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Iraqi Forces Seek Clues to how Islamic State Militants Ruled Iraqi Villages for more than 2 Years

Peshmerga soldiers, the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias are all fighting IS together, but tensions remain among them

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Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Flickr

Tarjala (Iraq), November 2, 2016: About 10 kilometers from the front lines of the battle to retake Mosul, peshmerga soldiers tour an area recently recaptured from Islamic State militants. They say they’ve learned a lot about how the militant group works from examining the ruins of what were once bustling villages.

A bomb factory was installed in one shop and oil was burnt to hide the village from coalition forces, according to the soldiers.

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Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces are exploring recaptured villages for insight into how Islamic State took and held these villages for more than two years.

Islamic State militants left supplies and food in the tunnels when they fled in Tarjala in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Oct. 29, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Islamic State militants left supplies and food in the tunnels when they fled in Tarjala in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Oct. 29, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

“We don’t exactly know how many IS members were here,” said a peshmerga commander, Tahir Aziz. “But since the bodies of the dead remain here, we know how many were killed. We don’t know how many escaped.”

On one end of the village, sandbags fill most of a mosque because IS militants put them inside rather than outside — a ploy to hide IS positions from coalition planes. Peshmerga slip down the tunnel IS built under the village, examining the militants’ escape route from their enemies.

While this kind of knowledge helps, soldiers say, fighting IS remains incredibly complicated.

Militants stored bags full of the dirt they pulled from the tunnels inside a mosque, so visible sandbags would not give away their position to coalition planes in Tarjala in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Oct. 29, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Militants stored bags full of the dirt they pulled from the tunnels inside a mosque, so visible sandbags would not give away their position to coalition planes in Tarjala in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Oct. 29, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

“The challenges that remain are the car bombs and suicide bombs,” said Lt. Col. Osman Ali of the peshmerga. “Also, we have weapons, but we are not as well equipped as the Iraqi Army. We need more and better weapons.”

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At the other end of the tunnel, soldiers emerge. They say they will keep fighting until the militant group is crushed.

Peshmerga soldiers, the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias are all fighting IS together, but tensions remain among them.

Peshmerga soldiers examine a tunnel build by Islamic State militants, one of the ways the group managed to hold villages for more than two years in Tarjala in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Oct. 29, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Peshmerga soldiers examine a tunnel build by Islamic State militants, one of the ways the group managed to hold villages for more than two years in Tarjala in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Oct. 29, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Even as these forces clear more areas of IS fighters, many people are frustrated because they still cannot go home, as rubble, bombs and bodies make the villages unsafe.

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“We don’t want to live outside of our homes,” said Raad Ibrahim, a 35-year old father of one, as he waits outside a checkpoint Saturday, trying to get permission to visit his home. “I don’t know anything about what is there. But I’m sure it’s destroyed.” (VOA)

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Terrorists Attack Two Mosques of New Zealand, Nearly 50 Killed

One man has been charged with murder in the attacks and will appear in court Saturday

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“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” Ardern said. VOA

Mass shootings at two mosques full of worshipers attending Friday prayers killed 49 people on what the prime minister called “one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” as authorities detained four people and defused explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully planned racist attack.

One man has been charged with murder in the attacks and will appear in court Saturday, police say.

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Arrest Made in Attack on 2 New Zealand Mosques. VOA

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the events in Christchurch represented “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence” and acknowledged many of those affected may be migrants and refugees. In addition to the dead, she said 48 people were being treated for gunshot wounds, more than 20 were seriously wounded.

“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” Ardern said.

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New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks on live television following fatal shootings at two mosques in central Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15, 2019. VOA

Police took three men and a woman into custody after the shootings, which shocked people across the nation of 5 million people. While there was no reason to believe there were more suspects, Ardern said the national security threat level was being raised to the second-highest level.

Authorities have not specified who they detained, but said none had been on any watch list. A man who claimed responsibility for the shootings left a 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto in which he explained who he was and his reasoning for the attack. He said he was a 28-year-old white Australian and a racist. Television New Zealand (TVNZ) identified him as Brenton Tarrant from Grafton, New South Wales.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that one of the four people detained was an Australian-born citizen.

