Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category
New York- I’ve been delving through my archives of late in preparation for an upcoming series of television appearances the rise of dictatorships mostly in the latter half of the twentieth century. Poring over my stock from Baghdad and thinking about the current offensive to retake Tikrit, it all just seems so utterly unnecessary. How many times can the Republic of Iraq be torn asunder? For years, people have predicted Iraq’s imminent: demise, federalization, breakup, fissuring, and even inevitable unity based on the fact that Iraq has stayed together this long. The central government just seems to plod forward, rudderless, ill adept at maintaining control of the whole of its territory.
Whether Iraq will hold together as a single political geographic entity or can’t stop from breaking up is neither inevitable nor unthinkable. What is not terribly helpful is the sheer polarity of such predictions that often don’t consider the interests of ordinary Iraqis who have been in a state of war or siege essentially since 1980.
New York- With each coming day lately there is a new tragedy being announced by the takfiri evangelists who refer to themselves as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic State). With a campaign noted for executions believed to be taking place in ar-Raqqah Governorate and sieges upon the bastions of religious minorities or anyone is simple doesn’t adhere to takfir practices, IS risked the global public becoming inured to their atrocities. So their latest meme is destroying artifacts and smashing some of the Levant’s most prized ancient sites in parts of Ninewa Governorate under their control.
My interest in the Middle East began not with its intermittent warfare but with its rich archaeological history. My first trip to the region was to help excavate King Herod’s palace in Caesarea Maritima, not to cover an adrenaline-fueled war. As is my luck, war broke out during that dig between the IDF and Hezbollah. Suddenly digging around the biblical building blocks of the ancients felt somewhat irrelevant.
What they are doing is not complete foreign in contemporary Islam as the state-orchestrated destruction of sites in Saudi Arabia is in keeping with Wahabi ideology that forbids the worshipping of ancestry lest it be deemed a form of shirk (idolatry) that runs counter to the narrowest interpretation of tawhid (monotheism) and is at least partly intended to marginalize Shia religious practices within the boundaries of the Kingdom.
Little to no global outcry has slowed the demolition of holy sites in both Mecca and Medina. The Saudi monarchy has been obliterating history in accordance with its state-sanctioned ideology since the mid-1920s under the auspices of purifying the Arabian Peninsula. Many holy places in Mecca have been simply bulldozed to make way for mass market capitalism. Profit has replaced the physical history of the prophet. In a sense IS is continuing this policy writ large against Muslim, non-Muslim and pre-Islamic sites alike.
In March 2001 when when a Taliban set out to demolish the Hellenist-inflected Buddhas of Bamyan in central Afghanistan’s Shia-majority Hazarajat region, it was speculated that the Deobandi Islamists did so to thumb their nose at the world that isolated their largely unrecognized regime while collectively punishing the Hazara minority who they’d fought to bitterly in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997-1998. The comparisons to the crime in Bamyan were inevitable. The reported razing of Hatra is but the latest of atrocities against Iraqi, and well pre-Islamic civilizational history of all mankind, following the demolishing of statues inside the unguarded Mosul museum, and destruction at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud and Ninevah.
One of Iraq’s greatest Islamic monuments from the height of the Absassid caliphate is the spiral minaret known as the Malwiyya in Samarra. Along the banks of the Tigris, Samarra sits about midway between Balad and Tikrit–where a large scale offensive is currently under way–in a hotly contested area between the Iraqi state and its allied Iranian-backed Shia militia movements versus IS.
Ostensibly the Malwiyya would not be slated for IS destruction as it represents a pillar of Sunni religio-cultural history, is in no way idolatrous, and does not depict graven imagery. But I’m being far too logical in my assessment I suppose. In its wedding cake-like tiers, it is somewhat evocative of, if not inspired by, a ziggurat.
When the U.S. military barged into Iraq in March 2003, vandalizing Iraq’s Ba’athist history, namely the iconography of Saddam Hussein’s carefully crafted personality cult, seemed to be part of official Pentagon policy. Iraq had been vilified ever since the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991 that sent Iraqi troops retreating along the “highway of death”where stifled images showed the cruelty of such a precision air war.
