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Iraq in Crisis: Militant Advance Sparks Mass Displacement as “Failed” U.S. Experiment Disintegrates

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Iraq is on the brink of disintegration as Sunni militants seize more towns and now set their sights on the capital Baghdad. In the past few days, al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as well as Tikrit and Dhuluiya. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds have seized control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk. The Sunni militants now control a territory that stretches from the eastern edge of Aleppo, Syria, to Fallujah in western Iraq and now the northern city of Mosul. Their advance has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, displacing some 500,000 people in Mosul alone. Mosul fell in part because U.S.-trained Iraqi forces abandoned their posts. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has reportedly urged the U.S. to carry out airstrikes in recent months, but the Obama administration has declined the request so far. We are joined by two guests: Ned Parker, Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad, and Mohammed al Dulaimy, an Iraqi journalist with McClatchy Newspapers who reported from Iraq for years and is now seeking U.S. asylum out of fear for his safety if he returns. This is Dulaimy’s first TV interview after years of maintaining a low profile to protect his safety.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Iraq is on the brink of disintegration. Sunni Islamist rebels have seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as well as Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Dhuluiya which is just 55 miles northwest of the capital of Baghdad. The rebels are now advancing toward Baghdad. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds have seized control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk. The Sunni militants are led by a group called ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. They now control a territory that stretches from the eastern edge of Aleppo, Syria, to Fallujah in western Iraq and now the northern city of Mosul. The sudden advance by the Islamist rebels has shocked the region. Earlier today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the territorial integrity of Iraq is now in question.

AMY GOODMAN: The rebel advance has also caused a humanitarian catastrophe. Five hundred thousand people have already been displaced in Mosul. Save the Children said, quote, “We are witnessing one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory. The majority of Iraqis fleeing Mosul had to escape in a matter of minutes,” they said. One of the refugees spoke after fleeing her home in Mosul.

MOSUL REFUGEE: [translated] We were sitting in the house, but we heard clashes and sounds of explosions. We didn’t know what happened. We can’t understand what has happened. What do they want? I don’t know. Why do the people suffer now? The people and children were in trouble. We left our houses behind, and we’re so concerned about our sons. I pray to God to let me die to get rest.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mosul fell in part because U.S.-trained Iraqi forces abandoned their posts. This allowed the Islamist rebels to take the city, seize the city’s main army center, release thousands of prisoners from jails, and seize hundreds of millions of dollars from the city’s banks. The militants also seized the Turkish Consulate, kidnapping 25 staff members, including the diplomatic head of the mission.

Wednesday was a deadly day in Baghdad, as well. Suicide attacks and car bombs hit Shiite areas, killing at least 37 people. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on Parliament to declare a state of emergency, but not enough lawmakers showed up today to reach quorum. Maliki also reportedly urged the U.S. to carry out airstrikes, but the Obama administration has declined the request so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met to question President Obama’s nominee for the next ambassador to Iraq Wednesday, but the senators did not ask the nominee or the current ambassador to Iraq a single direct question about the current crisis.

To talk more about Iraq, we’re joined by two guests. Mohammed al Dulaimy is with us. He’s an Iraqi journalist who reports for McClatchy Newspapers. He reported from Iraq for years and is now seeking asylum in the United States out of fear for his safety if he returns. This is his first TV interview. He’s joining us from Columbia, South Carolina. And here in New York, Ned Parker is with us. He’s the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad, heading back to Iraq shortly.

Let’s go first to South Carolina to Mohammed al Dulaimy. Would you please explain what you see is happening to your country right now?

MOHAMMED AL DULAIMY: What I see is the failing of the whole system that the United States and its allies, they tried to build in Iraq. The whole democracy experiment in Iraq is in danger, as actually has been for a long time in danger, but now it’s more obvious to everyone. We are seeing now the consequences of a leadership of a sectarian regime that was ruling in Iraq for the past eight years, led by Mr. Nouri al-Maliki, and the lack of trust among his partners, corruption. All of that gave the way for radicals to rise and gave the chance to occupy a two million city, population city, in Mosul, the second-largest Iraqi city. All of this is threatening the integrity of Iraq, the unity of the country, and threatening Iraq to descend to a more like Syrian-like civil war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you talk about the reign of al-Maliki and the sectarianism of his government, could you elaborate on that? Because clearly al-Maliki as a Shiite leader and the majority of the population of Iraq being Shiite, the United States has continued to back his rule there despite his clampdown on any kind of dissent.