Ardern at a news conference alluded to anti-immigrant sentiment as the possible motive, saying that while many people affected by the shootings may be migrants or refugees “they have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”

As for the suspects, Ardern said “these are people who I would describe as having extremist views that have absolutely no place in New Zealand.”

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New Zealand police Commissioner Mike Bush speaks to the media after an attack on a mosque in Christchurch at the Royal Society building in Wellington, March 15, 2019. VOA

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said police were not aware of other suspects beyond the four who were detained but they couldn’t be certain.

“The attackers were apprehended by local police staff. There have been some absolute acts of bravery,” Bush said. “I’m hugely proud of our police staff, the way they responded to this. But let’s not presume the danger is gone.”

Bush said the defense force had defused a number of improvised explosive devices that were attached to vehicles stopped after the attacks.

He said anybody who was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand on Friday should stay put.

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FILE – A view of the Al Noor Mosque on Deans Avenue in Christchurch, New Zealand, taken in 2014. VOA

Deadliest attack

The deadliest attack occurred at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch about 1:45 p.m. Arden said 41 people were killed there.

One man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman was white, blond and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest. The man burst into the mosque as worshippers were kneeling for prayers.

“He had a big gun … he came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere,” said the man, Ahmad Al-Mahmoud. He said he and others escaped by breaking through a glass door.

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Ambulance staff take a man from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. VOA

Witness Len Peneha said he saw a man dressed in black enter the mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror.

Peneha, who lives next door to the mosque, said the gunman ran out of the mosque, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in his driveway, and fled.

Peneha said he then went into the mosque to try and help.

“I saw dead people everywhere. There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said. “It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.”

He said he helped about five people recover in his home. He said one was slightly injured.

“I’ve lived next door to this mosque for about five years and the people are great, they’re very friendly,” he said. “I just don’t understand it.”

He said the gunman was white and was wearing a helmet with some kind of device on top, giving him a military-type appearance.

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Armed police patrol outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. VOA

Attack livestreamed

A video that was apparently livestreamed by the shooter shows the attack in horrifying detail. The gunman spends more than two minutes inside the mosque spraying terrified worshippers with bullets again and again, sometimes firing again at people he has already cut down.

He then walks outside to the street, where he shoots at people on the sidewalk. Children’s screams can be heard in the distance as he returns to his car to get another rifle. Children were among the wounded.

The gunman then walks back into the mosque, where there are at least two dozen people lying on the ground. After walking back outside and shooting a woman there, he gets back in his car, where the song “Fire” by English rock band “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” can be heard blasting from the speakers. The singer bellows, “I am the god of hellfire!” and the gunman drives away. The video then cuts out.

Second mosque attacked

There was a second shooting at the Linwood Masjid Mosque that Ardern said killed 10 people.

Mark Nichols told the New Zealand Herald he heard about five gunshots and that a Friday prayer-goer returned fire with a rifle or shotgun.

Nichols said he saw two injured people being carried out on stretchers past his automotive shop and that both people appeared to be alive.

Man claims responsibility

The man who claimed responsibility for the shooting said he came to New Zealand only to plan and train for the attack. He said he was not a member of any organization, but had donated to and interacted with many nationalist groups, though he acted alone and no group ordered the attack.

He said the mosques in Christchurch and Linwood would be the targets, as would a third mosque in the town of Ashburton if he could make it there.

He said he chose New Zealand because of its location, to show that even the most remote parts of the world were not free of “mass immigration.”

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Cricket team’s narrow escape

New Zealand is generally considered to be a welcoming country for immigrants and refugees. Last year, the prime minister announced the country would boost its annual refugee quota from 1,000 to 1,500 starting in 2020. Ardern, whose party campaigned on the promise of raising the intake of refugees, dubbed the planned increase “the right thing to do.”

A cricket match between New Zealand and Bangladesh scheduled to start Saturday was canceled after the Bangladesh cricket team had a narrow escape. (VOA)