Although Iraq, and to a lesser extent neighboring Syria, are thought of as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ this geography has known little other than war and deep, violent internal repression for decades. Iraq’s culture coupled with the civilizational landmarks that remain within its present day geographical boundaries have not been incentivized to be respected. Aside from the well publicized destruction such as that which occurred in the Mosul museum, there has been widespread looting of sites for years to fund criminal enterprises and now outright salafi-jihad. The destruction gets the attention, the looting nets the income.
Thus the IS assault on the country’s treasures in Ninewa comes as no shock. There is also a knee jerk response in social media that if one emotes a deep, genuine sadness for such an immeasurable loss, that one is somehow lessening the ongoing loss of human life in these places. It is as if the intertwined plights of history and humanity are inherently mutually exclusive. This makes advocating for these treasures appear to be a possibly insensitive act.
Preserving Iraq’s vulnerable heritage was never explicitly part of the occupational mandate of U.S. forces in the 8 1/2 years they served in Iraq. Though it would seem Washington has the power, the military power, to stop this vast crime spree, it is not considered to be of paramount importance in the national security interest. Plain and unfortunately simple. Though there are initiatives like the State Department funded Syrian Heritage Initiative, the overall large scale political will is just not there. Iraq is too mired in intractable sectarian and ethnic fissures to do much to save its treasures while the Assad government in Damascus is concerned with solely with regime preservation.
The future of the past indeed looks bleak for the time being.
New York- I have a an article in the November/December issue of the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel publication titled The Battle for Kobani Comes to the Fore. Above is a clip I put together from my field work in Kirkuk Governorate in August 2013. Though Kirkuk and Kobane are geographically disparate places, many Kurds consider these pivotal cities as key nodes in a singular struggle against Ba’Athism, salafism, Kemalism and any other form a ideology that they believe seeks to deprive Kurds of their collective rights as a nation.
Fourteen months after my trip to Kirkuk, I traveled to southern Şanlıurfa Province in southern Turkey to witness the siege of Kobane just inside Aleppo Governorate. Kurds gathered in solidarity there frustratingly expressed that the siege of Kobane was but the latest round in an persistent narrative of anti-Kurdish mass casualty violence that has gone on for decades.
Some in the hills of Mürşitpınar expressed that the sweeping attacks on the Kurdish-majority villages that once buffered urban Kobane were aimed at pushing back Kurdish nationalist aspirations. The fight against Kurdish autonomy may have gone from racist Ba’athism to predatory salafism but it was the same anti-Kurdish feeling expressed under another ideology according to a number of observers I spoke with.
Those interviewed believe the Kobane crisis is firmly rooted in 20th century Arab Ba’athism, Turkish republicanism or Iranian chauvinism in which respective Kurdish minority populations were politically oppressed by ethnic majoritarian governments. They held that IS’s salafism has absorbed traits due in part of veteran Ba’athists who had joined its upper ranks.
From previous anti-Kurdish policies most epitomized by the al-Anfal scorched earth campaign in northern Iraq in 1987-1988 which killed an estimated 150,000, a feeling of communal vulnerability exists across Kurdistan that transcends post-colonial borders. This thinking extends into the global Kurdish diaspora in the West as well.
In the eyes of many watching nervously along the Turkish-Syrian border, the surrounding of Kobane by IS fighting trucks flying trademark black banners—and the ease with which this occurred— symbolizes not an intra-Islamic fight between radicals and those they deem less pious Sunnis but an ethnic contest between Arabs coupled with their foreign fighter acolytes and indigenous Kurds.
It also left an impression that Turkish authorities were so ardently anti-Kurdish particularly in the case of Rojava that Turkey in fact preferred to have IS jihadis facing its jandarma than the PYD’s YPG. Some Kurdish observers in Suruç and environs felt that Turkish passivity on the siege was an indicator that it actually actively supported the IS advance because Ankara would prefer to have dour salafists on its border as in the case of nearby Jarabulous or Tel Abyad than a sturdy, vibrant Kurdish autonomy movement.
While the Kurds have largely succeeded in their grand goal of consolidating Kirkuk and its oil wealth into Iraqi Kurdistan proper, the fight for Kobane continues to rage illustrating that though gains in one part of greater Kurdistan have been made, there is a long way to go yet still.
