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Jewish Exodus from Iraq Revisited

A number of recent novels have addressed the relationship between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish populations of Baghdad. Iraqi writer Ali Shakir tells his story:

By Ali Shakir

Who would have thought?

At the age of ten, I took to the stage in my primary school in Baghdad to recite verses that called for an immediate liberation of Palestine’s land from the vicious Jewish occupation. My short poem was met with a roar of applause, I felt ecstatic. … Thirty-six years after what I’ve considered a glorious moment in my life; my comprehension of the notion of animosity has noticeably changed, and here I am, writing about Jewish writers and the injustice done to their people. But wait! Passports aside; the Jews I’m talking about are no less Iraqi than I am. They were born, grew up and studied in Baghdad just as I did, and we both migrated from Iraq—albeit in different times—when life there became unbearable for us and our families.

My first encounter with the plight of the Iraqi Jews was in 2007 when Saudi-owned, London-based news website Elaph ran a series of essays by Shmuel Moreh—professor emeritus in the Department for Arabic Language and Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Reading the intimate recollection of stories on my laptop screen triggered memories of the beautiful villas I’d driven by on my way to the university. The British-colonial-style buildings, I was told, belonged to wealthy Jewish families, but were confiscated by the government after their owners had fled the country to Israel in the early 1950s.

Tormented by the past, struggling to adjust to an ever-changing, ever-challenging present; the fresh immigrant that I was at the time could relate to the nostalgia in professor Moreh’s pieces, but found them unrealistically sterile for a man who’d been wronged and forced off the land of his ancestors. How could there not be even a hint of anger or blame? I couldn’t understand. The stories, nonetheless, managed to pique my interest. I started looking for more information about what might have caused the mass migration of Jews from Mesopotamia; the land where they’d established their first diaspora community, following the Babylonian captivity.

A guiding thread came unexpectedly from my mother, who turned out to have had a Jewish childhood friend named Evelyn. The two little girls bid tearful farewell at my grandmother’s while an angry mob screamed obscenities against “the filthy Jews” aloud in the street, my mother told me. I decided to include Evelyn’s story in my then unfinished book A Muslim on the Bridge and went on searching for other firsthand testimonials.

I was visiting the Middle East in 2011, when—unexpectedly, again—Ghada, my Jordanian friend of Palestinian descent recommended Memories of Eden: A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad (Northwestern University Press, 2010) a collection of letters, sent by Violette Shamash to her daughter, Mira, and journalist son-in-law Tony Rocca, who together edited the stories into an impressive memoir. I remember going through the pages and photographs as if I were watching a fascinating documentary. Shamash’s letters gave me an insight into what happened during the infamous Farhud—an unprecedented series of attacks against Baghdad’s Jewry, following a failed pro-Nazi coup in 1941.

The indiscriminate rape, killing and pillage that went on for two consecutive days not only marked the end of a centuries-long honeymoon between the Muslims and Jews in Iraq, they are also thought to have resulted in the spread of Zionism amongst the young members of the community, the majority of which had so far opposed Jewish immigration to Palestine and refused to consider any country other than Iraq to be their eternal homeland. … I needed to learn more about the sudden shift in loyalties, how it started and evolved.

Upon browsing the library shelves in Auckland a few years ago; I found Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation (Free Press, 2006) by journalist Marina Benjamin who admits that she only became interested in the legacy of her forebears after giving birth to her first child. The riveting moment made her aware of the widening gap between her past and present, and set out on an ambitious mission to bridge it. With a British passport in hand, Marina arrived in Baghdad decades after the bitter departure of her mother and grandmother to trace whatever might have remained there of their history. Sadly, there wasn’t much, not even a marker to identify her grandfather’s grave.

Benjamin didn’t return empty-handed from Baghdad, though. She visited the last standing synagogue, and—with understandable difficulty—managed to convince the few remaining Jews in the city to speak to her. Their accounts of the hardships that had befallen them and their families over the past decades and the miserable lives they were leading shed light on several corners of their people’s history and haunted me long after finishing the book.

Up until that point, I’d deliberately steered clear of novels. Facts were my main focus, and I was keen not to allow the allure of fictitious affairs to distract me from them. My inquisitive approach to the truth provided me with a considerable amount of information, but it also left me confused, feeling like a child surrounded by scattered jigsaw puzzle’s pieces, clueless as to how to assemble them into a complete picture. I thought it was probably time to turn to fiction for help. … Having familiarized myself with events, places and key political players and atmosphere; I glided to a smooth landing on the epoch of The Dove Flyer by Eli Amir, translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin (Halban Publishers, 2010).

The novel is set in 1950 Baghdad. Two years have passed since the declaration of the establishment of Israel in Palestine. An anti-Jewish sentiment is sweeping the city streets, and the consequences of the Farhud continue to snowball, causing a serious rift in the community. To his credit, Eli Amir casts no halo about any faction. Rather, he gives us a stark portrayal of the blustery political and social scene in an eloquent, epic-like monologue which extends across several pages: After surviving an attack by a furious crowd of fellow-Jews, Rabbi Bashi vents frustration over his ungrateful and impossible to please community, the Zionists, the Communists, the Muslims, Iraqi royals and politicians, even The Master of the Universe.

The Dove Flyer not only stands out as a decent work of literature, but also and most importantly as a vivid historical document. It made me relive the intensity of the pressures and threats imposed on its characters, and realize that their exodus from Iraq was a desperate act of survival rather than a lack of patriotism, even treason—as described in our school history books. … “We’ve lived with the Jews longer than anyone can remember. Let no one touch them!” I quote Khayriiya from the novel—a simple Muslim woman, who comes to her longstanding neighbors’ rescue, positioning herself at their gate and yelling at the rioters—and wonder.

Iraqi-born, New Zealander architect and author of A Muslim on the Bridge (Signal 8 Press, 2013) and Café Fayrouz (ASP Inc. 2015).

