The Path that led to ISIS: A history of violence in Iraq

This is the text of an article I published in Contributoria earlier this year. It’s quite long, but I don’t think it’s too hard going and if you stick it out to the end then you’ll know more than most people about what’s going on in Iraq and where ISIS/IS/Daesh came from. At least their incarnation in that region.

He was buried deep in a cave in northern Iraq; laid out in his grave beside others of the clan. He had lived to around 40 years old, and arthritis had begun to set in. But it wasn’t old age that killed him. It was a spear to the ribs; a spear thrown from a distance, and crucially, a spear thrown by a man.

This was the fate of Shanidar 3, a Neanderthal who lived between 35-45,000 years ago in what is now northern Iraq, and who was killed by an early modern human – the only species to wield such a weapon.

Shanidar 3’s death may be the earliest evidence of human conflict in the Middle East, and in fact the world, but the root of today’s violence is to be found elsewhere entirely.

Who is to blame?

Since the US-led coalition invasion in 2003 it is estimated that 211,000 people have died in Iraq, and the body count has risen particularly sharply in the last two years.

Who is to blame for these deaths? Oil-thirsty Americans; A power-hungry dictator; Ruler-happy European imperialists; Islamic terrorists?

No, to find the root of today’s conflict in Iraq we first have to look even earlier than Shanidar 3’s death; back millions of years to the formation of two of the world’s most famous rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. As they began to flow in near-parallel from the highland plateaus of Turkey to the Persian Gulf a fertile plain stretched between them, nurtured by an ideal climate; the perfect conditions for mankind’s first experimentation with agriculture.

The birth of civilisation

Farming really began to take off in this area around 6,000BC. As humans needed to spend less time hunting and gathering, they had more time to spend building increasingly sophisticated dwellings. Then greater numbers of people began to settle in the same place. Societies, economies and religions developed, and in this way Ancient Mesopotamia gave birth to the world’s first civilisations.

And that’s when the trouble started. The streamlining and specialisation of roles in these new civilisations, and the comfort of a more regular food supply, freed up large groups of the men to dedicate all of their time to defending their territory; even to expand it. In other words it allowed ancient civilisations to go to war.

Map 1The land that is now called Iraq is relatively close to the outline that was once Ancient Mesopotamia. It is physically bounded by mountains to the north and east, the sea in the south, and a desert in the west. The outline of modern-day Iraq might look artificial, but if you map out the areas of Iraq that are actually populated, you’ll see that most major population centres fall pretty much within the bounds of Ancient Mesopotamia.

The main exception to this is the Kurds in the north, but for simplicity’s sake I won’t be covering the Kurdish question here. I’m just going to look at the origins of today’s violence in the main body of modern-day Iraq, and call it Mesopotamia.

The first conquests of Mesopotamia

Kingdoms centred around cities such as Babylon and Ur (between modern-day Baghdad and Basra) flourished for thousands of years, relatively unchallenged. As other civilisations grew up around the world, it became clear to them that not only was Mesopotamia rich in natural resources, but it was strategically placed in the corridor between Europe and Asia. Whoever controlled Mesopotamia controlled valuable trading routes.

The first violent takeover came in 1360BC, when the neighbouring Assyrian kings of the city of Ashur on the river Tigris began to conquer lands far beyond their own territory, including much of Mesopotamia. For the next two thousand years or so, Mesopotamia’s lands were conquered or re-conquered by most of the great civilisations of the time; Ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia and Rome; each one replacing the other violently.

The coming of Islam

In AD636 came a new wave, which changed Mesopotamia for good. Arabs of the recently established Islamic faith defeated the Sassanid Empire (then covering modern day Iran and Iraq) in a great battle and paved the way for the Islamic dynasty of the Abbasids, who ruled Mesopotamia between AD750 and 1258, establishing their capital in Baghdad.

Although there were conflicts and disputes during this period, it was on the whole more settled, and is known as the Golden Age of Islam, when Baghdad became one of the most important centres of learning and progress in the world.

The early days of Islam were unsettled and often violent, as conflict arose concerning who should succeed the Prophet Mohammed. The Shias believed that the leader of the Muslim community should be a blood relative of the prophet Mohammed, but the Sunnis believed that leaders should be chosen by the elite of the Muslim community. The Sunnis prevailed, but both sects lived side by side relatively peacefully for several centuries.

And then came the Mongols

Few people mention the Mongols when discussing the origins of conflict in Iraq, but their brutal treatment of Mesopotamia began a chain of events that led directly to today’s violence.

