Iraqi government forces recapture southern town of Jurf al-Sakhr, while Kurdish forces reclaim key northern villages.
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) prepare before going out on a patrol in the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad (Reuters).
Aaron Akinyemi reporting,
Iraqi and Peshmerga forces have reportedly wrested key areas of northern and southern Iraq from Isis (Islamic State) militants following 22 US-led air strikes.
Kurdish forces said on Saturday that they recaptured several towns and villages held by Isis in the north, while Iraqi government forces said they reclaimed the town of Jurf al-Sakhr, 50km south of Baghdad.
The US Central Command said the Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces were backed by several air strikes by US-led forces on Friday and Saturday.
The air strikes targeted Isis forces in Mosul in the north, Fallujah in the western Anbar province, and the oil-rich area around Baiji.
US warplanes also destroyed an Islamic State artillery piece near the besieged town of Kobani in Syria. Reports from Kobani suggested Islamic State fighters attacking the town may have used an unidentified chemical weapon.
A Kurdish intelligence officer told Reuters that his forces launched their advance on Zumar near Mosul from five directions after US air strikes hit Islamist targets.
Iraqi state television said at least 50 Islamic State fighters were killed and 10 vehicles destroyed in the raids.
Government forces said that as well as Jurf al-Sakhr, they are also in control of the Shia towns of Najaf and Kerbala.
Provincial governor Sadiq Madloul told Reuters: “We have managed to push out Islamic State terrorists from the town of Jurf al-Sakhar today and now we are raising the Iraqi flag over the government offices.”
Some Isis fighters fled towards the western city of Fallujah, while fighting still raged near a bridge linking Jurf al-Sakhar to Anbar.
Raad Hamza, head of the Hilla Provincial Council, said: “There has been a significant collapse among Islamic State fighters. Attacks by Iraqi army helicopters have not stopped since yesterday.”
On Thursday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said US-led strikes in Syria have killed over 500 militants and 32 civilians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. on Friday of endangering global security by imposing a “unilateral diktat” on the rest of the world and shifted blame for the Ukraine crisis onto the West.
In a 40-minute diatribe against the West that was reminiscent of the Cold War and underlined the depth of the rift between Moscow and the West, Putin also denied trying to rebuild the Soviet empire at the expense of Russia’s neighbors.
“We did not start this,” Putin told an informal group of experts on Russia that includes many Western specialists critical of him, warning that Washington was trying to “remake the whole world” based on its own interests.
“Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that it is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbors, are groundless,” the former KGB agent declared in a speech delivered standing at a podium, without a smile, in a ski resort in mountains above the Black Sea city of Sochi.
Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.
“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes [on others] have exactly the opposite effect.”
Putin, 62, has stepped up anti-Western rhetoric since returning to the Kremlin as president in 2012, helping push up his popularity ratings since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March.
Even so, the speech was one of the most hostile Putin has delivered against the West and it appeared partly intended to show Russian voters he will stand up to the rest of the world and defend their interests.
The criticisms of a world order dominated by Washington, more than two decades after the Cold War, recalled a 2007 speech in Munich in which Putin shocked the West by lambasting Washington’s “unipolar” world view. The speech prompted many Western leaders to reassess their view of Putin.
Shifting the Blame
The annual meetings of what is known as the Valdai Club have rarely featured such open, direct and tough language in their debates on Russian policy.
Critics say the meetings have become a showcase for Kremlin policy, with the session attended by Putin shown live on state television and little discussion of Russia’s record on human rights and democracy, which is criticized in the West.
Putin rejected criticism over the Ukraine crisis, in which Moscow has sided with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and threw the West’s criticisms of Moscow back in its face.
Repeating accusations that Western governments helped pro-Western groups stage a coup d’etat that ousted a pro-Moscow president in Kiev in February, Putin said: “No one wanted to listen to us, and no one wanted to talk to us.”
“Instead of a difficult but, I underline, civilized dialogue they brought about a state coup. They pushed the country into chaos, economic and social collapse, and civil war with huge losses,” he said.
Dismissing U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed on Moscow as a mistake, he said: “Russia will not be posturing, get offended, ask someone for anything. Russia is self-sufficient.”
He made only passing references to the decline of Russia’s $2 trillion economy, which is in danger of sliding into recession as its currency tumbles along with the price of oil, its main export item.
