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Iraq Again and Always

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A man carries a painting of Imam Hussein during a procession commemorating Milad un Nabi (the birthday of Prophet Muhammed). ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

A man carries a painting of Imam Hussein during a procession commemorating Milad un Nabi (the birthday of Prophet Muhammed) in Najaf, Iraq. Immediately after Saddam Hussein was removed from power with violence, the iconography of Imam Hussein erupted from the streets of a decimated Iraq from one day to the next. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

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.

The ancient Grand Mosque of Samarra, once the seat of the Abassid Caliphate, as seen from the top of the conical Malwiya minaret. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The ancient Grand Mosque of Samarra, once the seat of the Abassid Caliphate, as seen from the top of the conical Malwiya minaret. On the city’s horizon in the upper right is the golden dome of the al-Askariyya shrine/mosque complex where the 10th and 11th Shia imams are buried. Less than 3 years after I shot  this image the mosque’s  dome by blown up by  Zarqawi’s Jamaat al-Tawhid w’al Jihad (predecessor to ISI/ISIL). ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

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.

The black banner reads: "The light of Imam al-Hussein, protective of the great Iraq." ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The schism between Islam’s two primary sects was immediately evident in Iraq as the Shia asserted their religious identity in 2003. The dutiful veneration of Imam Hussein was and remains at the core of that identity. That same veneration incurs the bloodletting wrath of takfiri-salafis today. The black banner reads: “The light of Imam al-Hussein, protective of the great Iraq.” Thanks to Murad Shishani for assistance with the translation. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Kurdish peshmerga members loiter around their post at sunset in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Kurdish peshmerga members loiter around their post at sunset in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. These men told me they were ready and able to defend KRG lands along their interpretation of the Green Line from potential incursions by ISIL or JRTN or the Iraqi Army if it came down to it. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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.

Written by derekhenryflood

June 25th, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Posted in Iraq

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The Levant in Flames

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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

Written by derekhenryflood

January 11th, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Posted in Iraq,Syria

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