Iraqi forces reclaimed the last Islamic State-held town in Iraq on Friday, more than three years after the militant group seized almost a third of the nation's territory, The Associated Press reports. The U.S.-backed Iraqi forces took control of the town of Rawa, where an estimated 10,000 civilians were being held hostage, Al Jazeera reports.
"Iraq has lost $100 billion in the [war against ISIS], but we have achieved success in three battles; namely liberating the land, maintaining Iraq's unity, and standing up to the threats," Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said Saturday.
The special U.S. presidential envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, tweeted news of the liberation of Rawa, adding: "Days of [ISIS's] phony 'caliphate' are coming to an end." Jeva Lange
On Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a well-sourced monitoring group based in Britain, said that the Islamic State had abandoned its last urban stronghold, Boukamal (or Abu Kamal), following a siege by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Pro-Assad forces, including Iranian-backed militias, had entered Boukamal on Wednesday and met some resistance from ISIS remnants. With its ouster from Boukamal, a strategic town on the Iraqi border, ISIS has been relegated to small towns and villages along the Iraq border and in the Syrian desert.
While Syrian government forces and their allies have been attacking ISIS in eastern and central parts of Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurds and Arabs, has been routing ISIS in the north and east. The Assad government said it plans to seize the territory won by the SDF, including former ISIS capital Raqqa and oil-rich territory near the Euphrates River. The SDF-held areas are setting up an autonomous government. Meanwhile, ISIS has been conducting guerrilla strikes from its rural outposts, and still has territory in Libya and elsewhere. Peter Weber
The Islamic State has released what appears to be audio of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making his first statement in nearly a year, The New York Times reports. It is not clear when the audio was recorded, although Baghdadi references North Korea's recent threats against the U.S. and Japan, Reuters reports.
Baghdadi's death has been rumored a number of times, most recently in June when the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that a May airstrike in Raqqa, Syria, took out the ISIS leader.
The statement released Thursday is 46 minutes long and, if authentic, would be the first message from the terrorist group's leader to his supporters since last November. Since his last message, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have made significant progress against ISIS, defeating the faction in Mosul. Before the city fell, ISIS blew up the 12th-century mosque where Baghdadi declared the caliphate in 2014.
"Officials have said they believed it could take years to capture or kill Baghdadi as he is thought to be hiding in thousands of square miles of sparsely-populated desert between Mosul and Raqqa, where drones are easy to spot," Reuters writes. Jeva Lange
Since President Trump took office, approximately 12 or more civilians have been killed every day by U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq and Syria in the war against the Islamic State, an Airwars investigation for The Daily Beast has found. The Trump administration is on track to double the number of civilian casualties, with 2,200 civilians reportedly killed in total since Trump's inauguration. At least 2,300 civilians are believed to have died under the Obama administration's command.
The coalition's own civilian casualties reports are significantly lower than those kept by independent watchdog groups like Airwars, with forces taking responsibility for a total of 603 civilian deaths. Yet in just one attack in Mosul in March, correspondents told The Independent that the U.S-led coalition killed upwards of 240 Iraqi civilians.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to "knock the hell out of ISIS" and "take out" the families of terrorists. In office, he formally requested "changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS." Civilian deaths are also likely up for a number of other reasons, such as tougher end-phase battles against the terrorist organization.