But he said in a question and answer session after his speech that Russia would not burn though its gold and foreign currency reserves thoughtlessly to prop up the economy.
Putin has increasingly sought to shift blame for the economic crisis onto global problems, the sanctions and the oil price. He and other Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have also used increasingly tough language to blame the West for the Ukraine crisis.
A cease-fire has been in force in Ukraine since Sept. 5, but it has been violated daily and the West says Moscow continues to have troops and weapons in east Ukraine. Russia denies this.
Mehdi Hassan, also known as Abu Dujana. He is the fourth member of the ‘Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys’ to die.
Lizzie Dearden reporting,
A teenage jihadist from Portsmouth has become the fourth extremist from the city to be killed fighting with Isis in Syria.
Mehdi Hassan, 19, travelled to the war-torn country in October last year with a group of friends calling themselves the “Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys”.
Photos purporting to show his dead body appeared on Isis-affiliated Twitter accounts on Friday night, with fellow militants claiming he was killed fighting in Kobani.
The Syrian border town has seen intense fighting in recent weeks, with the US-led coalition bombing Isis militants and dropping weapons to Kurdish fighters attempting to stop the group’s advance.
The Foreign Office said it could not confirm Mr Hassan’s death but “was aware of reports about the death of a British national in Syria”.
Mehdi Hassan’s Twitter account
The news did not reach his family, who live in Southsea, until Saturday morning as gruesome pictures of his body circulated on social media.
The chairman of their local Portsmouth Jami Mosque, Abdul Jalil, said he had spoken to Mr Hassan’s relatives.
“It has been confirmed with the family that he has died. Right now they are very upset,” he told the BBC.
“I am saddened and again shocked for the community about this news.”
The teenager, a former pupil at the independent St John’s College in Southsea, flew to Turkey and crossed into Syria instead of going to university.
His friends, Iftekar Jaman, Mamunur Roshid and Hamidur Rahman, have previously been killed in the fighting.
Mr Roshid’s death, at the age of 24, had been confirmed on Tuesday.
People watch an explosion after an apparent US-led coalition air strike on Kobani, Syria
Mr Hassan went by the name Abu Dujana in Syria and on social media.
He last posted on his Twitter account @AbuDujana___ on 17 October, writing about the intensity of air strikes in Ayn al-Arab – an alternative name for Kobani.
“Between 20-40 US strikes daily in ayn al arab. Alhamdulillah they are spending $10’s of billions…against themselves,” he wrote.
He had previously written about jihad and the goal of “ultimate success in the hereafter”, although his account had been deleted by Twitter several times.
Mashudur Choudhury, who left the UK with Mr Hassan, returned to the UK after just a few weeks and was arrested at Gatwick Airport.
He has since been convicted of terrorist offences in the first such case related to the conflict in Syria.
Assad Uzzaman is believed to be the last surviving member of the “Bad Boys” still fighting there.
An estimated 500 Britons are among 2,000 foreign fighters who have joined Isis, which calls itself the Islamic State.
It is waging a bloody war across Syria and Iraq to establish a hardline Islamic caliphate.
After the Obama administration bargained for Bowe Bergdahl’s life, the family of ISIS hostage James Foley begged the White House for the same treatment—only to be denied.
James Foley. Nicole Tung/freejamesfoley.org
Eli Lake reporting,
The parents of James Foley, the journalist ISIS beheaded in August, learned about the U.S. government’s attempt to rescue him about an hour before the rest of us did.
The grieving parents got word from President Obama himself.
“I told Obama that Jim worked hard to get him elected,” John Foley, James’s father, told The Daily Beast. “He believed till the end his country would come and get them.”
The president, according to John, responded, “Well I should tell you, we did try to save him.” Then Obama stunned John and his wife Diane, informing them of the failed special operations rescue mission from early July.
In the call, Obama explained that this information about the rescue mission was classified. But not for long, it would seem. Foley added, “An hour later he went and told the world.”
White House spokesmen have said that there was never any intention to share with the public details of the failed rescue mission in Syria. Word of the mission began to leak out on August 20, a day after James Foley was beheaded in a gruesome and slickly produced internet video narrated by a man with a thick British accent. White House officials briefed reporters that afternoon on the failed mission.
