Islamic State mines kill dozens of civilians returning to Ramadi

Military Vehicle Iraq

By Stephen Kalin

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Explosives planted by Islamic State have killed dozens of Iraqi civilians who returned to Ramadi despite warnings that much of the western city remains unsafe nearly four months after its recapture from the militants.

Tens of thousands of displaced residents have returned to the Anbar provincial capital in the past two months, mostly from camps east of the city where they took refuge prior to the army’s advance late last year.

A shortage of experts trained in dismantling the explosives has slowed efforts to restore security, but that has not stopped people from responding to calls from local religious and government leaders to go back home.

The Anbar governor’s office, which is overseeing much of the effort to restore Ramadi, declined requests for comment.

But the United Nations said it had learned from the authorities that 49 people have been killed and 79 others wounded in Ramadi since the beginning of February. Those figures are “almost certainly an underestimation,” it said.

“The U.N. is deeply worried about the safety of returning families and the widespread infestation of many neighborhoods with unexploded devices and booby traps,” Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, told Reuters.

“The responsible thing is to clear these areas as quickly as possible using the most up-to-date, modern and professional methods. Anything else just risks too much.”

De-mining is seen as a critical first step in returning civilians to Ramadi, which a U.N. team said last month suffers from destruction worse than anywhere else in Iraq after months of fighting that saw Islamic State bomb attacks and devastating U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

A U.S. de-mining company was contracted last month to remove explosives and train Iraqis to dismantle the devices planted by Islamic State in Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad.

Sources in Ramadi said another Western company was expected to help with de-mining efforts and Iraqi companies are also now competing for potentially lucrative government contracts.

Still there is just not enough expertise to keep pace with the return of civilians, said Mohamed Ali, a tribal fighter who helps dismantle explosives.

In addition to littering Ramadi’s streets with bombs, Islamic State has also planted them in residences, hiding them under rugs and other fixtures or connecting them to the power grid so they detonate when residents attempt to restore electricity.

“One house in al-Bakr neighborhood exploded (on Monday), killing its owner,” said Ali. “The man returned after explosives had been removed from his house and he started clearing the rubble. While he was moving the cooking gas canister, a bomb stashed under it exploded.”

A security officer stationed in northern Ramadi said he had forbidden civilians from walking around their neighborhoods after several people were killed as they inspected nearby destruction.

The influx of refugees is unlikely to slow, driven by the desperation of displaced people and political rivalries within the Sunni community.

Two local government sources said political and religious figures had ignored warnings against rushing civilians’ return, accusing them of seeking financial gain by launching reconstruction projects before others.

More than 3.4 million Iraqis across the country have been displaced by violence according to U.N. statistics, most of them from the minority Sunni Arab community.

(Additional reporting by Saif Hameed, Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.N. team calls destruction in Iraq’s Ramadi ‘staggering’

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Destruction in Ramadi is “staggering” and worse than anywhere else in Iraq, a U.N. team concluded this week after making the first assessment visit to the city since its recapture from Islamic State.

It said the main hospital and train station had both been destroyed, along with thousands of other buildings. Local officials told the UN team 64 bridges and much of the electricity grid had been ruined.

Iraqi forces declared victory over the jihadist group in Ramadi in December and has since cleared most of the western Iraqi city. Islamic State fighters still hold pockets in the northern and eastern outskirts.

Its recovery boosted Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in his campaign to oust the militants from their northern stronghold of Mosul later this year.

But more than six months of fighting shattered most infrastructure and leveled many homes in Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital where around half a million people once lived.

The fighting saw Islamic State bomb attacks and devastating U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

“The destruction the team has found in Ramadi is worse than any other part of Iraq. It is staggering,” said Lise Grande, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.

The two-day assessment found that nearly every building had been damaged or destroyed in frontline areas. In other districts, one in three or four buildings were damaged, it said.

U.N. analysis of satellite imagery last month showed nearly 5,700 buildings in Ramadi and its outskirts had been damaged since mid-2014, with almost 2,000 completely destroyed.

Grande said it was too early to say how much time and money it would take to rebuild.

The cash-strapped government in Baghdad is appealing to international donors to help the city, the largest retaken from Islamic State. It must first clear bombs planted by the militants in streets and buildings – an effort which also requires funding it lacks.

