The Latest Military Offensives Against ISIS

Iraqi security troops, Shiite militias, and other forces have nearly surrounded Fallujah one week after they began a military offensive to recapture the city from Islamic State militants.

The forces were stationed outside Fallujah Sunday, and will eventually advance on the city, Reuters reported, citing state media.

Government forces and militias began their approach in the hours between May 22 and May 23, and are backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes. They have seized some villages and other rural areas this week in their march toward Fallujah. The city, located east of Baghdad,  was the first of several to fall to ISIS in January 2014, six months before the militant group declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and Western nations began considering air strikes. The city’s 50,000 residents have remained trapped since. At least 3,000 people have fled Fallujah to safety in the last few days, and some have been killed trying to escape, according to humanitarian agencies. The coming onslaught is expected to further endanger the remaining residents.

Iraqi forces on Sunday launched other offensives against ISIS elsewhere in Iraq. Government troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters attacked ISIS militants in village east of the city of Mosul, which has been under ISIS control since June 2014. U.S. and Iraq officials hope to attempt to recapture Mosul if the offensive in Fallujah succeeds.

Reuters reported Sunday service members from the U.S.-led coalition were present on the front line near Mosul. Fighting appeared “heavy,” Reuters said:

Pick up trucks raced back from the frontline with wounded people in the back, and two of the U.S.-led coalition servicemen helped haul one man onto a stretcher.

Gunfire and airstrikes could be heard at a distance, while Apache helicopters flew overhead. One of the villages, Mufti, was captured by mid-day, the Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement.

Video footage from reporters on the ground in Saqlawiyah, located north of Fallujah, showed soldiers firing artillery, some wearing long-sleeved camouflage shirts and pants, others in T-shirts.

In Syria, rebels drove ISIS militants out of the the villages of Kafr Shoush and Braghida Sunday, the AP reported. ISIS had swept the villages earlier this week, catching the rebels by surprise.

The U.S. has said ISIS has lost 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and 10 percent in Syria after more than a year of bombing by coalition forces.

No Kurd Will Die to Restore Iraqi Unity

This week marked the start of offensives ultimately aimed at retaking two of ISIS’s last major urban strongholds—Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria, and Fallujah, the first major Iraqi city to fall to ISIS some two years ago. The final prize, Mosul, seems to remain out of reach for the foreseeable future, despite indications a year ago that a battle to retake the city could come any day. An Iraqi army offensive launched in late March stalled quickly.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city. ISIS wrested it from Iraqi government control in 2014 in its first major show of strength, and it is where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” and demanded the allegiance of the world’s Muslims. Taking it back will be essential to winning the war against ISIS. But as fighters opposed to ISIS try to advance elsewhere on the battlefield, little is being done to promote the reconciliation between Shia and Sunni Arabs that Iraq really needs—both to construct a force capable of beating ISIS, in Mosul and beyond, and to create the political conditions to prevent its return.

ISIS and the ‘Loser Effect’


We—the Kurds in Iraq—believe the road to Mosul begins in Baghdad. My colleagues in the Kurdistan Region Security Council and I are working closely with the global coalition in the war on ISIS and planning for the Mosul offensive. (I’m writing here in a personal capacity.) Our peshmerga remain the most effective ground force against ISIS in Iraq, and have already defeated the group on every major front where we’ve faced them, pushing the jihadists to the edge of Mosul after the group’s attempts to expand north from the city. Joint raids by U.S. and Kurdish special-operations forces in and around the city, as well as in Syria, have netted troves of intelligence on the group’s operations and finances.

And our peshmerga will continue creating the conditions to allow a liberating force to take Mosul back. We have let the Iraqi army to use Kurdish territory as a staging ground. Since doing so, in fact, we’ve seen a sudden increase in ISIS attacks into Kurdish-held territory. But our brave men alone cannot go into Mosul, an Arab city, where they would be seen as an occupying force. Put simply, given that we Kurds aspire to run our own affairs in our own territory in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, no peshmerga will die to restore Iraqi unity. The Kurds cannot force Shia and Sunni Arabs to live together in peace.

At least 40,000 peshmerga continue to hold a 600-mile border against ISIS in northern Iraq. These fighters have relied on mostly aging, Soviet-era equipment to clear over 8,000 miles of territory. We intend to keep it all, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Iraqi army abandoned in June 2014 as ISIS swept across northern Iraq. We are part of the global coalition against ISIS, and Islamic State-occupied territory remains a threat to us, so we have an interest in participating in the Mosul operation. But we expect the Iraqi government to compensate us, both militarily and politically.

Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has announced plans for an independence referendum later this year in territories reclaimed by the peshmerga. I and many of my compatriots in the Kurdistan region believe the Iraqi government in Baghdad is deliberately pushing us away: It has suspended of our share of the country’s oil revenues for the last two years, withheld payments to the peshmerga, and lobbied against our attempts to purchase arms for the war on ISIS. In 2015, for instance, we received only one weapons shipment from Baghdad. It was mostly ammunition. For the rest, we had to rely on other countries.

took back from ISIS last December in its first major victory against the group. In that case, the government could rely on a small but cohesive Sunni front to help. This meant that the operation did not require Shia militias to occupy the Sunni city. Given the brutality some of those militias have displayed elsewhere, many locals might not prefer that state of affairs to ISIS rule.