In early June, war crimes investigators for the United Nations concluded U.S.-backed air strikes are causing a "staggering loss of civilian life." Read more about The Daily Beast's Airwars investigation here. Jeva Lange
On Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry said a Russian airstrike just outside the Islamic State's de facto capital Raqqa, Syria, on May 28 killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, along with other high-ranking ISIS leaders, 30 midlevel commanders, and about 300 other fighters. "According to the information that is being verified through various channels, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also attended the meeting and was killed in the airstrike," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The ISIS leader is believed to have been hiding out in the desert outside of Mosul, Iraq, until escaping the area when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recaptured most of the city. The meeting of senior ISIS leaders was to plan the group's withdrawal from Raqqa amid a mounting U.S.-backed offensive there, the Russian Defense Ministry said. This isn't the first report of al-Baghdadi's death, BBC News notes. Peter Weber
On Tuesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance of Kurds and Arabs announced the start of an offensive to capture Raqqa from the Islamic State, which considers the Syrian city the capital of its "caliphate." Talal Sillo, spokesman for the Kurdish-led forces, told reporters that the SDF is working in coordination with U.S. air power. The SDF has been advancing on the ISIS stronghold since November, and its forces now have Raqqa surrounded on three sides. The battle for Raqqa, which ISIS has held since 2014, is expected to be long and bloody; at least 12 people were reported killed in presumed U.S.-led airstrikes on Monday night. Peter Weber
On Sunday, a herd of wild boars overran an Islamic State position about 50 miles southwest of Kirkuk, killing three ISIS militants likely preparing to ambush local anti-ISIS tribes, according to tribal leaders and Kurdish military officials. Five other ISIS militants were injured, Sheikh Anwar al-Assi, a chief of the local Ubaid tribe, told The Times of London. "It is likely their movement disturbed a herd of wild pigs, which inhabit the area as well as the nearby cornfields."
Local tribes, Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Iraqi army troops, and some Shiite militias from Iran are fighting ISIS south of Kirkuk, as Iraqi and U.S. forces are focusing most of their energy on pushing ISIS out of Mosul. Three days before the boars attacked ISIS, al-Assi said, ISIS militants massacred 25 people fleeing to Kirkuk from ISIS-held Hawija, on the road from Mosul to Baghdad.
Brigadier Azad Jelal, deputy chief of Kurdish intelligence in Kirkuk, confirmed the boar attack, telling Britain's Telegraph, "three fighters from ISIL were near the peshmerga checkpoint in al-Rashad. They met some feral boars and the boars killed the three fighters. ... Some refugees saw the bodies on the edge of a farm when they were fleeing and they told us." Assuming you are rooting for the boars and not ISIS, this doesn't have a happy ending. "A few days later ISIL started to kill pigs around the area," Jelal said.
Boars don't normally attack people, but they are ferocious when they do, Newsweek says, quoting a 2006 article on boar attacks in the Journal of Forensic Medicine: "The boar has a typical method of attack wherein it steadily rushes forward, pointing the tusks toward the animal to be attacked and inflicts the injuries. It goes back, takes position, and attacks the victim again. This repeated nature of attack continues till the victim is completely incapacitated due to multiple penetrating injuries, which can have a fatal consequence." Peter Weber
The Islamic State overran large swathes of Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014, and the militants left traces of their massacres dotting the landscape. In a new report, The Associated Press identifies 72 mass graves in Syria and Iraq, and says many more will be uncovered as ISIS's territory shrinks. "This is a drop in an ocean of mass graves expected to be discovered in the future in Syria," says Ziad Awad, the editor of online publication The Eye of the City, who is trying to document ISIS's mass burial plots.
Using satellite imagery, photos, and interviews, AP has found the location of 17 mass graves in Syria, and 16 of the mass graves the news organization located in Iraq are in areas still too dangerous to excavate. AP says anywhere from 5,200 to more than 15,000 ISIS victims are buried in the graves it knows about. "They don't even try to hide their crimes," Sirwan Jalal, director of the Iraqi Kurdistan agency in charge of mass graves, tells AP. "They are beheading them, shooting them, running them over in cars, all kinds of killing techniques, and they don't even try to hide it."
The evidence and chances to identify the dead are waning with the passage of time and exposure to the elements, however, and the Iraqi Kurds and other local groups are seeking international help. Part of the goal is to build a case to convict ISIS leaders of war crimes, and part of it is so families can bury their dead. "We want to take them out of here," Rasho Qassim, an Iraqi Yazidi, says of the remains of his two sons. "There are only bones left. But they said 'No, they have to stay there, a committee will come and exhume them later'.... It has been two years but nobody has come." You can read more at AP, and watch the video below for more context and testimony about the ISIS massacres. Peter Weber