Archive for November, 2014

Jordanians divided over anti-IS coalition

Osama Al Sharif

September 15, 2014

Jordan has joined the US-led coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria despite Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour’s Sept. 6 statement that the kingdom was not part of any international alliance and would not participate in strikes against the terror organization.

While officials have not confirmed that Jordan was now part of a regional coalition to fight IS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Joudeh said during a Sept. 11 US-Arab ministerial meeting in Jeddah that the kingdom regards IS as a “direct and immediate threat to our national security.”

Ten Arab states, including Jordan, issued a joint communique at the end of the Jeddah meeting in which they said they will “do their share” to confront and ultimately destroy IS. No specific roles were outlined.

A day earlier, King Abdullah told US Secretary of State John Kerry, “Jordan supports regional and international radicalism-combating efforts in consistency with its unaltered belief in the serious and direct threat the terrorist organizations pose to the region’s and world’s security and stability.” The king was the only Arab leader to attend NATO’s summit in Wales on Sept. 5. During the summit, he also met with US President Barack Obama and presented “Jordan’s vision on regional challenges including the threat of terror.”

A US administration official told The New York Times Sept. 5 that Jordan brings special expertise to the new coalition, especially “intelligence about Sunni militants.” But Jordanian officials declined to comment on the nature of Jordan’s role in the coalition, especially on Israeli reports that the king and Kerry had discussed “the possibility of using Jordan as a base for the proposed coalition’s strikes against the Islamic State in neighboring Iraq and Syria.”

The possibility of Jordan joining a US-led coalition to fight IS has divided Jordanians, which explains the government’s hesitation to confirm that it is now a full-fledged member. The Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, issued a statement Sept. 10 criticizing Kerry’s visit to the kingdom and rejecting any role for Jordan in a Washington-led alliance to fight IS. It denounced “international pressures on the country to force it to become a party or a partner in a war that is not ours,” saying that it was “against plans for Jordanian bases to be used by soldiers who are part of an international coalition in the fight against terror.”

One former government minister, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that joining the new coalition constituted a challenge for Jordan, adding, “On the one hand, the kingdom cannot afford to turn its back on its Arab and Western allies and has no option but to join in the fight against IS, and on the other it is weary of the possibility of becoming a target of Islamist extremists, especially when there are reports that thousands of Jordanian Salafist jihadists are fighting with the Islamic State.”

He added that Jordan can play an important role in supplying the coalition with valuable intelligence because of its special relations with Sunni tribes in western Iraq and southern Syria. Jordan had tipped off the United States on the whereabouts of former al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2006, which led to his termination.

But it is not only the Islamists who are against Jordan’s involvement in the fight against IS. On Sept. 3, 21 Lower House deputies signed a petition warning the government not to join any party against IS, adding, “Jordan has no interest in such a confrontation, especially as many in the region sympathize with IS.”

One of the signatories, parliament member Khalil Atiyeh, told Al-Monitor, “Jordan should not be fighting on behalf of others,” adding that the kingdom “is not divided like Iraq and Syria or infiltrated by terror groups … and we have an army that is capable of defending our borders.”

But there is division over this issue. Parliamentarian Jamal Al-Nimri, who supports Jordan’s involvement in a regional alliance, said IS does not pose a threat to Iraq and Syria alone, “but is a regional menace that has sympathizers in the kingdom.” He told Al-Monitor, “Unless the Islamic State is defeated in Iraq and Syria, its next target will be Jordan, and those who do not understand this fact are mistaken.”

But political commentator Fahd al-Khitan warned that unless the war on IS is accompanied by “a historic plan to solve the region’s endemic conflicts, things will only get worse.” He told Al-Monitor there are hopeful signs in Iraq for political reconciliation, but it is too early to say, and Syria has become “a fertile breeding ground for extremists.” But most of all, Khitan said, the region needs to resolve the Palestinian issue, “because one cannot contemplate a stable Middle East without lifting the injustice that has plagued the Palestinian people.”

Political analyst Orieb al-Rintawi supported Jordan’s efforts in fighting IS and extremism, but added, “The kingdom should be careful not to succumb to foreign agendas.” He told Al-Monitor that Jordan must keep in mind its long-term interests with Russia and stay in touch with Iran while maintaining its independent policy on Syria. “The new coalition should not become a pretext to bring moderate Arabs closer to Israel at the expense of others. This will only deepen the conflicts we face,” he said. Rintawi called on the government to be transparent with its citizens about its role in the new coalition.