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Ghaib Tu`ma Farman: The Old Man’s Word

From 

[Ghaib Tuma Farman. Image from unknown source][Ghaib Tuma Farman. Image from unknown source]

The Old Man’s Word

Ghaib Tu`ma Farman

Translated by Khaled Al-Hilli

[As a pioneer of contemporary Iraqi fiction, Ghaib Tu`ma Farman (1927-1990) may have been too geographically removed from the literary center to enjoy the critical acclaim offered to authors of his stature. Born in Baghdad 1927, he came of literary age in the 1950’s with the publication of his first short story collection in 1954 and formed friendships with other literary figures of his time such as Fuad al-Takarli and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati. He studied Arabic literature in Cairo and worked for several newspapers and publishing houses in Iraq and Egypt. After a number of perilous encounters with the state and its censorship, leading to his citizenship being revoked temporarily in 1957, Farman left to Moscow in 1960 where he spent the remainder of his life in exile until his death in 1990. While in Moscow, Farman supported himself by translating to Arabic the works of European writers such as Silone, Gorky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Pushkin.

Farman’s fiction is characterized by its brilliant artistic treatment of the turbulent and transformative years of the 1940’s and 1950’s. In their variegated portrayal of Iraqi society, his novels often feature the exiled, the downtrodden, and the poor, whose lives have been tragically and irretrievable shaped by social and political upheavals.

Very little of Farman’s work has been translated to English. The following is a short story from his collection, Ālām al-Sayyid Maʻrūf. This book, published in 1982, includes an eponymous novella and a number of other short stories written over a span of a few decades. Many thanks to Chris Stone, Beth Baron and Nova Robinson for their valuable feedback on earlier versions.]

The Old Man’s Word

He woke up at dawn; he was ready for them. He sneaked out of his bed leaving the twilight breeze behind him, and walked down the stairs leaning on the wall. As he crossed the bottom step, he raised his eyes to make sure he did not wake his wife. He walked across the rectangular courtyard, now under a waning cloak of darkness blending with old scents, and he brought a chair to the passageway and sat down to wait for them. Yesterday he stayed up and waited for them until midnight … but they never came. He did not hear their movement outside the door, nor their voices whispering. Today he was determined to be ready for them at dawn. He sat with his cheek resting on his palm. He listened attentively and waited. He would stay until he heard the rustle of their footsteps outside the door, and then he would pounce and clutch at their necks, and shout until he woke up all the neighbors. He’d show them who he really is; I’ll make them cry uncle

The air in the house was stifling and sultry, unlike the rooftop’s twilight breeze. He wrestled with sleep and dragged himself out of bed, and now drowsiness came back as he sat behind the door. He opened his heavy eyelids and raised his eyebrows defiantly. He placed his ears against the wood of the door and examined, under a canopy of darkness, the lower level of the courtyard, the narrow windows of the cellar, part of the clay water pot, the last three steps of the staircase, the lower part of the bathroom door, the kitchen, and the bottom part of the sink. Silence enveloped everything. Darkness was starting to dissipate gradually before his eyes. Inside his chest something was itching him, an unrelenting urge to cough, which he suppressed lest he might alert them to his presence. When he dozed off again and his eyes grew heavy, he shook off this unexpected drowsiness with a jolt of his head, and he coughed in spite of himself. He scratched his graying chest as if to pluck out something scraping inside of him.

A few minutes later, he heard the bellowing of a cow. He knew it was Sakina, the milk woman, leading her cow to the end of the alley where she sold her milk. But he hasn’t heard their voices yet; he hasn’t heard their hands scratching the door. Everything went silent except for his heart, which sounded like a pendulum of an old clock. Once again, the unshakeable urge to cough came back. He clenched his teeth and smacked his thigh. A moment later, the night-guard’s whistle broke through the silence. Then he heard the rustle of the sweeper’s broom and realized that morning had arrived and that they will not show up. 

The darkness in the passageway was like smoke with a smoldering glow. As he stood up, he clutched at his left knee, which was afflicted by rheumatism, and he noticed that light was starting to filter through from above. The green of the shanasheel on the upper floor appeared faded. He said to himself, “They’re not coming today. It is as if they knew I’d be here waiting for them. They know who I am. They know better than to mess with Abu Haidar.” Then he pondered to himself, “It was around this time that I heard the scratching yesterday,” and he imagined that he was hearing it now, but he could only hear his heart thumping in his chest like a broken drum. Then he heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. He knew it was his wife. As he turned around, he saw her heavy feet, then her black gown and plump body. When she came close she whispered, in a tone of gentle reproach, “You thought I didn’t notice when you woke up, did you?”

He coughed and said in a low voice, “I have to find out who they are.”

“But what’s the point? Who are you going to complain to?”

“I’m not going to complain to anyone. I have my own hands. An Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered. Fattouma, an Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered.”

Then he had a coughing fit. When he looked up at his wife again, he caught a glimpse of tenderness in her eyes. A broken old man? Never, Fattouma. He stifled another urge to cough and it burst through his throat. Then he was clam. He heard a car’s engine, then another one, and he knew for certain that they were not coming. He raised his head to the rectangular sky, which the rooftop balusters seemed to penetrate. It was a glowing blue, and this added to his certainty. Behind his door all was silent, while outside, beyond the little bend where his house was located, life was returning to its daytime pace.

He could hear the footsteps of passersby, the intermittent coughing, and even the softly whispered, “Allah Kareem,” God is Most Kind, which he had heard uttered everyday by the kubbah vendor. The courtyard lit up with morning light, and things returned to their former state. He grew tired of waiting. 

“So they’re not coming. All right, then. Tomorrow Allah Kareem, as Hassani, the kubbah vendor would say.” He came close to the door and glared at it with resentment. Its back with its geometrical concavities looked shaded now, with sharply defined lines. He lifted the latch with a squeak, stepped across its threshold and stared vacantly at it. With the light from the corner, he saw something occupying the upper part of the door. He moved closer and peered at it. It was a reddish smudge, the color of crimson blood. He dug his finger into it. It was still sticky. 

