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Between Propaganda and Reality in the Caucasus

March 26th, 2014 No comments
An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya's Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya’s Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. I was struck by how incredibly hospitable these people relentlessly vilified by the FSB were. They told me of the horrors of Putin’s onslaught on their villages while offering endless cups of tea and bread me. I felt powerless, having nothing to givein return  but a sympathetic ear. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.21 PMPersonally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.

I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.

I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy.  Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.

One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. He was a young refugee living in limbo like thousands of others. Though there was condemnation of all-out war in Chechnya at the time, there was no real action to back it up. Or should I say nothing ‘actionable’ was ever done. Challenging so-called tin pot regimes in weak states was acceptable and even fashionable for a time among liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles for a time but challenging Russian neo-imperialism directly has never been on the table. One could even draw a continuity between inaction on the Caucasus then and Crimea now. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”

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A peace plan forth by ChRI’s Ilyas Akhmadov which went essentially nowhere. By 2003, it was far too late.

When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.

The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).

This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.

The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda,  while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.

In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian's foreign policy of protecting its external minorities.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian’s foreign policy of protecting its external minorities. I pointed out what I see as a staggering hypocrisy in Russian policy with regard to internal minorities within the Russian Federation and Moscow’s military adventures in the post-Soviet space.

Anbar-Insurgency Redux

February 25th, 2014 No comments
Once popularized by media outlets as the "Mother of All Battles" mosque ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Once popularized by media outlets as the “Mother of All Battles” mosque, the Umm al-Qura mosque complex sat in lush greenery save for the destroyed Soviet-era piece of armor that was likely hit in an airstrike in the “shock and awe days of mid-March a month before this image was taken. I remember trying to enter the mosque’s grounds with my Shia fixer and getting a less than warm reception from some men that I suppose were representing the Association of Muslim Scholars there. Umm a-Qura is situated in western Baghdad between the al-Adel and Ghazaliyah districts on the road to Fallujah. When the situation quickly became hostile, I put my camera down and we roared away in an old rattletrap of a car. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out now for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on the eruption of violence in Iraq’s sprawling western al-Anbar Governorate that borders the relatively calm governorates of Ma’an, Amman, Mafraq, and the somewhat sketchier Zarqa in Jordan, the war ravaged governorates of Deir ez-Zor, and Homs in Syria and, lastly, Saudi Arabia’s Northern Border Region. Control of Anbar is a security issue for the entire region that surrounds it when considering the war in Syria that is attracting foreign fighters like moths to a flame and the transnational outlook of salafi-jihadi thought in a geographically contiguous KSA.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 4.14.49 PMAnbar became the symbol of anti-American resistance in Iraq so much so that the restive northern town of Hawija in Kirkuk Governorate was referred to as the “Anbar of the North” by the US military at one time. Anbar became almost a catchall term for a place that was difficult to pacify through traditional counterinsurgency doctrine much less purely by means of military hard power. Only through cooperation and co-opting was the Sunni Arab insurgency there quelled for a time with the raising of Sahwa militias.

In the now bloody aftermath of the American troop withdrawal that took place at the tail end of 2011 and was hailed by President Barack Obama as ‘ending’ the Iraq war, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Da’wa Party die-hard prime minister, has done nothing to tamp down the collective ire of Sunni activists from Fallujah north to Hawija. Maliki’s moves have merely moved the Iraq war into a much more indigenous phase.

From accusing notable Sunni politcos of being involved in terrorism, a crime punishable by death in Iraq’s draconian penal code, to doing nothing to assuage the concerns of angry protestors, Maliki at least partly set the stage for the arrival of ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi Iraq w’al Sham, know locally by its acronym DAASH, and by its English acronym ISIL, into Fallujah’s city centre and sections of Ramadi and several villages in the respective surrounding areas at the outset of 2014.

The Iraqi elections are approaching quickly on the country’s troubled political horizon on April 30th. How ‘free and fair’ voting will be carried out under such circumstances is entirely unclear.

