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ISIS Update

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Iraqi Parliament Resumes

Iraqi parliament has resumed today in Baghdad to vote for a new president. The vote occurs in the midst of more violent actions taken by militant group ISIS. Over the past month, ISIS has gained control of large swaths of Iraq, causing the international community to call upon the Iraqi government to find a solution. However, the divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as Kurdish Iraqis, have left parliamentarians struggling to agree on a new president and prime minister.

In the April 2014 parliamentary elections, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Shiite dominated party won a majority of the seats. Maliki’s measures have been deplored as divisive, creating a sectarian rift that has given rise to violence and thousands of deaths since the start of the year. Despite calls for his removal from office, Maliki has stated that he has no intentions of stepping down. Meanwhile, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, 80, returned to Iraq last week after spending 18 months abroad for medical treatment of a stroke. With the president’s term set to expire, at least 95 candidates have sought the role of his successor. The most prominent among them are former deputy prime minister Barham Saleh, and the Kirkuk provincial governor, Najimaldin Karim.

Parliament resumes after an overnight suicide bombing in central Kazimiyah district of Baghdad killed 31 people and wounded 58 others. Reports indicate that a car packed with explosives drove into a checkpoint near a Shiite shrine as worshippers, observing the last days of Ramadan, awaited their security checks. The bombing was claimed by the militant group ISIS, via an online statement claiming responsibility for the attack “in response to the hostility of the (Shiite-led) government” and “criminal militias, who spare no effort in fighting Islam and Muslims.”

ISIS Targets Christians, Muslims

Last month, militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria conducted a large ground offensive in which they took control of vast swaths of territory in northern Iraq with the aim of creating an Islamic “caliphate”. The group changed their name to “Islamic State” and declared their leader, Abu Akbar al-Baghdadi, as their caliph. ISIS vowed to expand their caliphate’s territory into Baghdad. In recent weeks, it appears they are concentrating their efforts on retaining control of previously captured areas, however it is believe there are elements of ISIS within Baghdad that can cause disruption in the city’s security. While the group has stalled on their ground offensive, they have still conducted a series of atrocities against both Christians and Muslims.

ISIS has targeted Christians in Northern Iraqi cities, particularly in Mosul. Since capturing areas in the north, the group has imposed anti-Christian rule, including ordering Muslim employers to fire Christian workers. On 18 July, ISIS gave Christians in Mosul a 48 hour deadline to comply with their directive: Christians must either convert to Islam, pay tax, leave or be killed. Christians in Mosul, who once numbered over 50,000, fled to a nearby town. The homes of Christian leaders were ransacked and occupied. The bulk of the Christian population fled to nearby Qaraqosh, leaving Mosul empty of Christians for the first time in nearly 1600 years. Qaraqosh, a city approximately 20 miles south of Mosul, is protected by the Peshmerga, well-armed Kurdish fighters from the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan who seek to absorb Qaraqosh and surrounding villages.

Rather than fighting with the Peshmerga, ISIS has responded by blocking pipes that connect the town to the Tigris River, effectively cutting off the city’s water supply. The town has become reliant on rationed water being shipped in from Kurdish controlled areas, and residents pay US $10 every two days to refill their water tanks. NGOs have also erected water depots, but they are insufficient to supply the growing number of evacuees coping with the summer heat. In addition, Qaraqosh suffers hours-long electrical blackouts, and ISIS has placed an embargo against the city, preventing nearby towns from conducting trade with merchants in Qaraqosh. The situation has forced residents to drive to different cities in search of income.

In addition to the forced evacuation of Christians, ISIS has begun destroying Christian and Abrahamic sites. On 9 July, a video attributed to ISIS was posted on YouTube showing an ancient tomb being destroyed by a sledge hammer. Iraqi government officials say it is “almost certainly” the tomb of Biblical prophet Jonah, who is also a prophet in the Islamic faith.

On 20 July, ISIS burned an 1800 year old church to the ground. One day later, monks residing at the Mar Behnam monastery were evacuated by ISIS fighters. The monastery, run by the Syriac Catholic Church, is an important Christian pilgrimage site dating back to the 4th century. The monks asked to save some of the monastery’s relics but were refused. The evacuated monks were picked up by Peshmerga fighters several miles from the monastery.

Christians are not alone in facing discrimination by ISIS. Shi’a Muslims, as well as Yazidis (a sect linked to Zoroastrianism) are killed immediately upon identification. ISIS has also sought to destroy Shi’a holy sites throughout the region. Those who are not discriminated against are subjected to an extremely militant, loosely adapted version of Sharia law. On 19 June, ISIS tweeted images from a trial in which a Muslim woman was accused of adultery and then stoned to death. The photos did not show the woman, however they did show a large gathering in attendance to watch the event.

US Ambassador calls for Air Strikes

On Monday, the Iraqi ambassador to the US called the United States to launch air strikes on territories held by ISIS. At an Atlantic Council event, H.E. Lukman Faily said that in order “to conduct counterterrorism operations in urban areas occupied by ISIL, we need precision US air attacks,” and that “the US should offer air support targeting terrorist camps and supply convoys in remote areas.”

Lukman Faily added that the strikes would protect Iraq from a further terrorist influx, particularly through the Iraq/Syria corridor which has been created by ISIS.

Iraq is awaiting a shipment of US 24 Apache helicopters and 36 F-16 fighter planes that have been delayed through bureaucratic controls associated with foreign military sales. The F-16 shipment is expected to arrive in the autumn, after which time Iraqi pilots will need to be trained to operate the machinery. There is no scheduled date for the Apache helicopters.

Speaking on the delays, Faily said they had an “adverse impact” on Iraq, adding that Washington’s slow pace “also has created questions for us back home” about Washington’s commitment to Iraq.

Meanwhile, Russia has recently shipped Su-25 fighter jets. Lukman Faily also states that Iran has offered assistance which the Iraqi government has reportedly declined. However, unverified reports suggest that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are working with Iraqi militiamen to fight ISIL.

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