Bill to hinder East Jerusalem withdrawal clears first hurdle

Lawmakers on Wednesday approved in its preliminary reading a bill that would require a special two-thirds support of the Knesset to relinquish any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians under a future peace accord.

The bill, which was proposed by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and has coalition backing, cleared the initial hurdle in the Knesset with 58 MKs in favor and 48 opposed.

“The goal of the bill is to prevent concessions as part of diplomatic deals,” said Moalem-Refaeli on Wednesday. “Jerusalem will never be on the negotiating table.

“The State of Israel will not allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. Get it into your heads that Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish people and will remain the capital of the Jewish people for all eternity,” she said.

Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli speaks during a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill on December 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill, an amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem, would make it harder for any government to divide the city by requiring 80 of the 120 MKs to support relinquishing any part of Jerusalem.

Currently, the Jerusalem Law, passed in 1980 and amended in 2000, states: “No authority that is stipulated in the law of the State of Israel or of the Jerusalem Municipality may be transferred either permanently or for an allotted period of time to a foreign body, whether political, governmental or to any other similar type of foreign body.”

With no provision in the Basic Law specifying how it can be amended, it currently can be overturned with a simple majority.

The bill must still pass three readings and at least two committee write-ups in the Knesset, an unlikely feat in the week left in the current Knesset session. It will likely not advance further until the Knesset returns from its fall recess in October.

The bill was advanced two weeks ago by Jewish Home lawmakers at the behest of Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Jerusalem Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said the bill was “very important” to safeguard Jerusalem from future concessions.

“Although in this government the law isn’t necessary, we must protect Jerusalem also for the future,” he said.

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni, a former peace negotiator, railed against the bill in the Knesset plenum, calling it a “cynical bill that is preventing us from separating from the Palestinians.”

“This is not the Jerusalem bill, but rather the Kafr Aqab, Tzur Baher and Shuafat refugee camp bill,” said Livni, referring to Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. “These are villages with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that even Bennett as education minister doesn’t apply Israeli education there. It is not toward the municipal Jerusalem that the Jewish people pray, but rather the real Jerusalem.”

Jewish Home party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in response to the UN vote against Israeli settlements, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, on December 25, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Jewish Home leader Bennett has touted the bill as making the division of Jerusalem “impossible.”

A spokesman for the Jewish Home party said last month that the proposed legislation was intended to strengthen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position vis-a-vis the new administration of US President Donald Trump.

In May, hours before Trump arrived in Israel during his first major foray abroad as president, Netanyahu declared that Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem’s holy sites was not up for negotiation and said the city will always be Israel’s capital.

Trump has expressed his desire to reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, which he has described as the “ultimate deal.”

In recent months the United Nations cultural body UNESCO has passed a series of resolutions that diminish or deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and refer to Israel as an occupying power.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but the move has not been recognized internationally and most countries refuse to recognize any part of the city as Israel’s capital, saying it was an issue that will need to be decided in negotiations with the Palestinians.


Ministers push bill that could stymie East Jerusalem withdrawal

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday unanimously backed a bill that aims to make it more difficult to give up sections of Jerusalem in a future peace deal.

The basic law currently requires the consent of at least 61 MKs, a majority in the 120-member Knesset, for handing over sovereign control of any part of the capital to foreign governments or agencies, including the Palestinians.

The bill would raise that to an 80-MK minimum, or fully two-thirds of the Knesset, a threshold that likely makes it all but impossible for a future Israeli government to obtain the Knesset’s approval for withdrawing from Jerusalem.

The bill must still pass three readings and at least two committee write-ups in the Knesset, an unlikely feat in the two weeks left in the current Knesset session. It will likely not advance further until the Knesset returns from its fall recess in October.

The bill was advanced two weeks ago by Jewish Home lawmakers at the behest of Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett (R) shakes hands with Minister for Jerusalem Affiars Zeev Elkin after a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, a controversial bill that seeks to legitimize illegal West Bank outposts, December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We will prevent a situation like in 2000 when [then-prime minister] Ehud Barak wanted to hand over the Temple Mount and two-thirds of the Old City to [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat” at the Camp David talks, Bennett said Sunday in a Twitter post.