I’m illustrating this post with the following images because I personally feel much of what is going on in Iraq today can be traced directly back to the elaborately expensive yet incredibly poorly planned Bush/neo-conservative regime decapitation initiative called Operation Iraqi Freedom. That moniker seemed to me to say that 99.9% of all Iraqis were equally oppressed by Hussein’s dreadful Ba’ath Party policies.

By and large, yes, Iraqis were treated terribly by an anti-egalitarian strongman in a nation-state rife with deep tribal, sect, and ethnic division. But the late dictator could not have ruled for decades without a degree of genuine support fostered by patronage networks and adroit imbuing of his own ideology among at least a cadre of willing followers.

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads "Go" in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads “Go” in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions.Note the boy staring in wonderment out of the blue minibus on the left. These wars don’t happen in a vacuum and children often abound. Some of them undoubtedly would grow up in the following years to become militants attacking coalition forces and Iraqi federal forces. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

But it should be noted that not all the Sunnis fighting the state right now are doing so under the black banners of salafi-jihad. Though those banners make for exciting headlines, there is a viable retro or neo-Ba’athist strain of rebellion going on. Though it had been primarily focused more on the Kurds and territorial issues pertaining to the Green Line in terms of strategy and tactics, the Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq which has been described as a political front group for the JRTN–since gone operational, are kind of Ba’athist revivalist groups (or two parts of the same movement depending on perspective).These movements have sought to resuscitate Saddamist symbolism to garner the support of disaffected Iraqis tired of what they perceive as “Safavid” (Iranian)-influenced political primacy in Baghdad. Certainly DAASH/ISIL and JRTN have starkly different ideologies and objectives, but for now they have a common enemy in PM Maliki and those who defend and support him.

Forest of destruction. All that was left of the building after a "surgical strike" were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Forest of destruction. All that was left of this particular building after a “surgical strike” were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. Upon arrival in Baghdad, what immediately impressed upon me visually was how the American air campaign in Iraq differed from that I’d witnessed in Afghanistan after 9/11. American bombardments there struck mostly unremarkable hillsides as the Taliban had hardly any fixed concrete targets. Iraq was the polar opposite as swaths of brick and mortar cities were leveled in an instant as ignorant Fox television viewers looked on with a non-chalant curiosity. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn't yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway from the war's inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn’t yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway (we all remember Rumsfeld’s “dead enders”) from the war’s inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly and fast. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. As I quietly photographed this wreckage atop a traffic median, there was an explosion off in the distance indicated by the rising black plume. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn't been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba'ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn’t been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba’ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. One thing that has always fascinated me about dictatorial regimes is the sheer level of ubiquitousness of ‘big man’ iconography. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Though at the time of this posting Fallujah remains under rebel control in a shaky truce mediated by the Anbar Provincial Council, in my view things aren’t likely to improve overnight in terms of Anbar’s overall security in the lead-up this spring’s election.

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uncategorized Tags: ,

The Levant in Flames

January 11th, 2014 No comments
Portraits of Ba'athist leader Bashar al-Assad gazing off in different directions at a market in Damascus two years after he succeeded his father. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Portraits of Ba’athist leader Bashar al-Assad gazing off in different directions at a market in Damascus two years after he succeeded his father. Despite some neoconservative sabre rattling toward Assad after the American invasion of Baghdad, it was otherwise unthinkable that his minoritarian Alawi regime would be genuinely threatened by an uprising-Salafist or otherwise-after the “Hama solution” precent set by his father in 1982. Now the inter-insurgency war pitting secular nationalists, salafi nationalists, Kurdish ethno-nationalists and salafi-jihadis against one another may give Assad a chance at partially saving his enfeebled Russian and Iranian-backed regime. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- There two major interconnected stories in the Levant this week: the internecine fighting between the salafist rebel factions vying for dominance in the northern Syrian war theatre and the Anbari uprising-cum-chaos in Ramadi, Fallujah and smaller villages west of Baghdad. I appeared in a live discussion on the Syrian issue with Samir Nashar of the Syrian National Council in Istanbul and Ahmad Abazed, an analyst on Syrian affairs in Amman. We talked about the battle between Ahrar al-Sham and its allies and ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyya fi Iraq w’al-Sham (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-ISIL) mostly in Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqah governorates.

