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Iraq Adopts Revised 2015 Budget Curbed By Low Oil Prices

By , January 30, 2015 12:54 am

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Iraq’s parliament approved a budget on Thursday worth 119 trillion Iraqi dinars (US$ 105 billion), made possible by improved ties between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region but constrained by plunging global oil prices.

Passage represents a victory for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who fears lower oil revenues could hurt Iraq’s military campaign against Islamic State, which swept across northern Iraq last summer, prompting U.S.-led air strikes.

The budget, revised to trim the expected price of oil to $ 56 a barrel, down from the $ 70 originally assumed, foresees a 25 trillion dinar deficit.

The adjusted oil forecast may have satisfied some MPs who saw previous estimates as unrealistic, but others remain critical.

“I don’t know if they are deceiving themselves or the Iraqi people by saying the price of oil is $ 56,” MP Kadhim al-Saidi told reporters before voting began.

Brent crude has been trading just below $ 50 this week, down from $ 115 in June.

The budget seals a financial arrangement between Baghdad and the Kurdish region that will see the Kurds export 300,000 barrels per day of oil from Kirkuk and 250,000 bpd from their own fields in return for a 17 percent share of the budget.

Opponents decried the size of Kurdistan’s share as unfair.

“There is no legal formulation or constitutional cover for this agreement. It appears the political blocs … robbed the Iraqi people,” said Saidi.

DIFFICULT TIMES AHEAD

For Abadi, the budget is a sign of growing goodwill between Baghdad and the Kurdish region as they both fight Islamic State.

Kurdish peshmerga forces rolled back the radical jihdaists after they surged across the Syrian border last summer, threatening the regional capital Arbil.

But Islamic State, holding large swaths of Iraq’s north and west, remains a threat to the country’s security and unity. Defence alone is expected to take up 20 percent of 2015 budget expenditure.

In addition, the state must ensure the payment of its civil servants, with more than 5 million state employees. It is withholding 15 percent of high-level government salaries, which are meant to be paid back when the country is more financially stable.

Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish region, praised the 2015 budget but pointed out the country remains in dire financial straits.

“It is very good, but unfortunately (Baghdad) doesn’t have money,” he told Reuters.

The government is expected to finance the deficit through Treasury bills, government bonds and borrowing from local banks.

In addition, Iraq plans on drawing funds from the International Monetary Fund through its Special Drawing Right, and will introduce a tax on imported cars and cellular telephone SIM cards and the Internet.

Kuwait has agreed to defer for one year Iraq’s reparations for its 1990 invasion of its neighbour.

$ 1 = 1,135.0000 Iraqi dinars.

Additional reporting by Ned Parker and Stephen Kalin; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Susan Fenton, Toni Reinhold.

Assyrian International News Agency

ISIS Bombed Historic Walls of Nineveh in Iraq

By , January 28, 2015 2:42 pm

Jihadists resumed bombings against historic sites in Nineveh and destroyed remains of the ancient wall of Mosul, specialized sources reported today; while politicians accused the United States of hampering the counterterrorist fight.

A historian living in Mosul, the second largest in Iraq, told the publication Shafaq News that militants of the Islamic State (IS) destroyed on Tuesday night much of the historic city wall located on Tahrir neighborhood on the left coast of Mosul.

Using a great amount of explosives, ‘Takfirists’ (Sunni Islamic terrorists) blew pieces of the wall considered the most important historical monument of the Iraqui province and the whole region, dating back to the civilization of the Assyrian kings in the eighth century BC.

Since the beginning of the attacks in June 2014, Jihadists of DAESH, the Arabic acronym of IS, have reduced to ruins numerous archaeological, historical and religious sites of great historical value in Mosul.

An operation launched last night in the area of Al-Rashidiyah resulted in the abduction of people accused of collaborating with Kurdish Peshmerga military forces, after the Iraqi Deputy Hakim Al-Zamili had said that the army and police have informants within the aforementioned city.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Shiite political party in Iraq Assaib Ahl Al-Haq, Qais Al-Khazali, accused the United States of hindering the release of areas occupied by the Islamists, and that international coalition aircrafts launched aids that have delayed the military actions of the Army.

According to Al-Khazali, “DAESH terrorists could be wiped out in a few months, but the US government is trying to delay this process”.

He added that there are testimonies and evidence of the support of US planes to Takfirists in the city of Muqdadiyah, which delayed its release.