In the past few days, the government has intensified its security campaign against Salafist jihadists who sympathize with IS. Mousa Abdel Latt, a lawyer who defends Islamists, told Al-Monitor that at least 60 individuals with clear ties to IS have been recently arrested “as a precaution in light of regional developments.” He said they have been detained under the anti-terror law for unlawful activities on the Internet. The Salafist movement in Jordan has been divided on the issue of IS, with key figures publicly condemning its recent atrocities.

Last month, King Abdullah reassured Jordanians that extremist groups do not pose an immediate threat to Jordan’s stability and security. He emphasized that Jordan’s major challenges are economic in nature. But the possible threat of IS has overshadowed public discourse, and now that Jordan is joining a US-led coalition to fight the terror group in Iraq and Syria, that discussion is turning into a heated debate.

Source: al-Monitor.


Israel clampdown at shrine fuels Muslim fears

November 07, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of Palestinians knelt on prayer carpets in a Jerusalem street Friday, faced by a cordon of Israeli riot police who blocked them from reaching Islam’s third- holiest shrine in the nearby Old City.

The worshipers eventually dispersed peacefully, but the scene highlighted the escalating tensions over the holy site — a walled, hilltop plateau known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Israel argues that restricting access to the shrine, which has been common in recent weeks, is needed to clamp down on growing unrest in the contested city of 810,000 people. On Friday, Muslims under age 35 were denied entry, while restrictions were broader in preceding weeks.

Jerusalem’s Muslims, who make up about a third of the population, say the security clampdown only heightens fears that their traditional control of the holy site, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, is under threat from Jewish zealots.

In recent weeks, senior members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition have called for a greater Jewish presence and right to prayer on the mount, which is Judaism’s holiest site, stirring Muslim worries about encroachment. Under an arrangement in place since Israel’s capture of the Old City and its shrines in 1967, the sacred plateau is administered by Muslims reporting to Jordan, while Jews have a right to visit.

Any perceived attempt to change the existing prayer arrangements at the shrine is seen by local Muslims as highly provocative. They say they view it as another threat to their status and identity. Many Palestinian residents of the city complain of high taxes for poor municipal services, compared with those offered in Jewish neighborhoods, as well as severe restrictions on building permits.

Mohammed Fakhouri, a 38-year-old shopkeeper in the Old City, said the restrictions on prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque are the last straw, adding that he hasn’t been able to attend for the past five weeks because of the age limits.

“Like the Jewish people, we pay taxes, and we don’t get anything from Israel,” he said. “They don’t let us build houses. … If you can’t go pray, what’s after this?” Muslims from the West Bank face even greater difficulties in reaching the shrine because they must have Israeli permits to enter Jerusalem. Those with permits pass through barbed-wire topped terminals in Israel’s separation barrier, often enduring long waits en route to the mosque.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu reassured Jordan’s King Abdullah II that Israel would not change the status quo at the holy site and that Israeli politicians expressing a different view were not speaking for the government. Jordan had recalled its ambassador in protest after a police raid over a clash at the entrance to the mosque.

On Friday, Netanyahu made no mention of those politicians, instead blaming “militant Islamic incitement” for the increasing violence in Jerusalem. This has included near-daily clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli police in Arab neighborhoods of the city and two deadly attacks in which Palestinians drove vehicles into crowds waiting at light-rail stops in Jerusalem. In another incident, a Palestinian on a motorcycle shot and seriously wounded a prominent Jewish campaigner for more access to the Temple Mount.

The most recent attack, on Wednesday, was carried out by an activist from the Islamic militant group Hamas who drove his minivan into a train stop, killing one man and wounding 13. One of the wounded, 17-year-old Shalom Ahron Badani, died Friday of his injuries.

Hamas, the main rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has been trying to harness the growing frustration among Palestinians, calling Friday for a “popular uprising” across the Palestinian territories in defense of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Abbas’ security forces broke up Hamas-led protests of several hundred people in the West Bank’s two largest cities, Hebron and Nablus, witnesses said. Aides have said Abbas is concerned that Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from him in 2007, is trying to foment unrest to weaken his grip on areas of the West Bank that are under self-rule.