I appeared on BBC Arabic's Newnight present by Fidah Bassil with Ahmad Abazed (l) Samir Nashar (r) on the January 8th broadcast.

I appeared on BBC Arabic’s Newnight present by Fidah Bassil with Ahmad Abazed (l) Samir Nashar (r) on the January 8th broadcast.

As Syria’s conflict becomes ever more confounding, peer competition among insurgent movements appears steadily on the rise. The confounding bit is that while at war with one another in some governorates, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra are reportedly still working together against the Kurdish PYD’s YPG militias in al-Hassakah Governorate and the relationship between those two groups is murky. The fact that so many journalists have disappeared in Syria certainly doesn’t help matters.

I stated that I believe this battle is partly a Darwinian battle for primacy that we have seen in many civil wars and revolutionary movements from 1979 Iran to Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. Often one group needs to push its one-time allies aside, often violently, so that its ideological strain becomes the dominant, and then sole one in the war theater. In doing so, the regimes these movements are fighting can no longer say they are fighting small bands of revolutionaries they can then divide and co-opt. A singular voice is more adept at creating a revolutionary or separatist state.

Part of why things in Syria have evolved in such a way is because the world failed to label the crisis there as a revolution. Instead, it was repeatedly labeled a “crackdown” against protestors like the failed Shia uprising in Bahrain. When external powers finally did decide to act in Syria, they did so without harmony and according to each’s self interest by aiding the rebel groups of their choice. This only heightened peer competition among rebel factions vying for influence. With no unified policy on how to aid Syria’s rebel movements, the pendulum will continue to swing between ISIL and its adversaries in cities like Aleppo and Raqqa. 

I’ve been closely following the uprising in Anbar, with federal forces being pushed out of Fallujah and the governorate’s capital Ramadi. I’m interested in how this Anbar situation relates to Syria and also how it relates to the events of 2003-2004. ISIL has been strengthened by the war in Syria undoubtedly but the events in Anbar are also part of the larger atmosphere of Sunni discontent in Maliki’s Iraq.

I don’t think ISIL’s agenda has broad-based popular support by any means, but it couldn’t exist with zero sympathy for at least some of its sectarian aims either.  ISIL will not be welcomed in the larger population centers for long as locals will not have forgotten the group’s brutal legacy of takfiri hellfire. And though the tribal militia’s certainly have a tense relationship with federal forces in the post-American era, the two may have more in common in the meantime in fighting to eject ISIL in villages outside Ramadi. At the time of this post fighting in Ramadi proper is still ongoing with tribal fighters and Iraqi state forces reportedly working together against ISIL.

So now we see ISIL fighting on two disparate fronts in Anbar and Raqqa et al both of which now appear just as much aimed at fighting fellow Sunnis as well as the largely non-Sunni regimes in Baghdad and Damascus that, for each’s respective strategic interests, are in league with Tehran.

What level of coordination–if any–exists between these wings of ISIL is not really concretely known to my knowledge. What is known is that the longer the relevant external actors don’t have a cohesive foreign policy toward Syria, the longer the Levant will continue to burn unabated.

An American military intelligence officer photographs a sticker of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim near Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, April 2003. As a "unilateral" (non-embedded) journalist I guess I did not have the required permission to take such a photo. ©2003 Derek henry Flood

An American military intelligence officer photographs a sticker of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim near Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, April 2003. Hakim was the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). As a “unilateral” (non-embedded) journalist I guess I did not have the required permission to take such a photo. Hakim was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Najaf a few short months later on August 29, 2003 outside the shrine of Imam Ali. It seemed as if the American military higher ups couldn’t quite decide who their enemies were. After shooting this photo, my fixer an I drove onto the campus of the university nearby and two young GIs pointed M-16s at our heads. When I told them in loud American English I was a journalist, they told me they couldn’t be sure my hilarious fixer wasn’t a secretive suicide bomber.  ©2003 Derek henry Flood 

