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

Grade inflation hits Iraqi high schools

Wassim Bassem writes for Al Monitor:

Around 79,000 Iraqi students are getting ready to start vocational training (two-year programs leading to an associate degree) or university (four-year programs leading to a bachelor's degree), according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research announcing the university admissions exam results for the academic year 2013-14. Many students taking their final high school exams received grades ranging from 95 to 100, which could well be the largest group of students in the world attaining such high grades.

This increase in grades, however, hinders many students’ dreams of studying medicine — for which top grades are required to be selected — at a time when Iraqi families are struggling financially to pay for, especially, their son's degree in medicine at any price, even if this requires sending him to study abroad. The number of Iraqi students studying abroad has thus increased and already reached around 14,000 in 2013.


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A handy checklist for the U.S. effort in Iraq

David Ignatius writes for the Washington Post:

As the United States advances into its third war in Iraq in a quarter-century, it’s important to have a mental checklist to assess whether U.S. strategy there can succeed. Right now, because of Iraq’s continuing corruption and sectarianism, it’s hard to be optimistic. President Obama’s basic strategic framework seems right, in theory. Obama reiterated Monday in Beijing: “It’s not our folks who are going to be doing the fighting. Iraqis ultimately have to fight [the Islamic State] and they have to determine their own security.”

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U.S., allies conduct 23 air strikes in Syria, Iraq: military

Reuters reports:

U.S.-led forces conducted 16 air strikes in Syria, most of them around Kobani near the Turkish border, and seven in the oil-producing northern region of Iraq since Monday, the U.S. Central Command said. Ten air strikes conducted by the United States and its allies near Kobani hit eight small Islamic State units, damaged three fighting positions and destroyed a logistics facility, Centcom said Wednesday in a statement.

The town has become a test of the U.S.-led coalition's ability to halt the advance of the hardline insurgents. It is one of the few areas in Syria where it can co-ordinate air strikes with operations by an effective ground force. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga have helped take some villages around Kobani but the lines of control in the town remain the same.


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The fighters of Iraq who answer to Iran

Babak Dehghanpisheh reports for Reuters :

Among the thousands of militia fighters who flocked to northern Iraq to battle militant group Islamic State over the summer was Qais al-Khazali.Like the fighters, Khazali wore green camouflage. But he also sported a shoulder-strapped pistol and sunglasses and was flanked by armed bodyguards. When he was not on the battlefield, the 40-year-old Iraqi donned the robes and white turban of a cleric. Khazali is the head of a militia called Asaib Ahl al-Haq that is backed by Iran. Thanks to his position he is one of the most feared and respected militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran's most important representatives in the country.

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Islamic State crisis: Austrailian special forces get Iraq clearance

BBC reports :

Australian special forces are finally moving into Iraq more than a month after arriving in the Middle East. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the 200 troops would be helping Iraqi forces in the fight against Islamic State (IS). A prolonged legal and administrative process in Iraq meant the troops had been waiting for clearance in the United Arab Emirates since September. Fighter jets from the Royal Australian Air Force joined the US-led coalition bombing IS targets in Iraq in October. IS militants currently control large swathes of both Iraq and Syria, having launched a major offensive in the region in June. Mr Abbott made the announcement about the special forces after talks with US President Barack Obama during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit in Beijing. He said the troops would initially deploy to Baghdad before moving into the field.

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Iraq claims key victory over IS

AP reports:

Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recaptured the heart and outlying districts of the town of Beiji, home to the country's largest oil refinery, state television and a provincial governor said Tuesday. Retaking Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, could allow Iraqi forces a base to attack neighboring Tikrit, taken by the extremists in their lightning advance this summer. But troops backed by Shiite militias faced pockets of stiff resistence around Beiji, hindering their advance.

State television quoted the top army commander in Beiji, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, as saying troops recaptured the city's local government and police headquarters at the center of the town. It aired what appeared to be archival footage of the town showing Iraqi army troops firing their weapons from behind sand barriers. Al-Saadi later spoke to state television by telephone but the line appeared to be cut off after he said his forces were meeting stiff resistance.

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U.S.-led air war in Syria, Iraq faces constraints

Eric Schmitt writes for the New York Times:

More than three months into the U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria, commanders are challenged by spotty intelligence, poor weather and an Iraqi army that is only now starting to go on the offensive against the Islamic State, meaning that warplanes are mostly limited to hitting pop-up targets of opportunity.
Weekend airstrikes hit just such targets: a convoy of 10 armed trucks of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, near Mosul, as well as vehicles and two of the group’s checkpoints near the border with Syria. News reports from Iraq said the Islamic State’s leader had been wounded in one of the raids, but U.S. officials said Sunday that they were still assessing his status. In Iraq, the air war is tethered to the slow pace of operations by the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces. With relatively few Iraqi offensives to flush out militants, many Islamic State fighters have dug in to shield themselves from attack.

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Obama to send 1,500 more troops to assist Iraq

HELENE COOPER and MICHAEL D. SHEAR write for the New York Times:

President Obama has authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 American troops to Iraq in the coming months, doubling the number of Americans meant to train and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The trainers and advisers are to help Iraqis and Kurds as they plan a major offensive expected next spring against Islamic State fighters who have poured into Iraq from Syria.

Pentagon officials said Friday that military advisers would establish training sites across Iraq in a significant expansion of the American military campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. A Defense Department official said that a number of military personnel would deploy specifically to Anbar Province, the Sunni stronghold in western Iraq that was the scene of bloody fighting for years after the 2003 American-led invasion. In recent months Sunni militants with the Islamic State have been seizing and holding territory across Anbar.

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ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wounded in airstrike, Iraq officials say

AP reports:

Iraqi officials said Sunday that the head of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was wounded in an airstrike in western Anbar province. Pentagon officials said they had no immediate information on such an attack or on the militant leader being injured. Iraq's Defence and Interior ministries both issued statements saying al-Baghdadi had been wounded, without elaborating, and the news was broadcast on state-run television Sunday night.

The reports came at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama said the U.S.-led coalition was in a position to start going on the offensive against the ISIS militants. Al-Baghdadi, believed to be in his early 40s, has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. Since taking the reins of the group in 2010, he has transformed it from a local branch of al-Qaida into an independent transnational military force.

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Iraq’s future: It’s the oil, stupid

Michael Knights writes for Al Jazeera:

This week, Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi is scheduled to visit Erbil, his first visit to the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as premier. The lead-up to the visit has been long and torturous, including months of speculation and tactical manoeuvring over the potential form of a revenue-sharing deal between Baghdad and the Kurds.

Though less dramatic than the day-to-day fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the outcome of these negotiations could do more to cement the unity of Iraq - or hasten its break-up - than events taking place on the battlefield. For almost a year now, the Kurds have lived without their customary budget transfers from Baghdad. In previous years, the Kurds received 17 percent of net revenues from Baghdad - around a billion dollars a month - to cover $750m of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) salaries and pay for ministry programmes.

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