Archive for the ‘Iraq’ tag
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 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.
Anbar 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.
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.
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.
Tbilisi- 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).
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.
Western 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.
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.
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.
Though 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.
At lot of varying interests were at play regarding 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 that time but from my own experience on the ground.
Both anti-war activists and pro-war jingoists sought to portray Iraq as a faceless monolith for their own ends. No one really cared anything about what common Kirkukis or Najafis actually thought.
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.
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.
Kirkuk- Here is a quick teaser of images from my recent reporting trip to Iraq’s perennial fault line known as Kirkuk Governorate.
A decade ago the United States poured over the Kuwaiti border to destroy the Ba’ath Party led by President Saddam Hussein. This effort to remake the country was guided by a wholly unrealistic vision thought up by men and some women who had no intrinsic understanding (though they would heartily argue otherwise) of either the deep political dynamics or long view history of the human fabric stretching from the Levant to Iranian Plateau. These so-called “experts” worked to destroy an unsavory despot without regard for human life still living in Iraq as they concocted their “Special Plans.”
Iraq was talked about callously as a “major oil producer” whose massive reserves were underexploited by Western multinationals as if it were virtually a people-less sandscape that just required some quick political remodeling in order to get its petroleum gushing again.
So here is Kirkuk, a decade on, with virtually every major politcal-territorial question about its future in a federal Iraq unanswered. The United States and its military and business partners smashed Iraq and drove back across the Kuwaiti border leaving behind a vast haven for suicide bombers and unending sectarian violence.
On the way back to Turkey, I shared a minivan with a group of Turkish laborers who were heading home on break. One from Istanbul told me he had been laying sod at football fields being constructed in Samarra and Tikrit. With the knowledge that a good number of Turks had been killed working in Iraq in the early stages of the war, I asked the Istanbuli why he would risk working in the “Sunni triangle” to earn a few dinars. He looked up at the dusk sky, replying: “al-Qaeda does not decide whether I live or die. That is left only for God to decide.” This seemed to me a fairly stark rationale to justify working in a war zone. But then again, what was I doing there?
Diyarbakir- Though I try not to get overly personal with TWD’s posts as it’s more of a news/analysis site, I’ve just arrived in southeastern Turkey (northern Kurdistan to some) and this marks twenty years of my travels in the Middle East. In the summer of 1993 I traveled to Israel/Palestine to be a volunteer worker on a grueling archaeological dig not too far south of the Lebanese border. Lo and behold A short, hot war broke out that summer two decades ago called either the Seven Day War or Operation Accountability depending on whom one asks (as is everything in this zone).
Here I am twenty long years later with both Syria and Iraq just to the south at war and the PKK resurgent in Turkey while in peace talks with the Erdogan government drag onat the same time. The eponymous province of which Diyarbakir is the administrative center is not without occasional political violence either. In this area there is so much going on seemingly at all times whether in terms in broad brush geopolitics or furious insurgencies being clumsily batted back by traditional military institutions employing awful scorched earth tactics that it just keeps calling me back.
Importantly, at least to me, is that I feel privileged to be here at all after all this time. I’ve met journalists over the years who are no longer still alive to tell these stories. I still think about them.