In practice, it’s not clear that the new bill would increase the threshold of votes required to withdraw from parts of Jerusalem. While the bill demands 80 votes for withdrawal, it requires only 61 to amend the law itself – for example, by lowering the 80-vote threshold. That is, under the new bill, 61 MKs could vote to reduce the threshold from 80 to 61, then vote to withdraw from parts of Jerusalem.

The original bill, proposed by Jewish Home lawmakers in early July, required 80 votes for withdrawal and a similar 80-vote minimum for changing the law, but the latter stipulation was removed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked over concerns that it might be unconstitutional.

The bill was the subject of an angry dispute between the Jewish Home and Likud parties after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed off an earlier vote on it on July 2, saying its authors had failed to coordinate the bill with other coalition parties.

The delay led to a week-long negotiations period between Bennett and Likud’s Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin.

Bennett criticized Likud at the time, saying, “We are sorry narrow political considerations outweigh the need to prevent the division of Jerusalem. We will continue pushing this bill, and will do all we can to advance it in the upcoming days,” he said in a statement. “Jerusalem will be united by actions, not words.”

Likud, in turn, replied that “Jewish Home apparatchiks know well that Prime Minister Netanyahu supports the bill. He supported it back in 2007. They also know that by the coalition agreements, any amendments to a [constitutional] basic law require the agreement of all coalition partners. But instead of reaching for agreement and cooperation, Jewish Home prefers childish politicking. Likud is committed to Jerusalem forever remaining united under Israeli sovereignty, so we won’t get dragged into the kindergarten [fights] of Bennett and Shaked, but rather advance a bill together with all the coalition partners.”

In a video posted to his Facebook page, Bennett said the prime minister had hoped to “bury” the proposal but would not succeed.

“We will pass this law,” he promised.

Tensions high in Himalayas as China demands India withdrawal

BEIJING — China is insisting that India withdraw its troops from a disputed plateau in the Himalaya mountains before talks can take place to settle the most protracted standoff in recent years between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday that India must pull back its troops as a precondition to demonstrate “sincerity.” The comments came after weeks of saber-rattling in New Delhi and Beijing, as officials from both sides have talked up a potential clash even bloodier than their 1962 border war that left thousands dead.

The dispute flared up in June after Chinese teams began building a road on territory also claimed by Bhutan. The tiny Himalayan kingdom sought help from its longtime ally, India, which sent border guards onto the plateau to obstruct Chinese workers.

Arabs protest to UN chief about withdrawal of Israel ‘apartheid’ report

UNITED NATIONS — An Arab delegation met with the UN secretary-general Wednesday to protest what Palestinian Authority Ambassador Riyad Mansour called the “bullying tactics and intimidation” that led to UN withdrawal of a report that accused Israel of establishing an “apartheid regime.”

Mansour said the meeting with UN chief Antonio Guterres “was not a pleasant experience for all of us,” following the secretary-general’s order to remove the report from the UN website and the resignation of senior UN official Rima Khalaf after she refused to withdraw it.

The report was swiftly condemned by US and Israeli officials, who reportedly called on the UN to reject it. Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said it had been published without any prior consultations and did not reflect his views.

Mansour said he and the ambassadors of Oman and Iraq delivered a message to Guterres during what he also called a “very frank but warm discussion about a painful subject to all of us.”

“We care about the UN and the secretary-general, and we do not accept methods that are not in the culture of the United Nations,” Mansour said. “You know by that what I mean — some people who are trying to inject bullying tactics and intimidation.”

He stressed that “it is our collective responsibility to do everything we can to defend the UN and what it stands for.”

Mansour wouldn’t say who was doing the “bullying,” telling reporters: “You know who I mean.”

Khalaf, a UN undersecretary-general who headed the Beirut-based UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, resigned Friday after refusing Guterres’s request to take the report off its website.

Its authors concluded that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that systematically institutionalizes racial oppression and domination of the Palestinian people as a whole.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech during a press conference in Istanbul, February 10, 2017. (AFP/OZAN KOSE)

The Beirut-based commission slammed Israel’s Law of Return, “conferring on Jews worldwide the right to enter Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship regardless of their countries of origin and whether or not they can show links to Israel-Palestine, while withholding any comparable right from Palestinians, including those with documented ancestral homes in the country,” as a policy of “demographic engineering” meant to uphold Israel’s status as the Jewish state.

