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Victory — for now
The battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is now officially over.
But has the war just begun?
On Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared an end to three years of bloody combat with ISIS, saying the group has been vanquished and no longer controls any territory.
And this morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to an airbase in Syria to order his own troops home.
"The task of fighting armed bandits here in Syria, a task that it was essential to solve with the help of extensive use of armed force, has for the most part been solved and solved spectacularly," Putin said in a televised speech.
At its peak in Iraq, the extremist Sunni terror organization, also known as Daesh, had seized almost a third of the country. Some 10 million people were living under its brutal rule. While in Syria, the group controlled vast portions of the east and north, from Iraq to the Turkish border.
Liberating those territories has been costly, in all senses of the word.
Exact casualty figures are hard to come by, but the best estimates seem to be that the Iraqi Army, Peshmerga and other anti-ISIS militia groups lost around 25,000 soldiers — about the same number as Daesh.
In Syria, where the Assad regime has been fighting a civil war on multiple fronts against different opposition forces, the government is believed to have lost as many as 100,000 troops since 2011.
The number of civilians killed in Syria is much higher, with some estimates claiming as many as 500,000 have died.
The U.S.-led coalition, which conducted 25,000 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, has spent more than $14 billion US to date — an average of $13.6 million a day.
Is Abadi is about to have his own "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq, à la George W. Bush?
President Bush's May 2003 declaration of victory in Iraq proved to be terribly premature, as heavy combat gave way to a grinding insurgency. The resistance first rallied around the flag of al-Qaeda, and later gave birth to the Islamic State.
Daesh has known for a while that it was destined to lose its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. And many of its fighters melted away, or as was the case in Raqqa, cut a deal allowing them to escape and fight another day.
In fact, the same day Abadi declared victory, Iraqi security forces reported a skirmish near Kirkuk in which they killed what they said were 10 Daesh suicide bombers hiding in a tunnel.
And the group has a surprising array of weapons in its arsenal, including improvised rockets loaded with crude chemical warfare agents.
Today's Iraqi Army is clearly a far more effective force than the one that basically threw down its weapons and ran away as ISIS advanced in 2014. But even the most powerful forces can find it difficult to deal with guerilla tactics.
"They'll try to hide with the population. Their cells will get smaller – instead of companies and platoons, they'll go to squads and cells, much smaller elements hiding in the population," Lieutenant-General Steve Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters this weekend. "Our Iraqi security force partners will have to engage in counterinsurgency-style operations at some point, and we're already making efforts now to start shaping their training towards that next ISIS tactic."
In a little over three years, ISIS transformed itself from ragtag resistance to a global force, claiming attacks — directed or inspired — in more than 30 countries.
Daesh has active offshoots in Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, the Sinai, Mali, Yemen and Nigeria. And there are groups that aspire to carry the black banner in Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines.
And, it seems, closer to home...
Attack in New York
(Warning, graphic images.)
The explosion, inside a cramped passageway that links New York's Times Square and Port Authority subway stations, could easily have proven deadly.
Surveillance video shows a steady flow of commuters heading in both directions when the puff of smoke appeared just after 7:20 a.m. this morning.
Four commuters were hurt in the blast, but it appears the injuries weren't serious.
The main victim turned out to be the would-be suicide bomber, identified by police as Akayed Ullah, a 27-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh.
The city's mayor, Bill de Blasio, described the explosion as an "attempted terrorist attack." Several media outlets are reporting that Ullah has told police that he was inspired by ISIS, although it is unclear if he had any direct contact with the group.
BREAKING VIDEO: Moment of explosion at 42nd St and 8th Avenue in Manhattan pic.twitter.com/JwygdnnwNb— @NYCityAlerts
BREAKING PHOTO: The suspect in police custody following theexplosion at Port Authority Bus Terminal. pic.twitter.com/IwM98CSBRP— @NYCityAlerts
Ullah remains in hospital with wounds to his torso.
It is believed that his device —a crude pipe bomb that he reportedly made at his workplace, an electrical firm — went off prematurely. Police had to remove its remains, which were zip-tied and velcroed to his body, before they loaded Ullah into an ambulance.
Eight people died Oct. 31 when Sayfullo Saipov, another alleged ISIS follower who emigrated from Uzbekistan in 2010, steered a rented pickup truck onto a bicycle path in New York City.
Neither Bangladesh nor Uzbekistan is among the countries on U.S. President Donald Trump's "extreme vetting" entry ban list, which is now being fully implemented following a Supreme Court ruling last week.
Successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have been relatively rare since Sept. 11, 2001. This study released in 2016 places the chances of an American being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist at one in 3,609,709 per year.
Residents of Saudi Arabia are about to regain a simple freedom — the right to go to the movies.
The conservative Kingdom shut down theatres 35 years ago, amid concerns that films that showed men and women mingling together were promoting immoral, Western-style values.
Today's surprise announcement, that 300 cinemas will open starting early next year, is the latest in a string of liberalizing measures pushed by the new 30-year-old Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Last fall, he was behind a royal decree that will lift the long-standing ban on women driving as of next June. More concerts and theatrical events will also soon be permitted. There is even talk of new beach resorts on the Red Sea that will cater to Western vacationers, complete with alcohol and skin-showing swimsuits.
For the time being, however, date night in Riyadh remains complicated.
For example, it's unclear whether movie audiences will be segregated by sex, or whether Western and Bollywood films that depict romance will be allowed.
And the list of things that are still banned in the kingdom is lengthy.
Alcohol is strictly prohibited. Ditto for pork and frog meat. And anything that might be linked to gambling — cards, dice, chess sets, and backgammon.
Many Western books and magazines run afoul of censors. Music lessons are not permitted in schools. Non-Muslim articles of faith — crucifixes, Stars of David, Christmas trees — are forbidden.
And you can forget about celebrating Valentine's Day. In the run-up to Feb. 14, shops may not sell red or heart-shaped items. And florists are banned from selling roses.
Lingerie, however, is widely available. In stores staffed by women.
Quote of the moment
"John is very much a Labrador man. The doctors kept talking about how tough he is … how strong and stubborn to get himself to the road."
- Happy Valley-Goose Bay city councillor Lori Dyson, on the condition of Mayor John Hickey. Hickey was shot in the face Saturday while out trapping in the bush. He then hiked out to a main road to get help. Hickey remains in critical condition in hospital in St. John's.
What The National is reading
- Huntington's breakthrough may stop disease. (BBC)
- The next U.S. execution drug? Fentanyl. (Washington Post)
- Christmas parcel predators trail couriers, steal packages from your door. (Vancouver Sun)
- Controversial ballet about Nureyev premieres in Russia, with director still under arrest. (The Guardian)
- Former Mass. lawmaker accused of taking $1 million US in bribes — and lots of free donuts. (The Hill)
- World's largest automated container terminal opens in Shanghai. (Xinhuanet)
Today in history
Dec. 11, 1989: Political change brings joyful celebration in Czechoslovakia.
Car horns, shouts and French horns mark the beginning of the end of communist rule, reports Joe Schlesinger.