US courts weigh fate of Kurdish oil shipment

Iraq's government persuaded a US judge in Texas to order the seizure of $100 million of oil inside a tanker anchored off Galveston that it claims was illegally pumped from wells in Kurdistan. Kurdish officials “misappropriated” more than 1 million barrels of oil from northern Iraq and exported them through a pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, according to a complaint filed in Houston federal court. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson in Galveston authorized US marshals to seize the cargo and have it moved ashore for safekeeping until the dispute is resolved. However, as the vessel remains outside US territorial waters, the order cannot be carried out. "Either they’ll bring the oil into port, where we'll take possession of it, or they'll sail off somewhere else," Phillip Dye Jr., Houston-based attorney for the Iraqi Oil Ministry, told Bloomberg, adding that his clients don’t know who bought the cargo. A State Department spokesman said last week that the government would warn potential buyers of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan the legal risks involved. (Bloomberg, WSJ, July 29)

Iraq: cultural cleansing in Mosul

The ISIS militants that have seized Iraq's northern city of Mosul have, not surprisingly, been engaging in a campaign of cultural cleansing—targeting not only the city's inhabitants, but its artistic and historical treasures. Religious buildings, cemeteries and public art have been destroyed or defaced, witnesses say. Among the destroyed works are sculptures of 19th-century musician and composer Osman al-Muesli and Abbasid-era poet Abu Tammam. The grave of Ibn Athir, a philosopher and chronicler who travelled with Saladin during the 12th century, is also reported destroyed. ISIS consider visiting religious sites to be idol worship, and have also destroyed many shrines and other ancient buildings in Syria. A jizya tax has been imposed on the city's Christian population, but most of the area's Christians—some 160 families—fled before the ISIS advance. (Aydinlik, Turkey, June 21) 

Iraq: Sufis resist ISIS in Kirkuk

Fighting erupted on June 20 between ISIS militants and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order in Hawija, Kirkuk governorate (also rendered Tamim). AFP calls it "a potential sign of the fraying of the Sunni insurgent alliance that has overrun vast stretches of territory north of Baghdad in less than two weeks." The Naqshbandi fighters, known by their Arabic acronym JRTN, had apparently refused an ISIS demand to give up their weapons and pledge allegiance to the Qaedist force. AFP cited analysts to the effect that ISIS is actually struggling to maintain control over a broad alliance of Sunni and even Ba'athist militants who were brought together to oppose Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian rule but do not share the Qaedist ideology. Toby Dodge, head of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, said the "radical" and "ludicrously absurd" politics of ISIS "can't help but break that coalition."

Kurds take Kirkuk, ISIS press offensive

Kurdish forces announced that they have taken full control of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled before the ISIS offensive nearby Nineveh governorate. "The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga," Kurdish spokesman Jabbar Yawar told Reuters. "No Iraq army remains in Kirkuk now." The fall of Mosul, Nineveh's capital and the country's second city, to ISIS threatens to unravel the delicate political balance in Iraq's north. Kirkuk and the surrounding governorate of Tamim (see map) has long been at the heart of a dispute between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds. ISIS is reported to be shelling areas south of Kirkuk. "After their defeat by the Peshmerga, the ISIS are now shelling the liberated areas from a distance, using seized Iraqi weapons," said Anwar Haji Osman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's deputy minister of Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed force.

Iraq: half a million flee Mosul; ISIS advance south

An estimated half a million have fled Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, since it was seized by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) June 10. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the takeover of Mosul, capital of Nineveh governorate, has "displaced over 500,000 people in and around the city." Most are taking refuge in the neighboring Kurdish autonomous zone. Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International's Middle East deputy program director, urged: "The Kurdistan Regional Government and neighboring countries must provide civilians fleeing the conflict with refuge. The international community must also provide support towards the humanitarian needs of people displaced as a result of the violence.” (Al Jazeera, AI, June 11) Following the fall of Mosul, ISIS militants have been advancing south, towards Baghdad. On June 11 they seized Tikrit, capital of Salaheddin governorate, just 150 kilometers from Baghdad. The Salaheddin cities of Tuz Khourmatu and Baiji are likewise reported to have fallen. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki vowed to resist the offensive and punish those in the security forces who fled after offering little or no resistance. (UN News Centre, AFP, BBC News, June 11)

Iran: May Day marchers defy authorities

Workers in several Iranian industrial centers marched on May Day in defiance of official attempts to shut them down. In the western city of Sanandaj, placards called for the release of political prisoners and detained labor leaders. Employees of the Khuzestan Pipe Factory in Ahwaz, also in the country's west, gathered in front of the governorate office with placards reading "Deprived workers in Khuzestan Pipe factory have not been paid for 6 years," and "Deprived workers in the Ahwaz City Hall have not been paid for 5 years." Security forces surrounded the march in order to prevent the spread of protests. Similar marches, bringing out hundreds, were reported from Khorramabad, Saveh and Zanjan, although a hevay police presence in the central square of Qom prevented workers from gathering there. Quick arrests also shut down an attempt by transit workers to march in the capital. Ebrahim Madadi, a leader of the Union of the Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, is among those detained. (PMOI, May 3; NCRI, RFE/RL, May 1)

Iraq: oil output surges —with terror attacks

Iraq's oil production surged to its highest level in over 30 years last month. In its monthly oil report published March 14, the International Energy Agency said Iraq's oil output jumped by half a million barrels a day in February to average 3.6 million barrels a day. The country hasn't pumped that much oil since 1979, when Saddam Hussein rose to power. (WSJ, March 14) Paradoxically, the jump comes amid a new outbreak of Iraq's terrorist insurgency. A series of car bomb attacks targeting commercial areas and a restaurant killed at least 19 people March 15 in Baghdad. On March 9, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosive-laden vehicle at a checkpoint where dozens of cars were lined up in the southern city of Hillah, killing 21 civilians—the deadliest of a series of attacks that killed 42 people that day. Last year, Iraq saw the highest death toll since 2007. The UN said violence killed 8,868 last year in Iraq. (AP, March 15; AP, March 9)

Syria: ISIS destroy Sufi shrine, impose jizya tax

Militants from the Qaeda-aligned insurgent group ISIS destroyed a Sufi Muslim shrine as they advanced on Tal Maaruf village in Syria's Kurdish-majority Hassakeh province, residents said Feb. 27. ISIS militants "blew up the shrine, and burned a mosque and a police station," said Massoud Akko, a Kurdish journalist and native of Hassakeh province, told Lebanon's Daily Star. ISIS also came under fire in their stronghold of Raqqa, as even rival jihadists criticized the group’s intention to impose a special "jizya" tax on Chrsitians and other religious minorities in their areas of control—including the provincial capital.

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