Barcelona- I have a new report out this week for IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London on my analysis of the Islamic State’s brutal campaign to establish a religio-politcal entity among several of the former Ottoman (the last recognized caliphate in existence) vilayats that now inhabit the governorates of Syria and Iraq where IS is working to consolidate territorial control.
The conflict inside Syria morphed from minor protests that resulted in disproportionate regime reactions that in turn gave rise to an armed rebellion in 2011. That armed rebellion which I explored in early 2012 then became Islamized by both Islamist Sunni nationalists and later by salafist peer competitors. A cacophonous battlefield erupted over time where sectarian difference, religious difference and ethnic divides created perhaps the most highly complex internecine war of the post-modern era in terms of the sheet number of war fighting groups and conflicting agendas.
On a related note, I returned home after a great day out with friends here in the city to check my twitter and learn of the execution of James Foley. The reactions to the tragedy on twitter were sadly all too predictable. Many tweets sought to emphasize that the overwhelming majority if IS’s victims in Syria and Iraq are indigenous peoples who perish largely in silence and that the Foley case was overshadowing a grand scale human tragedy with the plight of a few Westerners being over played by the Western media.
Yet other tweets dwelled on the ethics of sharing such an awful product or even watching it at all. I recall these precise arguments from beheadings in the early years of the Iraq war and other incidents in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Aside from those, there is the talk of the predicament of what to do about the remaining hostages. Then arguments begin to become ballooned out to what Obama should or should not have done in Syria earlier on, how Benghazi affected the White House’s Syria policy or lack thereof and so forth. Much of this echoes the Iraq war to begin with. Hostages crises, myriad militant organizations, Ba’athism, Kurdish secessionism etc.
Obama has sought to improve America’s standing here in the EU and around the world as a whole which in theory is a commendable objective after years of disastrous neoconservative-inflected, poorly informed foreign policy decisions. But there is also a futility in this as an end goal. I recall talking to a Catalan woman I was rooming with in this neighborhood some years ago and-as is often the case as an American in the EU-she volunteered her views on U.S. foreign policy without me prompting her to. “I think Obama is a an actor. A very good actor” she said to me. Was she referring to his not closing down Guantanamo? It didn’t really matter. The initial euphoria over his election had long since waned and knee-jerk cynicism had set in.
I remember not long before that when people here were heralding the end of the Bush era and a new, hopefully healthier trans-Atlantic partnership. But of course latent anti-Americanism reared its head again in no time at all. Was his refusal to overtly (as opposed to covertly) act on Syria related to it being too evocative of Bush unilateralism that turned so much of global public opinion against American’s immensely tarnished image? Or was it the fact that Washington’s Israeli partners who occupy a swath of southern Syria hadn’t themselves decided on their own response to which D.C. could not act without their consent? As an outside observer one can only speculate on these matters. An observer is not one of history’s actors so to speak. An observer bears witness and records events but is not meant to influence them in the purest interpretation of observational ethics.
The rise of Baghdadi’s Islamic State and the brutal death of James Foley illustrate that whatever is being done with regard to Iraq and Syria by major and regional powers alike is an abject failure. There will simply be more air strikes, more hostage issues and increased radicalism should the present course continue unchallenged.
Barcelona- After an egregiously long sabbatical in the chunky, ‘polar vortex’ torn streets of NYC, I finally made it back across the Atlantic. I put plans for returning to Iraq’s Green Line and Ukraine’s chaotic Donbas region on hold for the time being to work on a couple of armchair pieces. As a perennial freelancer, sometimes a sure thing outpaces an unsafe bet and so I’m remaining in the West for the moment.
I brought loads of prints over to do some more photo walls as I had been doing the previous month in Long Island City. In my original idea conceived in 2000-2001, I had wanted to plaster prints up on either side of the Euro-Atlantic community to pique interest in the historical juncture of Central-South Asia in order to bring attention to that region’s political maelstrom by appealing to the public with its beauty. Such was not to be.
As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, those plans were imediately tosed out the window after 9/11 because it was going to involve obtaining an Islamic Emirate visa for Afghanistan which was immediately unrealistic despite my efforts of reaching out to members of the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan and Flushing, Queens just before the attacks.