MOHAMMED AL DULAIMY: Yes, we have enough evidence, actually, videos of speeches of Mr. al-Maliki himself, showing that this man is leading the country towards a civil war. His previous press conferences accusing his partners of terrorism, sometimes forging cases against them, as they say, led the country to high tension, causing Sunnis to go into streets to protest and to show their demands. Mr. al-Maliki refused most of these demands. And to the limit, he accused them of continuing some historical event that took place 1,400 years ago, about 1,400 years ago, and he said that the killers of Imam Husayn are still living among—he meant Sunnis—among the other party, which he meant Sunnis. Mr. al-Maliki has failed to build an Iraqi military that will respect human rights. I just want to say that fanatics, Islamists, feed on such human rights breaches. It helps them to further their cause and to win more recruits. This is what has had—happening in Iraq.

And you can see the videos of how the Iraqi army dealt with demonstrators in Hawija, how they killed men carrying sticks, only iron sticks, or sometimes carrying nothing. You could see the video, the brutality of the military. Mr. al-Maliki punished no one. Mr. al-Maliki always refuses to address these issues to de-escalate the sectarian tensions in Iraq. Mr. al-Maliki always also refused to disarm some Iranian-backed trained Shia militias like al-Asa’ib. These kinds of actions caused the Sunni community to live in a turmoil. And here I think that the United States, the administration, we, all of us, should speak loudly to stop the descent of the country into that civil war, to stop pushing ordinary people towards fanatics to join their lines just to defend themselves against an army that is willing to kill them all.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed al Dulaimy, can you talk about the U.S. weapons that are being used right now? Major deliveries of weapons will be happening this summer, as well, to the Iraqi government, but whose hands they are falling into? And also, these groups’ relationships with al-Qaeda?

MOHAMMED AL DULAIMY: Well, the weapons—we saw in the previous few days the use of American-made weapons like Hellfire missiles, which can be used with great accuracy. The Iraqi military used it to target Fallujah Hospital, Fallujah Teaching Hospital, that hospital that the United States helped building in Fallujah. It is the same hospital that witnessed the increasing numbers of birth defects that is attributed to the use of different kinds of weapons, chemical and all different kinds of weapons that allegedly was used by the United States troops over there. These weapons are now falling into the hands of ISIS. And we saw images of these weapons being transported across the border to Syria. The United States has always worried that sending weapons to the Syrian more liberal opposition might fall into the hands of Islamists. Well, now they are falling into the hands of Islamists.

And our lack of understanding for these movements of terrorist organizations, how they are convincing all of these recruits, are helping them continuing their presence. They are not outsmarting the people. They are not that hard to defeat. It’s just it looks like there is no enough will to spend some time and pause and say there must be something wrong of our understanding that they are keep doing what they are doing.

I strongly want to say and emphasize that ISIS is not alone in this fight. Since the order that Mr. al-Maliki gave on 30 of December 2013 to end demonstrations in al-Anbar province, western of Iraq, the Sunni community rushed to arms. You could see hundreds of men rally into the street carrying arms. They didn’t kill soldiers. They released soldiers back home. They told them to go back home, and they just—they were just angry people, fed up with their government that is not listening to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed—

MOHAMMED AL DULAIMY: ISIS used that anger.


MOHAMMED AL DULAIMY: ISIS used that anger, built on it. And ISIS is more organized than these tribal fighters, so they are capable of showing their presence. They are capable of showing themselves to be the spears of this movement. And it looks like Iraq is heading to more a Syrian-like situation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, come back. We’ll also be joined by Ned Parker, who’s the Baghdad bureau chief of Reuters. But Mohammed al Dulaimy, why are you doing this interview today, your first broadcast interview? Why are you taking this risk? And why is it a risk?