The resignation of Khalaf, a Jordanian, and the removal of the report were welcomed by Israel and the United States, Israel’s closest ally.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement: “When someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the UN, it is appropriate that the person resign. UN agencies must do a better job of eliminating false and biased work, and I applaud the secretary-general’s decision to distance his good office from it.”

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks to reporters after a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, Thursday, February 16, 2017 at UN headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

But Palestinians praised the report’s findings and expressed regret that it was taken off the website.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas informed Khalaf by phone that she would receive the Palestine Medal of the Highest Honor in recognition of her “courage and support” for the Palestinian people, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa said Sunday.

Mansour said even though the report had been taken off the UN website “I think it is in the hands of maybe hundreds of thousands of people anyway” because of publicity about its withdrawal.”

“Many people who were not even interested in the report are now interested and asking for copies, and it is provided to them,” he said.

Over the weekend, Palestinian leaders condemned the UN for scrapping the ESCWA report, and accused Guterres of giving in to politically motivated intimidation.

“Instead of succumbing to political blackmail or allowing itself to be censured or intimidated by external parties, the UN should condemn the acts described in the report and hold Israel responsible,” PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi said on Saturday according to the Wafa news agency.

Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon welcomed Guterres’s actions and Khalaf’s resignation.

Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, speaks to the UN Security Council after it passed an anti-settlement resolution, December 23, 2016 (UN Screenshot)

Danon said Guterres’s move was “an important step in stopping discrimination against Israel.” In a statement, Danon said “Anti-Israel activists do not belong in the UN. It is time to put an end to practice in which UN officials use their position to advance their anti-Israel agenda.” He added that “over the years Khalaf has worked to harm Israel and advocate for the BDS movement. Her removal from the UN is long overdue.”

The report was compiled by Richard Falk, a Princeton professor emeritus with a long track record of vehemently anti-Israel rhetoric, who previously was the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Palestine, and by Virginia Tilley, an American political scientist who authored the book “The One-State Solution,” in 2005.

Haley described Falk as “a man who has repeatedly made biased and deeply offensive comments about Israel and espoused ridiculous conspiracy theories.”

Jewish Home MK seeks to roll back 2005 settlement withdrawal

A lawmaker from the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party plans to introduce a bill aimed at paving the way to revive West Bank settlements that were demolished on the sidelines of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement Plan, despite calls from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to not make provocative gestures while the government builds its ties with the new US administration.

MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli said her proposed legislation would cancel a current law that prevents Israeli civilians from visiting the sites of former Jewish communities, all located in the northern West Bank, Channel 2 reported Monday.

Moalem-Refaeli’s proposal comes amid overt optimism from supporters of the settlement enterprise following the election victory of US President Donald Trump, who is seen by many in the Israeli right-wing as being more supportive of Israel and less opposed to West Bank settlements than the previous Obama administration.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home party he leads have called the entrance of Trump to the White House the “death knell” of the two-state solution and have recently been pushing a bill to annex the large West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, that lies just outside Jerusalem.

In 2005, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon masterminded the unilateral evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and handing the area over to Palestinian rule, ending a 38-year Israeli military control of the territory. In addition to the eviction of thousands of settlers from the coastal enclave, hundreds of families were removed from Kadim, Ganim, Homesh, and Sa-Nur, four Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank that Moalem-Refaeli wants to see rebuilt.

Israelis standing on top of a building in what was the Sa-Nur settlement, one of four Jewish settlements in the West Bank that was evacuated of Jewish residents in the 2005 disengagement plan, July 21, 2015. (Flash90)

The bill aims to cancel a prohibition on driving or hiking in the area of, or visiting the destroyed settlements, and notes that it is “an essential step towards reestablishing the settlements and the return of the settlers who were deported from there.”

Unlike the Gaza Strip, from which the IDF pulled out entirely, the army remains deployed in many areas of the West Bank, including the sites of the former settlements.

