Beirut, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — Islamic State group militants cornered in their last foothold in eastern Syria fought back with suicide car bombs, snipers and booby traps Monday, slowing Kurdish fighters advancing under the cover of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Kurdish news agencies and a Syrian war monitor said.
An Italian photographer was wounded in the clashes between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the militants holed up in the village of Baghouz, near the border with Iraq, an Italian news agency said.
No one knows exactly how many Islamic State fighters are still holding out in the sliver of territory under attack, although they are estimated to be in the hundreds, most of them foreign fighters. It is also unclear if civilians are still inside, caught under heavy bombardment.
The SDF on Saturday launched its final push to clear the area from IS, after months of fighting that saw 20,000 civilians fleeing just in the past few weeks. The numbers have overwhelmed Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria, where humanitarian conditions are already dire amid a cold winter and meager resources.
The capture of the IS-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a devastating four-year global war to end the IS extremists' territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in 2014. That in turn, would open the way for U.S. President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria as he has promised to do once the Islamic State group has been defeated.
"The U.S. will soon control 100% of ISIS territory in Syria," Trump tweeted Sunday. He has said repeatedly that he doesn't want the U.S. to be the world's policeman and that he intends to bring the 2,000 U.S. troops home.
U.S. officials and Trump's own military advisers, however, have warned that losing its territorial hold does not mean that the Islamic State group is defeated, warning that IS could stage a comeback in Syria within six months to a year if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, estimated there are between 1,000 and 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control, but he said others have "dispersed" and "gone to ground."
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have said IS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to under 5 square kilometers (under 2 square miles), where most of the fighters are concentrated in Syria. But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.
Assad Bechara, a Lebanese political analyst, said the Islamic State group is an ideology, not just a military structure, and it cannot be defeated simply by reclaiming territory from the group.
"This (American) pullout will leave a huge vacuum despite the allegations of defeating the last pockets of ISIS. This vacuum will increase the international and regional struggle for power and influence in Syria," he said, which in turn may make it easier for the militant group to return.
It is not clear how long the final push to free Baghouz from IS will take. Trump said last week he had been told that the full territorial conquest to defeat the Islamic State could be completed in the coming week.
But progress appears to be slower than what SDF officials had initially estimated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF were moving very slowly due to land mines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists' use of tunnels and suicide car bombs. IS also is using civilians as human shields, the Observatory said.
On Monday, the Observatory said 13 IS militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed as well as six SDF fighters. The Kurdish Hawar news agency also reported heavy fighting in Baghouz.
IS said in a statement posted late Sunday that two of its "martyrdom-seekers" attacked SDF fighters in Baghouz with their explosive-laden car.
Syrian state media claimed a U.S.-led coalition airstrike near Baghouz killed two women and two children. More than 20,000 civilians have left the IS-held area in recent weeks.
The Italian news agency ANSA said Milan-born Gabriele Micalizzi, 34, was injured in the face by splinters of a rocket-propelled grenade, adding that his life was not in danger. It said he was being airlifted by the coalition to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
Dubai, , Feb 7 (AP/UNB)— Iran appears to have attempted a second satellite launch despite U.S. criticism that its space program helps it develop ballistic missiles, satellite images released Thursday suggest. Iran has not acknowledged conducting such a launch.
Images released by the Colorado-based company DigitalGlobe show a rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran's Semnan province on Tuesday. Images from Wednesday show the rocket was gone with what appears to be burn marks on its launch pad.
Iranian state media did not immediately report on the rocket launch, though such delays have happened in previous launches.
Iran has said it would launch its Doosti, or "Friendship," satellite. A launch in January failed to put another satellite, Payam or "Message," into orbit.
The U.S. alleges such launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says they don't violate a United Nations resolution that only "called upon" it not to conduct such tests.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
Iran usually displays space achievements in February during the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the revolution amid Iran facing increasing pressure from the U.S. under the administration of President Donald Trump.
Tehran, Feb 6 (AP/UNB) — The halls of the former prison in the heart of Iran's capital now are hushed, befitting the sounds of the museum that it has become. Wax mannequins silently portray the horrific acts of torture that once were carried out within its walls.
But the surviving inmates still remember the screams.
Exhibits in the former Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee Prison that was run under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi include a frightened man trapped in a small metal cage as a cigarette-smoking interrogator shouts above him.
In a circular courtyard, a snarling interrogator is depicted forcing a prisoner's head under water while another inmate above hangs from his wrists.
As Iran this month marks the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the shah, the surviving inmates who suffered torture at the hands of the country's police and dreaded SAVAK intelligence service still bear both visible and hidden scars. Even today, United Nations investigators and rights group say Iran tortures and arbitrarily detains prisoners.