He yelled from his spot, “Fattouma, come see this!”

She came strutting, like an old woman brought back to a younger age. She said from the passageway:

“What is it? Did they put another cat?”

“Even worse. Look at the red scribble.”

The old woman stepped cautiously over the threshold. She stood next to him and saw the writing.

“What is written there?”

“How would I know? I’m as good as blind.”

The smudge stood before him like a curved tail. He stood there with his wife staring at it, as if with some long reflection they could decipher its meaning. It was puzzling and abrupt, reddish black, wavering between an incantation and a transgression. The old man regretted that his mother and father never taught him how to read and write. He regretted this now more than any other time in his life. And as his eyes grew tired of staring blindly and pleading to the walls around him in the alley, he walked out to the street, turning left and right, pleading like a confused supplicant while people walked by untroubled by the smudge, as if they had no knowledge of its existence. One young man looked at the old man’s long underwear and smiled kindly. He started to ask him, raised his hand a little, and then dropped it on his thigh. Words of entreaty died on his lips.What on Earth does this unsightly scribble mean? It was also written in red paint, which by itself is reason enough for much anguish. The old man headed left, to Hussein al Attar’s shop. He alone could read this ominous writing, and if there were something offensive in it, he would not embarrass him in front of other people. But the metal shutters were pulled down and the old man went back to his corner. He stood before the door and the red writing appeared in all its intensity.

“How did they write it?” He asked his wife, who was sitting on the chair now.

“They just did. You can’t wait for them all night.”

“Are they going to keep messing with us like that? 

“I hope they get what they deserve.”

“No, Fattouma, an Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered.”

Then he coughed as he labored to breathe. She said with anguish, “Water is boiling. Come inside and drink some hot water.” But he declined, preferring to wait for Hussein al Attar to open his shop so he could learn the meaning of this writing, before which he stood flustered, helpless and agitated. One time before they had hung a dead black cat, and then a mouse. Another time they smeared his door with something putrid. They did all of that and he understood the insult and was determined to catch them and take his revenge. But now he didn’t know what they meant by this writing, which they scribbled in brazen red paint that covered the upper part of the door. How did they write it, much less in the dark? His tiny eyes kept squinting at this wretched writing. 

His wife came with a glass of hot water. He sat to drink it. 

Then the old woman suggested, “Should I get you a cloth and hot water to wipe it off?”

“How can I wipe it off? I need to know what it says.”

“God Knows,” the old woman rolled up her sleeves, “it could be something obscene”

“No, I need to know,” he said with determination, “but al-Attar is late today.” “Where are you, Abu Ali?” he pleaded. 

His wife answered, “If our sons were here, they would have read it for us. They wouldn’t leave us in such confusion.”

The old man said with irritation, “They drove them all away, left a big empty void.”

He sank into a deep melancholy; he awoke from it at the sound of shop shutters wailing from around the corner. He stood up promptly and said with the eagerness of a child, “Hussein is here!” as he ran off leaving behind the water glass on the chair.

Two minutes later, he came back with a man of medium height, an oval-shaped face and grey hair. He bid the old woman good morning and inquired about her health, but was soon interrupted by the old man, “Let’s leave health aside for now. First, tell me what it says here.”

The man raised his head at the door and peered at the writing.

“So, what does it say?”

He moved closer to the door and pointed his finger at the writing, as if trying to spell it out.

“What does it say, Hussein?”

“What does it say? It says, ‘sheel,’ leave.”

“What … What?”

“It says ‘leave.’”

“That’s it? Just like that, leave?”

“Yes, that’s right. Leave.”

The old man fell silent, pondering to himself. Then, with a different tone, he said, “I knew it all along. They want me to leave.” 

Hussein’s eyes were still fixed on the door, as if trying to confirm one more time what he had just seen. The old man observed his face with eagerness and anticipation. Perhaps he would change his mind in the end. That’s it? “Leave,” just like that! It is inconceivable that one word could take up so much space on the door. Leave!

“Leave, that’s all?”

“Yes, ‘leave.’ It’s right there, clear as daylight. L E A V E.”

“Are they in their right mind? Leave the house where I got married? The house where my father and mother drew their last breath? Leave? Just like that? It’s absurd!”

No longer staring at the door, Hussein, whose aging face betrayed visible signs of distress now, answered, “It’s best to steer away from evil.”

The old man became irritated and said, “This is not steering away from evil. This is bowing to the devil and … and … and kissing his hand. What if someone came up to you tomorrow and asked you to leave your shop that you’ve had for twenty years. Would you leave it?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Why don’t you just go back to your work? What is this, the rule of Qaraqosh, or Hulagu?”*

“Alright.”

Sensing that he might have offended him, the old man turned to Hussein. He had already started moving, his head sunk low, “If you excuse me now … I left the shop … It will all pass …” The old man did not say anything; he stood fixed in front of the door. He saw the red word mocking him, scoffing at his old age. I’ll teach them how to mess with Abu Haidar.

“Come inside, dear.”

“If I could just find out who wrote it,” he said through clenched teeth. 

“Come inside, dear. Your chest will act up.”

He entered the house following his wife. The sunlight shone with all its intensity on the courtyard, and through the green latticed windows of the upper floor. The old man and his wife climbed up the two stairs to the living room and he sat on a wooden daybed, while his wife chose to sit on the floor behind the tea heater, her same spot for almost thirty years. Back then, the living room was covered with carpets, and Hadi used to sit next to her. Then the kids came. They went to school, to college, and got jobs. Then chairs were brought into the living room, but the old woman had gotten used to sitting on the floor. She would sit cross-legged on the carpet for hours without her legs going numb. She would never think about sitting on a chair.

