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Iraq

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Middle Eastern Christians: Going, Going…Gone

Two high-profile incidents last week, at opposite ends of the Arab world. In northern Iraq, recently conquered by the zealots of the newly proclaimed “Islamic State”, the Christians in Mosul were given three choices: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (about $750, on this occasion), or be killed. They all fled, and now Mosul is Christian-free for the first time in almost two millennia.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim finally got permission to leave her homeland after spending months chained up in a jail cell. The young woman had been condemned to hang by a Sudanese court for the crime of having “converted” to Christianity, but the government couldn’t legally kill her until after her baby was born.

Now, neither of these incidents gives an accurate picture of government policy in Arab countries that have traditionally had Christian minorities (which is to say, most of them). Indeed, big Arab countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt have all had Christian ministers in their governments, and their laws guaranteed  religious freedom.

Sudan, whose legal system has been based on Islamic shariah law since a military coup thirty years ago, does not treat its citizens equally regardless of their religion. At first glance, however, the restrictions apply mostly to the Muslim majority, who, for example, are forbidden to leave their faith on pain of death. That was the law that almost killed Meriam Ibrahim.

Her father had been Muslim, but he had abandoned the family when she was very young and her Christian mother had brought her up in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, according to Sudanese law you are a Muslim if your father was, and professing any other faith makes you an apostate. She refused to abandon her Christian faith, and so she was sentenced to hang.

But they do understand the concept of bad publicity even in Khartoum. The suspicion hangs heavy that the prosecution grew out of a blackmail attempt gone wrong, for Meriam Ibrahim is a doctor and her husband, also a Christian, holds dual Sudanese and American citizenship. To your average impoverished Sudanese – like, perhaps, her absent father’s family – that would have spelled “money”.

So the accusation was made that she was really a Muslim who had abandoned her faith and married a Christian (both hanging offences), but it may have been made privately at first. Then, however, the professional zealots who make a living out of “defending Islam” got in on the act, demanding the apostate be killed, and the Sudanese government had to enforce its own laws.
The only saving grace was that Meriam Ibrahim was pregnant, and could not legally be killed until her child was born and had lived about two years. This gave time for the saner elements in the Sudanese government to work with her lawyers, and ultimately with US and Italian government representatives, to find a way to let her go. (Meanwhile, for all but the last month of her six-month ordeal, she was chained to the floor in a jail cell.)

It all finally came right, and last Thursday Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son and her newborn daughter flew out of Khartoum, landed in Rome, and was whisked off to a meeting with the Pope.

“She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It’s the country she was born and grew up in,” her lawyer told the BBC.  “Her life is in danger so she feels she has to leave. Just two days ago a group called Hamza made a statement that they would kill her and everyone who helps her.”

So a happy(ish) ending to the story – but there were probably several other Sudanese Christians on the same flight who were leaving their country forever with less fanfare. It’s no longer wise for Christians to live there if they have any other options. And that is rapidly becoming the case for Iraq, too.

There were still about 60,000 Christians in Mosul when the United States and its sidekicks invaded Iraq eleven years ago. By last year, it was down to 30,000. Only two months after the arrival of the ISIS extremists, there are none. Most have fled to Kurdistan with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are not going back, and if they can they will leave the Middle East entirely.

What has changed? For many centuries, the Christian minority of Arabs lived in relative peace and prosperity under Muslim rule. In the early 20th century, they were in the forefront of the nationalist and literary renaissance in the Arab world. But in the past decade, about a quarter of the Arab world’s 12 million Christians have emigrated, and the flow is increasing every year.

Most of them are not facing execution, like Meriam Ibrahim or the former residents of Mosul. They just feel excluded from an Arab discourse that is increasingly radicalised and obsessed with religious differences – both Muslim-Christian ones and Sunni-Shia ones – and they have lost hope. They are Arabs who have lost their place in the Arab world, and they have to find one elsewhere.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 10. (“Now…Ibrahim”; and “She…her”)

The Caliphate Returns

“Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day,” said Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, announcing the rebirth of the Caliphate in the broad territory between Aleppo in northern Syria and Diyala province in eastern Iraq. It hasn’t actually grown much more in the past couple of weeks, but it certainly intends to go on expanding.