The ripple effects of the Pentagon's aggressive de-Ba'athification agenda can be felt in Iraq today, well over a decade after the invasion/intervention/occupation/quagmire. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The ripple effects of the Pentagon’s aggressive de-Ba’athification agenda can be felt in Iraq today, well over a decade after the invasion/intervention/occupation/quagmire. De-Ba’athification for many was code for Sunni Arab marginalization that partly underlies the Sunni protest camps from Hawija to Ramadi. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Iraq, Syria Tags:

So Long 2013

December 29th, 2013 No comments
An Iraqi Army soldier mans a lonely checkpoint in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Iraqi Army soldier mans a lonely checkpoint in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. Soldiers here have to be wary of both the Dawlat al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq (Islamic State of Iraq) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Jaish Rijal al-Tairiq al-Naqshbandi led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. These insurgent groups constantly target Iraq’s federal security forces whom they see as representing Maliki’s ‘apostate’ or pro-Iran Shia government. Aside from that constantly morphing nightmare, they are also along a sort of front line with Kurdish peshmerga militiamen. Seeing a post-Western troops Iraq gives one pause for what may happen in Afghanistan once the NATO ISAF coalition is eventually disassembled. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- As the worst year of my life comes to a quiet close, I can look back and be thoroughly grateful for the two reporting trips I was able to make to Iraq and Georgia and for the friends I was able to reconnect with in Catalunya and Greece. I thank heaven for all those who graciously supported me in 2013.

This world is filled with all kinds of people from pathetic nihilists to selfish materialists all the way to gentle altruists. The former are reported on and/or lionized far too often while the latter often fail to receive the credit they so rightfully deserve.

One of the biggest events on the near term horizon slated for 2014 is of course the wobbly future of a post-Karzai, post-America/NATO Afghanistan. With a presidential election scheduled–replete with some candidates of questionable repute–for early April in which Hamid Karzai is ineligible to run for another term and the planned pullout-be it partial or total–of American troops a year from now, it is possible the Afghan Taliban’s writ in the parts of Afghan Pashtunistan that make up its power base may be reenergized.

The pull-out of the Americans would likely lead to an immediate abandonment by its NATO partner nations and others non-NATO contributors such as Georgia. Like the Kurds, the Pashtuns are one of the world’s largest ethno-liguistic groups devoid of a nation-state to call there own.

The Taliban are not akin to al-Qaeda but are rather an Islamist ethno-nationalist movement that seeks to rule Pashtunistan as it is sometimes referred and other adjacent parts of Afghanistan–and now Pakistan as the movement’s once limited ideology has continued to metastasize– inhabited by Tajiks and Punjabis. Uzbeks and Sindhis. Although of course Taliban leadership would never admit such, even though the emirate they once proclaimed back in the 1990s was within Westphalian border principals in the land they inherited and conquered.

It should be remembered that while for the West the raison d’être for its presence in Afghanistan was Mohammed Atta sitting in Tarnak Farms when he wasn’t in Hamburg-Harburg, the conflict is really one of and for the people of that region to decide. The West would be and likely have been best keeping the Afghan war a low impact intelligence effort rather than a swelling-in-troop-numbers vast boots-on-the-ground mission that ended up being more of an obstacle to genuine institution building in the ensuing years.

An effusive Sunni Punjabi taxi driver said to me the other night with great passion: “the [Pakistani] Taliban are bastards. They want to kill Shia, Ismailis, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus (all of whom are minorities in Pakistan).” And while Deobandism has planted its flag here in New York City, thus far it has not materialized as a threat (despite some close calls emanating from or tied to FATA in recent years where Deobandi ideology has traditionally held sway) the way that transnational Salafism has in terms of highly localized security issues here.

A Georgian police officer stands in a cemetery in the village of Zemo Nikozi in Shida Karli region--better known as the Republic of South Ossetia. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Georgian police officer with an AK-74 rifle stands in a cemetery in the village of Zemo Nikozi in Shida Kartli region–the northern part of which is better known as the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. The officer looks off into Russian-occupied Tskhinvali, the “capital” of South Ossetia. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Besides the somewhat predictable events hoped for or dreaded in Afghanistan depending on one’s perspective, there will be the other likely events in the news cycle: natural disasters in the Pacific or Indian Ocean regions, mass shootings in the United States, suicide bombings or other insurgent/terrorist actions in the Russian Federation before and after the Sochi Olympics, large scale protest movements driven by economic grievances in capital cities around the world, deaths of old guard leaders, inter-religous violence mislabeled as “sectarian” forever reminding us of the impact Iraq has had on our journalistic lexicon, unabated unrest in the Sykes-Picot legacy states of the Middle East and so forth. Shaping up to be an interesting year already!