The assessment team said the greatest concentration of such explosives was reported in south-central Ramadi.

The United Nations is working with local authorities on plans to rebuild health, water and energy infrastructure.

The U.N. team said a water plant in central Ramadi could probably be repaired quickly.

It said it had identified four potential relocation sites for returning civilians. Iraq’s central government has yet to give the all-clear for the return of residents.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; editing by Andrew Roche)

Nearly 5,700 buildings in Iraq’s Ramadi need repair, U.N. says

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Around 5,700 structures in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi and its outskirts have incurred some level of damage since mid-2014, and almost 2,000 buildings have been destroyed, the United Nations said on Monday, citing satellite images.

Iraq declared victory over Islamic State in December after seizing the main government building in the city, the provincial capital of Anbar. But more than six months of fighting shattered most infrastructure and leveled many homes in the city, where around half a million people once lived.

The impact of Islamic State bomb attacks and U.S.-led coalition air strikes has been documented by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, which compared satellite imagery collected last month with images from July 2014.

More than 3,200 structures in the city center have been affected, with 1,165 destroyed, the analysis showed. Those figures nearly double when outlying areas are included.

It is not clear what percentage of Ramadi has been affected, but the imagery shows none of the central districts has been spared and almost every block has incurred at least some damage.

A U.N. statement called the analysis preliminary and said it had not been validated in the field. Baghdad has not yet declared the city safe for return; Iraqi special forces clashed with militants in some districts as recently as last week.

The cash-strapped government in Baghdad is appealing to international donors to help rebuilding Ramadi, the largest city retaken from Islamic State. But it must first clear explosives planted by the militants in streets and buildings – an effort which also requires funding Iraq doesn’t have.

The United Nations is working with local authorities on plans to rebuild health, water and energy infrastructure. Meanwhile, displaced residents are waiting in camps or rented accommodations in other parts of the country.

It is expected to take months to secure the city before reconstruction can begin.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, editing by Larry King)

Iraq moving troops, preparing offensive to retake Mosul

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s military said on Friday it was mobilizing troops to prepare for an offensive the government has pledged to launch this year to retake the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State.

Hundreds of forces from the army’s 15th division reached Makhmour base, 45 miles south of Mosul, and more forces, including Sunni Muslim tribal fighters, were expected to arrive in coming days, said Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command.

Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi told Reuters last month that Iraq would launch the Mosul operation in the first half of the year and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said 2016 would see the “final victory” against the militants.

Some U.S. officials have endorsed that assessment, but a top U.S. intelligence officer told Congress this week any operation to retake Mosul would be long and complex and unlikely to finish this year.

With more than a million people still living there, Mosul is the largest city controlled by Islamic State, which declared a ‘caliphate’ in swathes of territory it seized in Iraq and neighboring Syria in 2014.

Retaking it would be a huge boost for Iraqi forces who, backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition, reclaimed the western city of Ramadi from Islamic State in late December.

Mosul, however, is a far larger city with a populace made up of many sects. And even in Ramadi, Iraqi forces are still working to secure that city and its environs.

Iraq’s Rasool told Reuters on Friday that troop movements south of Mosul were being coordinated with the peshmerga, the armed forces of the autonomous Kurdish region north and east of Nineveh which are expected to join the campaign.

“Once we complete all the preparations, we will officially announce the date for the start of Mosul operations,” he added.

The United States, which is leading an international campaign in both Iraq and Syria to defeat the jihadist group, has said its strategy is to regain territory at the heart of Islamic State’s cross-border state, take Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, and destroy the confidence of its fighters that it can expand as a magnet for jihadis.

Iraq’s army, weakened by years of corruption and mismanagement following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, is trying to rebuild itself after collapsing 18 months ago in the face of Islamic State’s lightning advance.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin and Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Iraq’s troubled finances slow efforts to rebuild Ramadi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Strain on Iraq’s budget from falling oil prices is delaying the removal of Islamic State explosives in Ramadi and the restoration of basic services needed for displaced civilians to return to the western city.

The army declared victory in December over Islamic State (IS) after elite counter-terrorism forces seized the Anbar provincial capital’s main government building. On Tuesday those forces reclaimed strategic territory linking the city to a major army base nearby.