The radical Sunni Muslim organisation that conquered almost half of Iraq in a whirlwind week at the beginning of June has changed its name. Before, it was ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (the old Ottoman province that used to include Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel). But now it wishes to be known simply as the “Islamic State” – for there can only be one such state, and it should include everywhere that Muslims have ever ruled.

ISIS propagandists have even produced a map showing the ultimate borders that their Islamic State lays claim to. Spain and Portugal will be part of it, because they were ruled by Muslim conquerors during much of the Middle Ages. Iran, too (although something will have to be done about all those Shia Muslims).

All of India except the southern tip should be under the rule of the Caliph, because Muslim invaders also ruled there as minorities for many centuries – and of course Serbia, Croatia and Hungary will be part of the Islamic State, for the Ottomans conquered all the Balkans up to there. Not to mention half of Africa, and Indonesia, and southwestern Siberia (which was once ruled by the Sibir Khanate for a century or so).

There’s no point in protesting that Muslims were never more than a small minority in many of these places, for the lads of ISIS believe that only Muslims – indeed, only Sunni Muslims – have rights. “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the Caliphate’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” al-Adnani helpfully explained.

So much for the fantasy. What’s the reality? A group of jihadis have seized a big chunk of eastern Syria and western Iraq, erased the border between them, and declared an Islamic State. As little as ten thousand strong only a month ago, they have been rapidly growing in numbers as ISIS’s success attracts new recruits – but they are obviously never going to reconquer India, Spain or Siberia.

They aren’t going to make a dent in the two powerful states to the north of their Islamic State either. Iran, being overwhelmingly Shia, is immune to their charms and far too big to take by force. Turkey, although now governed by an Islamic party, is still a modern, secular state that is much too strong to attack.
To the west and east ISIS is already at war with regimes that are either very tough (Bashar al- Assad’s war-hardened dictatorship in western and central Syria) or very Shia (the south-eastern slice of Iraq, densely populated and with a large Shia majority). The Islamic State’s central position between its two enemies gives it a strategic advantage, but not a decisive one.

To the south are desert frontiers with more promising territory. Jordan’s population is about two-thirds Palestinian, and even among the Bedouin tribes that are the mainstay of King Abdullah’s rule there was some enthusiasm for ISIS’s victory in Iraq. If Jordan fell, the Islamic State would reach right up to Israel’s borders, with incalculable consequences.

Saudi Arabia would be a much tougher nut to crack, but the salafi religious ideology that animates ISIS is very close to the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam that is the Saudi state religion. That’s why the Saudis gave arms and money to ISIS jihadis in the early days of the Syrian civil war, although they have subsequently recognised the threat that the organisation poses to the Saudi state.

But even if ISIS gets very lucky, it is unlikely to get farther than that. Egypt blocks its expansion to the west, although the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis extremists who are active in the Sinai peninsula undoubtedly have some ties with it. Even its direct rivals in the Refound-The-Caliphate business – the original al-Qaeda, al-Shabab in north-east Africa, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and their lesser brethren – are unlikely to accept the ISIS leader as caliph.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now styles himself Caliph Ibrahim, has clearly been preparing himself for this moment for most of his adult life: he even chose the name of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, as his nom de guerre. His spokesman does not hide his soaring ambition: “We hereby clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of Khilafah (caliphate), it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim and support him.”

They are not going to do that, and the sheer radicalism and intolerance of ISIS’s members make it unlikely that their project will survive unaltered for more than a year or so even in the territory that now makes up the “Islamic State”. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that the 7th-century caliphate has reappeared even fleetingly in the modern world. Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 10. (“There’s…explained”; “They…attack”; and “Saudi…state”)

Iraq: Time for a Tranquiliser

It’s time for everybody in Iraq to take a tranquiliser. The media will go on fizzing with apocalyptic speculations for a week or so, because that kind of talk always sells, but the war of movement is over.

