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Iraq retakes Saddam birthplace Trapped Indian nurses freed ... to return home

BAGHDAD, July 4, (Agencies): The Iraqi army retook Saddam Hussein’s home village overnight, a symbolic victory in its struggle to seize back swathes of the country from Sunni insurgents. Backed by helicopter gunships and helped by Shi’ite Muslim volunteers, the army recaptured the village of Awja in an hour-long battle on Thursday night, according to state media, police and local inhabitants. Awja lies 8 kms (5 miles) south of Tikrit, a city that remains in rebel hands since Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), launched a lightning assault across northern Iraq last month. The offensive to retake Tikrit began on June 28, but the army has still failed to retake the city which fell after the police and army imploded last month in the face of the militant onslaught that also captured Mosul and other major Sunni areas. The military spokesman of embattled Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Awja had been “totally cleansed” and 30 militants killed, according to state television.

A police source told Reuters three insurgents had been killed. The birthplace of Saddam, Awja benefited hugely from the largesse of the Sunni dictator before his ousting by the US invasion of 2003 and locals remained fiercely loyal to the man who would select his relatives from the area for top posts. Spokesman Qassim Atta said security forces had seized control of several government buildings, including a water treatment plant, but security sources and residents said militants were still holding Iraqi forces from entering Tikrit. The army said it now held the 50-kms (30-mile) stretch of highway running north from the city of Samarra — which is 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad — to Awja.

But the mainly Sunni communities along this corridor remain hostile towards government forces and army convoys continue to come under guerrilla attack. Military officials in the United States, which has deployed advisers to Iraq, believe the Iraqi army will be able to defend Baghdad but struggle to recapture lost territory, mainly because of logistical weaknesses. Government forces could benefit if cracks in the loose alliance of insurgents in Sunni majority areas widens.

In the town of Hawija, site of infighting last month between Islamist fighters and Sunni militia forces, members of local Sunni tribes told Reuters that community members had organised to fight against the militants in control of the town. Members of the Al-Obaidi tribe were angered over the militants’ seizure of homes of local sheikhs and officials and had formed an armed group that killed five insurgents on patrol in the town on Friday, residents said.

The onslaught by Islamic State, an alQaeda splinter group that has declared a medieval-style Islamic caliphate erasing the borders of Iraq and Syria, and threatened to march on Baghdad, has left the Shi’ite-led government in disarray. Parliament was unable this week to pick a new government to unite the ethnically divided country, something the most senior Shi’ite cleric on Friday called a “regrettable failure”. In a sermon delivered by his aide, Sistani Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on politicians to avoid “mistakes of the past that have grave consequences for the future of the Iraqis.” Sistani reiterated his call for the government to have “broad national acceptance”, a formulation many officials interpret as a call for Maliki — blamed by Sunnis for marginalising them and worsening ethnic tensions — to go. In the governing system set up after Saddam’s fall, the prime minister has traditionally been Shi’ite, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and the largely ceremonial president a Kurd. None of the blocs has settled on a nominee.

On June 13, Sistani called for Iraqis to take up arms against the insurgency — an unusually assertive declaration for the 83- year-old cleric, who favours a behind-thescenes role. In the Friday sermon, he reiterated volunteer fighters should be organised through an official framework. The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region asked its parliament on Thursday to plan a referendum on independence. Although they share Baghdad’s determination to face down the Islamist insurgency, many Kurds see the crisis as a golden opportunity to create their own state.

Meanwhile, the US is not close to launching a military assault against an Iraqi insurgent group but “may get to that point” if the militants become a threat to the American homeland, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday. Gen Martin Dempsey told Pentagon reporters that he does not, at this point, believe the US needs to send in an “industrial strength” force with a mountain of supplies to bolster the Iraqi troops as they battle the fast-moving Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, insurgency. Instead he said the most urgent need still is a political solution centered on a more inclusive Iraqi government. “That’s obviously one possibility, but it’s not one that personally I think the situation demands,” Dempsey said when asked about plans to send more troops. “I think the situation demands first and foremost that the Iraqi political system find a way to separate the Sunnis who have partnered now with ISIL, because they have zero confidence in the ability of Iraq’s politicians to govern.” Offering his most extensive comments to date on the state of Iraq and the US military’s effort there, Dempsey said the US is still assessing the situation, and American troops are not involved in combat. “This is not 2003. It’s not 2006. This is a very different approach than we’ve taken in the past,” Dempsey said. “Assessing, advising and enabling are very different words than ... attacking, defeating and disrupting. We may get to that point, if our national interests drive us there, if ISIL becomes such a threat to the homeland that the president of the United States, with our advice, decides we have to take direct action. I’m just suggesting to you we’re not there yet.”

Dempsey laid out a grim assessment of the Iraqi security forces, saying that while they are capable of defending Baghdad, they don’t have the logistical ability to launch an offensive. The ISIL, meanwhile, has made significant and rapid advances but is now stretched in their ability to control the land it has taken, he said. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking at the same Pentagon news conference, announced that about 200 US military advisers are now in country assessing the situation, and they have opened a second joint operating center in the north in Irbil. The additional advisers increase the US presence in Iraq by a bit.

The US has more than 750 troops in Iraq, mainly providing security for the embassy and the airport, as well as assessing the Iraqi security forces. ISIL announced this week that it has unilaterally established a caliphate in the areas under its control, including portions of northern Syria and northern and western Iraq, along the border with Syria. As it swept across northern Iraq, the group gained support from other Sunnis, fueled by their frustrations with the Shiite-led government. President Barack Obama, who pulled the last US troops out of Iraq in 2011 ending the eight-year war, has said he will not send combat troops back into the country. Instead, he has sent a limited number of advisers and security forces to protect the embassy and other US interests.

On Capitol Hill, 80 House members sent a letter to Obama pressing him to seek congressional approval before any military action in Iraq, citing the Constitution and arguing that “the use of military force in Iraq is something the Congress should fully debate and authorize.” Reps. Barbara Lee and Scott Rigell led the effort, a reflection of congressional unease about greater US involvement in Iraq. Meanwhile, a group of 46 Indian nurses trapped in an area of Iraq seized by Islamic militants were set to fly home after being freed from the rebel-held city of Mosul, Indian officials said Friday. “Ultimately, it is hope that has triumphed,” Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry, told reporters. “I can confirm to you that those Indian nurses who were yesterday moved against their will are now free.”

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