Israeli forces, meanwhile, clamped down on protests in two areas under their control, the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem and the Qalandiya checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. At Qalandiya, police fired tear gas at Palestinian stone-throwers.

Ahead of noon prayers Friday at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, about 1,300 police were deployed in and around the Old City. They manned metal barricades, checking identity papers and directing pedestrians. At one checkpoint in the Wadi Joz area, just outside the Old City, some 500 young Palestinians who were denied entry to the mosque compound because of their age performed prayers on a street, kneeling on carpets spread on the asphalt. They were faced by a row of riot police in black uniforms and helmets, as well as several officers on horseback.

“We are steadfast here,” said one of the worshippers, who gave only his first name, Raed, for fear of Israeli repercussions. “We pray here despite the Israeli restraints.” Police spokeswoman Luba Samri denied that police were favoring one religion over another and rejected Palestinian claims that the heavy police presence near the shrine was contributing to tensions.

“We don’t operate according to what the Palestinians would like,” she said. “We operate according to what we feel we need to do, based on intelligence reports and our analysis of the situation, to maintain law and order in the area.”

The recent escalation in Jerusalem also set off an intense debate in Israel. Center-left politicians have accused ultra-nationalists of recklessly provoking Muslims with talk of changing the status quo, and warned that violence in Jerusalem could quickly spin out of control. In the past, confrontations at the holy site have triggered major rounds of fighting.

Rabbinical opinion is also divided. Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis oppose prayer by Jews at the site under the current conditions on religious grounds. Some nationalist clerics have been encouraging attempts to pray there.

On Friday, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi called right-wing encouragement for Israelis to pray at the Temple Mount “incitement” and said it had to stop. “I issue a call that it is prohibited for Jews to go to the Temple Mount,” Yitzhak Yosef said at the funeral of the 17-year-old who was killed in Wednesday’s minivan attack. “I issue a call to end this so that the blood of the people of Israel will flow no more.”

Islamic State suffering setbacks in Syria and Iraq

November 06, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — For a force that has built its reputation on an aura of momentum and invincibility, the Islamic State group is now dealing with a series of military setbacks in Iraq and a prolonged stalemate in the small Syrian border town of Kobani.

Gone are the days when IS was able to seize territory in both countries with relative ease. Its newfound problems, including a loss of oil revenue, raise questions about the extent to which it will be able to continue recruiting fighters who want to be with a winner.

“ISIS has run a very effective psychological campaign to intimidate its rivals and attract support and recruits,” said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, using an acronym for the extremists. But now, he said, the need to maintain its reputation is limiting the group’s options.

This is particularly true in Kobani, where a pre-emptive IS withdrawal in the face of U.S.-led bombings from the sky and ethnic Kurdish fighters on the ground could prove too costly. “They have invested a lot in this battle, and people are noticing. They will soon start asking what’s going on?” said Ayed, a Turkey-based Syrian activist who travels back and forth to the group’s stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa. He declined to give his full name.

The prolonged fighting in Kobani is also distracting IS from more strategically important areas in Syria and Iraq where the militant extremists are already stretched on multiple fronts. Nearly two months after IS launched its lightning assault on the Kurdish-dominated town near Turkish border, the group is bogged down in an increasingly entrenched and costly battle.

Syrian and Kurdish activists estimate nearly 600 Islamic State fighters have been killed — its heaviest losses since taking over large parts of Syria and Iraq in a summer blitz. Kurdish residents say the group appears to be struggling with personnel, bringing in inexperienced fighters and new recruits to reinforce the town. These include members of the IS police force known as Hisba, reassigned from nearby towns and cities, such as Raqqa and Manbij, under the group’s control.

“Many Hisba members have left Raqqa in the past two weeks, telling people they were headed to Kobani,” Ayed said. They are not fighters.” Kobani residents say recent U.S. airstrikes targeting IS in Kobani have inflicted heavy damage. “Their bodies are left for days rotting in the street without anyone picking them up,” said Farhad Shami, a Kobani-based activist.

In a move that some observers interpreted as a sign of weakness, the Islamic State group recently released a video showing a captive British photojournalist “reporting” from a place identified as Kobani. In the video, he says the battle for Kobani “is coming to an end” and IS is “mopping up.”

