The UNESCO World Heritage Committee said June 29 that extremist groups' destruction of antiquities and heritage sites in conflict zones could amount to war crimes. The committee noted particularly the Islamic State's destruction of the ancient city of Hatra in Iraq, and was deeply concerned about the group's capture of Palmyra in May. Both cities are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and carry much archaeological significance. The committee adopted a resolution which states in part that "[i]ntentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments may amount to war crimes." The resolution also expressed UNESCO's deep shock and alarm at the repeated attacks by ISIS "aimed at destroying cultural diversity through deliberate targeting of individuals and communities on the basis of cultural, ethnic or religious background, as well as places of worship, memory and learning," as well as looting and excavations that "seriously undermine irreplaceable cultural treasures."
The Pentagon announced June 23 that Ali Awni al-Harzi, a suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, was killed eight days earlier by a US air-strike in Mosul, Iraq. The Defense Department describes al-Harzi as a "person of interest" in the Benghazi attack, adding that he "operated closely with multiple ISIL-associated extremists throughout North Africa and the Middle East." In April, both the US State Department and the United Nations designated al-Harzi as a terrorist. The State Department found that Harzi "joined Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AAS-T) in 2011 and was a high-profile member known for recruiting volunteers, facilitating the travel of AAS-T fighters to Syria, and for smuggling weapons and explosives into Tunisia." Ansar al-Sharia works closely with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The State Department's designation did not mention Harzi's role in the Benghazi attack, but the UN's designation for Harzi reads: "Planned and perpetrated the attack against the Consulate of the United States in Benghazi, Libya on 11 Sep. 2012."
A new group of 450 military advisors is being dispatched to Iraq, the White House announced June 10, bringing the total of US troops in the country to 3,500. The immediate goal is retaking Ramadi from ISIS. The new advisors are assigned to Taqaddum military base, between Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar governorate, bringing to five the number of bases housing US troops in Iraq. US advisors are currently training some 3,000 Iraqi troops, but news accounts said that the forces to be trained at Taqaddum are to include "local Sunni fighters." (Reuters, Bloomberg, June 10) This is presumably meant to counter-balance the Shi'ite militias that have been leading the fight against ISIS in central Iraq (and are accused of reprisals against Sunni non-combatants), but it still represents an official US embrace of sectarian militias rather than the increasingly fictional "official" Iraqi army.
The New York Times offers this sobering lede on the anti-ISIS summit now underway: "With Islamist militant fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq moving faster than the international coalition arrayed against them, a meeting in Paris by coalition members on Tuesday seemed unlikely to reverse the momentum anytime soon. With the French and American governments playing host, 24 foreign ministers or their representatives have been meeting here in the aftermath of serious losses to the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria last month and the possibility that more territory will be lost in the coming days." Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose forces are virtually collapsing, was of course on hand to appeal for more aid. (Reuters) Disgracefully, no Kurdish leaders were invited to the summit—despite the fact that Kurdish forces have been by far most effective on the ground against ISIS. "The [Iraqi] federal government didn't invite any representative from Kurdistan to the Paris meeting and have participated in this gathering alone," reads a statement from the Kurdish Regional Government. "The Peshmerga are the only forces that have so far bravely battled the terrorists and driven them out of our territories." (IBT) Needless to say, no representatives of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria were invited either.
Haider Shasho, commander of the Yezidi Shingal Protection Forces in northern Iraq, met with the Yazidi community in the German city of Cologne last week to discuss the circumstances of his arrest by Kurdish authorities. Shasho said he was arrested April 5 for attempting to form a separate Yazidi force to fight ISIS outside the command of the Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He added that the incident shows that Yazidis must establish their own autonomous zone within the KRG. "We intend to form an independent Yezidi entity in northern Iraq, to guarantee equal rights to the members of our community there," he said. "We as Yezidis will not detach ourselves from the Kurdistan Region, we are also Kurds, it's our right as part of the Kurdish people to have an independent political and administrative entity, so we can serve our people and protect their rights."
The Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to ISIS over the weekend, sending 25,000 residents fleeing. Government forces defending the city reportedly abandoned their positions after days of intense fighting. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called up Shi'ite militias to re-take the city. A broad front of Shi'ite militias is operating under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units or Hashed al-Shaabi. the Anbar Provincial Council said Sunni tribal militias would also join the offensive to retake the city. (BBC News, Reuters, IraqNews, BasNews)
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that ISIS forces are advancing on the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UN World Heritage Site, where it is feared they will carry on their campaign against the archaeological treasures of the Fertile Crescent. ISIS militants have already seized parts of adjacent city of Tadmur. Palmyra and Tadmur are situated in a strategic area on the road betwee Damascus and the contested eastern city of Deir al-Zour, and close to gas fields (BBC News) ISIS militants have executed 26 civilians in villages they seized near Palmyra, according to the Syrian Observatory. "Daesh executed 26 civilians, including at least 10 by beheading, after accusing them of collaborating with the Syrian regime," said the Observatory. (AFP)
Over the past two months, the ISIS international franchise has made foreboding gains from West Africa to the Indian subcontinent. In Nigeria, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in March, according to the anti-terrorist monitoring group SITE. The pledge, attributed to Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, was made in an audio posted on Twitter (and since removed). "We announce our allegiance to the Caliph... and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity," SITE quoted the statement. (Al Jazeera, March 8)