MOHAMMED AL DULAIMY: I am taking this risk for the first time and I’m showing my face on TV just because I am thinking that the—my country, Iraq, has lost so many people, that United States have lost so many soldiers in that operation, and it’s about time to spend some time to understand what’s going on the ground. I think if the United States intervened now and convinced Iraqi politicians to come together and form a new government where people can look up to, it will stop Iraq from descending to a civil war, and it will make the United States avoid the possibility of sending troops to Iraq and maybe repeat a scenario that all of us don’t want to see. I know I might endanger the lives of my beloved one. I know I am endangering my own life. But it’s about time for us, all of us, to raise our voices and attempt to stop all of this. The country is disintegrating. And if the United States and its people, all of us, should stop giving a blind eye to Iraq—Iraq is so wealthy that if it fell into the wrong hands, this is—this will not be danger to only Iraq, but to the whole international community.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed al Dulaimy is with us, speaking for the first time in a TV broadcast, speaking to us from Columbia, South Carolina. He’s applying for political asylum in the United States, which he has resisted for many years. He’s a McClatchy reporter. And when we come back, he’ll also be joined by Ned Parker of Reuters, who’s headed back to Iraq shortly. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re looking at the crisis in Iraq. Sunni Islamist rebels have seized control of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, as well as Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The rebels are now advancing toward Baghdad. Five hundred thousand people have already been displaced in Mosul. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds have seized control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re still with our guests. Mohammed al Dulaimy is with us, an Iraqi journalist who has been reporting for McClatchy Newspapers for years, now seeking asylum in the United States out of fear for his safety if he returns. This is his first TV broadcast interview. And Ned Parker is with us, Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad, Iraq.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ned, I wanted you to ask you to comment perhaps on two additional forces that may add greater impetus to the disintegration that’s occurring now in Iraq. One is Muqtada al-Sadr. He has called for the formation now of peace brigades to head into the area to defend Shiite sites. The impact and the role of Muqtada al-Sadr still in Iraq today? And then also, the other is Turkey, this seizing of the—of Turkish nationals by the Islamist fighters, the possibility that Turkey, which has—it’s happened in the past, has moved into Iraq in particular situations when it feels its national interests are threatened.

NED PARKER: Right. Well, the call by Muqtada al-Sadr, I still don’t know if that’s 100 percent confirmed. There are a lot of rumors going on now. But I think you are right to address this issue of Shiite militia mobilization. Sadr has actually reined in his militia movement since 2008 and has largely shunned that type of activity on the street. That said, he still has his organization in place. In recent years, he has tried to wave the banner of Iraqi nationalism, stressing the unity of Shia and Sunni.

He has rivals, though, that Mohammed Dulaimy alluded to, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which is a breakaway faction from the Sadr movement that is supported by Iran, that has been active, that has been fighting outside of Baghdad for months now since the fighting started in Anbar in January. So, we have seen militia-style killings and fighting. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and another group called Kata’ib Hezbollah, they have had their fighters alongside Iraqi forces. And as we’ve reported in Reuters, they actually fall, as volunteers, under an Iraqi government chain of command now.

But the fact that Sadr might have activated his militia force again, or that he could, it shows the power of sectarian passions right now and the danger that the more you see Sunni extremism, it breeds Shia extremism, and it cancels out the space for moderation and impels Iraq towards the danger of a new sectarian conflict.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of Turkey?

NED PARKER: Right. Yeah, Turkey has always been active in Iraq. I think since the time of Saddam Hussein, in the Kurdish regions, they’ve had special forces. They’ve had this diplomatic mission in Mosul. They’ve bombed Kurdish mountains where Kurdish separatists from Turkey have had bases. What this does now, it’s interesting. I think it plays into the dynamics of Syria, as well. We could see this affecting what Turkey allows to happen inside Turkey. Walking around in Istanbul now, it’s not too hard to see possible jihadists wandering the street, you know, on their way back from Syria or about to go there.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about the role of the United States in Iraq. This is State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki speaking Wednesday.

JEN PSAKI: We’ve expedited, as you know, shipments of military equipment since the beginning of the year. We’ve ramped up training of Iraqi security forces and worked intensively to help Iraq implement a holistic approach. As you noted, Arshad, the situation is certainly very grave on the ground. We are working with Iraqi leaders from across the country to support a coordinated response. You can expect that we will provide additional assistance to the Iraqi government to combat the threat from ISIL, but I’m not in a position to outline that further at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the State Department spokesperson. If you could respond to her and also talk about the piece you wrote, what, two years ago in Foreign Affairs, “The Iraq We Left Behind,” listing the failures of U.S. policy in Iraq.

NED PARKER: Right. I think one of the great tragedies about the United States’ relationship with Iraq, both inside Iraq and here, is that the matter is so politicized that it’s hard to have a real conversation about what needs to happen now in Iraq so that it can be stabilized. The American involvement happened. And what I wrote two years ago, for instance, was talking about, in the time of the Obama administration, the neglect, if you will, of trying to build upon the chances for success after so much bloodshed and, you know, horror during the Bush years. And there was a chance for stability in Iraq in 2010. The decision to withdraw troops on the ground from Iraq, it’s debatable whether that was a right decision or a wrong decision, but I think the core issue is matters of soft power, that don’t necessarily have anything to do with U.S. military troops. That’s—so it’s about building consensus, trying to help strengthen the foundations of democracy.