The 13th century Mongol invasions were more destructive than Saddam Hussein, the Iraq War, the insurgency and Islamic State put together. In just the first siege and ransacking of Baghdad in 1258 the army of Hulagu, grandson of Ghengis Khan, killed up to 1.6 million people in various gruesome ways and destroyed as much of the city’s cultural heritage and essential infrastructure as it could manage. They didn’t come to conquer, but to destroy.

For the next couple of centuries, Mesopotamia lay neglected at the furthest reach of the Mongolian empire. Any time it tried to pick itself up and rebuild, a fresh ransacking reduced it once more to rubble. From its origins as the first great civilisation and recent past as the centre of a prosperous and learned Islamic empire, Mesopotamia fast deteriorated into a social, economic and political mess.

Farmland fell into disuse as irrigation systems were destroyed, trading centres were avoided by other nations, and the people of Mesopotamia gradually retreated away from the cities and back to a more nomadic, rural and tribal way of life.

The ascent of minority Sunni rule

By the 16th century Mesopotamia was too weak to stand up for itself and became the frontier of a battle between the more powerful Ottoman and Persian Empires, with their seats of power in modern-day Turkey and Iran.

A key result of this slow motion battle, played out over 400 years or so, was that it deepened the divisions of the Sunni-Shia split in Mesopotamia. In the early 1500s, the Safavid dynasty was in control of the Persian Empire, and Shia Islam became the tie that bound its disparate elements together. In contrast, the Ottoman empire was staunchly Sunni, and sought to maintain Mesopotamia as a buffer zone to prevent the infection of its eastern provinces with Shi’ism.

For most of the 16th-19th centuries the Ottomans were successful in their domination of Mesopotamia, with only brief periods of Persian control. The Ottomans, like the Mongols before them, had little interest in a prosperous Iraq, and invested nothing in the territory, which continued as a poor, rural backwater.

For a relatively brief period from 1704 to 1831 however, the Mamluks, former slaves from Georgia, wrested control of Mesopotamia from the Ottomans and initiated a programme of reform and development. By the time the Ottomans took it back, Mesopotamia was beginning to find its feet, and the seeds of nationalism had been sown.

Regardless of any improvement in Mesopotamia’s general condition, both the Ottomans and the Mamluks were Sunni, so although the majority of Muslims in Iraq were Shia, both empires nurtured and promoted only a minority Sunni elite, fearful of giving any ground to Shi’ism and the Persians.

British Rule and the discovery of oil

The Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated between Britain and France in the midst of the first world war, was a treaty to decide which bits of the Ottoman Empire would belong to who, should they win the war (the Ottomans having thrown their lot in with the Germans). This led to some fairly arbitrary and unnaturally straight lines being drawn across much of the Middle East.

While many of these lines have caused decades of conflict, the territory of the new State of Iraq, under the mandate of the British, was actually little different from existing Mesopotamia (with the exception of the Kurds).

What really did mess the country up was that the British, lacking in money, energy and manpower after a debilitating four-year war, took the easy road and allowed the Sunni elite put in place by the Ottomans to remain largely in charge of the country.

Taking it one step even further, they made the new State of Iraq a monarchy, and appointed a king from the loyal Hashemite clan of Saudi Arabia. King Faisal I had never even set foot in Iraq when he became its monarch. Luckily he turned out to be a thoughtful and fair leader, and throughout his 12 year reign he worked hard to foster better relations between the Sunni and Shia Muslims of Iraq.

King Faisal I promotion of the Pan-Arab movement annoyed the British, whose puppet he was supposed to be. Furthermore it was largely due to his efforts that Iraq obtained nominal self-rule in 1932.

Military coups galore

In 1933 King Faisal I died on a trip to Switzerland (in rather fishy circumstances) and his son Ghazi took the throne at the age of just 21. In contrast to his father, Ghazi was an ineffectual and reckless leader, who played the army and the civilian government against each other in a bid to gain more control over the country.

This led, inevitably, to Iraq’s first military coup in 1936, ushering in a period of great instability in which there were six more coup attempts in five years. King Ghazi died young in 1939, and as his four year old son was too young to rule alone, his uncle Abd Al-Ilah became regent.

Since the late 1920s, the British had been looking for a way to extend their influence over Iraq beyond the end of the Mandate and get their hands on the oil reserves in Kirkuk. Abd Al-Ilah was their best chance for years. He was far more sympathetic to British involvement in the country, seeing them as his best chance to stay in power. To that end, he stamped good and hard on the growing Arab Nationalist movement in Iraq, and on the army in general.