The politician predicted that the next fight will be in the northern province of Salaheddin to avenge the martyrs of Spyker airbase, near Tikrit, where last year about a thousand 700 Shiites of the Army and hundreds of civilians were killed by fundamentalists.

Assyrian International News Agency

U.S. Bishops’ Group Travels to Iraq, Meets With Those Who Fled ISIS

By , January 27, 2015 9:36 pm

U.S. Bishops’ Group Travels to Iraq, Meets With Those Who Fled ISIS

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., distributes Communion to displaced Iraqi Christians during a visit to northern Kurdistan (CNS/Dale Gavlak).AINKAWA, Iraq — One of Iraq’s Christians chased out of her historic homeland quietly prayed the rosary as a bishop who traveled halfway around the world to meet her and others displaced celebrated Mass for them.

“It’s a journey of encountering God, the poor and the dispossessed,” Bishop Oscar Cantu, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the gathering in this predominantly Christian enclave in Irbil, capital of the northern Kurdistan region.

Bishop Cantu traveled to northern Iraq with a USCCB delegation Jan. 16-20 to see the needs of displaced Christians and other religious minorities. The delegation plans to share its findings and views with policymakers on Capitol Hill.

The elderly woman, wearing a traditional long robe, sat transfixed during the homily, silent except for the clicking of her rosary beads.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered having to escape her mainly Christian village of Qaraqosh in August after it was brutally attacked by Islamic State militants.

Now, she lives in poverty among 113 families in a tent camp erected in a tiny park outside the St. Ellial Chaldean Catholic Chapel. Deeply traumatized, many feel lost.

All are dependent on church assistance, and they wonder what future awaits them. The Islamic State onslaught forced them to leave behind possessions in a quick escape where the choice was conversion to Islam or death.

The Kurdish region is hosting more than 800,000 Iraqi religious minorities fleeing Islamic State terror, according to the United Nations.

“It’s a journey of encountering Christ, walking with him and falling in love with him,” said Bishop Cantu, who heads the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The words were reminiscent of those spoken by another displaced Iraqi Christian, who said that Jesus told him to ‘”Come and follow me.”

“Pray as we encounter the many displaced and uprooted from their land and for the many responding to their needs in a beautiful way,” said Bishop Cantu, referring to vast Catholic charity work undertaken by Iraq’s parishes and international Catholic aid agencies.

“Continue to tell their stories as an encounter with God,” Bishop Cantu said.

That’s exactly what Stephen Colecchi, who directs the USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace, and Kevin Appleby, director of USCCB Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, plan to do with U.S. policymakers, Catholic leaders, congregations and supporters.

Here are a few of the stories they may be sharing.

While Iraqi Catholics in Ainkawa recently celebrated three new deacons set to enter the priesthood as a sign of renewed hope for the future, the area’s Chaldean Catholic archbishop expressed deep concerns.

Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil estimated 60 Iraqi Christians, many qualified professionals, are fleeing the country daily in the belief that “peace will not return.”

“Unless we do something for those who are persecuted and forgotten, we are going to lose more people,” he warned of the weakening Christian presence in their ancestral land, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

An elderly Christian man told the group that one of his sons recently traveled to Jordan in the hopes of reuniting with another son, who lives in Detroit.

The U.S. and other Western embassies reportedly have said that they do not expect to grant resettlement to Iraqi Christians. The displaced inside Iraq are not considered refugees and may have possibilities for work, although those sheltering in remote villages lack such opportunities or the needed transportation.

But those who have sought shelter in one of Iraq’s neighboring countries are refugees. And those with direct family members in the West may also apply for family reunification.

Given the Vatican’s position urging Christians to remain in the Middle East, Appleby said the delegation would focus on the “most vulnerable who are impoverished with less resources to stay.” In this case, the USCCB would advocate for more direct assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other programs to help the displaced inside Iraq.

“We are encouraging the government to increase humanitarian assistance, provide the right kinds of assistance through the proper channels, so it actually gets to the people,” said Colecchi.

“One of the positions our conference has taken is the most vulnerable ones — who have lost a breadwinner or have members that are very sick who might not be able to ever go back — if they can’t, the church wants to be in a position to advocate for them with our government,” Colecchi added.