“The withdrawal was a political and security mistake, and even more of a mistake in northern Samaria where the IDF remains responsible for the territory and only the civilians were evacuated,” Moalem-Refaeli told the television station, using the biblical name for the northern West Bank region.

“Therefore, my bill seeks to cancel the law and return the civilian life.”

The settlement of Homesh in December 2005. (CC BY Neria Harua/Wikipedia)

Coalition chair David Bitan supports the move as does the head of the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank, Yossi Dagan, Channel 2 said.

“Just as there was no justification to destroy the settlements, there is no justification to prevent Jews from being there,” added Moalem-Refaeli.

Speaking to a meeting of his Likud faction on Monday Netanyahu welcomed Trump’s approach to Israel, but also indirectly took aim at his right-wing coalition partners for advancing the bid to annex Ma’ale Adumim, saying that “now is not the time for surprises.”

“We are facing great and significant opportunities for the security and future of the State of Israel. But they demand responsibility and discretion so that we don’t squander either the time or the opportunity,” he said. “Now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions, not the time for dictates, and also not the time for surprises.”

The cabinet on Sunday unanimously agreed to push off a vote on annexation of Ma’ale Adumim until after Netanyahu and Trump meet next month.

Since the evacuation of the four settlements, there have been repeated attempts settlement advocates to visit the sites along with calls to rebuild the communities.

In July 2015 security forces removed some 200 protesters from the site of Sa-Nur after they entered the ruins of the settlement to mark 10 years since its evacuation. Among those who took part in the reoccupation of the settlement were families who were evacuated in 2005 as well as rabbis, public figures, and MK Bezalel Smotrich from the Jewish Home party.

Marrisa Newman contributed to this report.

Islamic State retakes Palmyra after Syria army withdrawal

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Islamic State jihadist group recaptured Palmyra on Sunday after Syrian armed forces pulled out of the desert city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Despite the ongoing air raids, IS retook all of Palmyra after the Syrian army withdrew south of the city,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

The jihadists made a lightning-fast advance across the city after overrunning a northern neighborhood and capturing the famed citadel to Palmyra’s west.

The IS-linked Amaq news agency also reported that IS regained “full control” of the city on Sunday after taking the citadel, which overlooks Palmyra from a strategic hilltop.

IS launched an offensive last week near Palmyra, a renowned UNESCO World Heritage site.

It seized oil and gas fields before making a major push into the desert city on Saturday, sparking new worries for Palmyra’s remaining ancient treasures.

But a fierce Russian bombing campaign killed scores of IS fighters and forced others to withdraw at dawn on Sunday.

“Intense Russian raids since last night forced IS out of Palmyra, hours after the jihadists retook control of the city,” said the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman.

“The army brought reinforcements into Palmyra last night, and the raids are continuing on jihadist positions around the city,” he told AFP.

In this April 14, 2016 image, a Syrian man carries a carpet as walk through a devastated part of the town of Palmyra as families load their belongings onto a bus in the central Homs province, Syria. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In a statement issued in Moscow, the defense ministry said Russian warplanes conducted 64 air strikes against “positions, convoys and advancing reserves of militants” in Palmyra.

“Over the past night, Syrian government troops with active support of the Russian air force thwarted all terrorist attacks on Palmyra,” it said in a statement.

“The attacking militants actively used car bombs with suicide bombers, armored vehicles and rocket artillery,” it said, adding that the strikes killed more than 300 militants and destroyed 11 tanks and 31 vehicles.

Russia has carried out a bombing campaign in Syria in support of its ally President Bashar al-Assad since September 2015.


IS fighters have used hit-and-run tactics to cut their losses of personnel and equipment, withdrawing under intense bombardment but quickly relaunching an attack when skies are clear.

The jihadists have killed around 100 members of Syrian government forces since launching simultaneous attacks on several regime positions near Palmyra on Thursday, the Britain-based Observatory said.

They targeted areas including near the Mahr and Shaar oil and gas fields and seized government checkpoints, silos and the village of Jazal, northwest of Palmyra.

A Russian army soldier looks on as sappers check for mines in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, April 7, 2016. (AFP/Max DELANY)

In May last year, the Sunni Muslim extremist group seized several towns in Homs province including Palmyra, where they caused extensive damage to many of its ancient sites.

