
  • fully degrade and annihilate the ‘safe haven’ from the Euphrates Valley acting on a transnational-operational approach that will liberate al-Qa’im (Iraq), in a joint effort with whoever clears the Syrian side of Abu Kamal, Mayadin, rural Deir-Ezzor and most importantly for now, Raqqa.
  • The geopolitical race for the border, which pits the United States against Iran for a struggle to control the major border outposts and crossings, posses a significant strategic risk for the Iraq, duly because it would accentuate ethnic and political discrepancies within the society; notably if used by these external parties as local proxies.
  • The strategic steak of northern Iraq raises mentionable worries over the stability of the region. ISF’s, PMU’s, Kurds and Turks have consistent motivations and plans for the Niniveh governorate, which could threaten to raise a certain alarming level of insecurity.
  • Prepare for the high-possibility – high-impact hypothesis that a long-term insurgency will reinstate in Anbar (Iraq) and Deir-Ezzor (Syria) perpetuating the anarchy of the border area and that will pose a chronic threat to Baghdad.

Commander of the US-led Coalition, Joseph Dunford, and two Iraqi officers hold an ISIS flag upside down, in a symbolic gesture signaling triumph.

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Battle for Raqqa: Daily Journal (LIVE)

T-Intelligence presents the daily journal for Raqqa. This space will contain (hopefully) daily entries regarding the developments in the battle for Raqqa, yet time gaps may very as this project…

T-Intelligence presents the daily journal for Raqqa. This space will contain (hopefully) daily entries regarding the developments in the battle for Raqqa, yet time gaps may very as this project depends not only on what happens in the field but also on what amount of data (quantity, quality, credibility) surfaces online.

Methodology and Objectives

From reasons of time efficiency, information privilege and empirical manners, this journal will not have a complete reference system. The methodology is based on OSINT (open-source intelligence) and crowdsourcing. Sources stretch from mainstream media, to local news posts in English or translated from Arabic or Turkish (Furat FM, Raqqa24, Rudaw, Rojava News etc.), individuals on social media (accounts of fighters, independent OSINT analysts), monitoring groups or primary sources (YPG Press Office, Amaq Agency, Inherent Resolve Coalition).  

While there are many other crowd sourced maps or pages, what this project also attempts is to provide a larger context and a comprehensive understanding of the situation and how it evolves  in an analytical intelligence-memo framework. Each day will contain a tactical briefing reflecting the situation on the ground as depicted through open-source channels, periodically a battle-map, and always will include the facts and figures of the Coalition’s air strikes.

Please consult this page regularly, especially in the evening to catch the daily updates.

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Road to Raqqa: Are we there yet?

INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS – The Euphrates corridor, as any waterway in the Middle East (and not only) has been a catalyst for urban settlement, agriculture industry and energy development. Crossing Syria…

INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS – The Euphrates corridor, as any waterway in the Middle East (and not only) has been a catalyst for urban settlement, agriculture industry and energy development. Crossing Syria from its north-western corner in Aleppo governorate all the way down to Iraq’s Anbar region, the Euphrates River has been used by ISIS as a blood vein to spread as a tumor in a ravished body. Through its road to Iraq, the Euphrates also crosses the sparsely populated but oil-rich region of Deir-Ezzor; it’s importance being critical for trade, exploitation and transport optimization. Moreover, capitalizing on the strategic importance of the river and its surroundings, ISIS has made its self proclaimed-capital in Raqqa since 2014 – after it ousted the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra that initially liberated it in June 2013 from the Syrian Arab Army, following the escalation of the Revolution into the Civil War.

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Al-Bab Liberated: What’s next? (VIDEO)

VIDEO BRIEFING – The strategic city of Al-Bab has been liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) local allies from the “islamic state” (ISIS)…

VIDEO BRIEFING – The strategic city of Al-Bab has been liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) local allies from the “islamic state” (ISIS) occupation. The battle is in the context of Operation Euphrates Shield launched by Turkey in late-August 2016 in northern Syria, with the strategic purpose of clearing ISIS out of the border, preventing the Kurdish YPG and the SDF from uniting the cantons and to maintain a leverage against Bashar Assad’s regime. The operational objectives of the battle of al-Bab was the city itself. Taking into consideration Syria’s road infrastructure, al-Bab is a logistical crossroads between the Syrian Arab Army-held (SAA) Aleppo city (west), YPG/SDF-held Manbij (east), ISIS between the lakes corridor (south) and the Turkish border and the Syrian bordering city of Al-Rai (just 35 km north). It was imperative in order to seal the deal of a buffer zone in northern Aleppo governorate. The battle for al-Bab began in November 2016 and ended in February 7th 2017 – lasting 104 days.