Archbishop Warda said serious efforts were needed to rid Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, of Islamic State militants who have made it their stronghold. He also urged increased U.S. coalition military operations against the extremists, saying this may be the only way to achieve the goal.

Turning to the youth, the archbishop said that displaced students have been forced to abandon their studies due to no available places in schools or not enough schools, leaving many in despair for their future. He called for the establishment of a Catholic university and other educational institutions in Irbil.

UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, has advocated education as one of the best ways to restore normalcy to children’s lives torn apart by conflict.

Bishop Cantu advocated policies based on the “strength of families, their dignity, ability to work and have an identity.”

He told the displaced Iraqis a story from Gaza, where the group began its Mideast visit, saying the story speaks widely for all those suffering in the region.

“During the war the (high school) student got an email asking if he needed food, clothing, shelter,” Bishop Cantu said. “He said: ‘I don’t need those, but yes, the people do. But more than anything, what we are looking for is dignity.’”

Assyrian International News Agency

Iraq PM: Our Collaboration With Iran in War Against Isis ‘Is Not a Secret’

By , January 27, 2015 10:12 am

The Iraqi Prime Minister, during the World Economic Forum, declared that his country’s collaboration with the Iranian military in waging war against the Islamic State is no secret.

“We do not deny our collaboration with General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Qods Force,” Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi said during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the forum in Davos, Switzerland, Rudaw reported.

Reuters also noted that Abadi mentioned the Iranian general when discussing Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, or ISIL), a Sunni jihadist group.

“We have respect for him and the Iranian establishment,” reportedly said the Iraqi PM.

“Our collaboration with him is not a secret,” he added, according to Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

Abadi claimed that Iranian soldiers have not set foot on Iraqi soil.

The Iraqi leader explained that Shiite Iran filled the gap when the West was slow to deliver help.

“They have been prompt in sending us arms and ammunition without even asking for immediate payments,” said the prime minister.

Iranian Gen. Soleimani has been under an international travel ban and asset freeze by the U.N. Security Council since 2007.

Nevertheless, Rudaw pointed out that the Iranian general has been seen with Shiite militias in Diyala, Iraq, which borders Iran.

A top Iraqi army officer recently said that Diyala has been “liberated” from ISIS.

“Last month, the Paris-based Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) said that the number of Iranian officers and soldiers in Iraq had exceeded 7,000,” reported Rudaw.

A U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria for months to counter the Sunni jihadist group’s advances in those two countries.

Iran, a Shiite majority country, is considered a state-sponsor of terrorism by the United States, but in Iraq Washington and Tehran share a common enemy — Sunni militants fighting under the ISIS banner.

Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly said last year that Iran’s participation in the anti-ISIS campaign would be a “net positive.”

Assyrian International News Agency

The Number of Foreigners Fighting in Syria and Iraq Just Hit an Alarming New Record

By , January 26, 2015 5:06 pm

The Number of Foreigners Fighting in Syria and Iraq Just Hit an Alarming New Record

As if the Syria and Iraq conflicts weren’t bad enough, here’s some more alarming news: the influx of foreign fighters, which is to say foreigners volunteering to fight for Sunni militant groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda, has reached an all-time high: as many as 20,000. According to a new estimate from the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), no conflict since 1945 has ever attracted this many foreign fighters.

That’s a real problem — and not just for Iraq and Syria. Some of these fighters will likely go on to attempt to plot international terrorist attacks; others to travel from war to war, making each of those bloodier in turn, much as the foreigners who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s went on to cause trouble for a generation.

According to the ICSR report, up to 20,730 people have gone to fight for Sunni militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Emphasis on “up to:” ICSR’s report contains a range, and the 20,730 figure comes from adding all of the high-end estimates together. Using low-end estimate comes out to around 16,700. These estimates come from collating and comparing government figures, media reports, and statements from the militant groups themselves.

Still, that number already matches or even exceeds credible high-end estimates for the number of foreigners who went to fight against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (about 20,000 foreign fighters). Until now, that conflict had attracted more foreign fighters than any other since 1945. And the wars in Syria and Iraq are very far from over.

According to Peter Neumann, ICSR’s director, it’s very hard to know what happens to these people after their initial arrival in Iraq or Syria. The 20,370 number refers to the total number who have ever fought in Syria or Iraq; many may already be dead or back in their home countries. Neumann does believe that the overwhelming bulk of these fighters fought, at least at one point, either for ISIS or for Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch.