And it suddenly occurred to the old man to ask, “Fattouma, do you remember how many times we’ve painted the living room?” 

“I don’t remember.”

“More than four times. When we got married, that was the first time. When we circumcised the boys, that was the second time. When Haidar got married, that was the third time. When Shakir got married, that was the fourth time. And right before the boys left, that was the fifth.”

The old woman did not respond. She was busy pouring a cup of tea, which she then offered to him, and brought close to him a small bowl of walnuts soaked in water. The old man glanced around the walls as if trying to decipher them. One summer he built this wall from nothing. He brought a builder and for two days was at his heels observing how every brick was laid in its place. He would tell the builder, “I want this to endure for the children of my children … I want it to be sturdy.” And the ceiling? He looked at it mournfully. It was not covered with boards before Haidar got married. When Haidar got married he covered it with wooden boards of particular shapes and patterns and painted it light green. When sunlight filtered through in the morning, the entire living room would appear soaked in emerald green. Oh, and the wedding bed used to be here, the clothes cabinet there, and the toilet table with its big mirror. That night he was too shy to enter the room. Then, after a short period, otherwise known as the honeymoon, the bride and groom moved up to the second floor.

“I don’t want your tea to get cold.”

He left the daybed and walked down the two steps to the courtyard. The sun had descended on the latticed windows of the upper floor and touched the bannisters of the hallway leading to the room where Haidar and his wife once slept. This is where he once stood as he called out to Haidar on his wedding day, “When it was my wedding night, I didn’t take that long. Oh, young people today!” And he chortled in his joy. The earth itself could not contain his happiness. Then his second son got married, and he swore to marry off his third son before he would die. He swore on his grey hair. I would even cut off this rheumatic leg of mine, the root of all my affliction and misery. Then Haidar’s wife became pregnant, and when one morning his second son’s bride kissed him on his forehead asking for his blessings, he was about to say something inappropriate but felt embarrassed. His son was watching him. He wanted him to make a mistake. But I am your father, how dare you. It was the summer season and he was sitting on the chair in the very spot he is contemplating now, between the water pot and the stairs. Sunlight had also filled the courtyard, and he shouted at him, “Get up, your bride is coming down!” Now his old bride was coming down, with her hand leaning on her knee. 

As she came close to him and asked, “Is your chest going to act up on you again today?”

The water pot was still in the same place, green on both sides, and the stairs from which the bride descended were dusty, the wooden planks at the edge of each step corroded. On the other side was the bathroom.

“Fattouma, do you remember how hard I worked to build the bathroom?”

“Yes, very hard.”

“I didn’t want them to leave. The house is big enough to shelter an entire clan. They wanted a bathroom and I built them a bathroom fit for kings. I built it with these scruffy hands. I did it all with my hands. I did it all for them.”

Next to the bathroom, the kitchen was covered with floor tiles. At its center, there was the table where Haidar used to eat his lunch. Now it was deserted. For the old woman food always tasted better on the floor and the kitchen felt stifling. Here are the kitchen floor tiles, and the traces of smoke on the wall. There, on the west side of the house, where the traces were even stronger, he, Hadi al Hajj Rashid, used to cook harissa for the poor in a big cauldron that occupied the entire west segment of the rectangular yard. The house was always heaving, always bustling with its own people, and visitors would come in and out. He would stand like a chief of a clan, looming larger than life. He would say, God bless this house … I will make the smoke rise to the Seventh Sky… Astaghfirullah, God forgive me! They made me curse and it is not even morning yet. 

“Fattouma, it is one more month before it’s time to cook harissa, if God keeps us alive. And why wouldn’t He? What have we done to Him? Have we stolen people’s money? Fattouma, get it out of your mind – I’ll never leave this house. I will stay here, and this year’s harissa will be legendary, and everyone will swear by my name.”

“And they will.”

“Of course they will. Who’s not going to let me stay? What nonsense is this to leave my own home? Fattouma: one’s home is one’s country.” 

* In popular culture, these two names are associated with arbitrary judgement and despotic rule. The former was one of Saladin’s palace administrators who was later appointed as minster of Egypt at the end of the 12th century. He became a popular figure parodied in Arab folklore for his bizarre rulings and capricious behavior. As for Hulagu Khan, the destruction of Baghdad in 1257 earned the Mongol ruler his reputation for unbridled brutality.

 

[From GhaibTu`ma Farman, Ālām al-Sayyid Maʻrūf: Qiṣaṣ (Beirut: Dār al-Fārābī, 1982. Translated from the Arabic by Khled Al-Hilli]

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Paralyzed Iraq War Veteran Tomas Young Has Died – Here’s His Final Letter to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 11.18.25 AMLast March, I came across a letter written to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from a paralyzed and dying Iraq war vet named Tomas Young. It touched me to such an extent, that I highlighted it on Liberty Blitzkrieg at the time. He died on Monday, the day before Veterans Day. If you really want to honor our nation’s soldiers, you should read the following and share it.

RIP Tomas Young.

Full letter below, from Counterpunch.

My Last Words to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney

by TOMAS YOUNG

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

-Tomas Young

What’s so impressive about this letter, beyond the incredible emotion and pain behind it, is the fact that Mr. Young was so prescient about so many issues. He highlighted the debacle that became the Veterans Administration scandal before it broke, and he also pointed to the dangerous power vacuum created in Baghdad before the emergence of ISIS. We lost a special soul on Monday.

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Isil’s reign of terror rooted in the political culture of Iraq and Syria

Isil’s extreme cruelty and filmic savagery has shocked the world, but it is not very different from what leaders of Iraq and Syria – and to some extent their colonial predecessors – have been doing to local people for decades

 

Isil’s ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Isil’s ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

By Richard Spencer, Dohuk, northern Iraq

7:00PM BST 04 Oct 2014

The beheading of Alan Henning was not Isil’s first, as we all know full well, nor will it be the last. But by ignoring pleas for mercy from across the Muslim world, the group set any doubt to rest as to the nature of its need for video horror violence.