Really, the Obama administration looked for many, you know, understandable, pragmatic reasons to want to end the troop presence, because of the cost of money, the cost to soldiers’ lives, but in doing that, in disengaging—and the U.S. military, you know, praised Obama for having a responsible withdrawal timeline; they said he did the right thing there. But what he didn’t do was try to fortify a workable coalition that could govern Iraq over these past four years or to preserve the—you know, these issues that Mohammed al Dulaimy was talking about, human rights abuses. Iraq actually had a decent human rights ministry, not perfect but one that exposed secret prisons by—that were run by Prime Minister Maliki’s military. And in the government formation process in 2011, that ministry was gutted and turned into a wing basically of Prime Minister Maliki’s party. And people who had been encouraged, Iraqis, to expose these abuses by the Americans had to flee the country.

So, I think when we talk about Iraq and the failures of the Obama administration in Iraq—and I think that Iraq for America is a bipartisan failure, and it’s not about troops staying or going. It’s about these core issues that are democratic values. The Obama administration looked at how does Iraq—how does the United States get out, and how does Iraq stay stable? And what they chose was Prime Minister Maliki as their guy. And at the time they made that decision, it wasn’t necessarily a wrong choice, but they focused on personalities, and not values and building the foundations of a government that could work. And that’s a large reason of why we are where we are today, both the United States and Iraq, in terms of the implosion we are seeing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mohammed al Dulaimy, I wanted to go back to the issue of ISIS. You’ve—it’s been described as an offshoot of al-Qaeda, to some degree rejected by al-Qaeda. But you’ve suggested, to some degree, that it is now eclipsing al-Qaeda as the main Islamist group contending against Western powers. Could you talk about that?

MOHAMMED AL DULAIMY: Yes, it’s an irony to say that the downfall of—occupation of Mosul city ended, actually, al-Qaeda in terms of among jihadists to look up to as their icon. ISIS was an offshoot of al-Qaeda that al-Zawahiri tried to end and limit al-Nusra to Syria and the Islamic State in Iraq to Iraq borders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, rejected that order and actually joined the foreign fighters in Syria to his ranks and started fighting al-Nusra, everyone was saying that these jihadists will kill each other, in terms of continuing fighting. But now, with all of these, say, victories that they have achieved, it marks, in my opinion, the downfall of al-Qaeda to be number one in the eyes of the jihadists, and making ISIS more appealing to them, as it will achieve a kill of it in Iraq. And Baghdad carries a symbol. Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic state for hundreds of years. Baghdad is not any city. And them heading towards Baghdad using all that Sunni anger is marking a point and trying to win hearts and minds of all Islamists and probably most of Sunnis all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of hearts, Mohammed al Dulaimy, this must be breaking your heart seeing what is happening right now in Iraq, the largest, fastest mass movement of people in history. And do you think Baghdad will fall? And what do you think needs to be done right now?

MOHAMMED AL DULAIMY: It’s not only breaking our hearts. The images we are seeing from—coming from my city, Fallujah, are coming from Ramadi in western Iraq, and now Mosul. There are videos of Iraqi army random shelling victims. A father is looking to his sons and daughters killed, their members disintegrate—killed, and their members are spread all over the ground, and he is in the middle of the street. And all of that fueled a huge sense of anger towards the military, the Iraqi military. And ISIS seized that moment. ISIS is now portraying itself as a protector of Sunnis. And if you ask those who left Mosul, except for many of our Christian and the Yazidis who are living in Mosul, they are afraid of the random shelling of the military. So it’s amazing that ISIS can adapt to use politics, and the Iraqi government cannot evolve to that limit.

It saddens me to see my country is about to fail. We are a 7,000-year-old civilization. I cannot comprehend the idea that Iraq lacks leaders that can bring Iraqis together and face all of these extremists trying to take over our country, extremists coming to us from all over the globe from different ideologies, whether they were Sunnis or Shia or any other extremists. It’s amazing to me that we, as a nation, are losing our identity, are forgetting who we are.

And it’s breaking my heart to know also my family has been displaced for six months. I know of people who are living in schools, living in the wide open, shifting shops. Fallujah is now shifting a small—another soccer field to become a graveyard, after the first soccer field that Fallujah has had to makeshift as a cemetery. So, yes, it breaks my heart. And that’s why we are here. That’s why we are—that me, myself, and I think Ned will support me on that, that we strongly think, and I think, that there is a lack of understanding for what’s going on in Iraq. And there must be something done, and really fast. The Iraqi politicians today also fail to come together, then that saddens also.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Ned Parker on that: What has to be done? Or what do you think would the—the role of the United States, at least at this point, given the fact this was a complete surprise to the United States government? It reminds me very much of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam or of the Taliban, after the Russian troops pulled out, suddenly the moving across the entire country. Your sense of what needs to be done now?