One section of the army he reserved particular disdain for was a group of officers from the poor tribes of Tikrit and its surrounding area. Despite being Sunnis, he regarded them as social upstarts; thieves and beggars who deserved no position of any power.

These officers formed the core of the Arab Nationalist movement, which in the early 1950s gained momentum, culminating in a coup by General Abd Al-Karim Kasim in 1958. This was the real end of British influence in Iraq. Kasim was a dedicated anti-imperialist and socialist, and under his rule the newly formed and non-aligned Republic of Iraq drifted away from Europe and towards alliances with communist countries.

Let’s take stock of where Iraq is in the early 1960s: Mongol devastation leaves a formerly ascendant country at the mercy of surrounding empires for several centuries, each exploiting the population and resources for their own ends; Sunni and Shia differences are exacerbated and the former now have disproportionate influence over the country’s majority Shia. A disenchanted section of the army, Sunni but not elite, grow more and more angry with the status quo and finally burst upon the political scene. They retake Iraq for ordinary Arabs, and start the process of uniting Arab socialist movements across the Middle East. The future holds a glimmer of hope for the people of Mesopotamia.

The rise of Saddam

Within General Kasim’s inner circle was a young, talented and ambitious officer from Tikrit called Saddam Hussein. His uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, with whom he lived after being humiliated, beaten and thrown out of home by his step-father, was a hate-filled man (in the 1980s he wrote a book called ’Three whom God should not have created: Persians, Jews and Flies) and he filled young Saddam’s head with many enemies, chief amongst them the British.

Young Saddam had joined the nascent Ba’ath Party with a strong belief in its aim to unite the Arab world and bring it together under socialist, secular principles, and he worked with Iraq’s first presidents to promote these ideals (while keeping a close eye on his own political promotion).

He began well. In his role as vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council he instituted social reforms from the late 1960s to 1970s that made Iraq’s education and health systems the envy of the Middle East. He modernised Iraq’s economy, wrested control of its oil back from international companies, and directed that revenue flow back to the people of Iraq. He also created a strong security aparatus which would stabilise the government and prevent more coups.

Actually it was this last step which, although in pursuit of an ideal, ultimately became the tool with which Saddam terrorised and divided Iraq.

It’s hard to say when or why Saddam Hussein began his descent into dictatorship, and when the good that he did began to be so completely outweighed by his relentless crushing of individual freedom. Certainly by the time he assumed formal control of Iraq as President in 1979, he was was already far along that path. His devotion to the cause of socialism and Arab Nationalism fell into the background as he became consumed extreme paranoia and a maniacal desire to retain power.

The brutality of Saddam’s rule is legendary. His strategy was a simple one of total control, and divide and rule. Although the Ba’ath Party was secular, Saddam was from a Sunni tribe, and he promoted only those from his tribe (and mostly his family) to positions of any power. This further fuelled the frustration of Iraq’s majority Shia, and substantial Kurdish population. He also pursued a rather pointless and destructive war with Iran for most of the 1980s, nearly bankrupting the Iraqi economy and damaging many of his earlier social and economic developments.

The Iraq War

Skip forward to 2003, and the US + others invasion of Iraq. Whatever the reasons behind the invasion (oil), the US had clearly not done their homework on the country’s history, and after victory, immediately set about dismantling the government under the crowd-pleasing title of de-Ba’athification; an unsubtle echo of de-Nazification.

Had they looked into it a little, the US administration would have discovered that a) the Ba’ath Party did not have a fundamentally bad philosophy (unlike the Nazi Party), it was just misused. b) Saddam was basically the only person with any real power, and most of the Ba’ath Party card carriers keeping the country running were just minions. c) Most of these minions were not die-hard Saddam supporters but had early on been given a choice between employment and Ba’ath Party membership vs. unemployment and often death. d) The Shia who had been downtrodden by successive Sunni rulers for the best part of 600 years were probably going to be up for a bit of revenge.

And so it was that Iraq found itself with Nuri Al-Maliki in power in 2006. Under Maliki, the worse-case scenario in the minds of anybody who understood anything about Iraqi history, happened.

Iran, keen to humiliate their arch-enemy the Americans, whispered in Maliki’s ear that the US never meant to leave, and sent troops to train Shia militia to drive them out Iraq’s new would-be colonisers. Under Iran’s cunning and America’s mishandling, all of Iraq’s long-festering problems were dragged into the open and poked with a very big stick.

