Iraq crisis: Kurdish region closes crossings to Iraqis fleeing Mosul conflict – CNN

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) — Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region closed off the crossings used by Iraqis fleeing violence in the northern city of Mosul on Saturday, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis as desperate families are left with nowhere to go.

The Kurdish regional government’s decision came on the same day Iraq’s air force carried out a series of airstrikes on Mosul, according to a senior Iraqi military official.

Hundreds of thousands fled when Iraq’s second city fell to militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) two and a half weeks ago. Many headed for Kurdish-controlled areas.

Renewed conflict in the city, located about 420 kilometers (260 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad, may now force many more to flee — but it is unclear what options they have left.

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Peshmerga fighters, or Kurdish warriors, check cars at the entrance to a temporary displacement camp in Khazair, Iraq, for people caught in the fighting in and around the city of Mosul on Thursday, June 26. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria.Peshmerga fighters, or Kurdish warriors, check cars at the entrance to a temporary displacement camp in Khazair, Iraq, for people caught in the fighting in and around the city of Mosul on Thursday, June 26. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria.
A group of women wait outside the temporary displacement camp in Khazair on June 26.A group of women wait outside the temporary displacement camp in Khazair on June 26.
Smoke rises in the Karakus district of Mosul as clashes between Iraqi forces and ISIS militants on June 26.Smoke rises in the Karakus district of Mosul as clashes between Iraqi forces and ISIS militants on June 26.
Food is handed out at the displacement camp in Khazair.Food is handed out at the displacement camp in Khazair.
A child walks over discarded water bottles and trash at a registration area at the displacement camp in Khazair on June 26.A child walks over discarded water bottles and trash at a registration area at the displacement camp in Khazair on June 26.
Kurdish Peshmerga take their positions behind a wall on the front line of the conflict with ISIS militants in Tuz Khormato, Iraq, on Wednesday, June 25.Kurdish Peshmerga take their positions behind a wall on the front line of the conflict with ISIS militants in Tuz Khormato, Iraq, on Wednesday, June 25.
Peshmerga fighters clean their weapons at a base in Tuz Khormato, Iraq, on June 25.Peshmerga fighters clean their weapons at a base in Tuz Khormato, Iraq, on June 25.
Female Peshmerga between 18 and 45 years old form a special unit that is called to serve in any conditions. A soldier is pictured here on June 25.Female Peshmerga between 18 and 45 years old form a special unit that is called to serve in any conditions. A soldier is pictured here on June 25.
A woman gathers bread in a temporary displacement camp for Iraqis caught up in the fighting in and around Mosul on Tuesday, June 24. A woman gathers bread in a temporary displacement camp for Iraqis caught up in the fighting in and around Mosul on Tuesday, June 24.
An ISIS fighter takes control of a traffic intersection in Mosul on Sunday, June 22. An ISIS fighter takes control of a traffic intersection in Mosul on Sunday, June 22.
An ISIS member distributes a copy of the Quran, Islam's holy book, to a driver in Mosul on June 22. An ISIS member distributes a copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, to a driver in Mosul on June 22.
Members of ISIS patrol in Falluja, 40 miles west of Baghdad, on Saturday, June 21. Members of ISIS patrol in Falluja, 40 miles west of Baghdad, on Saturday, June 21.
Volunteers raise their weapons and chant slogans during a parade in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, Baghdad, on Saturday, June 21. Volunteers raise their weapons and chant slogans during a parade in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, Baghdad, on Saturday, June 21.
Iraqi men register to volunteer to fight alongside security forces against Sunni Muslim militants and jihadists on Friday, June 20, at a recruitment center in Baghdad.Iraqi men register to volunteer to fight alongside security forces against Sunni Muslim militants and jihadists on Friday, June 20, at a recruitment center in Baghdad.
New Iraqi army recruits gather in Najaf on Wednesday, June 18, following a call for Iraqis to take up arms against Islamic militant fighters. New Iraqi army recruits gather in Najaf on Wednesday, June 18, following a call for Iraqis to take up arms against Islamic militant fighters.
Soldiers with an Iraqi anti-terrorism unit are on guard June 18 in Baghdad.Soldiers with an Iraqi anti-terrorism unit are on guard June 18 in Baghdad.
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter injured in clashes with members of ISIS lies in a hospital in Irbil on June 18.A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter injured in clashes with members of ISIS lies in a hospital in Irbil on June 18.
An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter lands on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, June 17. The carrier moved into the region to give President Barack Obama "additional flexibility," the Pentagon has said.An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter lands on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, June 17. The carrier moved into the region to give President Barack Obama “additional flexibility,” the Pentagon has said.
Newly recruited Iraqi volunteer fighters take part in a training session in Karbala on June 17.Newly recruited Iraqi volunteer fighters take part in a training session in Karbala on June 17.
Iraqi tribesmen gather in Baghdad on Monday, June 16, to show their readiness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Islamic militants.Iraqi tribesmen gather in Baghdad on Monday, June 16, to show their readiness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Islamic militants.
Iraqi Christian children gather inside the Church of the Virgin Mary for prayers in Bartala, Iraq, a town near Mosul, on Sunday, June 15. Militants seized Mosul last week, reportedly leading more than 500,000 people to flee Iraq's second-largest city.Iraqi Christian children gather inside the Church of the Virgin Mary for prayers in Bartala, Iraq, a town near Mosul, on Sunday, June 15. Militants seized Mosul last week, reportedly leading more than 500,000 people to flee Iraq’s second-largest city.
Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against ISIS in Basra, Iraq, on June 15. Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against ISIS in Basra, Iraq, on June 15.
Members of ISIS prepare to execute some soldiers from Iraq's security forces in this image, one of many reportedly posted by the militant group online. CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the images.Members of ISIS prepare to execute some soldiers from Iraq’s security forces in this image, one of many reportedly posted by the militant group online. CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the images.
A woman cradles her baby Thursday, June 12, at a temporary camp set up in Aski Kalak, Iraq, to shelter those fleeing the violence in northern Nineveh province.A woman cradles her baby Thursday, June 12, at a temporary camp set up in Aski Kalak, Iraq, to shelter those fleeing the violence in northern Nineveh province.
A girl fleeing from Mosul arrives at a Kurdish checkpoint on June 12.A girl fleeing from Mosul arrives at a Kurdish checkpoint on June 12.
Iraqi men chant slogans outside of an army recruiting center to volunteer for military service June 12 in Baghdad.Iraqi men chant slogans outside of an army recruiting center to volunteer for military service June 12 in Baghdad.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces, along with Iraqi special forces, deploy their troops and armored vehicles outside of Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 12.Kurdish Peshmerga forces, along with Iraqi special forces, deploy their troops and armored vehicles outside of Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 12.
Children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS militants in Mosul on Tuesday, June 10.Children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS militants in Mosul on Tuesday, June 10.
Civilians from Mosul escape to a refugee camp near Irbil, Iraq, on June 10. Civilians from Mosul escape to a refugee camp near Irbil, Iraq, on June 10.
Iraqis fleeing the violence wait in their vehicles at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski Kalak on June 10.Iraqis fleeing the violence wait in their vehicles at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski Kalak on June 10.