The recapture of Ramadi was the first major gain for the U.S.-trained army since it collapsed in the face of an assault by the ultra-hardline Sunni militants in 2014. Its recovery boosted Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in his quest to oust IS from Mosul, northern Iraq’s biggest city, later this year.

But Ramadi’s hundreds of thousands of residents will not be able to go home until bombs are removed and infrastructure damaged by six months of fighting is rehabilitated – operations that require tens of millions of dollars Baghdad cannot spare.

“We know that the government has its back against the wall fiscally. In order to stabilize areas and to help displaced families go back, we’ve got to do more,” said Lise Grande, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. She appealed to international donors for at least $40 million more for initial reconstruction efforts.

Iraq, with income nearly exclusively from oil, is struggling to pay its bills amid the fall in global crude prices. Anbar Governor Sohaib al-Rawi said his provincial government had not received its share of the federal budget in about two months.

“The local government has accumulated debts from last year which will be paid from this budget,” al-Rawi told reporters in Baghdad, declining to define the size of the debt.

Besides U.N.-funded activities, he said efforts to prepare Ramadi for the return of civilians were being financed “through local efforts” of provincial authorities, without providing details.

Unless additional funds are provided, it could take nine months for those efforts just to clear Tamim, a large district in southern Ramadi where the first phase of U.N. efforts will be conducted, according to Grande.

The United Nations also plans to rehabilitate health, water and energy infrastructure in the city, much of which was destroyed in fighting that included Islamic State bomb attacks and devastating U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

“The level of destruction in Ramadi is as bad as anything we have seen anywhere in Iraq,” said Grande. “Thousands of homes have to be rebuilt, thousands of buildings have to be rebuilt. The total cost of reconstruction in Ramadi is huge.”


Tuesday’s advance by Iraqi forces in Ramadi’s eastern farmlands boosted government efforts to close in on Falluja, the Islamic State stronghold located halfway to Baghdad and now besieged by the Iraqi army and allied, Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias.

The ultra-hardline Sunni militants of IS swept through a third of Iraq in 2014, declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, carrying out mass killings and imposing a draconian form of Islam, but have since been pushed back on various fronts.

A military statement broadcast on state television said the army, police and counter-terrorism forces had retaken several areas, including the town of Husaiba al-Sharqiya, about 10 km (6 miles) east of Ramadi.

“(Our forces) also managed to open the road from Ramadi to Baghdad that passes through al-Khaldiya,” the statement added, referring to a highway that links the city to the Habbaniya army base where U.S.-led coalition forces are located.

“All of Ramadi has now been liberated,” said al-Rawi, the Anbar governor, adding that the handover of authority to local police from the military was going smoothly. No civilians are currently living in the city, he added.

It has taken more than a month for the military to clear insurgents from the eastern rural outskirts. Militants are still holed up in some northern farmlands bordering the main east-west highway, according to security sources.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Dan Grebler)

U.S. weighs options to speed Iraq’s fight to retake Mosul

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is willing to deploy Apache attack helicopters and advisers to help Iraq retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State as it considers options to speed up the campaign against the militant group, a top U.S. general said on Monday.

U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have said they want to accelerate the campaign against Islamic State militants, and have called on allies to increase their military contributions to efforts to destroy the group in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the head of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said he is looking to retake Mosul as quickly as possible, but did not say whether he agreed with Iraqi estimates that it could be wrested from Islamic State control by the end of this year.

“I don’t want to put a date out there,” MacFarland said. “I would like to get this wrapped up as fast as I possibly can.”

Past steps to speed up the campaign have included the deployment of dozens of U.S. special operations forces in northern Syria, and an elite targeting force to work with Iraqi forces to go after Islamic State targets.

It could also include deployment of more military and police trainers, including from the United States. MacFarland said the U.S.-led coalition has trained more than 17,500 Iraqi soldiers, and about 2,000 police, with another 3,000 soldiers and police in training now.

MacFarland said the proposals he is drawing up do not necessarily require the commitment of more U.S. troops, who have largely stayed away from the front lines of combat. Instead, coalition partners could contribute troops, he said.

“As we extend operations across Iraq and into Syria … there is a good potential that we’ll need additional capabilities, additional forces to provide those capabilities and we’re looking at the right mix,” MacFarland said.