Mosul, on the other hand, is a much larger city, with a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. It’s the political and tribal center of anti-government sentiment. The Kurdish government and the international anti-ISIS coalition have estimated that there are nearly 9,000 die-hard ISIS fighters in the city, and that dislodging them will require at least two divisions, or 30,000 men, engaged in house-to-house fighting for up to six months. As of now, however, nearly two years since Mosul fell, just 5,400 men from the Iraqi army are in place in Makhmour, south of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, 50 miles from Mosul.

The U.S. is devoting painstaking efforts to keeping Shia militias out of Mosul, where their involvement could begin an endless cycle of score-settling and diminish hopes that the Sunnis will turn against ISIS and revolt. But it was this same kind of Sunni revolt that was required to defeat the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the effort against ISIS cannot succeed without a similar mobilization in the Sunni areas where the group predominates. The volunteers in the current fight, however, are riven by ethnic differences and mistrust. Each group is competing for influence in a post-ISIS Mosul; some, backed by Turkey, antagonize the Iranian-backed Shia militias. Iran and Turkey, in turn, are filling the vacuum left by the government in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government, whose policies created the current crisis, has left those same policies largely in place. Officials have done little to offer Mosul’s people an alternative between domination by Shia militias on the one hand or ISIS control on the other.

But the right policies can increase the operation’s chances of success. Baghdad can do more to encourage a Sunni-led revolt. There are over a million mostly Sunni Arabs living in displacement in the Kurdistan region, and in our conversations with them they’ve expressed that they’re not interested in fighting for Mosul unless political and security guarantees come from Baghdad. Further devolution of power to Sunni provinces can give the community a stake in the country’s future and buy-in to the political process.

And if Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wants to encourage more peshmerga participation in the fight for Mosul—including help organizing Sunni groups—he can restore federal payments to Kurdistan and provide equipment. These are rights, not privileges, enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution. The peshmerga have not been paid for five months. His government’s practice of providing arms to Kurdish groups that refuse to come under the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs undermines our region and should stop.

These gestures would lesson tensions and give the Kurds incentives to fight a battle that’s fundamentally not theirs. Beyond the Mosul operation, Abadi can accept he cannot hold back the Kurds, and offer political recognition of our national goals. We will not return to a united Iraq if Mosul is liberated. The gulf between our government in Erbil and the Iraqi government in Baghdad is unbridgeable.

We can provide the means for a swift victory. But the ability to hold Mosul in the long term will depend on the Shia-led government reaching an inclusive political agreement with its Sunni community. The Sunnis, too, need their autonomy in the areas they dominate, including the parts of northern and western Iraq where ISIS currently holds sway. The right to create federal regions is stipulated in the Iraqi constitution, and many Sunni officials believe doing so holds the key to a secure future. In the past, however, calls for a regional government in Sunni areas, similar to what the Kurds have, were met with the arrival of the Iraqi army and a declaration of martial law by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The Kurds believe long-term stability can only be achieved by recognizing the new, de facto segregated Iraq. No amount of firepower will deliver peace.

The Big Stories This Week: Obama in Hiroshima, Lego Debates, and More

The Politics of Saying Sorry

This week, Obama visited Hiroshima—the Japanese city on which the U.S. launched the first-ever atomic bomb strike—becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so. There, he laid wreaths at a memorial to victims of the blast, met with survivors, and pushed for an end to nuclear warfare. One thing he didn’t do? Apologize for the attack.

Should he have? Uri investigated the international “politics of apologizing”: “Setting aside the arguments for and against the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what makes apologizing different for countries than for people?” And Alan compiled photos of Hiroshima—then and now.  

Berning Bridges

Another week down, still no Democratic nominee. “Is Sanders—the onetime liberal gadfly whose views few of his colleagues heeded—simply enjoying the spotlight’s validating glow for as long as it lasts?” Molly asked. “Or is he as delusional as some of his dead-ender fans? It’s impossible to tell.”

Either way, it’s probably not good for the party. And “with Trump stirring in these early polls, that healing process can’t start too soon to soothe the nerves of anxious Democrats,” Ron wrote. Last week, Clare hit on this: “As the Sanders campaign presses forward, it must carefully consider whether the senator’s ambition for a political revolution is a goal best achieved by actively stoking the anger of his supporters—and, in a sense, encouraging them to tear it all down.” Readers are weighing in on the race here.

Brick by Brick

“If you want to look at how a toy evolves over time, Legos are probably your best bet,” Julie wrote. She and Adrienne both delved into the plastic-brick manufacturer’s transitions over time—and what they say about our society.