But despite seven weeks of fierce fighting and the reinforcements on both sides, fighting positions around Kobani remain much the same as they did several weeks ago, with IS controlling about 40 percent of the town, according to Syrian and Kurdish activists and observers.

IS has also recently suffered losses on several fronts in Iraq, where it is fighting government forces, peshmerga and Shiite militias aided by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Last week, Iraqi forces recaptured the town of Jurf al-Sakher. IS also lost Rabia, Mahmoudiyah and Zumar, a string of towns near the Syrian border, last month. Besieged Iraqi troops have also managed to maintain control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery outside the town of Beiji north of Baghdad, despite numerous attempts by the Islamic State group to capture it.

The group’s diminishing returns in Iraq partly reflects the fact that it already controls so much of the territory populated by minority Sunnis. It would have a much harder time conquering areas populated by Shiites.

But even in Sunni areas, IS is having to contend with dissent. Over the past few days, the group has massacred more than 200 Sunni tribesmen from the Al Bu Nimr tribe in what is likely to be revenge for the tribe’s siding with Iraqi security forces. The killings, in which the militants lined up and shot the men, suggest IS fighters now view them as a threat.

The group’s difficulties are striking considering the relative ease with which it seized other towns and cities in Iraq and Syria this past summer. In Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, Iraqi security forces quickly abandoned their positions and weapons in the face of the marauding militants, melting away quickly in humiliating defeat.

Most other towns in northern and western Iraq saw a widespread disintegration of the security forces, mostly because of the Islamic State group’s reputation alone in addition to grievances among the Sunni population that the militants were able to exploit.

In Syria, the group was able to capitalize on the chaos of the civil war to seize towns and villages abandoned by the government, routing out rival fighters in quick succession. By the time it got to Kobani in mid-September, IS was stretched on multiple fronts. Riding on the momentum, however, it captured dozens of Kurdish villages and a third of the town in lightning advances that sent waves of civilians fleeing across the border into Turkey. Expectations were that the town would fall to the militants within days.

But unlike in Iraq where the militants already had a substantial, years-long presence, the IS fighters in Kobani found themselves in an alien environment and unfamiliar terrain, fighting against highly motivated and surprisingly resilient Kurdish fighters, according to Syria observers as well as Syrian and Kurdish activists.

“The Iraqi army was a severely demoralized force that didn’t see a purpose in fighting for a central government whose credibility they questioned,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

The Kurds, on the other hand, “are fighting a truly existential battle,” he said. A group of 150 Iraqi Kurdish forces known as peshmerga deployed last week to Kobani with more advanced weapons including anti-tank missiles and artillery to help bolster their Syrian brethren defending the town. They have provided artillery cover for fellow Kurdish fighters, but it is too early to say whether this has already made any difference on the ground.

Bayan Jabr, an Iraqi cabinet minister, said IS was simply fighting too many battles. He predicted a Sunni uprising in Anbar province following the massacres targeting the Al Bu Nimr tribe. “I think Daesh is starting to fade,” he said, using the Arab acronym for the group.

Associated Press writer Vivian Salama contributed to this report from Irbil, Iraq.

Makeshift schools for Syrian refugee children

November 04, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — It’s only a blue tent at the back of a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc. But for dozens of children who study in the makeshift school, it’s a glimmer of hope.

Inside, brightly colored drawings are pinned to the plastic walls, and wooden desks stand in two neat rows. For some of the Kurdish kids who fled with their families from the besieged Syrian town of Kobani, this is the only school they’ve known.

“The whole world was collapsing, how could they go to school,” said Ghazi Mammo Darwesh, father of 7-year-old Diyala. The shy, brown-eyed girl says she like learning Kurdish writing and drawing pictures of flowers and girls.

Her father is overjoyed that, at last, she is learning something. “How can I not like it? I can fly for happiness. I hope that my children will study abroad,” said Darwesh, who has seven children. School also provides some psychological support for traumatized youngsters, who have lost their homes and often family members during a ferocious onslaught by Islamic State militants on Kobani that began in mid-September. The lessons are basic — only reading and writing in Kurdish is taught, and only for the ages of 7-10. But children, parents and teachers agree it’s better than nothing.