They were ousted from Palmyra in March by Syrian regime forces backed by Russia.

That was hailed as a major victory, with Russian celebrities travelling there since March staging concerts and making public appearances.

Moscow has been under severe criticism for its airstrikes on Aleppo — which it says it stopped on October 18 — where the anti-Assad opposition is currently holed up in just a fraction of the territory it once controlled.

The city’s eastern districts are still being bombed by the Syrian regime which Washington has labelled “war crimes” and a UN General Assembly demanded an immediate ceasefire to stop the carnage.

Russia, US to start talks on rebel withdrawal from Aleppo – Lavrov

A Russian soldier walks to a military vehicle in goverment controlled Hanono housing district in Aleppo, Syria December 4, 2016. © Omar Sanadiki
A proposal made by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Russia about the divided Syrian city of Aleppo details the procedure for the withdrawal of rebel forces, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed, adding the two countries will discuss the issue in the coming days.

During the Russian-American consultations concrete routes and timing of the withdrawal of all militants from eastern Aleppo will be discussed. Once we reach an agreement, a ceasefire will be put in place,” Lavrov said.

The Russian foreign minister added that any armed group that refuses to leave Aleppo will be treated by Russia as terrorists, adding that Moscow will support the Syrian Army’s operations against them.

The proposal by Kerry was handed over on Saturday, after he and Lavrov met in Rome. Negotiations on the plan are expected to begin on Tuesday morning, Lavrov said on Monday. He added that the beginning of the talks had been postponed by a few days at Washington’s request.

Lavrov also told journalists Monday that Russia would not support a draft resolution imposing a new ceasefire in Aleppo.

Taking into consideration the outcome of the previous pauses [in the conflict], there is absolutely no doubt that the 10-day ceasefire which backers of the draft resolution generously want to provide the militants with would surely be used for regrouping and rearming the extremists and would slow down the liberation of eastern Aleppo from them,” he said.

The draft resolution was submitted to the UN Security Council by Egypt, New Zealand and Spain, and calls for an immediate ceasefire in the city. The initial wording stated that the ceasefire should last 10 days, but the draft currently on the table has a reduced length of seven days. The document could be voted on later on Monday.

Russia “has every reason to believe” that the plan to hand over the remaining rebel territories to the Syrian Army will work and “resolve the issue of eastern Aleppo,” Lavrov said calling the draft resolution “counterproductive” and going against the solution that the US and Russia are trying to agree on for Aleppo.

Moscow has veto power at the Security Council and may stop the document from passing.

On Monday, the militants holed up in Aleppo said that they have no plans to leave the city, despite the Syrian Army’s military advances and planned US-Russia talks on total rebel withdrawal.

Any proposals for “for the exit of rebel groups would be unacceptable,” Yasser al-Youssef of the Nureddine Al-Zinki group told AFP.

Abu Abdel Rahman Al-Hamawi from the Jaysh Al-Islam group also said that the militants “would fight… until the last drop of blood.”

A touch of evil: Islamic State’s withdrawal from Iraq leaves death and destruction (VERY GOOD!!!)

KHAZIR, IRAQ – Empty plastic water bottles. An unopened can of chickpeas. Polyester blankets with pink and blue flowers. In this particular house, the water quenched the thirst of Islamic State fighters. The chickpeas kept them nourished, and the blankets provided comfort. An entrance to an underground tunnel is in the adjacent room, if an escape is necessary.

The building’s original function served as a house of worship for the Kakai, a minority ethnic group in Iraq, whose villages were overtaken by Islamic State fighters in the summer of 2014. They practice a mystical and secretive religion called Yarsen, and fled during the ISIS assault, fearing the Islamist group would target them specifically for their religion.

There is debate as to Yarsen’s relation to Islam – something that could have curried a small favor with ISIS – or if it’s a separate religion entirely.

In the Mosul governorate, around 10,000 Kakai lived either in the city or in small villages halfway along the Mosul to Erbil highway. Other minority groups include the Shabak, Christians and Turkmen.

When the Islamic State launched its offensive in the summer of 2014, the majority of these people were able to flee to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan. According to our driver Habebe Kakai, ISIS murdered 160 Kakai. Since then, 1,500 have volunteered to fight with the Peshmerga.