"We are far from where we must be as far as the justice is concerned," said Ahmad Sheikhi, a 63-year-old former revolutionary once tortured at the prison. "Justice has yet to be spread in the society, and we are definitely very far from the sacred goals of the martyrs and their imam," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The SAVAK, a Farsi acronym for the Organization of Intelligence and Security of the Nation, was formed in 1957. The agency, created with the help of the CIA and Israel's Mossad, initially targeted communists and leftists in the wake of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh.
Over time, however, its scope was widened drastically. Torture became widespread, as shown in the museum's exhibits. Interrogators all wear ties, a nod to their Western connections. Portraits of the shah, Queen Farah and his son, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who now lives in exile in the U.S., hang above one torture scene.
"Following the coup, the shah's regime sank into a legitimacy crisis and it failed to get rid of the crisis until the end of its life," said Hashem Aghajari, who teaches history at Tehran's Tarbiat Modares University. "The coup mobilized all progressive political forces against the regime."
Sheikhi walked with Associated Press journalists through the prison that once held him, built in the 1930s by German engineers. Black-and-white photographs of its 8,500 prisoners from over the years line the walls. They include current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Sheikhi, then 19, spent about three months in the prison and 11 months in another after being detained for distributing anti-shah statements from Khomeini, then in exile.
"Four times I was tortured in two consecutive days, every time about 10 minutes," he recounted. "They used electric cables and wires for flogging my (feet) while I was blindfolded. The first hit was very effective; you felt your heart and brain were exploding."
Even more frightening was the torture device interrogators and prisoners referred to as the Apollo, named after the U.S. lunar program. Those tortured sat in a chair and had a metal bucket strapped over their head, like a space helmet, that intensified their screams.
"They put my fingers and toes between the jaws of the vises firmly, whipped the soles of my feet with cables and put a metal bucket over head," Sheikhi said. "My own cries would twirl around inside the bucket and made me delirious and gave me headaches. They would hit the bucket with those cables as well."
Ezzat Shahi, another former prisoner who planted bombs targeting state buildings, recounted having pins hammered under his nails that would be heated by candles.
"Hanging from the wrists while your hands were handcuffed crossed behind was the most intolerable torture," Shahi said.
The horror of the torture shocked 20-year-old museumgoer Ameneh Khavari.
"I did not know that the torture might have been this agonizing, such as with the metal cage torture device," she said. "I had known that there was torture then from movies about the pre-revolution times, but would not have imagined that they looked like this."
As the revolution took hold, protesters overran the prison. Then Iran's Islamic government began using it as a prison as well, calling it Tohid. Human Rights Watch has accused Iran of using both Tohid and Evin prisons for detaining political prisoners. Tohid, then run by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, closed in 2000 under reformist President Mohammad Khatami after lawmakers sought to close prisons not under the control of the judiciary.
Today, Iran's government faces widespread international criticism from the U.N. and others over its detention of activists and those with ties to the West.
"Iranian authorities use vaguely worded and overly broad national security-related charges to criminalize peaceful or legitimate activities in defense of human rights," according to a report released in March 2018 by the office of the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.
Iran has criticized the U.N.'s creation of the special rapporteur's position and called its findings "psychological and propagandist pressures."
A series of Westerners, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, were held at Evin Prison. Rezaian is suing Iran in U.S. federal court over his detention, alleging he faced such "physical mistreatment and severe psychological abuse in Evin Prison that he will never be the same."
Since the revolution, several former prisons from the shah's time have closed, becoming museums and shopping malls, although new ones were built. A former mayor of Tehran even planned to make Evin Prison a park at one point. Funding never came through, however, and the site remains a prison today.
Abu Dhabi, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — Pope Francis ministered on Tuesday to the thriving Catholic community in the United Arab Emirates as he concluded his historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula with the first-ever papal Mass here.
Cheers erupted inside and out the the Zayed Sports City Stadium as Francis arrived and looped through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile before Mass. Chants of "Viva il Papa" and "We love you!" accompanied him as he waved to the crowd.
A day after making a broad appeal for Christian and Muslim leaders to work together to promote peace and reject war, Francis is celebrating what is being billed as the largest show of public Christian worship on the peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. The Mass was expected to draw some 135,000 faithful.
The stadium, which has a capacity of about 43,000, filled up early in the day while crowds outside were being organized in pens to watch the Mass on giant screens. Organizers said faithful from 100 countries would attend — as well as 4,000 Muslims from this Muslim federation. Prompted by an announcer extolling UAE's "Year of Tolerance," they cheered and waved Holy See flags awaiting Francis' arrival.
"We have to say it is really a big event for us which we never expected," said Sumitha Pinto, and Indian native who has lived in the UAE for nearly 20 years. She attended the Mass with her husband and four sons. Her youngest held up sign with the pope's photo that read: "Welcome Pope Francis. Make Me a Channel of Your Peace."