In 2012, the company launched its Friends line—which “includes a pop star’s house, limousine, TV studio, recording studio, dressing room, and tour bus; a cupcake cafe; a giant treehouse; a supermarket; and a hair salon”—targeted at young girls. Still, “Lego hasn’t been able to shake the perception that original Legos are for boys,” Adrienne writes. “Friends, not surprisingly, hasn’t helped.” Despite the rosy release, the overall amount of plastic weaponry in Lego sets has only increased: As Julie reported,“the proportion of sets [since 1978] that included weapons increased by an average of 7.6 percent annually.”

Above All, Calories

Counting calories just got a lot easier, literally: Michelle Obama, the healthy-eating movement’s leading surrogate, unveiled the FDA’s new label design, featuring a significantly enlarged calorie reading.

But James critiqued the changes: “Calories are one metric to consider among many—they tell us nothing other than, if we were to set fire to this food, how much energy would be released?”

Five Things You Shouldn’t Miss

Talk Back

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Obama’s Historic Hiroshima Visit

President Obama became the first sitting American leader to make a trip to Hiroshima, the Japanese city bombed by the U.S. with a nuclear device in 1945.

At a ceremony at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Obama and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, stood in front of the eternal flame. The American president laid a wreath at the memorial; the Japanese leader also laid a wrath there.  

He then signed a guest book at the memorial: “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”

At a news conference Thursday in Japan, which he was visiting for a meeting of the Group of 7 industrialized nation, Obama provided the rationale for why he’s the first American leader to visit the memorial: “Part of the reason I’m going is because I want to once again underscore the very real risks [of nuclear weapons] that are out there and the sense of urgency that we all should have.”

You can watch Friday’s ceremony here:

Obama has made clear that he won’t apologize for the bombing on August 6, 1945, that ultimately led to Japan’s surrender in World War II. Two other American presidents have visited Hiroshima: Jimmy Carter visited on May 5, 1984, long after he’d left the White House. Richard Nixon went on April 11, 1964, four years before he won the presidential election.

Iceland’s Isolated Beauty

What happens when Iceland, an island nation with 330,000 residents, starts welcoming 1.2 million tourists a year? Feargus O’Sullivan, of our sister site CityLab, explains:

This is raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself.

You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were. Land at some beautiful spots is being trampled by too many feet, while basic facilities such as parking and toilets are limited. This has led to unfortunate incidents that include desperate tourists turning the graves of Iceland’s greatest poets into an impromptu bathroom. Less gross but also less forgivable are tourists who drive off-road, damaging fragile landscapes and thus partly ruining the wildernesses that they have traveled so far to witness.

An Atlantic reader feels the irony:

When I first went to Iceland in the ‘60s it was not unusual to find attractions like Gullfoss to be virtually free of visitors. In contrast, on my most recent visit, lines of people shuffled past key spots with just enough time to get their selfie. Now I am sorry that I kept telling everyone just how great Iceland is.

If you have a related anecdote from your own visit to Iceland you’d like to share, drop us an email. We published one in our February 1893 issue.

William Edward Mead, writing about Iceland’s literary culture, was shocked at the barrenness of the landscape, finding it distinctly “unfavorable … to literary fertility” and other scholarly pursuits. “The country is little better than a desert,” he wrote. “People with so little to make life attractive might be pardoned if they were to sink into a stolid indifference to everything but the struggle to keep alive.” Yet the beauty of such harsh, isolated country is also evident in his description:

The only inhabitable portion is a narrow strip of pasture land extending like a green girdle round the coast and up the deep, narrow fiords. The interior of the country is a howling waste of sand and ice, traversed by darting glacier rivers, and utterly incapable of supporting more than a few scattered inhabitants. […]

The farmhouse where I spent more than a fortnight [is] distant a day’s ride on horseback from Reykjavik. Behind the house rises a naked, precipitous ridge of basalt, a quarter of a mile high, sweeping in a magnificent unbroken curve from the bold headland that juts into the sea to the upper waters of the Laxá. Before the house stretches the long, narrow fiord, swarming with sea-birds that circle endlessly about the double cascade foaming down from the river into the sea.

It’s a place that takes its romance from its solitude—and Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who visited Iceland in 1936, captured that lonely beauty in his poem “Journey to Iceland.” Iceland, to Auden, with its “sterile immature mountains” and “abnormal day,” is a place for travelers who want to reject the world—a kind of alternate reality, whose purity rubs off on people.

For Europe is absent: this is an island and therefore
Unreal. And the steadfast affections of its dead may be bought
By those whose dreams accuse them of being
Spitefully alive, and the pale

From too much passion of kissing feel pure in its deserts.

Auden later revised that stanza to read “this is an island and therefore / A refuge”—a small change, but a telling one. After all the only truly solitary journeys are imaginary ones; the mind is the most isolated country of all; and the best place to get away from people, tourists or otherwise, may be the refuge of your own thoughts. As Auden closed his poem:

Again the writer
Runs howling to his art.

You can read the full text of “Journey to Iceland” (or listen to Auden reading it) here, and you can see some of its sights for yourself in the video below.