“It’s very important for the children to be in school and concentrated on education instead of having flashbacks to the war,” said Rukan Sheikh Mohammed, a 19-year-old teacher who is a refugee from Kobani herself. The war, she said, had deeply affected the children. “We teach the students to try to provide some confidence, motivating them and telling them they will go home one day and all will be well.”

The school where Mohammed teaches was set up about three weeks ago. In a nearby camp, volunteers initially began organizing simple activities to keep the refugee children occupied, but soon decided to try a more formal education. The Viyan Amara school, named after a woman killed fighting in Kobani, started classes a few days ago.

Volunteer teacher Fidan Kanlibas said the school is funded solely by charitable donations. For now, she said, they only have enough materials for rudimentary lessons. “In the beginning we were doing activities and getting the children to do drawings,” Kanlibas said as she carried newly donated desks into the tent-school, with some of the camp’s older children rushing over to help.

“They were doing drawings of beheadings and weapons. The fear they saw was reflected in their drawings,” she said. “Now, you can see they are smiling and recovering from the things they saw and the pressure of war.”

Diyala’s friend, 7-year-old Shirin Ahmad, had been registered to go to school in Kobani, but the war broke out and she never made it to first grade. Now, she has started school in the camp where she lives with her two younger brothers and parents.

“This school isn’t enough, of course,” said Shirin’s mother, Warda Ahmad. “But at least having this is better than illiteracy.”

Kurdish fighters killed in Syria buried in Turkey

October 22, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Hundreds of supporters chanting slogans turned out to accompany three Kurdish fighters — two men and a woman barely out of her teens — to their final resting place in a dusty cemetery on the edge of the Turkish town of Suruc, within view of the Syrian border and the besieged town of Kobani. But there was one notable absence: their families.

The flag-draped coffin bearing the body of 20-year-old Hanim Dabaan was carried to her grave Tuesday by women who didn’t know her, but wanted to show their support for those killed fighting the Islamic State group extremists. Idris Ahmad, 30, and Mohammed Mustafa, 25, were laid to rest beside her, also carried by volunteers.

The three fighters of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, died in fierce clashes in Kobani, which has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. IS still surrounds the town and holds parts of it despite Kurdish resistance and repeated U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

In the chaos of Syria’s multifaceted war, with a multitude of groups fighting each other as well as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and it’s not always possible to locate the families of those killed in fighting. Turkey alone has seen an estimated 1.6 million refugees cross its borders in the four years of the Syrian war, according to U.N. officials.

“Our house has been demolished in Kobani and we are living in tents. … At least we can support our martyrs and we will accompany them to their graves,” said Fatma Muslim, one of dozens of women who turned up at the Suruc hospital morgue for the funeral procession to the nearby cemetery.

It was volunteers — rather than family members, as is the Islamic tradition — who helped wash and shroud the fighters’ bodies in preparation for burial. “There is nobody to wash them,” said Akeed Hamad, 21, who came to the morgue with a friend and offered to help. “There is only one doctor who can wash them, and the rest are volunteers.”

It wasn’t immediately clear where the families of Dabaan, Ahmad and Mustafa were — or even whether they knew their loved ones were dead. At one point a rumor rippled through the crowd that the young woman’s parents were on their way. But if they were, they never made it.

Yet in Suruc’s cemetery, in a part set aside for Syrian Kurds killed across the border, they aren’t the only ones buried without their relatives. Out of about 30 graves there so far, only five of them have known families, said Wahida Kushta, one of the volunteers who helped prepare Dabaan’s body for burial.

“I do it to help. Let’s support them now at least.” Just a day later, another five fighters were buried beside them in Suruc’s cemetery. Wounded in Kobani, they had died in hospitals and their bodies were transferred to Suruc morgue Wednesday.

Like the three before them, their families weren’t present. One hadn’t even been fully identified. His rough tombstone will bear his nom de guerre, the name he was known to his fellow fighters with: Tamhat Kobani.

Kurds help Islamic militants in battle for Kobani

November 04, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Ethnic Kurds are helping members of the Islamic State group in the battle for the key Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, sharing their knowledge of the local terrain and language with the extremists, according to Iraqi and Kurdish officials.