The United States is also ready to send Apache attack helicopters and deploy advisers to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces retake Mosul if requested, MacFarland said. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in December that the United States was ready to send the advisers and helicopters if requested by Iraq to help in the fight to retake Ramadi, but Iraqi officials did not ask for the extra help.

Iraqi forces retook Ramadi, a provincial capital just a short drive west of Baghdad, late last year.

“We can’t inflict help on somebody, they have to ask for it, they have to want it, and we’re here to provide it as required,” MacFarland said. “Everything that the secretary said is really still on the table.”

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Coalition now training brigades that will fight ISIS in Mosul, spokesman says

The United States-led coalition against the Islamic State is currently helping the Iraqi Security Forces put together the force that will try to retake the city of Mosul, a spokesman said Friday.

Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, made the announcement while addressing a news briefing in Washington. He was speaking via video link from Baghdad.

Warren told reporters it would still be “many months” before the Iraqi Security Forces began their campaign to recapture Mosul, which the Islamic State has occupied since June 2014.

“Right now our focus is ‘Let’s start training some brigades. Let’s start building some combat power. Let’s continue to train some police and start building up some combat power,’” he said.

Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province in northern Iraq and is one of the nation’s largest cities.

Warren told reporters the coalition still needs to assemble approximately 10 brigades, consisting of some 2,000 to 3,000 people in all, and wanted to first place them through additional training.

A basic training process takes eight weeks, Warren told reporters, with supplemental options for people like medics or snipers. But the number of troops that can be trained at once has varied.

“Over the last month or so, we’ve gotten about 900 police officers and roughly two brigades through training,” Warren told reporters. “This was the most graduates that we’ve had in a month. There’s been weeks or months where it’s been significantly less.”

He said the coalition has trained about 20,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces, including police and tribal fighters. But he said even the ones who helped secure a key victory at Ramadi, a city that had been under Islamic State control, should receive additional training before Mosul.

“We believe that all of the forces that we’ve already trained and run through Ramadi are certainly capable of moving to Mosul, but we have made a decision that we want to run them through another cycle of training,” Warren told reporters. “Are they trained? Yes. Could they go to Mosul now? Yes. But we would prefer to give them additional training before they go.”

Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was captured by the Islamic State last year.

Iraqi officials announced that the military had raised the nation’s flag over a key government complex in Ramadi late in December, and forces have been working to secure outlying parts of the city ever since. On Friday, Warren told reporters that those efforts were continuing.

Warren also told reporters the coalition launched 676 airstrikes against the Islamic State in January, 522 of them in Iraq and 154 in Syria. Most of them were concentrated near Ramadi, Mosul and Raqqa, the Syrian city which the Islamic State considers its capital.

Iraqis make progress in Ramadi, but Islamic State lingers

The Iraqi forces tasked with securing Ramadi and removing any remaining links to the Islamic State insurgency that once controlled the city are encountering improvised explosive devices and evidence of the group’s brutal treatment of civilians, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday.

Col. Steve Warren, the spokesperson for the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State, held a news briefing with reporters and provided updates on the campaign’s efforts as it helps the Iraqi military take back the city and takes other actions against the terrorist group.

Iraqi officials announced that the country’s military had raised the flag over a government complex in Ramadi on Dec. 28, some seven months after the Islamic State took control of the capital of Anbar province. The military has spent the ensuing days working to clear the rest of the city, Warren told reporters at the news briefing, but was still encountering some resistance.

Warren said the Iraqis needed to dismantle improvised explosive devices on an “almost house-by-house” basis, and the group was also encountering sniper fire from lingering enemies. Warren said about 60 Islamic State insurgents were killed in the past 24 hours, though multiple groups of up to a dozen fighters remained. He didn’t estimate the total number of fighters left in Ramadi, but said the coalition was helping the Iraqis clear neighborhoods with airstrikes.

As the Iraqi forces moved into smaller neighborhoods, Warren said they came across civilians who had been killed “execution-style,” some who were shot as they tried to flee, others injured by improvised explosive devices and some who the Islamic State used as human shields.

Warren told reporters that many surviving civilians were being taken to stations in the city where they received food, water and healthcare. If they had no place to go, Warren said the civilians were often being relocated to Habbaniyah, where there are camps for displaced people.

Approximately 100 members of the Iraqi military died as they worked to recapture Ramadi, Warren said, adding it was difficult to tell how long it would take for the city to be fully cleared.

The progress in Ramadi is just one small victory in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, though Warren touted several of the coalition’s recent accomplishments on Wednesday.

Warren wrote on his Twitter page that the Islamic State has lost between 7,700 and 8,500 square miles of territory in Iraq alone, and have not captured any new territory since May. He told the news conference that represented about 40 percent of the territory it once controlled.

The Iraqis still must liberate significant portions of the country that are held by the Islamic State, Warren told reporters, though there wasn’t any indication as to where they would go next.

“Whatever they decide is their next focus, this coalition will be there prepared to support them through the air, as well as with training and equipment,” Warren said during the media briefing.

Warren also told reporters the coalition’s airstrikes killed 2,500 Islamic State fighters last month, but estimated between 20,000 and 30,000 were still operating inside Iraq and Syria.

Warren estimated the Islamic State had not lost as much territory in Syria. He told reporters that the group only lost about 700 square miles in Syria, roughly 10 percent of what it held there.

The colonel also gave an update on the coalition’s campaign against the Islamic State’s oil smuggling, a major source of income for the terrorist organization. He estimated the coalition has reduced the group’s oil revenue by about 30 percent since the campaign began, and said that the Islamic State’s total oil production dropped by about 24 percent to 34,000 barrels every day.

“In addition to chipping away at their so-called caliphate (and) killing their leaders, we’re also hitting them in the pocketbook,” Warren told reporters.

Iraqi Military Scores Big Victory Against Islamic State in Ramadi

The Iraqi military has scored another pivotal victory in the fight against the Islamic State insurgency, retaking control of a government complex in the important city of Ramadi.

Anbar Governor Sohaib Alrawi announced on Twitter on Monday that the Iraqi flag is now flying above the government compound in the city, which had been captured by Islamic State insurgents in May.

Ramadi is the capital of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province in terms of land area.

Iraqi forces had been aggressively working to recapture Ramadi, and had made major inroads in recent weeks. But the Islamic State insurgency continues to put up a fight, and The Washington Post reported that a military leader said about 30 percent of the city remains under ISIS control.

The military victory drew a mixture of celebration and caution, as the fight is still ongoing.

Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State, issued a statement congratulating the Iraqi Security Forces for the “significant accomplishment” of clearing and recapturing the government center, which he called “a proud moment for Iraq.”

Warren noted the coalition has conducted more than 630 airstrikes supporting the Iraqi efforts, as well as provided training and equipment to the forces working to defeat the Islamic State.

Warren, who shared photographs of the flag over the complex, said the coalition would continue to support Iraqi forces as they “move forward to make Ramadi safe for civilians to return.”

Iraqi Forces Recapture Portions of Ramadi from Islamic State

Multiple reports indicate Iraqi forces have scored a victory in the fight against the Islamic State, taking back important districts in a city that was captured by ISIS militants earlier this year.

Citing Iraqi counterterrorism officials, the BBC reported Tuesday that the Iraqi government has reclaimed parts of the city of Ramadi. The entire city had been taken by the Islamic State in May.

CNN reported the reclaimed territory works out to be about 60 percent of the city.

The move comes after government officials reportedly worked to seal off the city and prevent the Islamic State from bringing in supplies and manpower. Reuters reported ISIS’ final link to the outside was severed last month, and living conditions within Ramadi quickly went downhill.

Reuters quoted one resident as saying the Islamic State was “treating women like animals” and another as saying food rations were so scarce that he’d have to eat his family’s cat if they ran out.

The news agency reported somewhere between 1,200 and 1,700 families were pinned in the city.

CNN reported that Iraqi forces were trying to encourage Ramadi residents to evacuate before the siege, but Islamic State militants were threatening to kill anyone they caught attempting to flee.

It wasn’t immediately clear if any civilians were killed as the Iraqi forces reclaimed the districts.

The BBC reported Iraqi forces would also work to take back the center of Ramadi, though those efforts were complicated by the belief that ISIS likely placed bombs in roads and buildings there.