These fighters “have completely absorbed [radical] ideology, and see themselves more-or-less as fighters,” Neumann says. “What happened after the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s was an internationally networked core of activists who were seeing themselves as a rapid reaction force to whatever happened in the Muslim world.”

That post-Afghanistan network included al-Qaeda as we know it today.

Broadly speaking, this sort of international network of Syria and Iraq veterans poses two kinds of threats. First, they might go back to their home countries — predominantly in the Middle East, with contingents in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union — and attempt terrorist attacks. Second, they could travel from war to war in the Muslim world, making each conflict worse as they go.

The majority of fighters who return home will not commit terrorist attacks. According to Neumann, the highest-end estimate suggests 25 percent will plan attacks back home. One estimate from September suggested that less than one percent of Western European foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq had, to date, gotten involved in terrorism. Countries with strong security services, like those in Western Europe, are particularly well-positioned to foil plots.

Nevertheless, the threat from returnees is real. Attacks planned by foreign fighters “tend to be [among] the more lethal and more viable terrorist plots,” Neumann says, because foreign fighters have “military training, motivation, and an international [support] network.” Moreover, some countries may be more threatened by foreign fighters than others. For example, an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 of the fighters are from Tunisia, a young democracy and the Arab Spring’s big success story.

“There is a very strong recruitment network of Salafist organizations that send people from Tunisia to Syria or Iraq,” Neumann says. “In the long term, [Tunisia] is facing a big challenge of people coming from back from Syria and Iraq. Perhaps one of the reason’s it’s so peaceful there is that all of the troublemakers are in a different place.”

However, a fair number of foreign fighters will never come home. That shouldn’t be comforting: many of those people will simply become permanent warriors, flitting from hot spot to hot spot and leaving chaos in their wake.

“Quite a few them … will prefer to move on to the next battlefront,” Neumann says. If and when the Syria and Iraq conflicts end or slow down, “I would expect quite a few of them to want to move to Libya, maybe to Yemen, or maybe back to Afghanistan.”

These fighters will almost certainly make these conflicts bloodier and more chaotic. According to Neumann, foreign fighters are extreme even by jihadi standards. “They are typically people who are not invested in a local situation … they often see the conflict in very ideological terms,” Neumann says,

In his view, that makes them more likely to commit atrocities. That invites counter-atrocities, and can polarize local conflicts on ethno-sectarian lines.

“There foreign fighters do make a conflict worse,” Neumann says. “Whatever conflict you look at in the 1990s and 2000s — [like] Bosnia or Chechnya — once the foreign fighters come in, it turns nasty.”

Assyrian International News Agency

Iraq ‘Sleeper Cells’ Fight Islamic State Group

By , January 26, 2015 11:24 am

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Assyrian International News Agency

The Lions of Mesopotamia Are the Torchbearers of a Unified Iraq

By , January 24, 2015 7:30 pm

Earlier this week, popular American news publication Foreign Policy ran the article ‘The World’s Next Country’, exploring how the northern Iraqi cities of Erbil and Kirkuk could be vital in forging a new Kurdish state independent from Iraq.

The self-governing northern region of Iraq already displays many of the hallmarks required to form a sovereign state, and the country’s current political fragility only acts to accelerate Kurdish sentiments to separate from the rest of the nation.

However, the piece did warn that a split could shatter an already fractured sectarian environment, resulting in major regional ramifications.

This bleak future view of a unified and united Iraq is in stark contrast to the scenes witnessed at Canberra Stadium on Friday afternoon.

The Iraqi players and fans alike — along with their vocal Iranian counterparts — created a colourful spectacle rarely seen before in the nation’s capital.

The diversity of the team and its supporters once again highlighted the ability of a national football team to unify the people that its politicians cannot.

The Iraqi side that stepped onto the pristine Canberra Stadium surface was a mixture of Shi’a, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians, all able to put their religious differences aside to represent a homeland brutally ravaged by war, sanctions and political instability in recent decades.

Ahmed Yasin — scorer of the Greens’ equaliser in the second half — is a Feyli Kurd hailing from Baghdad but raised in Sweden, home to a large Iraqi expatriate community.

Inspirational skipper and talisman Younis Mahmoud is a Turkmen Sunni from Kirkuk, while 20-year-old penalty taker Dhurgham Ismail is a Shi’a from the south-eastern province of Maysan.