A solemn ceremonial fire on perhaps the last patch of entirely undeveloped East River waterfront land after a dozen years of Bloomberg rule in New York. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Closure. A solemn ceremonial fire on perhaps the last patch of entirely undeveloped East River waterfront land after a dozen years of Bloomberg rule in New York. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, Georgia, Iraq Tags:

Election Eve in Georgia, Festering Instabiliy in Kirkuk

October 24th, 2013 No comments
Posters for Giorgi Margvelashvili running on Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream ticket and considered the front runner (or at least he has the most posters up in town) in Sunday's Georgian presidential election. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Posters in downtown Tbilisi for Giorgi Margvelashvili running on Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream ticket. Margvelashvili is considered the front runner (or at least he has the most posters up in town) in Sunday’s Georgian presidential election. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

TScreen Shot 2013-10-24 at 9.34.41 PMbilisi- The Republic of Georgia is on the cusp of a presidential election that is shaping up to be the country’s first non-ultra dramatic transition of power (think the coup against President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the Rose Revolution ousting Eduard Shevardnadze). Buzz here around town is that it may well go into a second round. If Margvelashvili does not receive 49.9% of the vote according to Thomas de Waal, the transition of power may be a touch chaotic as the era of the Rose Revolution comes to a close with little fanfare .

Some have said, rather cynically in my view, that the biggest accomplishment of the outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili will not be the reforms he’s made but stepping down from power in a peaceful and orderly manner.

In the backdrop of the election and the constitutional transformation about to be implemented turning the republic from a presidential to a parliamentary system is the Russian’s beefing up of the Soviet-era border of occupied South Ossetia (from when South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic) and whether or not Georgia should formally boycott the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. The fact to a Russian pilot from the 2008 war here called Ivan Nechaev was seen being an Olympic torchbearer has not gone over at all well here.

In other news I have an article out this week in the October issue of the CTC Sentinel based on my fieldwork in Kirkuk in August, communications with my fixer afterward and months of following developments along the Green Line that is the de facto internal border between Iraq Kurdistan and Arab Iraq (for lack of a more precise term).

Posters for David Bakradze, presidential candidate from outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movment. Bakradze is considered to be the second place candidate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Posters for Davit Bakradze, presidential candidate from outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movment. Bakradze is considered to be the second place candidate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A poster in the Rostaveli metro station for Nino Burjanadze, one-time leader of the Rose Revolution, now out to get Saakashvili and have Georgia's own "reset" with the Kremlin. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A poster in the Rustaveli metro station for Nino Burjanadze, one-time leader of the Rose Revolution, now out to get Saakashvili and have Georgia’s own “reset” with the Kremlin. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Georgia, Iraq Tags: , ,

Along the Morphing Green Line in Iraq

September 9th, 2013 No comments
A portrait of Wahab Mohammed Sharir, a Kurdish martyr portrait in my fixer's living room in Kirkuk. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A portrait of Wahab Mohammed Sharir, a Kurdish peshmerga fighter in my fixer’s living room in Kirkuk. Shahrir had been fighting the Ba’athist government in the 1960s and 1970s  before the Algiers Accords were ultimately signed in 1975 between Iran and Iraq where the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi agreed to cease Tehran’s support for armed insurgents in northern Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- Proud to announce that I have to lead story in this month’s issue of Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst (Subscribers only). I travelled along a section of the so-called “Green Line” that divides Iraqi Kurdistan from Arab-majority Iraq.  Iraq’s Green Line was established after the 1990-1991 Gulf War when the northern no-fly zone was implemented.  Run out of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base,  the no-fly zone enforced above the 36th parallel was known as Operation Provide Comfort and Operation Provide Comfort II (which then became Operation Northern Watch). It allowed for the setting up of a de facto Kurdish administration divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 3.53.19 PMWestern air power in the Clinton years let that harden into what would eventually become the Kurdistan Regional Government run by both of the major Iraqi Kurdish dynastic parties. When the United States military burst through the hulking sand berms separating Iraq from Kuwait on March 19-20 2003, U.S. Special Forces teamed up with Peshmerga fighters to not only tackle Ansar al-Islam’s base along the Iranian border but also to gain a foothold in cities like Mosul and Kirkuk when Turkey’s parliament refused the Pentagon the right to transit Turkish territory to topple the government in Baghdad.