Now well over a decade on, I hope to close that loop albeit under far different circumstances. Below I’ve posted snapshots of my final two projects in the U.S. Hope to do some new ones here very soon…
New York- This past Friday evening while crowds were frantically swarming toward the rapidly developing Queens waterfront for the annual fireworks display celebrating American independence, I quietly maneuvered around the outer borough’s Long Island City neighborhood doing another photo installation. I pulled from my collection of old prints all of which are over a decade old.
I wanted to do a small gesture to note the events and geographies that are behind where the United States stands in the world today. These places and the images that denote them are also a part of who I am in regard to my own personal history.
New York- Since the fall of Mosul to ISIL and other Sunni Arab rebel movements, the legacy demons haunting Iraq’s tortured landscapes have reared their grotesque heads to dominate global headlines once again. Even after the Islamic State of Iraq tweaked its brand to become the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or al-Sham or Syria depending on media sources), the focus has been largely on Syria since American boots on the ground left Iraq behind on December 18, 2011. In darkness the last U.S. Army convoy departed Nasiriyya for the Khabari border crossing with Kuwait. Iraq became a non-newsworthy wasteland while Syria by contrast was a riveting drama where journalists were killed, disappeared or taken hostage on a fairly regular basis. In a sense, Syria became the new Iraq and Iraq became…well…a bit of a forgotten conflict.
President Barack Obama kept a campaign promise by ending the ‘bad war’ in Iraq but left vulnerable Iraqis in the lurch to fend for themselves amidst the ebb and flow of insurgent movements populating the country. Without the American footprint in its sands, highly particular political dynamics began to accelerate. The notion of an independent Kurdistan beyond mere de facto independence began to become an ever more real possibility. Economic ties, particularly energy ones--between the Erbil-based KRG and Ankara have only hardened. Maliki –the Dawa veteran and one-time Damascus resident–has become both dangerously autocratic and a lynchpin of Tehran’s foreign policy. Shia movements waxed and waned from kalashnikov-toting militia organizations to quietist legitimate political outfits operating at the forefront of the Iraqi polity and quickly reverting back to vocal militancy when threatened.
Above: A Peshmerga encampment on the lookout for ISIL and JRTN in 2013 well before this topic became suddenly fashionable a few weeks ago.
In Sunni-majority areas of Iraq (formerly the “Sunni triangle” now the even more absurd “Sunnistan“) which overlap in parts with Turkmen, Yezidi Kurdish and Iraqi Christian communities in some places and Shia holy sites as in the case of Samarra picture below, militancy has come back full throttle. After the forcible dismantlement by Maliki’s security forces of the Hawija (Kirkuk Governorate) and Ramadi (Anbar Governorate) protest sites in 2013, for many activist Sunnis this was a couple of humiliations too many.
Neo-Ba’athists refer to Nouri al-Maliki and his cronies derisively as “Safavid criminals” (corrupt proxies acting on behalf of Iranian intertests) while ISIL and other salafi-jihadis refer to their largely Shia opponents with the sectarian trope “rafidites” (rejectors) perhaps because they did not recognize Abu Bakr and Umar as rightly guided caliphs in favor of their cherished Imam Ali.
So now Iraq appears to be imploding and militants and media alike are busy making Sykes-Picot references. When I visited Iraq last year, the Iraqis I met with were gravely concerned regarding the utter fragility of the security situation but no one in the West seemed to much care. I published some articles and photos but I certainly wouldn’t have been eligible for a Pulitzer or a Robert Capa gold medal or one of those things.
Iraq simply was a cold, dead story in 2013–which was part of the reason I went back there in the first place. The Iraq war Obama claimed-falsely in my view-to have ended, never in fact ended. It morphed into a mostly indigenous conflict that the outside world cared little about. In a way it sort of reminded me of my pre-9/11 fascination with this region. The Americans had gone cold turkey save for those protecting the embassy and so forth. Now I’m imagining my empty hotel in Erbil crawling with journos with attendant fixers milling around the lobby.
I may head back there in the coming days but I can only safely assume prices to work there–war journalism is a job where you have to pay lots of money to do credible work–have risen sharply. Perhaps it will look like I’m following the pack rather than having been ahead of the curve reporting on the tenuousness of this 10 months back. And nothing looks bright on the Iraqi horizon.
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.
Personally, 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.
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.”
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.