For the Foleys, it was a tragic ending to an awful ordeal. Since their son first went missing right before Thanksgiving in 2012, Diane Foley, in particular, began a mission to find any way she could to try to get her son back alive. She pressed the White House, the FBI and the State Department for any information she could find on James. Often, she and John would tell the FBI about what they learned from other European hostages who were released this year by ISIS. The response the Foleys received was, for the most part, beyond disappointing—little more than a “pat on the head,” John said.
Two months after the murder of James Foley, his parents are still frustrated with how they were treated by the White House—even as the Foley family works to establish a legacy fund for their son.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, John Foley explained that the President seemed upset during their phone call. Diane was unimpressed with Obama’s empathy. “In between golf games mind you,” she said. “He did stop to call us in the middle of his vacation,” she continued. “In the United Kingdom, the prime minister came home from his vacation.”
In September, the Foleys began to talk to the media about their frustrations with the Obama administration. At the time they said the White House threatened them with prosecution if they tried to raise private funds to purchase their son’s freedom. On Thursday they went into more detail.
They discussed a moment in May, right after the White House announced a prisoner exchange that released Army Private Bowe Bergdahl. Diane Foley said she and other families of ISIS hostages thought there was hope the Obama administration would reverse its longstanding policy against paying ransom or negotiating with ISIS.
But only a few days after Bergdahl’s release, the Foleys and other families of the hostages were on the phone with a senior White House official who informed them there was no chance at all for negotiations with ISIS. “It was out of the question,” Diane Foley remembers the official saying. (The Daily Beast is declining to name the official at the request of the White House).
John Foley remembered the White House official going even further than that, saying there was no chance third parties would pay ransom or trade hostages with ISIS either. “’We will not ask any of our allies to do something we ourselves wouldn’t do like pay ransom, or trade hostages,’” Foley recalled the official as saying.
Bernadette Meehan, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined Thursday to discuss the details of the communications with the Foley family. She did, however, defend the policy of not negotiating with ISIS.
“The United States has a long-standing policy that we do not offer concessions to hostage takers because doing so would only put more Americans at risk of being taken captive,” she said. “Sergeant Bergdahl was not a hostage—he is a member of the U.S. military who was detained during the course of an armed conflict. His return was consistent with the longstanding practice of prisoner exchanges in war and, as such, is different from policy and practice relating to civilians held hostage.”
While Meehan speaks for the White House, other parts of Obama’s government have pressed to change the U.S. policy of not paying ransoms to terrorists. Foreign Policy magazine’s Shane Harris reported this month that the White House and the State Department remain opposed to paying ransoms to terrorist groups, while the FBI and the Justice Department have asked for more flexibility.
Diane Foley detected a difference in tone and emphasis on ransom payments from the FBI, which “was very willing to walk us right up to that point,” she said. “They made it clear that an exchange of funds may be necessary, but they themselves could not do that.”
For the most part the Foleys had high praise for the FBI. Diane Foley said that the bureau gave them advice on how to craft a response to an email they received from ISIS at the end of 2013. “The FBI told us to write back a letter humanizing Jim,” she said. “They would look them over and tweak a word or two.”
As the summer dragged on, the Foleys began to seek out their own ways to get their son back. Towards the end of Foley’s captivity, John and Diane Foley began a pledge drive to raise money for a possible ransom, even though they say the White House informed them that any efforts to pay a ransom to ISIS would violate U.S. law.
“We had a million dollars in pledges at the end,” Diane Foley said. “Our hands were tied, we could not make it obvious, it had to be done under the guidance of pro bono attorneys… We didn’t want the money, we didn’t want to handle it, so we sought pledges. We didn’t want the money unless we needed it.”
European governments, for their part, have long agreed to pay groups like ISIS ransom money. And that has yielded tangible results. Foley was held in Syria at the same location as several European hostages. But the Europeans had been freed in the weeks before Obama ordered the rescue mission into Syria, the Foleys said.
In the end, the Foleys say they hope other families of hostages will be able to learn and benefit from their experience. They were in Washington this week to receive an award given posthumously to their son on behalf of the Oxi Day Foundation, a Greek American organization that celebrates Greek resistance to the Nazis.
“The enemy is ISIS, not our government,” Diane Foley said. “All we are saying is that our government can do better for our citizens. We hope the James Foley foundation can foster dialogue for a more consistent policy on this.”