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Battered ISIS keeps grip on last piece of territory for over a year

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Baghdad : “U.S. and Iraqi politicians have been quick to declare victory over the group, using terms like ‘defeated’ and ‘obliterated,’” he wrote in a report issued last month. “The Islamic State is far from obliterated.”

The movement’s propaganda arm continues to broadcast aggressively, at the same pace as during the peak of its power, pursuing a sort of digital caliphate long after its territorial one has mostly disappeared. In the November attack, the group captured at least 30 members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, beheading at least one and disseminating videos of the prisoners through its social media channels.

In 2014, the Islamic State dominated an area in Iraq and Syria the size of Britain. But by November 2017, it was reduced to the pocket around Hajin, which is about the size of Manhattan. American officials described their remaining territory as only about 20 square miles.

 

On the Iraqi side of the border, the extremists have even managed to set up surprise roadblocks in Diyala Province in eastern Iraq, kidnapping and killing Iraqi government officials and engaging in shootouts with troops, according to military officials. And they have expanded attacks in Kirkuk Province, taking advantage of the withdrawal of Kurdish pesh merga forces from that area.

Markusen said Islamic State attacks in Iraq were more frequent this year than in 2016, up to 75 a month versus 60. And though thousands of its fighters were killed or captured last year, the group still has 20,000 to 30,000 in Iraq and Syria, he said. That is about the number that the Central Intelligence Agency estimated in 2014, when the organization was at its peak.

A fighter who goes by the name of Yehya and says he is an Islamic State member, claimed after being reached by WhatsApp in Syria not to be discouraged by the setbacks.“Do you think the Americans can defeat the caliphate? It’s a war of attrition,” he said. “When the coalition stops the airstrikes, we will return immediately.”

In September, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which now control much of eastern Syria, announced that a “final push” against Islamic State remnants in Hajin was underway.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian Democratic Forces have moved 15,000 fighters into Hajin, backed by 75 trucks carrying armored vehicles. The United States has 2,000 Special Operations forces in eastern Syria and Iraq as well, most of which are believed to be in Syria.

The American-led coalition calls the effort to finish off the extremists in Syria “Operation Roundup,” which formally began in May and continues at a quick tempo. In the week ending Dec. 5, for instance, the military said it had bombed 151 targets, nearly all of them in Syria.

On the ground, however, there have been only incremental changes in the three months of this final push. And in recent days, the Kurdish-led forces were seen digging defensive trenches around some of their positions, fearing another Islamic State advance, according to the Observatory, an independent group that monitors events in Syria using a network of volunteers.

American officials say the final push against the Islamic State is so difficult because the cornered fighters have nothing left to lose — and no other refuge. Although the military estimated that ISIS has only about 2,000 to 2,500 fighters in the Hajin area, General Roberson said they had had plenty of time to build elaborate defenses, including tunnels and booby-traps.

“We never thought it would be a swift fight,” Col. Sean J. Ryan, a spokesman in Baghdad for the American-led coalition, said. “But it’s proven longer and tougher than possibly expected.”

American and Syrian Democratic Forces officials accused the militants of using the remaining civilians in the area — who number about 7,000, according to the United Nations — as human shields and threatening anyone who tries to leave the Hajin pocket. Colonel Ryan said ISIS had also used hospitals and mosques to fight from as well. Concern for civilians, he said, meant “we have to go slowly and methodically.”

In ISIS’ attempted breakout on Nov. 24, it lost 50 fighters, but 79 Syrian Democratic Force fighters were reported killed, along with 30 civilians, allegedly in airstrikes. That was in addition to the 30 or more Syrian Democratic Forces fighters captured, the Observatory said.


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International

Sri Lanka bombings death toll rises to 359, 18 more suspects held overnight

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Colombo: Police say the death toll in the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka has risen to 359 and more suspects have been arrested.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara also said Wednesday morning that 18 suspects were arrested overnight, raising the total detained to 58.
The prime minister warned that several suspects armed with explosives were still at large.
Another top government official said the suicide bombings at the churches, hotels and other sites were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists in apparent retaliation for the New Zealand mosque massacre last month.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka attacks and released images that purported to show the attackers. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that investigators were still determining the extent of the bombers’ foreign links.

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International

UN says over 250 killed, over 1,200 injured in Libya battle

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TRIPOLI: At least 264 people have been killed and over 1,200 wounded in weeks of fighting on the outskirts of Libya’s capital, the World Health Organisation said , as African leaders gathered in Cairo to discuss the crisis.
The agency called on Twitter for “a temporary cessation of hostilities, and for all parties to respect humanitarian law”.
Eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on the capital on April 4, as his self-styled Libyan National Army pledged “to purge the west of terrorists and mercenaries”.
Forces loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, launched a counter-attack at the weekend.
The fighting has since eased somewhat as both sides appeared to be preparing for the next phase of the battle.
Fighting in Tripoli’s southern suburbs has so far displaced at least 35,000 people, UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya Maria do Valle Ribeiro said on Monday.
“Displacement is continuing at an increasing rate every day,” she said, warning that the figures were a conservative estimate.
The two sides have reached a near stalemate since armed groups backing the GNA launched their counter-attack on Saturday.
An AFP team on the ground at the weekend confirmed that GNA-aligned fighters had pushed the frontline back several kilometres in the southern district of Ain-Zara, around a dozen kilometres south of the city centre.
Another frontline is a little further southwest, around the districts of al-Swani and Qasr ben-Ghachir, around 30 kilometres from Tripoli, on a key road between the capital and the old international airport.
Occasional bursts of gunfire — and heavier projectiles — have been audible, sometimes resonating in the city centre.
“It is calm on most fronts,” Mustafa al-Mejii, a spokesman for GNA forces, said.
“Orders were given to forces on the perimeter of Tripoli airport to consolidate their positions,” he said.
Haftar’s force said on its official Facebook page it had received “significant” reinforcements, particularly in the west.
Valle Ribeiro said civilians were being displaced every day, while some had been trapped by fire including “heavy artillery and… shelling in some densely populated parts of the city”.
“Any country that has leverage should be using that leverage to ensure that civilians can be protected,” she said.
African leaders were due to meet in Cairo at the behest of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss the violence.

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Israel to name Golan settlement after Trump

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JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he plans to name a new settlement in the occupied Golan after US President Donald Trump in appreciation of his recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty there.
Netanyahu, who has been on a trip to the region with his family for the week-long Passover holiday, said in a video message that he would present a resolution to the government calling for a new settlement named after the US president.
“All Israelis were deeply moved when President Trump made his historic decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” he said.
Trump again broke with longstanding international consensus on March 25 when he recognised Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the part of the strategic plateau it seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The decision came only two weeks ahead of a tightly contested Israeli election, which saw Netanyahu win a fifth term in office.
Trump has shifted US policy sharply in Israel’s favour since taking office, most notably by recognising the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Israel annexed 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan it seized in 1981, a move never recognised by the international community.
Around 18,000 Syrians from the Druze sect — most of whom refuse to take Israeli citizenship — remain in the occupied Golan.
Some 20,000 Israeli settlers have moved there, spread over 33 settlements.

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