Philippines’ Duterte declares liberation of Marawi from ISIS-affiliated militants

The Philippines city of Marawi has been liberated from ISIS-affiliated militants following a five-month standoff, President Rodrigo Duterte announced Tuesday.”I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning …

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Kirkuk: A crisis waiting to happen, with consequences for region

Two armies funded and trained by the United States have faced off in northern Iraq, in a confrontation that, while seemingly over for now, could have lasting consequences for the future of the country and the broader Middle East.

The Iraqi Security Forces and pro-Iranian Shia militia took direct control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk on Monday after being ordered to seize infrastructure that had been under Kurdish control. The forces entered the disputed city and set up checkpoints around its perimeter, while witnesses saw a sole Iraqi flag flying atop the governor’s headquarters. The building usually holds both the Kurdish and Iraqi flags.

This confrontation always seemed likely, even inevitable. Not only does Kirkuk sit on one of Iraq’s main ethnic and sectarian fault lines; it’s also surrounded by some of the country’s most valuable oil fields.

Referendum upped the stakes

The stakes were raised last month when the Kurdish leadership held an independence referendum in the face of international criticism and deep hostility from Baghdad. The decision to extend the vote to disputed areas such as Kirkuk, outside Iraqi Kurdistan’s accepted borders, made a bad situation worse.

The city and its surroundings have long been a diverse area comprising Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Kurds returned to Kirkuk in huge numbers after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and further entrenched their control in 2014 when repelling ISIS advances.

Iraq’s Constitutional Court ruled against the referendum, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi called it illegitimate. But the vote went ahead.

Abadi had the option of acquiescing and agreeing to negotiate Iraqi Kurdistan’s long-term future, or refusing to accept the challenge it presented to Iraq’s integrity. He chose the latter, no doubt under pressure from pro-Iranian Shia militia leaders who have long warned that Kirkuk is a red line.

US efforts to calm the situation have so far come to nought. Before the referendum the State Department urged Kurdish leaders “to accept a serious and sustained dialogue with the central government, facilitated by the United States and United Nations.”

The Kurdistan Regional Government ignored the appeal in the belief the referendum would strengthen its hand in negotiations.

Clashes come days after Trump’s Iran speech

Nor has the United States been able to prevail upon Baghdad to exercise restraint. It may be no accident that the advance on Kirkuk came three days after US President Donald Trump’s speech on Iran and the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity.

The Quds Force, an arm of the IRGC, is a powerful player in Iraq — training and supplying Shia militia in the fight against ISIS. Its commander, Major General Qassem Suleimani, appears to spend as much time in Iraq as he does in Iran.

The question now is whether the Iraqi army and its allies will be satisfied with their gains or emboldened to roll back the Kurds still further.

It’s unclear whether the United States was aware of Iraqi plans to advance on Kirkuk. A statement from the Coalition spokesman in Baghdad on Monday said: “We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate.” The coalition “strongly urges all sides to avoid escalatory actions,” it said. But by then, Iraqi forces had moved forward across a wide front.

Across the region — in Iraq, Syria and Turkey — Washington’s preferences and demands have to compete with others in a crowded space, a space where Russia and Iran are sometimes seen as more persistent and determined.

The Kurds are also hobbled by internal rifts, with reports that units loyal to one faction — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — were among the first to refuse to fight and withdrew from their divisions.

ISIS’ defeat sets off turf wars

A deal to resolve the current crisis is still possible, but the underlying tensions will not go away. The events of the last decade have persuaded many Kurds, especially the younger generation, that they have no future inside a weak and violent Iraq, and that Baghdad will always cheat the Kurds, one way or another.

Kurdish officials have always expected that post-ISIS larger conflicts would erupt. One senior commander told CNN two years ago that ISIS was no more than an irritant to the Kurds. What they really feared was expansionist Shia militia, well equipped and funded by Iran.

ISIS now faces the loss of the last scraps of territory it holds in Iraq and Syria, to a US-backed force in Raqqa, and to the Syrian army near the Iraqi border.

But its defeat is setting off multiple turf wars. For now, most of those are working out in Iran’s favor.

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Israel targets Syrian anti-aircraft battery in retaliation

Israel’s military says its warplanes struck a Syrian anti-aircraft battery near Damascus on Monday after the battery fired on its planes.

An Israeli army spokesman said Israeli planes were conducting routine reconnaissance over Lebanon near the Syrian border when an anti-aircraft missile was launched at the Israeli jets.