Iraq’s first Shia despot

Maliki was a weak and unprincipled leader, lurching from one decision to another without any thought to a long term strategy. Amidst the chaos of the Shia militias and Sunni insurgency, he developed a taste for authoritarianism. When the US military withdrew most of its forces from Iraq in 2010, Maliki had it within his power to begin a path towards reconciliation. Instead he turned his back on it and chose revenge.

From de-Ba’athification in 2003 to the end of Maliki’s Prime Ministership in 2014, Iraq’s Sunni’s were not only kept out of power, but their communities were relentlessly persecuted. Regular assassinations of low-level Sunni leaders avoided the negative international publicity that came with the Sunni suicide bombings, but were nonetheless powerful. Shia militia harassed and patrolled many Sunni areas, taking over the role of the police or army. In Mosul there were ‘Maliki death squads’ who patrolled the streets, enforcing curfews and performing instant executions of people who failed to follow their rules to the letter.

Last year I met a Kurd who had lived all of his life in Mosul. He told me that the eight years of Maliki’s rule had made life unbearable. Citizens lived in constant fear and had no freedom. Maliki’s militia had so much control that if you so much as turned your light on in the night to go to the bathroom, they would knock on your front door to see what you were up to.

As these militia consolidated Maliki’s power, the army fell by the wayside and succumbed to corruption. By 2014 it was estimated that in some squadrons, only one third of the quantity of soldiers on the official register actually existed. The rest were made up and their wages collected by the officers.

Iraq is now in a state of civil war

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that when the self-proclaimed Islamic State marched into Mosul and much of Western Iraq, they appeared to local people not as oppressive attackers, but as liberators of an oppressed minority. And the long-neglected and virtually hollow Iraqi army instantly crumbled.

And this is where so many have got it wrong when searching for the origins of ISIS. The focus on them as a terrorist group with immense power and skill gives them too much credit. They are an opportunistic and well-organised group who rode the wave of ethnic tension into Iraq and ignited a civil war that had been rumbling unrecognised for several years.

To end the violence in Iraq, the focus cannot be to defeat ISIS. The seeds of this conflict are rooted as far back as the agricultural revolution, when Mesopotamia’s natural resources began to make it so desirable. Ever since then it has remained one of the most valuable territories in the world in terms of resources and strategic significance, which will always be vulnerable to exploitation.

The only way forward is to work towards an inclusive government under a strong but fair leader. With no reason to fight, ISIS’s support base in Iraq would melt away as quickly as it came. As my friend from Mosul said; people are starting to realise that ISIS might be as bad as Maliki. It wouldn’t take much support for them to turn their allegiance back to their country.


What’s the difference between an IDP and a refugee?

Working on the #buyablanket campaign with Rise Foundation I became quite frustrated that I couldn’t just use the word ‘refugee’ to describe people who fled violence in Iraq to the Kurdish north of the country. Everybody understands what it means to seek refuge from fear of persecution and violence, but I felt that people would just be flummoxed by ‘IDP’ – a bland, unevocative acronym. I began to look into it and discovered that the distinction is far deeper and the implications more wide-reaching than just semantics.

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Spot the difference: IDPs or refugees?

The short answer

– An IDP (Internally Displaced Person) is somebody forced to flee their home to another part of their own country.

– A refugee is somebody forced to flee their home and seek refuge in another country.

The legal answer

According to the 1951 Convention on Human Rights, a refugee is somebody who…

 “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable…to return to it.”

An IDP is… well, an IDP has no status in international law. They have the same human rights as any other person in the world, and as civilians they are theoretically protected in armed conflict, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has no responsibility for them, and no other nation or international body is required to assist them.

While IDPs make up almost two thirds of global populations seeking safety from armed conflict and violence, they have far fewer rights than refugees.

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Map of global internal displacement as of 2012. Click picture to enlarge.

So who looks out for IDPs? According to the United Nations (UN), respect for sovereignty is paramount, and as such

“It is the Governments of the states where internally displaced persons are found that have the primary responsibility for their assistance and protection. The international community’s role is complementary.”

Well that sounds fair enough – governments need to be held accountable for the protection of their own citizens, no matter where they choose to live. Theoretically, yes, but many of the countries where people are forced from their homes because of armed conflict, are not in a position to adequately support mass movements of people. Not only that, but many of these countries are in varying degrees of internal conflict, and the government may not be willing or able to protect certain sections of society. In some countries it may not even be clear who the government actually are.