In late May, Peshmerga with Kakai volunteers liberated nine villages, including Khazir.

These villages will help close a circular front line surrounding Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and ISIS’s de facto capital in Iraq, before an offensive is launched on the city.

In mid-July, a colleague and I went to visit the villages to document the destruction caused by Islamic State. Kakai is a volunteer Peshmerga fighter and from the recently liberated village of Tulebend. Once home to around 500 families, today it is a mass of rubble.

We’re able to drive through this and similar villages – Mufti, Gezekan and Wardak – after peshmerga soldiers and Kakai volunteers cleared some of the area of improvised explosive devices. Over the course of a few weeks, bomb disposal units defused nearly 2,000 explosives.

One of our guides pulls out a cell phone to show us a picture of his brother. He was killed the week before while he was clearing mines. He was a father to five children.

What we see is an odd and depressing scene of destruction.

The images are at once familiar – those we see broadcast on international news that are so numerous and indistinct, they blur together and their impact becomes negligible.

But standing amidst the destruction is a different feeling entirely. We pass one home, a massive hole in the retaining wall is a grim window contrasted against normal items. The room was once someone’s office, a ceiling fan, tacky orange paint on the walls and a 1970’s inspired tile floor. It says something about the personality of its residents.

But now it’s just destroyed.

On our drive, we pass a flattened Yarsen temple. Its circular, cone-shaped roof sits on top of a mass of rubble, yet a planted flag on its top remains upright. The image is incompatible with the destruction.

There’s a difference between buildings forgotten by time, destroyed through neglect.

This is not the case here. The intent was to harm a population and destroy their hope by erasing their cultural landmarks.

The tomb of Said Hais – a revered figure in the Yarsen religion – is housed in a room with no roof and surrounded by crumbling walls. Yet Kakai have cleared a path to the prophet, exposing slightly cracked, polished tile. The tomb has a green cloth draped over it and piles of rock and debris litter the sides of the room. Habebe – while admittedly not religious – kneels to pray before the tomb.

Walking through the villages, we’re told to stay on the cleared road, to step in the footsteps of our guides into a few, select, clean homes.

In one home, we’re told that peshmerga removed 14 bombs; in one area, ISIS collapsed 20 family homes. We stand at a dirt path entrance to a demolished home when our minder notices a metal ring in the dust. He carefully extracts a two-inch long, fat, conical-cylinder, with a pin and ring attached to it. It’s a fuse that attaches to mortar rounds or is used to link up other explosives to set off a chain reaction of explosions.

These villages are so newly liberated; slogans and graffiti written by ISIS fighters still adorn the walls. There is a blue, spray-painted, Islamic State flag; a message in Arabic written next to it loosely translates to “The Islamic State exists on the backs of our martyrs.”

One of our peshmerga companions picks up a piece of white rock and crosses out the slogan. He offers instead, “Death to Baghdadi,” the leader of the Islamic State.

The relatively small number of loss of life of the Kakai – compared to other minority groups in Iraq, like the Yazidi, of which the UN estimates that in August 2014, ISIS murdered 5,000 and kidnapped between 5,000 and 7,000 women – is due to a combination of factors.

Habebe explains that when ISIS attacked their villages, they did so with explosives and mortar fire and not soldiers.

Their location, between 60 and 40 kilometers west of Erbil, gave them a relatively short distance to reach safety.

The Kakai knew they would be condemned to death by Islamic State, it wouldn’t be the first time in their history an Islamic fundamentalist group charged them as heretics and infidels.

We drive into the small village of Wardak and meet a group of Kakai volunteer soldiers camping out in one of the houses – they range in age from late teens to early 50s.

Ismael Hamid Salir, one of the older volunteer fighters, steps out to introduce himself. He points to a house next to the soldier’s base and explains that in 2009, al-Qaida tried to infiltrate the village with two, explosive-laden trucks. The villagers had gotten word that an attack would happen and stationed themselves to intercept the truck. Salir shot one of the drivers but was unable to stop an attack on the house he points out now. Eleven people died in that house, he says.