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Photos: Iraq under siegePhotos: Iraq under siege

Gen. Hilgord Hikmet, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighting force known as the Peshmerga, told CNN that the two main entrances from Mosul to Irbil and Duhok are now shut.

“No one from Mosul can now enter the Kurdistan region,” he said. Refugees already in the Kurdish region are allowed to leave the area but are not allowed to come back, according to Hikmet.

This measure — taken to preserve security and the region’s stability, Hikmet said — comes two days after a suicide car bomb struck a checkpoint manned by Kurdish forces in Kolchali, northeast of Mosul, according to Kurdish security forces in Irbil.

At least one Kurdish security officer was killed and 15 other people were wounded in that incident, security forces said.

Mosul airstrikes

Iraq’s air force targeted locations held by ISIS when it struck Mosul from the air Saturday morning, the senior Iraqi military official told CNN.

The official, who could not be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the strikes were carried out by Iraqi jet fighters firing Hellfire missiles.

Seven civilians were killed when a house was struck in Mosul’s Bashtabia neighborhood and two were injured, according to Dr. Salaheddin Thanoon al-Niaimi, general director of the Health Directorate of Nineveh province.

The Iraqi air force also struck an outdoor market in central Mosul and wounded 11 people, he said.

A week ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq put the number who fled Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city, at about 800,000, about half the city’s population.

Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish region’s president, said on Friday that disputed areas of northern Iraq, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, will from now on be part of the Kurdish autonomous region, after Iraq’s central government failed to hold a long-awaited referendum.

More than a week ago, when the Iraqi army withdrew from Kirkuk, the Peshmerga took control of the city, as well as many of the disputed villages.

ISIS has taken over swaths of northern and western Iraq in its quest to create an Islamic state stretching from Syria to Iraq.