It never was much of a war: a third of Iraq was captured by ISIS and various Sunni militias in one week at a cost that probably didn’t exceed a thousand lives (plus however many were murdered by ISIS afterwards). The Islamist radicals have now reached approximately the limits of the territory in Iraq that has a Sunni Arab majority, and they’d be mad to throw away all their gains by trying to conquer Baghdad.

There are lots of young men fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant) who would love to be martyred in such an attack, but ISIS is run by grown-ups. They know that they can’t go any farther without running out of the popular support that let a few thousand fighters sweep through the Sunni lands so easily.

Baghdad is defended by Shia militias that already number in the tens of thousands and will probably soon pass the hundred thousand mark. Most of them know far less about fighting than the ISIS veterans, but they are just as keen on martyrdom and they would outnumber the ISIS fighters twenty-to-one, maybe fifty-to-one. Two or three days of street fighting in the huge, now mostly Shia city of Baghdad and ISIS would have no more troops.

So ISIS has advanced about as far as it is going to go. And, by the way, so has the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG’s Peshmerga troops now control not only the disputed oil city of Kirkuk but almost 100 percent of traditionally Kurdish territory in Iraq, compared to only about 70 percent two weeks ago.

During most of that time the Peshmerga and ISIS observed a de facto ceasefire while they concentrated on the territory that really mattered to them. There have been some exchanges of fire between ISIS and Peshmerga in the past few days along the ill-defined border between their new holdings, but nothing very serious.

There might have been a major clash around Tel Afar, where KRG President Masoud Barzani offered to commit Peshmerga to the city’s defence just before ISIS attacked, but President Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad rejected his offer. The Kurdish troops withdrew, and the city fell to ISIS.

Almost certainly, the reason Maliki declined Barzani’s offer was that it came with major strings attached. Having grabbed the territory he wanted, Barzani was asking the government in Baghdad to recognise Kurdistan’s new borders. Maliki’s reason for  refusing, even though it meant losing Tel Afar, would have been that he still hopes for a third term and could not afford to be seen giving away “Arab” territory to the Kurds.

In ideological terms, ISIS would like to incorporate Kurdistan into its ever-expanding Islamic caliphate, which would erase all borders within the (Sunni) Muslim world, but in practical terms it knows that it cannot do that, at least for the moment. In ideological terms, ISIS would also like to convert or exterminate all the Shias in the world, starting with the 20 million in Iraq, but in practical terms it cannot do that either.

So the borders of the three successors to the current state of Iraq, Kurdish, Shia Arab and Sunni Arab, have already been drawn, with the important addition that the Sunni Arab successor extends across the old international frontier to include eastern Syria as well. These changes will not be reversed: the Shia-majority rump of the former Iraqi state that extends from Baghdad to Basra does not have the strength to restore the old centralised Iraq.

Is this really such a disaster? Not for the Kurds, obviously, and not really for the Shia Arabs either: they still have all of their own territory (i.e. Shia-majority territory) and most of the oil. Nor will the Baghdad government which still rules that territory need US air power to save it. (US President Obama has probably just been stalling until that became clear).

The problematic bit is the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. They are clearly delighted to have shaken off the corrupt and oppressive sectarian rule of President Nuri al-Maliki, but for the near future at least they will have to contend with the unappetising prospect of being ruled instead by the incorruptible but brutally intolerant leaders of ISIS.

It should be borne in mind, however, that even now the great majority of the armed men who have created this new Sunni proto-state are not ISIS fanatics. Most of them are either tribal militiamen or former members of the Baathist-era army that was dissolved by the invaders after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They belong to organisations that have real political power, and they vastly outnumber the ISIS fanatics.

Those same organisations broke the hold of “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, the ancestor to ISIS, in western Iraq in 2007-09, and it’s entirely possible that in a few years’s time they will end up doing it again to ISIS. But the borders of the new Sunni Arab state, stretching from western and northern Iraq into eastern Syria, may survive. There’s no particular harm in that.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 8. (“There are…easily”; and “There might…Kurds”)

Meanwhile, Back in Iraq…

9 October 2013

Meanwhile, Back in Iraq…

By Gwynne Dyer

The media spotlight on the Arab world shifts focus almost every month: counter-revolution in Egypt, civil war in Syria, an American raid in Libya… It rarely stays on Iraq for long, because the violence there has been going on so long that it has become part of the scenery. But just be patient a little longer.