What I found on my exploration along the former Green Line is that the KRG is creating ground realities while the federal government helmed by  Nuri al-Maliki can’t quite get its act together regarding the status of disputed territories along this fluid internal border. Part of why the demarcation of the Green Line matters so much is that when there are oil or gas blocks in these lands and hence potentially great wealth to be attained by whomever controls them, a relict of 1990s political geography is now of utmost importance.

A group of Peshmerga fighters proudly boasted to me that their makeshift little bunker was south of the old Green Line. And with a weak federal security force combined with Kurdish nationalism, this seemed to really mean something. Neither side appears ready to forge a genuine settlement on the disputed territories meanwhile energy multinationals are eager to get their hands on as yet undeveloped resources.

Thus far both Erbil and Baghdad have been fairly intransigent on their respective oil development policies. Both have made stark statements that oil companies shouldn’t work in both Kurdistan and southern Iraq. They should be forced to pick sides. However the exploration by ExxonMobil may alter this tense arrangement.

Along this northwest to southeast line, the Kurds and the Iraqi Army did not seem to be allies but eyeing each other as well as looking for infiltrators from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

A Peshmerga commander gazes into the distance at an old Ba'athist military bunker that was destroyed in an American air strike on March 2003. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Peshmerga commander beyond the old Green Line  gazes into the distance at an old Ba’athist military bunker that was destroyed in an American air strike on March 2003. Whether PM Maliki likes it or not, Kurdish military leaders are creating facts on the ground. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

As the United States and France contemplate launching bombing raids to help topple to Ba’athist regime in Damascus, it would behoove leaders in Washington and Paris to look at the legacy of their involvement in Iraq (pre-2003 France was involved in Operation Provide Comfort). Toppling a dictatorship is the relatively easy part of the equation.

Categories: Iran, Iraq, Middle East Tags: , ,

Iraq Then and Now

August 19th, 2013 No comments
A young Shia girl returns to school after the American invasion of her country. Behind her is a mural of Muhammed Al-Dura, a young  boy killed during the second intifada in Palestine. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

An Iraqi girl returns to school in Karbala after the American invasion of her country. Behind her is a mural of Muhammed al-Dura, a young boy killed during the second intifada in Palestine. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have a new article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about the discordant security arrangement in Iraq’s contested Kirkuk Governorate. On October 21, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama declared: ”After nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.” What the president should have said that American large-scale participation on the ground would end but the war in Iraq would continue to painfully grind on.

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 11.58.40 AMThough the White House had the audacity of boast in citing the major troop withdrawal as one of many campaign “promises kept,” as it has become loudly clear in 2013, the Iraq war in nowhere near ending–only American leverage over its outcome has mostly ceased. Many Iraqis I spoke to over the course of a week (as well as a number of Syrian refugees) consider Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a nearly hysterical Iranian client leader who is concerned primarily with the preservation of his own personal power regime. In fact I encountered more people who favored the former American presence than were fans of their own PM.

The frustration over the dire lack of daily security among ordinary Iraqis was both obvious and immense.In between the ongoing horrors in Syria and now Egypt, Iraq has been creeping up into the headlines–and not just because of its proximity to the Syrian war. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is undeniably resurgent. Shia militias like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)–a splinter group from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish-i-Mahdi headed by Qais al-Khazali–are undoubtedly feeding off Sunni militancy to define themselves as communal defense movements. Meanwhile Maliki’s government situated in the closed off “Green Zone” cannot seem to come to an accord with Massoud Barzani’s Erbil over either oil law or the territories disputed in several northern governorates between Baghdad and Erbil.