The Emirates' Catholic community is something an anomaly for the region — large, diverse and thriving at a time when the wider Mideast has seen an exodus of Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of the Islamic State group and others.
The Catholic Church estimates as many as 1 million of the over 9 million people living in the UAE are Catholic, nearly all of them foreigners drawn to the oil-rich federation to work in everything from white-collar finance to construction. Most are Filipino and Indian, many of whom have left behind families for work and can face precarious labor conditions, which human rights groups regularly denounce.
In an indication of the diversity of the Catholic flock, the prayers during Mass were being read out in a variety of languages and address the variety of hardships many face.
A prayer in the Indian language of Konkani called for public officials to be "illuminated" and promote the dignity of all; one in the Filipino language of Tagalog urged prayers for migrants and workers in in the UAE so that "their sacrifice and work may blossom and sustain their families;" while one in French called for those who foment violence to change their ways and "stop wars, overcome hatred and help us forge links of justice and peace."
On Monday, the pope met with Emirati leaders and signed a document promoting "human fraternity" with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni learning. He also urged religious leaders to work together to reject the "miserable crudeness" of war and resist the "logic of armed power ... the arming of borders, the raising of walls."
"There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future," Francis told Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince and hundreds of imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis and swamis gathered in the Emirati capital at a time when the UAE-backed Saudi war in Yemen has driven the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of famine.
"God is with those who seek peace," Francis added.
Francis' visit, 800 years after his peace-loving namesake St. Francis of Assisi visited an Egyptian sultan, marked the culmination of years of Holy See efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world after they hit a low during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Since then, religious fanaticism and faith-inspired wars have only grown around the globe, inspiring the pontiff's efforts to promote tolerance and understanding.
Baghdad, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — Iraq's president hit back at Donald Trump Monday for saying U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran, saying the U.S. leader did not ask for Iraq's permission to do so.
"We find these comments strange," said Barham Salih, speaking at a forum in Baghdad.
Trump's comments added to concerns in Iraq about America's long-term intentions, particularly after it withdraws its troops from Syria. Trump has angered Iraqi politicians and Iranian-backed factions by arguing he would keep U.S. troops in Iraq and use it as a base to strike Islamic State group targets inside Syria as needed.
In an interview with CBS News' "Face the Nation," he said U.S. troops in Iraq were also needed to monitor Iran.
"He didn't ask Iraq about this," Salih said Monday. He said U.S. troops were in Iraq as part of an agreement between the two countries with a specific mission of assisting in the fight against the Islamic State group and combatting "terrorism." He said the Iraqi constitution forbids the use of Iraq as a base to threaten the interests or security of neighboring countries.
"Don't overburden Iraq with your own issues," he added.
In the CBS interview, Trump said the U.S. has an "incredible base" in Iraq that he intends to keep, "because I want to be able to watch Iran."
"We spent a fortune on building this incredible base," Trump said. "We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem."
He said the U.S. base in Iraq is "perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East."
He appeared to be referring to the Al-Asad air base in western Iraq, where he paid a brief visit to U.S. forces in December. The base hosts American troops but belongs to the Iraqi army.
Trump's comments appear to have further inflamed tensions in Iraq over the continued presence of U.S. troops after the defeat of the Islamic State group. Curbing foreign influence has become a hot-button issue in Iraq after parliament elections in May in which Shiite militias backed by Iran made significant gains. The militias fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi troops against IS in recent years, gaining outsized influence and power along the way.
Now, after defeating IS militants in their last urban bastions, Iraqi politicians and militia leaders are increasingly speaking out against the continued presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil.
Trump has said he has no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops in Iraq, which he says could carry out U.S. airstrikes inside Syria after American troops withdraw from that country.
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle IS after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign.
Earlier this month, the leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias told The Associated Press in an interview that he expects a vote in the coming months by Iraq's parliament calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, also suggested U.S. troops may eventually be driven out by force if they do not yield to the will of the Iraqi people.
Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also weighed in on Monday, saying Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and its interests should not be compromised.
"Iraq should not be used as a spring board to attack its neighbors. We are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation," he wrote in a Twitter post.
Separately, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said Monday that the safe and voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis is key to ensuring that the country can leave its violent past behind.
Maurer spoke at a press conference in Baghdad at the end of a four-day visit to the country, which included the northern cities of Mosul and Irbil. Maurer highlighted the extraordinary challenges that communities across the country continue to face, including the fact that 1.8 million people remain displaced within Iraq more than a year after major combat operations ended, with nearly one in three still living in camps.
"The returns process cannot be rushed," he said. "People need adequate housing and basic services, including drinking water and health care, as well as livelihood opportunities, security and the clearance of unexploded ordnance."