Many chefs have stirred the cauldron of war consuming Syria and Iraq, but perhaps none so vigorously or with so long and capacious a spoon as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Unlike the American-led international coalition formed to combat Islamic State (IS) following the radical Sunni Islamist group’s summer surge towards Baghdad, which has limited its role to air strikes, and unlike Russia or the Arab countries that have armed opposing sides in Syria, Iran has physically inserted itself in the intertwined conflicts. It has dispatched not just fuel and weapons but hundreds of “advisers” from its elite Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as well as thousands of fighters from the Shia militias that Iran has fostered, armed, trained and funded in Lebanon and Iraq.
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The calendar on the wall reads November 2011. On the ground is a half-filled tin of Copenhagen smokeless tobacco. Scattered here and there are bottles of Gatorade, cans of Rip It energy drinks, poker chips, Monopoly money and razor blades. Stenciled on a wall is a punchy soldier’s slogan: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat.” Taped on another is a note of encouragement from a Boy Scout troop back home: “You are our hero and your commitment to freedom is honorable.”
There is even a jar of salsa still in the fridge. When the American troops left Iraq three years ago, they left behind a fragile country that collapsed into civil war. They also left behind the detritus of soldiers’ lives that, in the ensuing years, was left untouched, frozen in time.
The U.S. Army is considering equipping the Iraqi army’s M1A1 tanks with upgrades to provide greater protection from land mines and roadside bombs and to add rotating, remotely operated machine guns to attack snipers. Upgrades to the tanks built by General Dynamics Corp. also could include belly armor; lightweight reactive armor tiles; improved night-vision sensors made by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co. (RTN) to provide 360-degree, all-weather views; and mine-clearing blades and rollers, according to an Army survey released in November. A “counter sniper/anti-material gun mount,” for example, also would contain wide-area spotlights to detect roadside or suicide-bomb vehicles.
Jordan has adopted a new strategy in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) aimed at defending the kingdom against possible incursions by the militant group from western Iraq and eastern and southern Syria. On two separate occasions, King Abdullah declared that Jordan will do its best to support tribes in Syria and Iraq “that are engaging terrorist groups in both countries.” The king told the heads of southern Jordanian tribes on Dec. 18 that Jordan is implementing “a security strategy to confront challenges [on fronts with Syria and Iraq] in accordance with programs that are being followed by the armed forces and the security bodies.” He added that the Jordanian armed forces will not hesitate to carry out their duty toward “Arab neighbors and brethren.”
Although Iran's proxies are fighting ISIS in parallel with the U.S.-led effort, their actions and radical Shiite agendas are diametrically opposed to the goal of building inclusive governments and societies in Iraq and Syria.
Over fifty Shiite militia organizations in Syria and Iraq currently claim to be training and fighting against the "Islamic State"/ISIS. Many are armed branches of established political parties or follow individual clerics. Some are fronts for established groups, while other newer groups are developing their own profile and presence. In addition, new militias have been established along the lines of al-Hashd al-Shabi (The Popular Mobilization) and are growing in size and influence. Although many of these groups are indeed countering the ISIS advance, a number are linked to extremist anti-American leaders and factions, particularly Kataib al-Imam Ali (the Imam Ali Brigades). Such militias present further threats to regional security and U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Muhsin Edo cuts a desperate figure as he huddles under his sagging tent amid the ankle-deep sludge of the Newroz refugee camp. His loose flannel coat, fashioned from a blanket, is caked with mud. His hacking cough reverberates through the interminable patter of rain. There's no kerosene for the heater, and with little dry wood to fire his mud-brick stove, the condensation dripping from the tarpaulin flaps has made his new home an inhospitable mess. "God knows what the rest of winter will bring," he mumbles, almost tearfully, into his tea.
In hilly, windswept northern Iraq and eastern Syria, the onset of winter is making life even harsher for Edo and other refugees who live in tents and unfinished dwellings. Unseasonably heavy rains have already exacted a cruel toll, and snow has struck some exposed camps.
The 320 U.S. troops at Al Asad air base in Iraq are now coming under "regular" mortar and rocket fire from nearby ISIS fighters, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren. While the attacks are "completely ineffective," it is raising continuing concern that U.S. forces in Iraq can be kept safe and at least technically out of a combat role, a separate defense official said. The Pentagon would not say whether security measures had changed at the base.
Most of the rounds are impacting near the perimeter of the sprawling base, according to the official. The troops at Al Asad are mainly Marines, and are part of the "advise and assist" effort. Since December 20, they have been helping Iraqi units there with learning how to conduct air support, mission planning and intelligence gathering.
Four heavily armed men from Iraq attacked a Saudi Arabia border patrol early Monday, firing automatic weapons and detonating suicide belts in a confrontation that left three guards and all the assailants dead, Saudi officials said. The early morning clash, which the Saudis described as an attempted infiltration near an isolated patch of the Saudi-Iraq frontier, was one of the deadliest episodes of border violence for Saudi Arabia.
It was likely to raise fears of jihadist infiltrations in the Saudi kingdom from Iraq and Yemen — another radical Islamist breeding ground that shares a border with Saudi Arabia, which controls access to Islam’s holiest sites. Saudi officials said the border guards had suspected the men were trying to sneak across the border. When confronted, the men fired automatic weapons and detonated suicide belts to avoid arrest, the officials said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered an urgent investigation on Friday into the fatal shooting of three Sunni clerics and the wounding of two others near the southern city of Basra. The attack late on Thursday was carried out by four gunmen who opened fire from a speeding car on the clerics' vehicle, police sources said. Previous attacks on Sunni and Shi'ite clerics have sometimes unleashed cycles of revenge killings in Iraq, where sectarian violence is at its worst since the height of the civil war some eight years ago.
Khalil Ibrahim watches from his tent as the orange light of dusk is darkened by a flock of European starlings arriving on their annual migration to northern Iraq. He prepares to trigger his nets as they circle the field, but at the last minute a child throws a stone in the distance and the birds vanish over the dimly lit horizon.
He and other trappers capture the starlings during their two-month migration and sell them in the bazaar of nearby Irbil. Some will buy the birds to eat them as a delicacy, but most will pay for their freedom as an act of mercy believed to bring good luck. This year, however, the trappers say war has driven many of the skittish birds away. "The sound you heard now, compared to gunfire, was quiet, but what about bombs or explosions?" fellow trapper Khalas Tasin says after he and Ibrahim gather up their empty nets. "They will flee from the entire area. They are scared of noise and explosions so if they hear anything they will fly away."