It is not clear how many Kurds are aiding the estimated 3,000 Islamic State militants in the Kobani area — and fighting against their own Kurdish brethren — but activists say they are playing a major role in the 7-week-old conflict near the Turkish border.

A top military commander for the extremists in the town is an Iraqi Kurd, known by the nom de guerre of Abu Khattab al-Kurdi, helping them in the battle against fellow Kurds. Officials with the main Syrian Kurdish force known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, say they became aware of the Kurds among the mostly Sunni Muslim extremists early in the fighting.

As Kurdish fighters were defending the nearby Syrian village of Shiran in September, two Kurdish men with different accents and wearing YPG uniforms infiltrated their ranks, Kurdish officials said. Upon questioning, however, they were captured and admitted to fighting for the Islamic State group, the officials added.

Iraqi and Kurdish officials say many of the Kurdish fighters with the Islamic State group are from the northeastern Iraqi town of Halabja, which was bombed with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988, killing some 5,000 people.

Shorsh Hassan, a YPG spokesman in Kobani, said although most of the Kurdish jihadi fighters come from Iraq, some are from Syrian regions such as Kobani, Afrin and Jazeera. He added that the number of Syrian Kurds is small compared with the dozens of Iraqis fighting with the IS group.

“The fighter who is from Kobani is not like someone who hails from Chechnya with no idea about tracks and roads,” Hassan said. Thousands of militants from all over the world — including north Africans, Asians and some Westerners — have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of the Islamic State group. Turkish nationals are among them, but it is unknown if any are fighting in Kobani.

Hassan said many of the Iraqi fighters were from Halabja, including al-Kurdi. Websites affiliated with the Islamic State group recently published several photographs of the young, bearded man, including some of him wearing the traditional Kurdish garb of baggy pants, and others of him standing in front of Kurds killed in Kobani.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi security official said al-Kurdi was a member of Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni militant group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was active in the early 2000s. Al-Kurdi later joined the Islamic State group, the official said.

The Iraqi official said al-Kurdi is also from Halabja and is wanted by Iraqi authorities. He refused to give the man’s real name when pressed by The Associated Press. “Our latest information is that he is in Syria fighting in the Kobani area. He is an expert in mountainous areas,” the Iraqi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

“He is commanding the Kurdish group within Daesh because he is a Kurd,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Halabja was known as a secular village and the home of Abdullah Goran, one of the best-known Kurdish poets in the 20th century and a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. But in the past three decades, Muslim preachers have become active and have turned it into one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most religiously conservative areas.

Still, most of the Kurds are moderate and secular-leaning Muslims. Many Kurds in Iraq were stunned when they learned that Kiwan Mohammed, the 25-year-old goalkeeper of Halabja’s soccer team, was killed last month in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State group in Kobani. Mohammed was identified by jihadi websites as Abu Walid al-Kurdi.

Dana Jalal, an Iraqi journalist who follows jihadi groups, said the Iraqi athlete left Syria in July 2013 and had not been heard of until his death. Some 70 Iraqi Kurds, mostly from Halabja, went to fight in Syria with the Islamic State group, Jalal said. Most go through Turkey where they say they are going for tourism, but theu then they cross into Syria, and “some even take their wives with them,” Jalal added.

Nawaf Khalil, the Europe-based spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, said Kurdish fighters within the Islamic State group are invaluable in the Kobani battle because they know the geography, as well as the language and the mentality of fellow Kurds.

“A main part of their work is tapping (electronic surveillance) and intelligence-gathering. They might be also using some from the Kobani area to benefit from the geographical knowledge of the area,” he said.

Mustafa Bali, a Kurdish activist in Kobani, said that by having Kurdish fighters, Islamic State extremists are trying to win the hearts and minds of Syrian Kurds in the area. “Daesh is trying to tell the people of Kobani that it does not consider them enemies and its fighters include Kurds,” Bali said.

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad.

Israel presents maritime version of ‘Iron Dome’

October 31, 2014

LE BOURGET, France (AP) — Israel’s “Iron Dome” is heading to the seas, the maker of the rocket-blocking defense system says.

State-owned defense contractor Rafael wants to leverage the system’s much-vaunted success in protecting Israeli civilians in this summer’s Gaza war, hoping to draw navies as buyers for a new maritime version seen as especially useful in protecting national economic resources at sea like oil and gas platforms.