Reports: Iraqi forces take Tikrit

Iraqi security forces went on the offensive against the Sunni extremist militants on Saturday, with state media and a local tribal leader saying they had retaken the city of Tikrit, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

Sheikh Khamis al-Joubouri, a key tribal leader in Tikrit, told CNN that the Iraqi security forces entered the city supported by special forces and fighters from among the local tribes, and had gained control.

He said that fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) retreated in the direction of Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces.

However, amid claim and counter-claim, a combatant told a CNN freelance reporter that ISIS fighters remained in control of Tikrit, but that there are fierce clashes in an area about 20 kilometers from the city center, toward Samarra.

State-run Iraqiya TV reported that the Iraqi army and volunteer militia groups had cleared ISIS fighters from the city, having advanced on the city from four directions.

Sabah Numan, a Counter Terrorism Unit spokesman, told the station that 120 militants had been killed and 20 vehicles destroyed in a large-scale operation that began Saturday morning.

CNN cannot independently confirm the reports.

Al-Joubouri said that the tribes were not aligned with the government or with ISIS and had stayed out of the fight until now.

But, he said, when ISIS fighters who arrived in Tikrit robbed banks and carried out executions, as well as bringing the local economy to a standstill, the tribal leaders offered their help to the Iraqi security forces poised outside the city. The tribal leaders shared their knowledge of the city, including routes and known ISIS positions, he said.

On Friday, Human Rights Watch reported that two mass graves believed to contain the bodies of Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians killed by ISIS and their militant allies had been discovered in Tikrit.

Iraq’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, told a news briefing Saturday that Iraq’s forces had regained the upper hand against ISIS and were now being supported by the tribes.

“We are advancing in all our fights,” he said.

Atta said that a total of 125 ISIS fighters had been killed across Iraq in multiple operations, with 57 vehicles destroyed and 96 attack sorties flown by the air force.

In one setback for the military, seven Iraqi soldiers were killed and 29 were wounded on Saturday in clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS at a military base in the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, about 85 kilometers (53 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraqi security officials said.

Mass graves, executions

Reports continue to emerge of atrocities committed by both sides.

Besides the alleged Tikrit executions, Human Rights Watch said Saturday that ISIS fighters kidnapped at least 40 Shia Turkmen, dynamited four Shia places of worship, and ransacked homes and farms in two Shia villages just outside Mosul, citing displaced residents and local activists and journalists.

The few Sunni villagers who remained told those who fled that at least some of the kidnapped men had been killed, the rights group said. However, they had not seen bodies and could not give more information.

ISIS destroyed seven Shia places of worship in the predominantly Shia Turkmen city of Tal Afar, about 30 miles west of Mosul, earlier in the week, Human Rights Watch added, citing local sources.

“The ISIS rampage is part of a long pattern of attack by armed Sunni extremists on Turkmen and other minorities,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The killing, bombing, and pillaging threatens to displace entire communities, possibly forever.”

The two villages, Guba and Shireekhan, were initially seized by ISIS on June 10, during their advance on Mosul.

On Friday, Amnesty International said it had gathered evidence pointing to a pattern of “extrajudicial executions” of Sunni detainees by government forces and Shiite militias in the northern cities of Tal Afar, Mosul and Baquba.

“Reports of multiple incidents where Sunni detainees have been killed in cold blood while in the custody of Iraqi forces are deeply alarming,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, who is in northern Iraq.

“The killings suggest a worrying pattern of reprisal attacks against Sunnis in retaliation for ISIS.”

‘Baghdad is safe’

Armed U.S. drones have started flying over Baghdad to provide additional protection for 180 U.S. military advisers in the area, a U.S. official told CNN on Friday.

But using the drones for any offensive strikes against ISIS would require approval from U.S. President Barack Obama.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in a speech during a visit Friday to the Baghdad Operations Command, insisted the capital was not in danger.

“We have an army to respond to the catastrophe that has occurred, and Baghdad is safe and cannot be exposed to instability,” he said, according to a statement released by his office.

“We will punish anyone making problems in the city of Baghdad.”

The Prime Minister, who is widely blamed for fostering sectarian division, is under pressure to allow the formation of an inclusive government. Iraq’s newly elected Parliament is due to meet on Tuesday.

CNN’s Arwa Damon, Chelsea J. Carter and Hamdi Alkhshali reported from Baghdad, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN’s Mohammed Tawfeeq, Raja Razek, Ali Younes and Yousuf Basil contributed to this report, as did journalist Shirko Raouf.



Iraq crisis: Kurdish region closes crossings to Iraqis fleeing Mosul conflict – CNN

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