That violence is in part religious – a public insistence that its own ultra-aggressive interpretation of Islam is more “authentic” than the wishy-washy versions of Muslim politicians, scholars and ordinary people who want to live peacefully and get on with the modern world.

It demands recognition that Islam can be spread by the sword in the 21st century, just as much as it was in the 7th.

The violence is also rooted in the political culture of Iraq and Syria, the countries from which Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has sprung.

The extreme cruelty with which Isil’s “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his predecessors have avenged themselves on Westerners has revealed a culture of violence to an international public. But it is not very different from what these countries’ leaders – and to some extent their colonial predecessors – have been doing to local people for décades.

Most importantly and specifically, the violence reflects a need to show a continuous momentum. Success, however horrific, breeds success; if you depend on apparently psychopathic behaviour to press your advance, you need to recruit more psychopaths, and to show it works.

A United Nations report last week showed the importance of this sense of momentum. The headlines were full of the admirable words of Human Rights reportage: it talked of “gross abuses of human rights that have been perpetrated by Isil and associated armed groups, with an apparent systematic and widespread character”.

What that doesn’t capture is the constant movement and repetition of Isil’s actions, the reiteration of its overwhelming purpose. The greater the violence, the more the idea that this is a zero-sum game, a question put to Sunni Muslims of whether they want to be winners or losers, is rubbed home.

In June, The Sunday Telegraph reported how an Isil pickup truck killing party swept through Turkmen Shia villages in northern Iraq, killing scores of people at random – old men gunned down outside their homes, women shot dead as they fled. Any sign of trying to hide was doubly punished.

That is, by now, the well-recognised modus operandi of the group, showing their followers that they have the strength and ruthlessness to lead.

But as with everything Isil does, there was a twist.

Six weeks after the Telegraph interviewed survivors in a half-built mosque where they had taken refuge in a town nearby, Isil came back.

The jihadists set off a car bomb near the building site, killing 12 of those inside, including Abdulwahid Reza Kahir, the patriarch of one of the families.

An old man in a turban and farmer’s robe, already mourning the random killings of his son, cousins, nephews, including a 15-year-old: there was no precisely definable military or political purpose to his death, other than to show that, for jihadists, anything is possible.

There will be no end to the harrying of the enemy, an idea that is writ through the history of conquest.

It is easy to say that the national psychosis which gave rise to Isil was triggered by the American and British invasion of 2003. There is of course some truth in that: al-Baghdadi’s inspiration is Isil’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who also ordered the filming of decapitations of western hostages, sawing off the head of the American Nicholas Berg himself.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Reuters)
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Reuters)

Zarqawi was already a local al-Qaeda leader, but his particular brand of filmic savagery, mostly inflicted on Iraqi Shia, flourished in the lawlessness and increasing sectarianism of the country in the wake of the invasion. It is a platitude that the absence of order allows deranged men to prosper.

The defeat of Saddam Hussein also fed into the widespread Middle Eastern perception that Sunni Islam is under particular threat in the Arab world, is suffering an Arab equivalent of what the Chinese call “a century of humiliation”: colonial rule, the existence of the state of Israel and its repeated defeat of its (Sunni) Palestinian enemies, the economic catastrophes represented by Egypt and Yemen.

For those with ethnic or sectarian inferiority complexes – in this case both – there is a primal appeal in seeing your foe kneel before you and die.

However, the idea that politics is not just occasionally violent, but requires of its essence demonstrative violence, long predates 2003.

The modern Iraqi state is founded upon it. When the royal family, imposed by the British Empire in its dying days, was overthrown by a coup in 1958, the prime minister was not only shot dead with the king.

His corpse was dragged through the streets of Baghdad, publicly hanged and then burned.

The fate of the coup leader, Abdul Karim Qasem, when he was in turn overthrown five years later, is even more reminiscent of Isil’s approach to the media. He was shot on live television, and the state network’s camera rested on his bloodied corpse for the rest of the day, army officers occasionally intruding to insert a knife to prove his death for the viewer.

The lawlessness, in other words, is not just a product of the absence of a state, but written into the state. In Syria next door, ordinary people routinely tell stories of similarly pointless horrors, that served some political purpose while having little apparent rationality, from long before the civil war.

One Christian friend describes watching, as a child, her nine-year-old playmate next door being lined up against a wall and executed, after the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982.

Another describes how a secret school truant smoking session in a Damascus cemetery was broken up by police who wrongly thought the teenagers were drug dealers. One boy disappeared, arriving home without his finger nails a few days later.

These are just stories plucked at random.

In war, everything escalates. The same regime that did these “small”, local crimes then began mutilating corpses of teenagers who opposed it. In 2011 one 13-year-old boy was sent home without his penis. From then on, anything was possible, impunity was written into the code of conduct. Impunity’s apotheosis was the attack by a regime militia on the town of Baniyas, where among the 400 victims, many of them children with their throats cut, was a pregnant woman whose body had been cut out so her foetus could be killed too.

Like Isil, the militia’s leader boasted publicly for the camera of what he was about to do.

These victims were, in the nature of the war, Sunni. The need to see your enemy kneel and die in a pool of blood is common to both extremes.

Can the West do anything to stop this? It should only try with humility. It is all too easy to find pictures on the Internet of Western soldiers – French, Italian, even British – posing for pictures with the heads of their colonial victims in the all-too-recent past.

There is no start point to the cycle of violence.