The Iraq I first encountered in 2003 had the momentary illusory feel of a place filled with possibilities. And I’m not referring to the delusional overnight resuscitation of the oil sector as dreamed up by the neoconservative hawks at the time. Like the Malwiya in Samarra pictured below, my ulterior motive for visiting Iraq was its incredible historic sites that had been largely cut off from the outside world since Saddam Hussein’s ascent to the Iraqi presidency in 1979. The shrines of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein, and the ziggurat of Ur outside Nasiriyyah were fantasies to visit in person. But alas there was no cultural revival to be. Iraq has been steadily in some form of war for all of the last decade. Iraq quickly became much more Syriana than Indiana Jones.

The Malwiya tower from the Great Mosque of Samarra, May 2003. From atop the Malwiya  It was built in the mid-800's by the Abbassid caliph Al-Mutawakkil ʻAlā Allāh Jaʻfar ibn al-Muʻtasim. I could see the golden dome of the ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The Malwiya tower from the Great Mosque of Samarra, May 2003. It was built in the mid-800′s by the Abbassid caliph Al-Mutawakkil ʻAlā Allāh Jaʻfar ibn al-Muʻtasim. From atop the Malwiya I could see the golden dome of the al-Askari shrine housing the tombs of the 10th and 11th Shia Imams. The al-Askari shrine was later blown up in February 2006 and again in June 2007. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

At lot of varying interests were at play in 2003 who stood to gain or lose in Iraq in 2003. The most politically palatable meme was that the entire world public–led by the European left–stood in solidarity against the invasion. From absurd Ba’ath apologists to genuine anti-war activists, the more complex pill to swallow was that many Iraqis actually welcomed the Anglo-American invasion which also included  Australia–later to be joined by soldiers from Ukraine to Tonga. I say this not regurgitating some misguided New York Times op-ed column from the time but from my own experience on the ground.

In trying to avoid the expensive media circus in Baghdad, I spent more time in southern Iraq. The majority of Shia I interacted with in Najaf and Karbala back then initially welcomed the invaders-cum-occupiers. Though it wouldn’t last long, there was a brief honeymoon period that seemed full of potential. Of course most of that was more the result of a confluence of mutual ignorance than of a brilliantly architected armed humanitarian intervention.

Police officer Shakawam's Namiti's car after it was it by an IED at 1:30 a.m. in midsummer. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Police officer Shakawam’s Namiti’s car after it was it by an IED at 1:30 a.m. in midsummer, Dibis, Kirkuk Governorate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Oh and Iraq has some fantastic local dishes. But you are more likely to hear about Iraqis dying during their dinner as sectarian warfare escalates. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Oh and Iraq has some fantastic local dishes. But you are more likely to hear about Iraqis dying during their dinner as sectarian killing escalates. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Iraq, Middle East Tags: ,

The Road Somewhat Less Traveled As Seen Through an iPod.

August 10th, 2013 No comments
Crossing the Iraq-Turkey border involved no less than six different vehicles from taxis, the mini vans to full size buses. Each one came decked out with its own motif. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Crossing the Iraq-Turkey border involved no less than six different vehicles from taxis, the mini vans to full size buses. Each one came decked out with its own motif. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- In terms of collecting images from around the world as a photographer in the last 15 years, beyond the vast adjustment from analog to digital there has been the management of multiple devices that collect images digitally. Aside from having a professional grade camera to capture moments in war zones hither and yon, there becomes the question of how to manage  these other random images that collect on mobile phones. To add to the mess I have an iPod that takes photos and uploads them to my laptop with much more ease than my relatively ancient Blackberry. With some down time here in my most trusted EU port city with its own bitter linguistic separatism and autonomous region flag flying not that different than Iraqi Kurdistan in the most simple analogous terms, I’m posting some random road and air images that stacked up on the mobile devices that now line both my front pockets.

