Iraqi forces, substantially bolstered by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, launched an offensive on Monday to capture the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. Tikrit is a predominantly Sunni city and the hometown of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It is reported that 30,000 fighters are taking part in the offensive, of whom two-thirds are Shiite militiamen and approximately 700-1,000 are Sunni tribal fighters. The New York Times reports that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has advisers and troops on the ground and is providing artillery, rocket launchers, and surveillance drones.
The Iraqi government did not ask for American air support for the offensive, according to the Associated Press, which has created fear of more Iranian influence and sectarian tensions. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support… Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. However, Ali Khedery, a special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors to Iraq between 2003 and 2009, said that the “fundamental identity” of the Shiite militias is “built around a sectarian narrative rather than loyalty to the state.” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said before a House Appropriations defense subcommittee on Wednesday that “sectarianism is one of the things that concerns me very much. And of course, it’s the root of the Iranian presence in Iraq.” Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls Iran “both the fire brigade and the arsonist.”
The Iranians and Iran-backed Shiite militias are led by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s external arm, the Quds Force. Suleimani is a U.S.-designated terrorist who has been said to be responsible for up to 20 percent of American casualties during the Iraq War. Suleimani has been seen in and around Tikrit. Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, referred to Suleimani as “a more stately version of Osama bin Laden” and expresses concern of U.S. de facto cooperation with him.
It is feared that the Shiite militias will carry out revenge for ISIS’ massacre of over 1,000 predominantly Shiite fighters outside of Tikrit when they captured the city last June. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that “in this battle, there is no neutral party.” The Washington Post’s editorial board expresses alarm that the U.S. is “allowing Iran to take another step toward...[a] malevolent hegemony.”
At least five people were injured today in Jerusalem when a car plowed into a group of pedestrians in an apparent terror attack. The Times of Israel reported:
A Palestinian man in a private vehicle hit the five, who included a bicycle rider and a pedestrian, as they stood on a sidewalk. According to initial reports, the man then emerged from the vehicle with a butcher’s knife and attempted to stab passersby, but was swiftly shot and incapacitated by a Border Policeman and a Light Rail security guard at the scene.
The five victims suffered light-to-moderate injuries. They were treated at the scene by paramedics before being evacuated to the hospital.
The attacker was seriously injured. He, too, was taken to the hospital. Israel Radio reported that the man was a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud.
The holiday of Purim is being celebrated today in Jerusalem.
Following the attack, Jerusalem's Mayor Nir Barkat issued a statement addressing the attack and the city's response to it:
We will not let terror disrupt our daily lives and we will continue to fight it without compromise. I would like to commend the security personnel, the municipal guards, the police and alert citizens who quickly brought the event to an end and prevented further injuries.
Our response to terror is to continue on with our routine, and as such all Purim events in the capital will continue as planned and the security throughout the entire city will be increased, including the main event to be held at Safra Square in a closed and secure location. I invite all the residents of the country to celebrate Purim in Jerusalem and strengthen us.
The incident recalls a string of similar attacks late last year. In one case in the West Bank, a terrorist attempted to ram his car into a group of people, then exited his vehicle and stabbed a young woman to death. In another incident, a baby was killed and eight others were injured when a man plowed his car into them near a light rail station in northern Jerusalem.
A new stem-cell technology with the potential to treat neurodegenerative diseases including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is now in development by the Israel Prize laureate responsible for the blockbuster multiple sclerosis (MS) drug Rebif. Prof. Michel Revel’s company, Kadimastem, recently announced successful results ofa preclinical trial in which itslab-produced central nervous system support cells (astrocytes) demonstrated significant motor function and survivability improvement in a mouse model of ALS. Revel based his approach on scientific evidence that ALS is characterized by malfunctioning astrocytes. Producing and then injecting healthy, functioning astrocytes into a patient’s nervous system seems to provide support for damaged motor neurons, slowing the progression of the disease, improving quality of life and even extending survival. Globally, 90 percent of ALS patients die of respiratory failure within three to five years after the onset of symptoms. Kadimastem is now in touch with the US Food and Drug Administration as well as regulatory bodies in Israel and Europe, hoping to advance the technology to clinical trials. Using the same technology for differentiating pluripotent stem cells into a range of functional human cells, the company also is developing pancreatic cells that secrete insulin. In January, Kadimastem signed an agreement with Ramot, Tel Aviv University’s technology transfer company, to conduct joint research with Prof. Shimon Efrat in the field of cell therapy for diabetes. (via Israel21c)