Check out the video briefing for maps and battlefield footage + voice commentary of the battle. Moreover, it remains the question of where to next? The Kurdish-held Manbij? Or ISIS self-proclaimed “capital” of Raqqa?

Battle of al-Bab: a story through maps

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Objective Raqqa: Actors, Strategies and Black Swans

SITUATION REPORT – The following assessment outlines the Turkish proposals for a Raqqa offensive, made by Akar, the Turkish Joint Chief of Staff to Dunford, the American counter-part. This SitRep…

SITUATION REPORT – The following assessment outlines the Turkish proposals for a Raqqa offensive, made by Akar, the Turkish Joint Chief of Staff to Dunford, the American counter-part. This SitRep contextualizes the situation in Raqqa Governorate and also clarifies the already ongoing “Wrath of the Euphrates” Operation spearheaded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish militia, YPG. In addition, this assessment preemptively estimates potential “black swan”-type of scenarios that could occur from the Syrian, Israeli or Kurdish camp.

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Missile Strike in Riyadh? The Yemeni Risk

SITUATION REPORT – The Houthis (Arabic: الحوثيون‎‎ al-Ḥūthiyyūn ; officially called Ansar Allah أنصار الله “Supporters of God”) and Saleh Ali al-Sammad’s Supreme Political Council in Yemen have claimed that…

SITUATION REPORT – The Houthis (Arabic: الحوثيون‎‎ al-Ḥūthiyyūn ; officially called Ansar Allah أنصار الله “Supporters of God”) and Saleh Ali al-Sammad’s Supreme Political Council in Yemen have claimed that a ballistic missile hit a military target near Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh – a communique released yesterday by Houthi affiliated media informs, as sighted by Terror Monitor.

The presumed target location of Muzahimiyah is just 40 km west from Riyadh. While the Kingdom’s Defense Ministry did not comment on the claim, individuals report that a state of emergency has been instated in the capital[1].

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Jihadi Affairs: Al-Qaeda re-emerges in Idlib

SITUATION REPORT – A major merger has occurred in the past days in Syria, giving birth to a troubling Jihadi force, called Tahrir al-Sham. The group is built on the…

SITUATION REPORT – A major merger has occurred in the past days in Syria, giving birth to a troubling Jihadi force, called Tahrir al-Sham. The group is built on the bedrock of Al-Qaeda in Syria. Rumors and buzz surfaced about clashes between the two strongest radical opposition groups: Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Both of them are based in Idlib Governorate located in northwestern Syria, while Idlib city is placed just 40 km southwest of Aleppo. They have supposedly received funding over the years from individuals originating from the Gulf states, and have Salafist agendas. 

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General McChrystal: “War in Europe is possible”

In an interview offered for Pirsm magazine, retired General Stanley McChrystal, made several observations and gave some warnings in regards to the current state of affairs. He is best known…

In an interview offered for Pirsm magazine, retired General Stanley McChrystal, made several observations and gave some warnings in regards to the current state of affairs. He is best known for leading Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and for his successful counter-insurgency operations (COIN) in Iraq. He wrote a novel, called “Teams of Teams” and is now the head of McChrystal Group, a consultancy and leadership company. Stanley McChrystal is also a distinguished thinker and strategist, being one of the few who really managed to understand and anticipate how a terror organization acts and moves. Alongside Mike Flynn and under David Patreus, Stanley McChrystal implemented the famous “fusion cells”, that managed to keep Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) on its toes, gain support from the Sunnis that eventually led to the the targeting and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the leader of AQI. That later made way to the Anbar Awaking – the rare moment when the Sunni triangle revolved against AQI and cooperated with the US.

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