This driver gave me the full white knuckle experience taking curves as fast as possible while looking over at me-and apparent;y not on the road-and screaming "Kurdistan! Good?" He was getting on my nerves so much I repeatedly answered his rabid ethno-patriotism in Arabic. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This driver gave me the full white knuckle experience taking curves as fast as possible while looking over at me-and apparently not on the road-and screaming “Kurdistan! Good?” He was getting on my nerves so much I repeatedly answered his rabid ethno-patriotism in Arabic. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Though Ankara has been against Kurdish nationalism since the birth of the modern Turkish republic, Turkish interests in a stable Kurdish administered northern Iraq seems appetizing when compared to the takfiri chaos in central Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Though Ankara has been against Kurdish nationalism since the birth of the modern Turkish republic, Turkish interests in a stable Kurdish administered northern Iraq seems appetizing when compared to the takfiri chaos in central Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has become a serious market for Turkish corporations like Beko, the white goods powerhouse. In northern Iraq, Turkish pragmatism has prevailed in the name of huge profits. However, Ankara still seeks to stem the creation of a similar Kurdish self-governing region in neighboring Syria despite the success of the “Barzani model.”©2013 Derek Henry Flood

No unnecessarily arduous Middle Eastern road would be complete without lots of stops to talk to random guys like this. Everyone is working a hustle of some form or another to make it worth their while. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

No unnecessarily arduous Middle Eastern road trip would be complete without lots of stops to talk to random guys like this about God knows what. Everyone is working a hustle of some form or another to make it worth their while.  Simply ferrying passengers back and forth doesn’t cut it in this entire region. Marlboro Reds and tea are the smuggler’s choice items. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

China's Great Wall Motors is making a dent in what had traditionally been a Japanese-dominated truck market. These still aren't as common as Toyota but I did see a good many of them on Iraq's roadways. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

China’s Great Wall Motors is making a dent in what had traditionally been a Japanese-dominated truck market. These still aren’t as common as Toyota but I did see a good many of them on Iraq’s roadways. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish Jandarma (Gendarmerie) hard car and a host of lookie loos inspect a jackknifed Turkish big rig that was transporting bottled water to Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish Jandarma (Gendarmerie) hard car and a host of lookie loos inspect a jack-knifed Turkish big rig outside Silopi that was transporting bottled water to Iraq…and didn’t quite make it ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

It isn't just Turkish trucking enterprises making their way into Iraq. In the choked queue at Habur-Ibrahim Khalil I spotted a cluster of transporters from Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Bulgaria. Wherever there's money to be made...©2013 Derek Henry Flood

It isn’t just Turkish trucking enterprises making their way into Iraq. In the choked queue at Habur-Ibrahim Khalil I spotted a cluster of transporters from Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Bulgaria. Wherever there’s money to be made…©2013 Derek Henry Flood

"Don't call it Kurdistan! It is Turkey! Kurdistan is in Iraq!" Taking off from Mardin airport-which is really considered to be in Kiziltepe by locals-and soaring over long contested territory. As PKK-Ankar peace talks fail to come to an accord with the PKK leadership s hoped for time frame, renewed insurgency may be just around the corner in the land below. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

“Don’t call it Kurdistan! It is Turkey! Kurdistan is in Iraq!” Taking off from Mardin airport-which is really considered to be in Kiziltepe by locals-and soaring over long contested territory. As PKK-Ankara peace talks fail to come to an accord with the PKK leadership’s pressed for time frame, renewed insurgency may be just around the corner in the land below. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

At journey's end, Istanbul Atatürk Airport. For those curious about obscure passports and equally obscure airlines (from a Western perspective), this place can set the imagination alight. Here a sanctioned Iranian Mahan Air Airbus A300 taxis for takeoff back to the Islamic Republic. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

At journey’s end, Istanbul Atatürk Airport. For those curious about obscure passports and equally obscure airlines (from a Western perspective), this place can set the imagination alight. Here a sanctioned Iranian Mahan Air Airbus A300 taxis for takeoff back to the Islamic Republic. Originally made for the Lufthansa fleet in 1987, Mahan acquired this jet from Kyrgyz Airways in 2009. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood