Iraq Oil Report's Daily Brief compiles the most important news and analysis about Iraq from around the web.

How one man is trying to make it safer to be LGBTQ in Iraq

Mari Shibata writes for The Washington Post:

While Amir Ashour was growing up in Iraq in the early 2000s, he knew homosexuality existed but he didn’t know much else about it. “Aside from my personal feelings wondering ‘why am I attracted to this person?’ when I was 10 or 11, I had my first experience when I was 16 or 17,” he said recently.

In his teens, most of what Ashour heard about homosexuality was that LGBTQ people did not exist in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. Born in Baghdad, Ashour predominantly grew up in Sulaymaniyah, in the country’s Kurdish region. Although most people around him never talked about their sexuality, he let it known among his closest friends at school and university, as well as in activist circles, about his interests for men.

He discovered more openness by going online — mostly to local gay dating websites — not to meet men but to “get answers for my questions” on homosexuality, he says. “Being LGBTQ+ was — and still is — a taboo, so this was where Iraqis who weren’t out could find each other for personal support, friendship, or more.”

When he signed up for the popular gay dating app Grindr in 2010, he remembers finding only five users in the whole country. The app would scan for users from countries as far as Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait. He remembers chatting with one man in Iran and proclaiming: “I need a visa to date you!’”

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As noose tightens around Mosul, U.S. forces begin advising Iraqi units closer to front lines

Missy Ryan writes for The Washington Post:

American military advisers have begun working with Iraqi army battalions in forward positions, U.S. officials said, as the campaign against the Islamic State enters a new, more risky phase.

The first mission began on July 20, when a small team of combat engineers was tasked with helping an Iraqi engineer battalion establish security around a temporary bridge constructed over the Tigris River.

The bridge, southeast of the town of Qayyarah, is expected to be a key infrastructure point in the upcoming offensive for Mosul, a crucial test for Iraqi forces and their Western backers.

But the American engineers, in a departure from the longer-term advisory missions that characterized earlier campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have spent only a limited number of hours a day with the Iraqi army battalion before falling back to its more fortified position near Makhmour for the night. The engineers’ work is now mostly complete.

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What draws foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria?

Norma Costello writes for Al Jazeera:

In the small, northern Iraqi town of Tel Eskof, a white pick-up truck rolled down the dirt road towards a nearby frontline, carrying part of a new medical unit.

The men in the truck waved as a tall soldier standing at the roadside, clad in combat gear and dark Ray-Bans, bellowed in an unmistakable southern US drawl: "Welcome to Tel Eskof, y'all!"

Spanning various ages and nationalities, the fighters here comprise part of a small yet well-known contingent of foreign volunteers who left their homes thousands of kilometres away to help the Kurds battle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

"They come to help us. It's good that they're here, but I don't know why they would leave their homes for this," Ahmed, a soldier with the Kurdish Peshmerga, told Al Jazeera in hushed tones.

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With Lamborghinis and Rooftop Sushi, Why Is Kurdistan Broke?

Sharon Behn writes for Voice of America:

A yellow Lamborghini rolled past the Tche Tche café, where men and women were lazily smoking sheesha (a syrupy tobacco mix) and drinking tea.  Moments later, a large black Land Rover glided by.  Looking out from the café, glass and concrete towers glinted in the sun.  One of them is the five-star Divan Hotel where a rooftop restaurant boasts expensive champagne and sushi.

This is Kurdistan, and the regional government is technically broke.

Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani admits the country is experiencing a serious economic crisis.  But he says the causes are largely external.

“In 2014, without any previous consultation, Baghdad cut our budget,” Barzani told VOA in a recent interview.  Baghdad says it cut the budget because the regional government was selling oil and keeping the profits, and Irbil says it started selling oil to cover its budget needs.  The dispute remains unresolved.

“Second, the war with Daesh,” Barzani continued, using the local term for Islamic State (IS).  “Third, the arrival of 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons.”

Those events, combined with the drop in the price of oil, have squeezed the KRG and forced it to ask for international help from the World Bank, the IMF and the United States.

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As ISIS Loosens Grip, U.S. and Iraq Prepare for Grinding Insurgency

Michael Schmidt and Eric Schmitt write for The New York Times:

The Islamic State’s latest suicide attack in Baghdad, which killed nearly 330 people, foreshadows a long and bloody insurgency, according to American diplomats and commanders, as the group reverts to its guerrilla roots because its territory is shrinking in Iraq and Syria.

Already, officials say, many Islamic State fighters who lost battles in Falluja and Ramadi have blended back into the largely Sunni civilian populations there, and are biding their time to conduct future terrorist attacks. And with few signs that the beleaguered Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, can effectively forge an inclusive partnership with Sunnis, many senior American officials warn that a military victory in the last urban stronghold of Mosul, which they hope will be achieved by the end of the year, will not be sufficient to stave off a lethal insurgency.