We do, however, have the experience of putting back together what is psychologically broken, as Syria and Iraq undoubtedly are. Whether that can be done from the air, or even in the halls of the United Nations, is another matter.

source

 

Three Monsters

September 23, 2014 

threemonstersPart of me, of course, is happy to see bombs fall on the heads of the international jihad-fascists tormenting the Syrian people (I refer to ISIS, not the Shia jihad-fascists fighting for Assad, who I’d love to see bombed too). Mostly, I’m just disgusted. In the name of disengagement the West not only refused to arm and supply the democratic Syrian opposition – even as Assad launched a genocide against the people – the United States actually prevented other states from providing the heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry the Free Army so desperately needed. It was obvious what would happen next. The Free Army – and the Syrian people – were increasingly squeezed between Assad and the ISIS monster. And now the Americans are bombing both Iraq and Syria. This is where ‘disengagement’  and ‘realism’ has brought us.

ISIS, like Assad, can be hurt from the air but defeated only on the ground. Obama and the Congress have just agreed to spend $500 million on training 5000 vetted members of the Free Syrian Army – the same people that Obama mocked as irrelevant “pharmacists, farmers and students” a few months ago. The training won’t be finished for eight months, and anyway will be of little use. The Free Army now houses some of the best, most battle-hardened fighters in the world. They don’t need training; they need weapons. In the present balance of forces, in any case, the wounds inflicted by America’s photogenic bombing run may not translate into any improvement on the ground. Only Syrians can improve things on the ground.

The West was not moved to act by 200,000 (at least) slaughtered, or nine million homeless, or by barrel bombs, rape campaigns, starvation sieges or sarin gas. It was only moved when an American was beheaded. The inconsistency is noted well by Syrians. In some quarters, an assault on ISIS which is not accompanied by strikes on Assad and aid to the Free Army will be perceived as a Western-Shia-Assadist alliance against persecuted Sunnis. This could increase the appeal of ISIS and successor Sunni extremist groups.

ISIS has many parents, but the first of these, in Syria at least, is Assad. He released extremists from prison while he was assassinating unarmed democrats. He sectarianised the conflict by setting up sectarian death squads and by bringing in Iran-backed Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon. His scorched earth policy made normal life impossible in the liberated areas, creating the vacuum in which organisations like ISIS thrived. And until this June, he had an effective non-aggression pact with ISIS, not fighting it, buying oil from it. From January, on the other hand, all opposition militias – the Free Army groups and the Islamic Front groups – have been fighting ISIS (and losing thousands of men in the struggle). These fighters are not about to become an on-the-ground anti-ISIS militia, as the Americans seem to want. They know the truth – that both states, the Assadist and the psychotic-Islamist, are absolute enemies. There’s no destroying one without the other. And both must be destroyed by Syrian hands, not by foreign planes.

Worth reading Yassin al-Haj’s comment, from here:

I am ambivalent about a Western attack against ISIS.

On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society.

On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.

Western powers could have avoided this had they helped the Syrian resistance in its battle against the fascist Assad regime. The right thing to do, ethically and politically, is to build a coalition against both ISIS andthe Assad regime, and to help Syrians bring about significant changes in their country’s political environment.

Let me finally say that I am very skeptical of the plans and intentions of the American administration. ISIS is the terrible outcome of our monstrous regimes and the West’s role in the region for decades, as much as it is the result of grave illnesses within Islam. Three monsters are treading on Syria’s exhausted body.

—Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of the leading writers and intellectual figures of the Syrian uprising, imprisoned from 1980 to 1996 for left-wing activities, now living in exile in Istanbul

source

History Repeating Itself? U.S. Bombing Iraq While Jockeying to Oust Leader It Once Favored

Maliki
Maliki

 

Depleted Uranium And The Iraq War’s Legacy Of Cancer

In Archive, Iraq, News, USA on July 3, 2014 at 2:10 AM

Depleted uranium was used in Iraq warzone weaponry, and now kids are playing in contaminated fields and the spent weapons are being sold as scrap metal.

IRaq uranium

As instability in Iraq is forcing the United States to consider a third invasion of the Middle Eastern nation, the consequences of the first two invasions are coming into focus. For large sectors of the Iraqi population, American intervention has led to sharp spikes in the rates of congenital birth defects, premature births, miscarriages and leukemia cases.

According to Iraqi government statistics, the rate of cancer in the country has skyrocketed from 40 per 100,000 people prior to the First Gulf War in 1991, to 800 per 100,000 in 1995, to at least 1,600 per 100,000 in 2005.

The culprit behind all of these health issues is depleted uranium, a byproduct of uranium enrichment. With a mass fraction a third of what fissile uranium would have, depleted uranium emits less alpha radiation — up to 60 percent less than natural uranium, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. This “relative” safety offered a rationale for many nations — particularly, the U.S. — to put the waste material to use.

As depleted uranium is 1.67 times denser than lead, a depleted uranium projectile can be smaller than an equivalent lead projectile but produce similar results. This smaller size means a smaller diameter, less aerodynamic drag and a smaller area of impact, meaning that depleted uranium bullets can travel faster and inflict more pressure on impact, causing deeper penetration. Additionally, depleted uranium is incendiary and self-sharpening, making depleted uranium ideal for anti-tank ammunition. It is also used as armor plating for much of America’s tank fleet.

The problem with using depleted uranium, however, lies in the fact that depleted uranium is mostly de-energized. In practical terms, depleted uranium can have — at a minimum — 40 percent the radioactivity of natural uranium with a half-life that can be measured in millennia (between 703 million to 4.468 billion years). While the depleted uranium presents little to no risk to health via radiation due to its relatively weak radioactivity, direct internal contact with the heavy metal can have chemical toxicity effects on the nervous system, liver, heart and kidneys, with DNA mutations and RNA transcription errors being reported in the case of depleted uranium dust being absorbed in vitro.

While depleted uranium is not as toxic as other heavy metals, such as mercury or lead, pronounced toxicity is still possible through repeated or chronic exposure.

The politics of depleted uranium

With the Iraqi government currently crippled by the insurgency efforts of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — a group requesting that it be known simply as “the Caliphate” or “the Islamic State,” reflecting its perceived lack of challenge to its claims — and with the U.S. and the United Kingdom holding to the stance that depleted uranium presents no direct threat to Iraqi civilians, there is no active effort to properly dispose of the material.