Official boundary of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

How does this affect Iraq? I thought it was a functioning democracy? Yes, it is. On paper. But in reality it is in a state of near-civil war. The politics will be explained in a separate post, but in essence you have Sunni and Shi’a Arabs fighting for power in the main body of Iraq, and the Kurds quietly setting up their own country-in-waiting in the north.

The Kurdistan Region has its own government and security forces and operates virtually as a separate country. This means that it is largely protected from the violence of the rest of Iraq. This is also the reason that many of the minorities persecuted by Daesh (ISIS) have sought refuge there.

So shouldn’t the government in Baghdad just send more money up to the Kurdistan region now that more people are living there? That’s what should happen. But there’s a long-running dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), so they are not helping out in any substantial way.

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UN report on the influx of refugees up to late August 2014. The situation has continued to worsen. A note on numbers: The UN counts family units and then estimates them at 6 people per family. In reality many families in this region are far larger.

So what’s the situation for IDPs in the Kurdistan Region? Dire. The local government and ordinary Kurds have been going all out to help IDPs arriving in their region, but the numbers are just too great. In Dohuk province – the area closest to the most troubled area of Iraq, they have now more than 800,000 IDPs, plus at least 200,000 Syrian refugees.

Most of the IDPs arrived in June-August 2014, particularly those fleeing the conflict in Shingar. Since the normal population of Dohuk is only around 1.3 million, that’s nearly double the amount of people now surviving off the same resources as last year. Imagine the whole population of Virginia turning up in North Carolina over two months, or every citizen of Scotland moving to East Anglia in a month. What if they all turned up with nothing but the clothes they stood up in? How would that affect the lives of ordinary people?

I can tell you because I’ve seen Dohuk first hand. Normal life has stopped; children cannot go to school because IDPs are living in them all; hospitals are running out of resources; building work has ceased as IDPs live in all the building sites. These are just a few of the areas of impact. And yet the international community has no obligation to help.

Some international and government agencies are doing so, but the only ones acting with any urgency are the locally-based NGOs. I feel a separate blog post coming on about my experiences of NGOs in Iraq, so I’ll end by saying that if you want to help, I recommend visiting, which at least tackles the most urgent issue of how these people are going to survive a harsh winter in the northern mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Further Reading

– For a sense of the living conditions for the IDPs, read my last blog post on Yezidi girl Mariam and her family.

– For facts and figures on Iraq’s IDPs and other people in need, see this very clear, one page UN report IRQ_snapshot_en_141014.

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Update: This year Rise Foundation have broadened their winter appeal. They are now distributing a wider range of winter survival goods, and are focussing on Iraqi orphans

Mariam I met Mariam in Khanki camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was hiding behind a tent, scared of the crowds of other children fighting for boxes of toys being distributed by an American charity. Her expression, her eyes, were compelling and I took picture after picture of her. As I went for a wander around the camp, Mariam took my hand and came with me. When I prised her fingers off to use my camera, she put her arm around my waist.

Mariam's younger brother - a cheeky, trouble-making toddler who is always getting into scrapes.

Mariam’s younger brother – a cheeky, attention-seeking toddler who is always getting into scrapes.

Mariam took me to her family’s tent and I met her mother, father, several siblings and a few indeterminate relatives. I sat on a thin mattress on the bare floor of the tent as they gave me sweet, black tea brewed on a simple cooking stove.Mariam’s family, along with everybody in this particular camp, are Yezidi. On 3rd August this year, her family woke to the terrifying sound of Daesh (ISIS) entering their village. Mariam’s parents grabbed their children and fled to nearby Mount Sinjar. For six days, Mariam and tens of thousands of others cowered on the barren mountain, shivering through the cold of the night and sheltering from the fierce desert sun in the day. When their bag of rice finally ran out, Mariam’s father made the hard choice to face Daesh rather than starvation.

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Khanki in the dry.

With hundreds of other families, they made the run from Mount Sinjar, jumping over dead bodies and praying that the Daesh bullets would miss their mark. With the assistance of Syrian Kurdish fighters, they made it to the border of Syria, and from there, to the north and into Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Mobile phone footage of Khanki Camp after a day of rain. It has since been raining for a week.

