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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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Trump to meet Kim Jong-un again in late February: White House

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WASHINGTON: The White House announced that US President Donald Trump will hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in late February.

During the meeting, the two leaders will hold talks over the steps taken by Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear and missile programmes. It may be recalled that the first meeting between the two leaders was held on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. The White House, however, did not reveal where the two leaders will meet in February.

The White House made the announcement shortly after Trump held a meeting with North Korean envoy, Kim Yong Chol, on Friday for a discussion that included talk about Kim Jong-un’s unfulfilled pledge to dismantle nuclear weapons programmes of North Korea.

 

“President Donald J Trump met with Kim Yong Chol for an hour and half, to discuss denuclearization and a second summit, which will take place near the end of February. The president looks forward to meeting with Chairman Kim at a place to be announced at a later date,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

The press secretary told reporters: “We continue to make progress, we continue to have conversations. The US is going to continue to keep “pressure and sanctions” on North Korea until “we see fully and verifiable denuclearization”. We had very good steps and very good faith from the North Koreans with the release of hostages and other moves and so we’ll continue this conversation.And the President looks forward to it next February.”

Kim yong Chol arrived at the White House after meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun at a hotel in Washington.

“The Secretary, Special Representative Biegun, and Vice Chairman Kim discussed efforts to make progress on the commitments President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un made at their summit in Singapore. At the conclusion of the Secretary’s meeting with Vice Chairman Kim, the two sides held a productive first meeting at the working level,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino said.

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Blast targets Al Qaeda ally in Syria, kills 11

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BEIRUT: An explosion outside an office belonging to an Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria’s northwest killed at least 11 people and wounded several others, opposition activists said.

The blast comes a week after members of the Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, or HTS, took over control of wide parts of Idlib province and the surrounding countryside after forcing rival insurgents to accept a deal for a civil administration run by HTS in their areas.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Smart news agency, an activist collective, said the blast occurred on the southern edge of the rebel-held city of Idlib.

 

The observatory said 11 people were killed in the blast, including seven HTS members. Smart said 12 people were killed, many of them militants.

In the country’s east, an air strike in the last area held by the militant Islamic State group killed at least 20 people.

State news agency SANA said 20 people were killed in the air strike on the IS-held village of Baghouz, while the observatory said 23 people were killed including 10 IS members.

They both blamed the US-led coalition that has been providing air cover to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their monthslong offensive to capture the area from extremists near the Iraqi border.

The SDF has intensified its offensive over the past weeks on the IS-held area.

Meanwhile in Turkey, President Tayyip Erdogan met with US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to discuss the situation in Syria as the United States prepares to withdraw troops.

Graham, a prominent voice on foreign affairs in the US, met with Erdogan and other Turkish officials on Friday for talks that were also expected to include a proposal for the creation of a “safe zone” in northeast Syria.

The visit comes days after a suicide bombing, claimed by IS, killed two US service members and two American civilians in the northeastern town of Manbij.

Graham has said he is concerned that US President Donald Trump’s troop withdrawal announcement had emboldened IS militants and created dangerous uncertainty for American allies.

The Pentagon identified three of the four Americans killed in the suicide bomb attack in Manbij Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida, who was based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent, 35, from upstate New York and based at Fort Meade, Maryland; and a civilian, Scott A. Wirtz, from St. Louis.

The Pentagon hasn’t identified the fourth casualty, a civilian contractor.

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Pakistan rules out India’s role in Afghan peace process

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Islamabad: Pakistan has ruled out any role for India in the Afghan peace process, the media reported on Friday.

“India has no role in Afghanistan,” Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal said at the weekly media briefing on Thursday while responding to a query about Islamabad’s position on New Delhi’s part in the reconciliation process.

Faisal acknowledged that Pakistan has a difficult relationship with India, saying that despite Pakistan’s efforts for normalisation, no concrete progress could be achieved in ties with India, Dawn news reported.

 

“You all know that India is not willing to engage with Pakistan,” he reminded.

Faisal’s remarks were in sharp contrast to what Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had told the National Assembly last month.

“Since India is present in Afghanistan, its cooperation in this regard (facilitating a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict) will also be required,” he had told legislators.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad arrived in Pakistan on Thursday to discuss with the senior civil and military leadership the latest efforts to bring peace to the war-torn country.

Khalilzad, who met Taliban representatives last month in Abu Dhabi, is leading an inter-agency delegation to India, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan from January 8-21 to “facilitate a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan”.

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