The diversity was on show in the stands, with Iraqis of all different religious and tribal backgrounds cheering on the Lions of Mesopotamia as they upset Iran on penalties after a dramatic 3-3 draw in one of the games of the tournament.

For Alin Ibrahim, a Chaldean Christian hailing from Erbil who travelled to Canberra from Melbourne with his father for both of Iraq’s games in the city, “the national team means everything”.

“Not just for me, but for every Iraqi as it represents us all of us no matter what our religious differences are,” he said.

Ibrahim left his country a decade ago when he was a bubbly little 10 year-old, mostly unaware of the severe hardships around him.

After five years in Auckland, he moved to Melbourne in 2010 and was desperate to witness his country play in his adopted home after witnessing the sheer passion of the Asian Cup first hand.

“The eight-hour road trip to Canberra was very important for me as growing up in Iraq I never got the chance to see my nation play on home soil, so this was the best chance for me to fulfil that dream, with the added significance of the game being played in my adopted country,” he said.

Ibrahim shares the hope that the current generation of Iraqi footballers can be a beacon of light in dark times.

“Coming from a war torn nation, only football has this magical power to put a smile on every Iraqi’s face and put our differences aside,” he said.

For Ibrahim, having his city of birth become the capital of a new state in Iraqi Kurdistan “would not feel right” considering the emotional attachment he has to Erbil being a vital and prosperous city of the nation he was born in.

If Radhi Shenaishil’s side wish to repeat the heroics of 2007 and claim their second Asian Cup triumph, they will have to go past a formidable and solid South Korean outfit on Monday at Stadium Australia.

The Taeguk Warriors have yet to concede a goal in four games and are coming off the back of two inspiring victories over the Socceroos and Uzbekistan respectively.

However the Lions of Mesatophia are no easy pushovers themselves and can take pride in their efforts so far this tournament.

Sydney’s large Iraqi community will no doubt fill much of the spacious arena in the hope that their team can force a dream showdown with their adoptive homeland just days later. Now more than ever does the national team symbolise unity in an ever more politically and religiously divided landscape.

When Younis Mahmoud lifted the coveted trophy in Jakarta in July 2007, Iraq was a dangerous place with divisions evident throughout the country.

Now the political climate of the nation is worse with sectarianism reigning supreme with the dangerous emergence of the Islamic State unsettling not just the authorities in Baghdad, but everyday ordinary Iraqi who are tired of constant violence and economic troubles epitomising their country.

Kurdish national sentiment in the north is rising (with great legitimacy), but to those like Ibrahim and millions of other Iraqis worldwide who want a united and unified Iraq, an Iraq without Erbil and Kirkuk is unimaginable.

Their national side have so far made them proud and are the best symbols in showcasing the power football has in uniting Iraqis from all different religious backgrounds into working together under one flag, one nation and one people.

Assyrian International News Agency

Nuncio Lingua: ‘Pope Francis is Expected in Iraq’

By , January 22, 2015 9:53 pm

Assyrian refugees in Ankawa, Iraq (Photo: Don Duncan).The Apostolic Nuncio in Iraq, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, expressed the hope that the Christians driven out of northern Iraq by the terrorist militia “Islamic State” would be able to return to their homes this year. The Nuncio said this to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on Tuesday in Bethlehem (Palestine), where he was attending a conference. “But if they do return it won’t be easy,” the Nuncio explained. “Alongside the reconstruction of destroyed houses and infrastructure such as schools, it will be necessary first and foremost to restore the trust in Muslim neighbours which had also been shattered. Many Christians feel their neighbours betrayed them because they looted their houses. So it will not only be necessary to repair houses, but also relationships.”

Archbishop Lingua gave a positive assessment of the work done by the Iraqi central government. “My impression is that something has got moving and that the new government is working well. A fundamental factor is the greater involvement of all groups. It will never be possible to speak of an Iraq free of terrorism as long as not all ethnic and religious components are involved. If one group is excluded it must not be assumed that they will not rebel,” the Nuncio continued. The alienation of the Arab Sunni population from the Shiite-dominated central government is seen as one of the main reasons for the rise of the “Islamic State”.