As little information on the dangers of the material has been shared with the Iraqi people, depleted uranium and depleted uranium-tainted metals are regularly sold for scrap metal and re-used for any numbers of purposes — including machinery parts, cookery implements and home furnishings. Children play in depleted uranium-contaminated fields, which presents a heightened risk of unintentional ingestion due to hand-to-mouth activity. Abandoned vehicles salvaged for metal present a particularly high risk, as depleted uranium dust could accumulate from depleted uranium munitions, without access to an active airflow to dissipate it.

This lack of shared information may be intentional, though. The U.S. and the U.K. are actively blocking or opposing a binding international response to or study of the use of depleted uranium in warzones. Citing previous studies from the World Health Organization, NATO and the International Atomic Energy Agency, France, the U.S. and the U.K. — the world’s primary users of military-grade depleted uranium — argue that future studies are unnecessary and are being requested in a bid to ultimately hold the U.S. and its primary allies responsible for a health situation in Iraq that may have nothing to do with those countries. This, despite the fact that the studies cited by the U.S., the U.K. and France in their rebuttal did not look into the health implications of depleted uranium exposure, but simply depleted uranium radiation.

Depleted uranium is commonly used in the civilian market — from the triggering sensor in smoke detectors to a colorant used in dental porcelain. As it is weakly-radioactive, the radiation exposure danger of the metal does not typically exceed the ambient radiation normally present at sea level. It is believed that it would take more than 200 years for the radioactivity from a piece of depleted uranium to penetrate a person’s skin if that person was grasping the metal in his bare hand. This, however, does not mitigate or dismiss risk the metal poses to internal organs.

A known problem

However, according to Wim Zwijnenburg, policy advisor for security and disarmament for PAX, a Dutch pro-peace organization, and author of the paper “Laid to Waste: Depleted uranium contaminated military scrap in Iraq,” the U.S. is aware of the dangers of depleted uranium because the country has spent millions safeguarding its bases and military personnel from it.

As of 1999, military regulations on how to deal with vehicles contaminated with depleted uranium have been implemented, and in 2005, the General Accounting Office alleged that the Department of Defense was not monitoring the soil in Iraq to ascertain exposure to hazardous materials by American service members. At the time, however, a number of states, Congress members and military service organizations were actively challenging the Defense Department’s assertions that depleted uranium had minimal effect on the lives of the Iraq War veterans claiming depleted uranium poisoning.

“In regards to the U.S. responsibility for the depleted uranium, the Iraqi government has been put under pressure by the U.S. government not to publish too much information about it or to speculate on what it thinks has happened and to limit government resources to this issue,” Zwijnenburg told MintPress News, “as the Iraqi government still receives a lot of support from the U.S. government. Additionally, the Iraqi government does not want to scare off investment, particularly in the south, such as oil investors who may be scared off with talk of depleted uranium contamination.

“Also, the Saddam Hussein regime used depleted uranium use as a propaganda tool against the U.S. So, there is a generation of Iraqis that — in large portions — believe that the Americans gave them these diseases, including cancer. While there is an increase in the rise of cancer in Iraq, it cannot be easily attributed to [depleted uranium] use. However, the difficulty in studying the effects leave the issue in contention.”

Heavy metal America

The U.S. has suffered from its own heavy metal contamination crisis. Steve Fetter, professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and co-author of the paper “The Hazard Posed by Depleted Uranium Munitions,” suggested to MintPress an analogous comparison to the use of depleted uranium in Iraq in order to highlight the danger of the depleted uranium.

From the 1920s to the mid-1970s, tetraethyl lead was added to gasoline to boost octane and increase fuel economy. The problem is that tetraethyl lead is toxic. The patent holders knew it was toxic, but used it anyway, despite the fact that ethanol was widely available at the time and was also known to be an octane booster.

The choice between tetraethyl lead and ethanol was a question of profit. At the time, ethanol was commonly distilled in backyard stills and mixed with gasoline to prevent “knocking,” or the misfiring of an engine’s cylinder before the air-gas mixture is properly compressed. As the use of ethanol in gasoline was a known procedure, it was not patentable, and therefore, not controllable.

As tetraethyl lead had the added benefit of sealing the microwelds used for the cylinder heads of early cars — extending the life of the car — the additive was pushed through. Although, this was done despite the fact that a collaborator on the development of the chemical wrote that “it’s a creeping and malicious poison.” During its first three years of production, eight workers died from lead poisoning at DuPont’s manufacturing plant in Deepwater, New Jersey, and another five died and 45 were hospitalized from the Baywater, New Jersey, Standard Oil plant.

Despite the known dangers, the Public Health Service ruled that the need for fuel outweighed the danger to people or the environment, and it allowed leaded gasoline to be sold until the Environmental Protection Agency ordered a scheduled phase-out of tetraethyl lead in 1974. Auto manufacturers ultimately backed this move when it was discovered that leaded gasoline clogged catalytic converters.

During the 50 years of leaded gasoline use, lead concentration in the blood rose 400 percent. As car use is heaviest in urban centers, the inner city and the populations that live there — the poor, blacks, Latinos and migrant populations — experienced the effects of lead toxicity the most. These effects include mental retardation; high blood pressure; neurological issues, including spasms, mood swings, memory loss, tingling and/or numbness in the extremities, muscle weakness and headaches/migraines; miscarriages or premature births; reduced or mutated sperm; and severe bodily pain.

As lead is naturally-occurring and a stable, non-decomposing element, lead concentration inside the body will not diminish under normal processes. If someone was exposed to lead, then, the effects of the metal could continue to cause harm even after the source had been cut, and for women of child-bearing age, the contamination could be transferred in vitro.

While comparing the United States’ use of leaded gasoline to Iraq’s depleted uranium is not a perfect analogy — lead is more toxic than uranium, for example, and there is an estimated 440,000 kilograms of depleted uranium in Iraq, compared to over a million tons of lead per year by the time the rollback began — the moral parallels are striking.