Five months ago, a British fraudster called James McCormick was jailed for ten years for selling novelty hand-held golf-ball detectors (cost $20) to the Iraqi government as bomb detectors (cost $40,000). Yet the Iraqi security services are still using the preposterous devices, which don’t even have a power source. This tells you all you need to know about the situation in the country

It’s not because the Iraqis are unaware of the problem. McCormick allegedly received $75 million from the Iraqi government for the useless toys, and at least a third of that amount would have gone as kickbacks to the government officials who signed off on the deal. That much lolly was bound to attract the jealousy of rival government officials, and so there has indeed been an Iraqi investigation into the deal.

Three local culprits, including Major-General Jihad al-Jabiri, the head of the Defence Ministry’s directorate of combat explosives, even went to jail over the crime. (They were probably insufficiently generous in sharing their good fortune with other high office-holders.) But as late as last May Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was still insisting that the “ADE-651” golf-ball detectors were effective – and they are still in widespread use today.

This is beyond bizarre, because Iraq is currently losing about a thousand lives a month to terrorist bombings. True, five times as many people are being killed each month in the civil war in neighbouring Syria, but civil wars always kill many more people than mere terrorism.

The fear now is that Iraq is drifting towards a sectarian civil war as well. Maliki’s government, which is dominated by politicians from the Shia majority of the Arab population, effectively controls only about half the country. The Kurds, who would really rather be independent, control the north, and have little interest in inter-Arab disputes. And the Sunni Arabs deeply resent being under Shia rule.

There has been a revolution in Iraq in the past decade, although it was not the democratic one that the American invaders thought they were bringing. In overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, they also ended many centuries of domination by the Sunni Arab minority. Now it’s Shia Arabs who rule the roost, and the Sunnis are largely frozen out of the government, the army, and the civil service.

That may be even more important in alienating the Sunni community from the post-American settlement than the constant arrests and torture of Sunnis suspected of anti-government activity. Unemployment in Iraq is 30 percent, and half the jobs that do exist are in the gift of the government. They almost all go to Shias, and the Sunnis have fallen on very hard times.

Mass Sunni protests began almost a year ago, and until last April they were almost entirely non-violent. Sunni terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda-related jihadist organisations – another by-product of the American occupation – were killing about 300 Shias a month, but they had little support in the broader Sunni community.

Then in April the Iraqi (i.e. Shia) army raided a peaceful protest camp in Hawijah, killing about 50 Sunnis, and suddenly the violent minority of Sunni jihadists came to be seen as defenders of Sunni rights. In May the death toll from terrorism leaped to 700. By June it was almost a thousand, and by now some of them were Sunnis killed by Shia counter-terrorists. July, August and September have each brought about a thousand more victims.

This is heading back towards a civil war on the scale of what happened in Iraq in 2006-2007, under the American occupation, when some 3,000 people were being killed each month, and the government is doing nothing effective to stop it. But then, the government does nothing effective in any domain.

The Iraq government gets $100 billion a year in oil revenue, but nothing gets built or maintained or repaired. Most people live in poverty, while the bulk of the oil income goes on salaries for government employees, a large majority of whom either don’t show up for work at all, or fail to do any useful work when they get there. The rest of the money is simply stolen by the government’s own senior officials.

The fake bomb detectors are part of that vast haemorrhage of cash, and one possible reason that they have not been replaced yet is that some people will obviously make a lot of money out of the contract for whatever replaces them. Until the question of which people has been decided, nothing will be done.

The soldiers and police using them in the streets don’t mind. If they should find a bomb in a car, the suicide bomber driving it will almost detonate the explosives and kill them. So a bomb detector that doesn’t detect bombs is just fine with them.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“There has…hard times”)