At this week’s Euronaval conference near Paris, Rafael unveiled “C-Dome,” which endeavors to help combat vessels counteract any threats from the air, including missiles, helicopters and tiny unmanned drone aircraft, which could increasingly become tools of combat and reconnaissance at sea just as they have on land in recent years.

Large naval vessels generally have radar-based interception systems to counter incoming threats. But Rafael executives say C-Dome offers innovations. It can fire up to a missile per second, cover a 360-degree range while piggybacking on a vessel’s own radar systems with heat-tracking missiles that zero in on multiple incoming threats at a time.

“C-dome offers something that is not out there (in the market) yet … A small footprint and the capability to engage multiple targets and saturation threats. And it’s based on the only system in the world that has more than 1,000 intercepts,” said program director Ari Sacher. “We can protect the ship from every direction at the same time. Most systems out there can’t do that.”

Iron Dome was a game-changer in this summer’s war, ensuring a decisive technological edge for Israel that all but eliminated civilian casualties from Palestinian rocket fire. The Israeli military says that Iron Dome shot down 735 rockets in this summer’s Gaza war, for more than an 85 percent success rate of those targeted.

The land-based system quickly recognizes the trajectory of incoming rockets and whether they are headed for population centers. Those are shot down, while others are allowed to fall in empty fields to spare the hefty cost of firing the sophisticated interceptors. Rafael officials insist Iron Dome intercepted more than 1,200 projectiles during the war.

C-Dome builds on that experience, shapes it for maritime needs and to defend smaller zones like ships or sea-borne installations. At Rafael’s display area at the Euronaval exhibit hall in suburban Le Bourget, where high-tech whirligigs like mine-sweepers or virtual-reality training suits for aircraft carrier crews were on show, sat a gray, square metallic box about the size of a large coffee table with a black-tipped missile in one of four launch holes. Missiles would be housed underneath a ship’s deck.

The small size makes C-Dome suitable for smaller vessels, such as corvettes and similar — many of which currently rely on less sophisticated intercept systems, Sacher said. C-Dome defends both the ships that carry it and other vessels or oil and gas platforms in its vicinity, he said.

“This is opening a whole new market,” Sacher said. The closest competitors, he said, would be MBDA’s short-range air defense system VL Mica and the Rolling Airframe Missile system of Raytheon. MBDA says its system provides 360-degree coverage against all existing airborne threats, and Raytheon says the RAM system can be used on ships of all sizes and is now deployed on 165 ships in seven fleets — including corvettes.

John Eagles, a Raytheon spokesman, said RAM has demonstrated in tests an intercept rate of more than 90 percent, and is capable of countering threats against oil platforms. He said he was not immediately aware of any cases when RAM had been used in combat; Rafael’s Sacher played up how C-Dome was based on a system with a “proven track record.”

C-Dome uses the same Tamir rockets as used in Iron Dome, Sacher said, estimating their “commonality at more than 99.5 percent”. At sea, it can intercept “anything above the water,” including guided weapons, he said. In contrast, Palestinian rockets from Gaza were relatively crude, unguided weapons.

One analyst said it was important not to overplay its capacities on the seas just yet. “I don’t think you would want to overcook this as ‘Iron Dome for naval vessels’,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. But he acknowledged that protecting oil platforms with on-board intercept systems — if confirmed — would appear to be an important advance.

The new system is more about protecting maritime economic interests than blocking Palestinian projectiles. “The most strategic sites for the future right now will be gas platforms and oil platforms,” said reserve Israeli Navy Capt. “Meir,” a Rafael business development director for naval warfare systems, waving his hand over the C-Dome static display as a video behind him showed colorful animated images of fired missiles exploding on impact with torpedoes, missiles and drones.

“You have to secure them from missiles; Missiles that will be from terror organizations, from mother boats, from enemy countries, from drones — or any other aerial threat,” said Meir, who declined to give his surname for security reasons.

For security and competitiveness reasons, he and other Rafael executives declined to say how many missiles the system could carry, but it would depend on customers’ requests. Rafael executives also declined to say when the system was activated or whether the navy of Israel — which has developed a number of large natural gas fields off its Mediterranean coast — was using it.

Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.