NED PARKER: Right. Well, I think this—what’s happening now, events in Iraq are happening so rapidly. And I visited Iraq in November and December on a month visit, and then I was quite alarmed and worried that the country was sliding towards a new sectarian conflict. But even then, January, basically right after I left, end of December, we saw Anbar fall apart. Today we have—including both Ninawa, Mosul and Anbar, we have close to a million people who have been displaced in the last six months, people that Mohammed alluded to who are sleeping in schools, sleeping out in the desert. I mean, it’s a humanitarian disaster. It’s very hard to get aid to the displaced in Anbar province.

So, events—I was just in Iraq. I left a little over a week ago. I’m going back very shortly. I was amazed by what I saw on the ground, on both sides. I have a friend whose—a close friend of his was in a mosque praying in Baghdad in the middle of the day, taking a break from work, and a suicide bomber from ISIS went inside this mosque and killed about 21 people. His friend, I believe, is still in the hospital. He has lost his foot. His body is, you know, packed with shrapnel. The hospitals in Iraq have so little, the doctors really cannot take care of his case. I mean, it’s very bleak. We have this militia involvement now that’s been going on for at least two months, working, authorized by the government. I’ve talked to Iraqi officials, who feel that they have no choice but to activate the militias, knowing that it erodes the authority of the state, but feeling they have no choice but to use that against ISIL, knowing that they don’t have a game plan for the way out.

The United States has frittered so much of its influence now. In 2010, it had the ability to help. It was seen as an essential arbiter because of its history in Iraq since 2003, for better or for worse. But it was seen as an essential referee. It had a real vote in what happened and how the government was formed. Its soft power was substantial. I don’t think that’s the case today. So, what can the United States do? I’m a journalist; I’m not a think-tanker. But there are—you know, there are different schools of thought. I mean, the Iraqis, the Iraqi government, those close to Prime Minister Maliki, they want airstrikes. They would want more intense intelligence support from the United States. I was talking with a former U.S. commander yesterday who was saying the intelligence that we’re providing now is minimal. It’s probably—he wasn’t giving me numbers, but I would say that there’s been an additional 100 to 150 people brought in in recent months to provide intelligence support. But if you don’t have people on the ground, you can’t develop the sources for targeting.


NED PARKER: But—yeah, go on.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just going to say, the disconnect is incredible. As the ISIL fighters captured Tikrit and pushed toward Baghdad on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—I don’t know if you watched this yesterday—met to question President Obama’s nominee for the next ambassador to Iraq. Yet, Nancy Youssef of McClatchy reports, not a single senator asked him directly about the Iraqi government’s apparent loss of control. They also didn’t ask questions of the man who sat next to him, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The House Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, met to discuss the prisoner exchange that freed Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, but did not ask Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a single question about Iraq. A Senate staffer told McClatchy, quote, “I think there is a general sense of apathy about Iraq.”

NED PARKER: Right. And the danger—I think the danger is that you’re seeing basically a cesspool of extremism emerging between Syria and Iraq, a cesspool of Sunni extremism and Shia extremism. The other week, I met an old Sunni friend from Iraq in Istanbul, and he had been a relative moderate who had fought al-Qaeda, and he still is a moderate to a point, but he has been changed by the violence of the last four years. He is very much an Islamist now. And being an Islamist isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but you can see the ways in which he has been shaped by the sectarianism of Iraq and Syria. And if there isn’t a way to moderate these things, surely it’s bad for world stability, whether we’re talking about simple things such as oil reserves and the price of oil on the global market or the threat of terrorism in the United—to the United States.

But getting back to that issue of what does the United States do, I think the U.S. policy right now is to give weapons, and it’s a minimal amount. Rightly or wrongly, the Obama administration views Iraq and Syria as conflicts that it should avoid getting deeply involved in. It does not want a repeat of 2003 and the Iraq experience. The danger, though, in doing nothing is that you have this virulent extremism emerge that could destabilize the world. So, what are the choices in there that avoid having troops on the ground? It’s very difficult to know. But the Iraqis do want America involved because of the military assets. So then, if that is the way that the United States decides to go, it should also have a corresponding program to promote moderation, to promote Western values, so that you have checks and balances, a functioning judiciary, so the security forces don’t torture people, which breeds extremism and strengthens al-Qaeda types.

AMY GOODMAN: Ned, we want to thank you for being with us. Be safe as you go back to Iraq. Ned Parker is the Baghdad bureau chief of Reuters. And Mohammed al Dulaimy, thank you so much for honoring us with this first broadcast that you’re willing to do, having worked for McClatchy for years in Iraq, of course being from Iraq, now applying for political asylum in the United States, speaking to us from Columbia, South Carolina. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Cairo, to Egypt. Stay with us.

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