What is crucial for the future of Christianity in Iraq, Lingua stressed, is how the crisis in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain would be handled, where the majority of Christian refugees lived and which is currently occupied by the IS. “If the government manages to regain control there and implements a campaign of national reconciliation, then there will be a place for Christians in Iraq. If the clashes persist, however, the weakest will pay the price, and these are always the minorities. We therefore have to hope that peace will return. And this is where the international community comes in.”

Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, nuncio of Jordan and Iraq, visiting refugees in a refugee camp in Iraq (Aid to the Church in Need).

Archbishop Lingua stressed that the basic humanitarian difficulties experienced by the refugees, such as the inadequate medical care, are being aggravated further by the cold winter. “At the present time the people mainly need heaters. There are reports that some of the children have perished in the cold.” On top of this there are growing psychological strains. “The people don’t know how long they still have to hold out as refugees,” Lingua said. “This hopeless situation is causing those people to consider emigration who don’t actually want to leave.” About 7000 Christians had already fled to Jordan, where many were awaiting to leave for western countries. Overall the Nuncio assumes that about ten per cent of the 120000 Christians who fled in August have left Iraq.

The Nuncio also stressed that Pope Francis was deeply concerned by Iraq and the situation of the Christians there. The Holy Father had shown this on various occasions, according to Lingua. When asked about the possibility of a Papal visit to Iraq he said: “The Holy Father is expected in Iraq both by the Church and the political powers, and even by non-Christians such as the Shiite leadership. I am impressed how great the consensus is concerning the figure of the Pope.” With a view to security concerns surrounding a visit by the Pope to Iraq, Lingua said: “I’m no expert in such matters. But everybody says that they would do everything to make the visit a success.” Archbishop Lingua continued that a possible visit would have to last longer than one day. “You can’t come to Iraq and not go to Ur, which Sunnis, Shiites and Christians all revere as the birthplace of Abraham. You can’t not go to Baghdad, because that’s the seat of government. And you can’t not go to Erbil, where the majority of Christian refugees live. I would therefore prefer a visit to be fixed for a later date and for it to be more extensive, rather than for it to be organised quickly, missing out on some opportunities.”

Assyrian International News Agency

Nuncio Says Christians Could Return to Northern Iraq This Year

By , January 22, 2015 4:11 pm

Assyrian refugees in Ankawa, Iraq (Photo: Don Duncan).The Apostolic Nuncio in Iraq, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, expressed the hope that the Christians driven out of northern Iraq by the terrorist militia “Islamic State” would be able to return to their homes this year. The Nuncio said this to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on Tuesday in Bethlehem (Palestine), where he was attending a conference. “But if they do return it won’t be easy,” the Nuncio explained. “Alongside the reconstruction of destroyed houses and infrastructure such as schools, it will be necessary first and foremost to restore the trust in Muslim neighbours which had also been shattered. Many Christians feel their neighbours betrayed them because they looted their houses. So it will not only be necessary to repair houses, but also relationships.”

Archbishop Lingua gave a positive assessment of the work done by the Iraqi central government. “My impression is that something has got moving and that the new government is working well. A fundamental factor is the greater involvement of all groups. It will never be possible to speak of an Iraq free of terrorism as long as not all ethnic and religious components are involved. If one group is excluded it must not be assumed that they will not rebel,” the Nuncio continued. The alienation of the Arab Sunni population from the Shiite-dominated central government is seen as one of the main reasons for the rise of the “Islamic State”.

What is crucial for the future of Christianity in Iraq, Lingua stressed, is how the crisis in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain would be handled, where the majority of Christian refugees lived and which is currently occupied by the IS. “If the government manages to regain control there and implements a campaign of national reconciliation, then there will be a place for Christians in Iraq. If the clashes persist, however, the weakest will pay the price, and these are always the minorities. We therefore have to hope that peace will return. And this is where the international community comes in.”

Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, nuncio of Jordan and Iraq, visiting refugees in a refugee camp in Iraq (Aid to the Church in Need).

Archbishop Lingua stressed that the basic humanitarian difficulties experienced by the refugees, such as the inadequate medical care, are being aggravated further by the cold winter. “At the present time the people mainly need heaters. There are reports that some of the children have perished in the cold.” On top of this there are growing psychological strains. “The people don’t know how long they still have to hold out as refugees,” Lingua said. “This hopeless situation is causing those people to consider emigration who don’t actually want to leave.” About 7000 Christians had already fled to Jordan, where many were awaiting to leave for western countries. Overall the Nuncio assumes that about ten per cent of the 120000 Christians who fled in August have left Iraq.