A few hours later, Israeli aircraft struck the battery, located 50 kilometers east of Damascus.

Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said none of the aircraft were hit and all returned to their bases safely.

Initial reports suggested the battery was “incapacitated” after the attack, Conricus said, indicating its “most important element” was destroyed. The battery can be fixed in the future, Conricus added.

Russia ‘informed of attack’

Russia had been informed of the attack in real time, Conricus said.

The Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu, who is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Monday, will get a full briefing of the strike. Israel and Russia coordinate their military over Syria for deconfliction. The military coordination, touted by both governments, began when Russian forces entered in Syria in late 2015.

Israel has largely stayed out of the fighting in Syria, but has occasionally carried out strikes on Syrian military positions. In September, Israeli jets reportedly struck a Syrian military research facility in northwestern Hama province, killing two army personnel.

Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror said it was the first time Israel has targeted a military center instead of a warehouse or weapons convoy.

Israel has struck Syria “dozens of times” in the past, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Most often, these reported strikes target weapons shipments from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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Drone hits passenger plane in Canada

A drone crashed into a commercial airplane in Canada, the first time such an incident has occurred in the country, the government said Sunday.

A plane operated by charter airline Skyjet was approaching Quebec City’s Jean Lesage International Airport on Thursday when a drone struck one of its wings, according to local media reports. There were six passengers and two crew members aboard the plane.

“I am extremely relieved that the aircraft only sustained minor damage and was able to land safely,” Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement Sunday.

Based in Quebec, Skyjet operates a fleet of small twin-engine aircraft, according to its website. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment outside regular business hours.

The rapidly growing use of drones by consumers around the world has led to an upswing in the number of encounters between the remote-controlled devices and planes. Transportation authorities have been trying to come up with rules to avoid a disaster.

Earlier this year, Canada announced safety measures making it illegal to fly recreational drones within 5.5 kilometers (3.5 miles) of an airport, and restricting the height of a drone’s flight to 90 meters (about 300 feet). Punishment for breaking the regulations can include a fine of as much as 25,000 Canadian dollars ($20,000) and a prison sentence.

The drone that struck the passenger plane last week was following the 3.5-mile restriction, but was flying much higher than legally allowed, hovering some 450 meters (1,500 feet) above the ground.

“If a drone were to hit the window of a cockpit and incapacitate the pilot, or were to damage in anyway an engine, this could have catastrophic results,” Garneau said at a news conference.

A commercial drone flew dangerously close to a passenger plane in China earlier this year, prompting authorities to detain the drone’s pilot. In the U.K., the pilot of a British Airways flight said a drone struck the front of the aircraft during its approach to Heathrow airport last year.

Dubai’s airport last year said it was carrying out trials of a “drone hunter” — a remote-controlled aircraft to detect drones that are in danger of straying into the airport’s space — after unauthorized drone activity forced the airport, the third busiest in the world, to shut down several times.

In Canada, officials say that of the roughly 1,600 drone incidents reported to authorities so far this year, 131 posed a threat to aviation safety.

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Somalia explosions kill at least 100 in Mogadishu

At least 100 people are dead after two car bombs rocked Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu Police Captain Farah Osman said Sunday. 

The attacks happened Saturday.

The initial explosion destroyed dozens of stalls and a popular hotel in the heart of the city.

Qatar’s Embassy was also severely damaged, according to a statement from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One member of the embassy staff suffered minor injuries, a statement said.

Minutes after the first blast, a second vehicle bomb went off nearby.

There have been no claims of responsibility.

Security forces had been tipped off about the vehicle carrying explosives and were pursuing it in the busy K5 district of the city when the explosion happened, said Col. Ahmed Hassan of the Mogadishu police.

Footage from the scene showed damaged buildings and a burning truck at the first blast site. A large white building had collapsed into a pile of rubble and other structures appeared blackened and destroyed.

Other videos from the scene posted on social media showed a huge plume of black smoke rising from the blast site.

The UK ambassador to Somalia, David Concar, tweeted that the blast was clearly audible from inside the British Embassy. He also posted a video clip showing thick, dark smoke on the skyline.

Mogadishu, a large city on the east African nation’s coast, has endured high levels of violence in recent years.

Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked terror group, has carried out several deadly car bomb attacks in the city this year.

Somalis also face another threat — starvation.

The country is in the midst of a severe drought and 3.1 million people are threatened by famine because of the food shortages and violence, according to reports from the United Nations this year.

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