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Archive for the ‘Kirkuk’ tag

Hawija Finally Collapses but for How Long?

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KDP-affiliated Peshmerga fighters look on toward then IS-held territory in Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate which is disputed between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have an article out in the October issue of the CTC Sentinel entitled “The Hawija Offensive: A Liberation Exposes Faultlines,” based on my fieldwork in Kirkuk governorate in August and September. I began this work before the offensive to retake the IS-held, so-called “Hawija pocket” kicked off in late September, just days before the Kurdish referendum on independence was going to be held. During my visits, the frontline was effectively stalemated because Kurdish forces could not agree on who would control the neighbouring district of Hawija with Iraqi security forces and the Shia militias known in Iraq as Hashd al-Shaabi.

Both sides were equally wary of each other’s intentions. In the end, Iraqi state forces and heavily armed Shia factions chased IS out of Hawija where they had been entrenched longer than Mosul or ar-Raqqa in terms of firm territorial control. Hawija was the quintessential building block of the aspiring ‘khilifah’ (‘caliphate’).

Ultimately Shia-dominated forces stormed into the long-held Sunni salafi enclave and evicted IS who ended up surrendering en masse as the khilifah was in its final stage of collapse as a military and administrative entity.

Little known to the world outside Iraq, Hawija is hugely symbolic in terms of Sunni grievances. A disastrous raid by then PM Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces in April 2013 acted as a catalyst for an IS takeover of the eponymous district a mere eight months on. In Iraq, Hawija is synonymous with Sunni Arab resentment of Shia power politics and armed insurgency.

It won’t be long before we begin to hear about IS regrouping in small numbers of “sleeper cells” around Hawija for that geography and the rage within it is part of what enabled IS to begin its territorial quasi state-building project in the first place.

PUK-affiliated Peshmerga along the frontline northwest of Tuz Khurmatu. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 18th, 2017 at 8:41 am

Kobane to Kirkuk

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 4.07.36 PMThose 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.

Written by derekhenryflood

December 10th, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Posted in Iraq,Syria

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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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Iraq Then and Now

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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 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.

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. The policemen told me they did not believe ISIL was behind this incident but rather they suspected the neo-Ba’athist JRTN. ©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

Written by derekhenryflood

August 19th, 2013 at 3:57 am

Posted in Iraq,Middle East

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The Mess They Left Behind

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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?

This Iraqi Army checkpoint in rural Kirkuk Governorate felt isolated and highly vulnerable. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This Iraqi Army checkpoint in rural Kirkuk Governorate felt isolated and highly vulnerable. Milling around with the soldiers, I felt like a suicide car bomb (a VBIED into the military jargon that has infected the local dialect) could go off at any given moment. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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In contrast to the nervous vibe at the Iraqi Army outposts, the Kurdish Peshmerga seemed confident and media savvy. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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Watching Baghdad from Kirkuk. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Iraqi Army officer would allow me to shoot a few photos but was hesitant to give a formal interview without approval through the proper chain of command. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Iraqi Army officer would allow me to shoot a few photos but was hesitant to give a formal interview without approval through the proper chain of command. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

August 5th, 2013 at 9:26 am

Posted in Iraq,Middle East

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