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The force leading the Iraq army’s fight against ISIS went from ‘dirty division’ to Golden Boys

Loveday Morris writes for The Washington Post:

Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, known as the Golden Division, were once so loathed that they were nicknamed the “Dirty Division.”

They were accused of running secret prisons and carrying out extrajudicial killings. Some lawmakers called for them to be disbanded.

But the country’s war against the Islamic State has restored the reputation of the elite forces, which have spearheaded nearly every major fight against the militants in Iraq. Their commanders have become battlefield celebrities, while popular songs praise the troops’ prowess.

The force of about 10,000 men is a small bright spot in an otherwise lackluster legacy of American efforts to rebuild Iraq’s military in the 13 years since the invasion. U.S. officials say it is their most reliable partner in fighting the Islamic State on the ground, while the Iraqi army struggles with corruption and mismanagement.

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Iraq’s ancient city of Babylon eyes World Heritage list

Adnan Abu Zeed writes for Al-Monitor:

On July 17, UNESCO added al-Ahwar marshes in southeastern Iraq to the World Heritage list. Now, Iraq is seeking to add the 4,000-year-old city of Babylon to the list, which includes world heritage properties of special cultural and natural significance.

Hussein Fleih, Babylon’s director of antiquities and member of Babil’s provincial council, told Al-Monitor, “Babylon will be competing to earn that recognition in the voting process supervised by UNESCO for 2017.” He said that naming Babylon a World Heritage site will help to preserve this historical city by drawing not only local but international financial and technical support.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Fleih said, “Both the local government in Babil and the Iraqi government are working toward adding the city to the World Heritage list.”

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Iraq’s Yazidis living in fear on Mount Sinjar

John Beck writes for Al Jazeera:

Guley can see her village from Mount Sinjar. It isn't far - a short drive down twisting roads into the dusty plains below - but beyond reach, and for almost two years she's been unable to return.

Her family was among the hundreds of thousands who fled as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) swept across northern Iraq's Sinjar region in August 2014 and captured the town of the same name.

Civilians rarely escape the group's notorious cruelty, but as members of the ancient Yazidi religious minority, they had particular reason to fear. ISIL considers the sect heretical "devil worshippers" to be either captured, converted, or executed.

ISIL came in the early hours of August 3, a large force strengthened by weaponry plundered from the Iraqi army, and a reputation as unstoppable killers. They advanced swiftly through the darkness and encountered little resistance.

By morning Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the area had retreated in disarray, leaving civilians unprotected. In the panic that followed, Guley gathered her five daughters and three sons then made a dash for the mountain's jagged ridge.

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Exclusive: Iraqis pack up a lifetime as they flee ISIS-held Mosul in the dark of night

Ben Wedeman and Waffa Munayyer write for CNN:

The soldiers are on edge, peering nervously into the dark. They can make out the sound of people -- they can never know whom -- approaching their position on this mountainside overlooking Mosul.

Then, in groups of two or three, they emerge from the night: men, women, children, the elderly.

Some can barely walk. They've been on their feet for hours, and need to be carried the rest of the way.

It's the same routine, night after night.

To get to the Kurdish front lines in northern Iraq, people fleeing Mosul must avoid detection by ISIS militants, step carefully through minefields, and be ready to find shelter if mortar rounds come crashing down. For men, capture by ISIS could mean punishment if they're lucky -- but more likely it will mean death.

By the time they reach safety, some have been walking for four or five hours. Adults must carry the young children. They arrive thirsty, hungry and exhausted. Walking by night, however, is preferable to doing it by day, when they can be picked off by ISIS snipers or fall prey to the withering heat, with daytime temperatures well over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (around 45 degrees Celsius).

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Will Sadrists target US troops in Iraq?

Mustafa Saadoun writes for Al-Monitor:

Alaa Abboud, the spokesman for the Peace Brigades, the armed faction of the Sadrist movement, said in a TV interview with a local Iraqi channel July 20, “We will target the US forces anywhere they are in Iraq. We are not only keen on targeting them, but thirsty for their blood.”

This followed threats by the head of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, July 17 to target US military troops that are allegedly to be sent to Iraq soon to take part in the battle to liberate Mosul. Sadr, who fought a fierce battle against US forces in 2003 in the city of Najaf in southern Iraq, continues to believe that US military personnel should be targeted by his armed groups.

The Shiite cleric's threats came following the visit of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to Iraq on July 11. Carter said, “We are pleased to tell you today that [the Pentagon] has agreed to send 560 more troops to Iraq to provide critical support to Iraqi forces, in terms of infrastructure and logistic capabilities in the Qayyarah military airport.”

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