An article from September 10, 2009 in The New York Times describes a suicide bombing in Wardak that killed 25 people and wounded 43. It doesn’t attribute the attack to Al-Qaida, but instead to insurgents. The article credits peshmerga with defending against the attack.

“We don’t trust the Iraqi army,” Habebe, our driver, tells me. “We want to be protected by the peshmerga.”

Wardak sits right on the Khazir River – the flowing water allows for the rare occurrence of blooming fauna in the arid, and intensely hot Nineveh plains. Islamic State destroyed a bridge that crossed the river into Wardak, one of the main thoroughfares for villagers and the escape route in the summer of 2014. The deranged, twisted heavy iron and metal collapsed onto the opposite bank.

As the sun sets, it casts an orange glow on all that we see. We stop to go wash our hands in the water. Despite the destruction all around, the nearby river perfumes the air with a cool, clean and fresh smell. “It is a beautiful village,” our translator, a young Kurdish girl, says.

“It was a beautiful village,” I say too quickly, still stunned by the surrounding destruction.

She gives me a look, both calm and content. “It will be again.”

Report: Russia withdrawal due to disappointment with Iran and Hezbollah

Russia decided to partially withdrawal its troop from Syria due to Moscow’s disappointment over failures by pro-regime Iranian and Hezbollah forces to achieve victories against opposition forces fighting to topple the Assad government, the Saudi news-site Elaph reported Monday night.

According to the report, Russia had been concerned about air support and bombed regions where Iranian and Hezbollah troops were located to face off Syrian opposition elements and Islamic State militants. However, Russia reportedly did not receive mutual coverage on the ground.

The report added that disagreements between Moscow and its allies embattled in Syria ran so deep that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced, without warning, his plans to pull his troops out of Syria.
“The division of opinions between Russia and Iran and Hezbollah were stronger than (the Russian’s) pact with the Syrian regime, which led to the Russian pullout,” said the source. “In addition, the coordination between Russia and the West in arranging a ceasefire and negotiations in Syria contributed to the downsizing of forces. Iran and Hezbollah got an unhappy surprise from this coordination.”

Dropping Assad

The sources highlighted three reasons which contributed to the disagreement between Russia and the Shi’ite axis. The Russians rejected the strategic view of the Iranian regime, that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is the protector of the Shi’ites in Syria and Tehran’s interests in the region, especially against the Gulf countries.

Additionally, the Russians rejected Iran’s intentions to transfer advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Moscow was reportedly willing to give up on Assad as part of future agreements.

The second reason was the Kurds. While Iran sees the growth in strength of the Kurds in the region as a threat to its internal stability – around three million Kurds live in Iranian territory – Russia supports Kurdish independence, since they have been the most effective and trustworthy fighters against ISIS.

The third reason is the failure of Iran and Hezbollah to achieve significant military victories, including the expansion of the battlefronts in Tadmor and al-Raqqa, and against ISIS in the east towards the Iraqi border. “Iran is worried by the possibility of clashes with ISIS on its border with Iraq,” explained the source. “Russia received assurances from its allies that there would be swift victories, however despite this there have been 1,500 Hezbollah and Iranian deaths on the battlefield, and another 5,000 injured.”

Iranian FM: ‘Russia’s withdrawal from Syria indicates that the ceasefire is holding’


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has praised Russia’s withdrawal from Syria after nearly half a year of military engagement in the country’s conflict, claiming that this is “a good sign” that signals that the ceasefire is durable.

Speaking at a press conference after his meeting with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, Zarif stated that “Iran has long aspired for a lasting ceasefire in Syria, and Russia’s announcement that it would start withdrawing its forces from Syria indicates that it no longer deems military intervention vital to maintain the ceasefire.

“By excluding ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra from the ceasefire, the world has delivered these organizations a message that it is united against them and that the fight against them will not abate,” Zarif added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday night that the “main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, explaining that Russia had achieved its goals in Syria.

The General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian opposition, Riad Hijab, praised the Russian withdrawal and urged Iran to follow suit.

“The Russian announcement must be followed by additional moves to push the rest of the foreign forces out of Syria, especially the Iranian forces and the terrorist militias,” Hijab wrote in his Twitter page.