The Nuncio also stressed that Pope Francis was deeply concerned by Iraq and the situation of the Christians there. The Holy Father had shown this on various occasions, according to Lingua. When asked about the possibility of a Papal visit to Iraq he said: “The Holy Father is expected in Iraq both by the Church and the political powers, and even by non-Christians such as the Shiite leadership. I am impressed how great the consensus is concerning the figure of the Pope.” With a view to security concerns surrounding a visit by the Pope to Iraq, Lingua said: “I’m no expert in such matters. But every

Assyrian International News Agency

In Iraq, ISIS Leaves Behind Hidden Explosives

By , January 22, 2015 4:47 am

Islamic State terrorists sow death long after they depart, and as Iraqi Kurdish forces regain ground, they – and the civilians returning to their homes – face the threat of unexploded bombs and booby traps.

“These people were very imaginative, like devils,” said Marwan Sydo Hisn, a Kurdish bomb disposal expert currently based in Sinuni, a town in the northwestern Sinjar area that was recaptured from ISIS fighters in late December.

“Look at this one,” he said, thumbing through pictures on his smart phone. “We found this massage belt that they had stuffed with a small quantity of explosives, perfectly put back together and set up to explode on the next person to turn it on.”

One consisted of TNT concealed inside a TV set triggered by the use of a PlayStation controller. Another contraption was a gold ring conspicuously left lying on the floor and rigged to kill its finder.

Some houses were webbed with trip wires and lines connecting bombs to doorknobs.

“We have a list of 24 different types of devices they used in this area,” said Darwish Mussa Ali, another explosives expert.

He and his colleague Sydo are both from the Kurdish “asayesh” security service and are the only two experts tasked with clearing explosives from the entire northern side of Mount Sinjar, a 60-kilometer-long (40-mile) ridge near the Syrian border.

They were dispatched from their base in Jalawla, at the southeastern end of the Kurds’ 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) frontline with the terrorists.

“In 24 days, we found 410 devices amounting to more than five tons, mostly IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” Mussa said, referring to the homemade bombs laid on roadsides to target vehicles and hamper any military advance.

They received specialized training from American explosive ordnance disposal units before the 2011 US pullout from Iraq, but have very little equipment to perform their dangerous task.

“We have no special armor, no robots, no scramblers for mobile communications – just our eyes, our experience and a pair of pliers,” Sydo said.

Most of his equipment fits in a blue cooler bag, where he also keeps a bundle of detonators, a box-cutter and tape.

Lack of experience

Their harvest is kept in a damp storage room adjacent to a grocer’s and protected only by an old iron rolling door on which the word “danger” is spray-painted in large yellow letters.

“Just walk where I walk,” said Hadi Khalaf Jirgo, a member of the Kurdish peshmerga security forces who has been assisting the pair.

A cigarette dangled from his lips as he reeled out the wire for a controlled detonation of some of the roadside bombs they continue to find, sometimes at a rate of 30 a day.

The blast sent a cloud rising from a gully against the backdrop of Mont Sinjar’s snow-covered slopes.

The area was wrested back from the jihadists about a month ago but military activity remains intense and civilians are returning faster than authorities can handle.

In the first days after the northern side of Mount Sinjar was retaken, eight people were killed in three explosions, Sydo said.

The Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency lost four of its staff in a blast during a clearing operation in the nearby Zumar area in October.

“Large areas that were recaptured are still not cleared. With regards to IEDs, we have not received special devices and equipment,” said IKMAA director Ako Aziz.

“Our teams work on the basic experience that they have learned from military engineering regiment teams, which is really not adequate to deal with IEDs,” he said.

IEDs are the leading cause of death among the more than 750 peshmerga killed since ISIS spearheaded a militant offensive that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June.

IKMAA has stepped up its awareness effort with billboards telling civilians what to do when they find a suspicious object.

But there are only a handful of specialist teams operating across a huge area and struggling to keep up with the fast-changing military map.

The unconventional nature of the devices planted by ISIS terrorists also slows down the clearing effort.

“They seem to have a high level of expertise in planting those devices, they have some experienced people. So to defuse those devices, you also need a high level of experience,” Aziz said.

AFP contributed to this report.

Assyrian International News Agency