In the aftermath of leaded gasoline — which is still sold in the U.S. for non-consumer automotive uses — the U.S. is still dealing with entire socioeconomic groups affected by lead poisoning. The negative effects have manifested in a host of illnesses and disabilities in the black community and have been pointed to as a likely cause for the spike in criminalityin the inner city.

When looking at the potential of inflicting the same level of hardship on the Iraqis, caution indeed becomes the better part of virtue. While it can be argued that depleted uranium is likely not a threat to the Iraqis, the danger of the chemical should not be dismissed. (It should be noted, too, that early testimony for leaded gasoline similarly suggested that there was no risk to the public.)

“Contaminated vehicles and fragments of depleted uranium penetrators abandoned on the battlefield represent an ‘attractive nuisance.’ Curious passers-by, both adults and children, will enter the vehicles and thereby be subject to potentially significant levels of uranium exposure from resuspended and ingested aerosols. Fragments of penetrators may be picked up and taken home as souvenirs,” read the conclusion to “The Hazard Posed by Depleted Uranium Munitions.”

“In the absence of more costly decontamination efforts, we would propose that all [depleted uranium]-contaminated vehicles be filled with concrete and buried and that [depleted uranium] penetrator fragments be picked up and buried as low-level radioactive waste.”

source

Mess O’Potamia – 2014 Edition

CLICK ON IMAGE
jon stewart

Two years after U.S. troops left Iraq, militant extremists sweep through the country, seizing American military equipment along the way.

A historic opportunity for Kurds in Iraq chaos

ERBIL // An offensive by an Al Qaeda splinter group that threatens to divide Iraq has presented a long sought after prize to the country’s Kurdish minority: Kirkuk.

Forces from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish area to the north on Thursday seized control of Kirkuk, which they claim as their historical capital.

The Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, say they took over to defend Kirkuk after Baghdad’s military crumbled in the face of a lightning assault by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and fellow Sunni militants. Iraqi soldiers say the Kurds ordered them to leave.

Kirkuk’s governor, Najmaldin Karim, said on Thursday that he asked the Peshmerga to “come and defend most of Kirkuk from the insurgents” because “the army fled”. The rapid collapse of the country’s military against the ISIL offensive, driven by Sunni-Arab anger at the Shiite-led government of the prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, has allowed militants to capture vast swathes of territory including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

Whatever the case, analysts say Kurdish control of Kirkuk risks angering Iraq’s neighbours and aggravating domestic sectarian feuds.

The move may inflame separatist sentiment among Kurds who form large minorities in adjoining areas of Turkey, Syria and Iran. That would likely make it far more difficult for Kurdish leaders to cede Kirkuk and its large oil deposits to the government in Baghdad – that is, if it survives the ISIL onslaught, said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an expert on Iraq’s Kurds and columnist for the US-based Al Monitor website.

“It will mean that the Iraqi state has lost Kirkuk forever,” he said.

Ethnically and linguistically distinct from Iraq’s primarily Arab communities of Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds form close to 20 per cent of the country’s population of more than 32 million people.

The Kurds’ long-standing desire for independence has been fuelled by a history of repression, particularly in Iraq, where they have faced military assaults and chemical weapons attacks under the former dictator Saddam Hussein that rights groups have called acts of genocide. Under a policy of Arabisation, Saddam drove scores of Kurds from their homes in such strategic areas as Kirkuk.

The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) became a federal entity after the 2003 US invasion that deposed Saddam, with its seat in Erbil and authority over a mountainous homeland with an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil. But its remit does not officially include Kirkuk, which is the capital of the Kirkuk governorate that has an oilfield with about 10 billion barrels of proven reserves.

“If things unfold with the disintegration and partitioning of Iraq, you can bet that the Kurds will do their best to make Kirkuk part of their homeland,” said Labib Kamhawi, an independent political analyst in Amman.

With Iraq’s future territorial integrity increasingly in question, Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, said the Kurd’s seizure of the city augurs more ambitious steps.

“This is a prelude to declaring statehood.”

In an attempt to reverse Saddam’s policies, the Kurds have over the past decade pushed for de facto political and economic control in Kirkuk and are believed to form a majority of the city’s population, which is estimated to be more than 500,000. That has raised tension with Arab and Turkmen residents, while a referendum on the area’s status that was planned after 2003 was never held.

Mr Khashan said the Kurdish move on Kirkuk also had irked Turkey, which has faced a domestic insurgency by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists. Turks also have historical claims to the city and surrounding areas that came under British control after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Although the 1920 Treaty of Sevres on the division of the empire after the war included a provision for a Kurdish state, this was dropped in the 1923 Tretay of Lausanne that superseded it.

Despite growing ties with the KRG since 2003, including huge investments in everything from luxury stores to construction as well as deal to receive oil piped in from the area, Ankara would not hesitate to oppose Kurdish moves to claim Kirkuk, Mr Khashan said.

“The Turks have interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, yet they can’t accept the takeover of Kirkuk by Peshmerga,” he said.

Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said the seizure of Kirkuk was largely meant to shore up Kurdish defences against ISIL attacks. But that could change.

“As the rest of Iraq faces the serious prospect of disintegration, Kurds feel the need to hold their areas and may well eventually push for independence from what might become a failing Iraqi state, or at least, a state without legitimacy in the eyes of a large proportion of its population – the Sunnis,” she said.

Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said ISIL militants would likely think twice before attempting to invade Kurdish areas. Kurdish fighters are well trained in mountain-guerrilla warfare after waging years of uprisings, and they are heavily armed with Soviet-made weaponry, including tanks and Grad rockets.

He estimated the Peshmerga could mobilise a force of 200,000.

“They are definitely much better organised and structured than the Iraqi army and they would pose a significant foe to ISIL,” Mr Kahwaji said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

 

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