They now share a tent in the informal part of Khanki refugee camp, just north of the Mosul Dam. This camp shelters over 120,000 Yezidis, but for those outside of the official camp (over half), there is little in the way of drainage or other essential infrastructure and I’ve just heard that with this week’s heavy rains, the worst since 1992, many tents have been washed away. Before the rains, I went back to Khanki and visited Mariam and her family for a second time. The sores on her face were worse – I’m told there’s an infection running untreated through all of the children in the camp.

Mariam's little sister. A sweet, shy girl who huddled up to me in the tent and kept kissing my hand.

Mariam’s little sister. A sweet, shy girl who huddled up to me in the tent and kept kissing my hand.

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Mariam’s gentle, responsible older brother

This time her father told me that he was terrified of winter. The family arrived with only the clothes they stood up in and have no blankets, winter clothes or stoves to keep them warm – only a small cooking stove and some thin mattresses, which they bought with the little money they had, or were donated by the few small charities visiting the camp. He told me that he also worried about the children’s mental wellbeing. He wondered how a child who had had to run through fields strewn with corpses and body parts could move on from that.

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Mariam’s family

Mariam’s father seemed to be a kind and intelligent man and I believe that he will do his best to support his children’s psychological wellbeing, but I don’t know how he and the hundreds of thousands of other people displaced by conflict in this region will keep their families from great suffering this winter. In between my two visits to Mariam and her family I spent time in the far north of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where I walked the path along which Kurds fled Saddam Hussein’s chemical bombs in 1988. On the way, in the highest of the mountains on the border of Turkey, my hosts showed me a small area on a rocky outcrop, where upended rocks marked the graves of children who died of exposure on the cold mountain nights of this exodus. My deep fear, having visited people in Khanki camp and some of the 820,000 other displaced people living rough in Dohuk province, one of the coldest areas of Kurdistan, is that history will repeat itself this winter, and on a much larger scale.

Children whose tent washed away, sheltering under a single blanket. Photo by a camp resident.

Children whose tent washed away, sheltering under a single blanket. Photo by a camp resident.

The TV cameras have left Iraq in pursuit of Ebola right now, and it is unlikely they will return to the humanitarian situation here until people begin to die in significant numbers. I’m not prepared to wait for that to happen and so have partnered with the excellent charity Rise Foundation on a campaign to buy blankets.

Displaced people here need much more than just a blanket, but it is beyond our capacity to tackle the whole humanitarian disaster unfolding, and we feel that a blanket is the cheapest way that we can get warmth to the maximum amount of people. This is not just our assessment – blankets are also the number one item requested by both displaced people, and the authorities in the region. Blankets are also the safest way to keep people warm in tents. On 20th October, three children burned to death in Khanki camp when their tent caught fire after their parents tried to keep them warm. Rise Foundation are enthusiastic, fast-moving and efficient. They have guaranteed that none of the money you give to the #buyablanket campaign will go on the charity’s overheads, which are covered by a sponsor. This means that every $16 you give will buy a blanket which is big enough and thick enough to help keep at least two vulnerable people warm in winter.

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The back of one of the disused buildings holding several hundred families. They have only two toilets between them and there are pools of green, stagnant water around which children play.

If we can buy 100,000 blankets, we can make a real impact on the 820,000 living rough this winter in Iraqi Kurdistan, whatever their religion or ethnicity. Rise-buyablanket-POSTER-LOW

Festival of Sacrifice

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Muslim pilgrims on the Hajj circle the Kaaba in Mecca.

On the evening of the 10th day of the last month of the Islamic year (Dhu Al-Hijja), Muslims begin a two day celebration known as Eid Al-Adha – Festival of the Sacrifice. This marks the end of the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage of Muslims around the world to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Eid Al-Adha celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God’s command. The Old Testament story tells that God intervened at the last minute to save Ishmael, and gave Abraham (known as Ibrahim in Islam) a lamb to sacrifice instead.

On the first evening of Eid, Muslim families traditionally slaughter an animal and prepare a feast for the following day. On the main day of celebrations, they travel around their community visiting each other and receiving hospitality and food.

This year, celebrations in Iraqi Kurdistan were muted. Much like Christmas in the West, shops in the run-up to Eid would normally do a roaring trade in sweets, gifts and clothes. This week, however, traders in the Souq were wheeling around wooden carts still heavily laden with sweets, complaining that nobody was coming to buy them. Not only is the economic hardship, caused by a financial dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, hitting people hard (most government employees have not been paid in months), but the current conflict with Daesh (ISIS) casts a heavy shadow over the region. Few felt like celebrating.

Funeral of a Peshmerga solider, one of dozens killed in recent battles with Daesh (ISIS).

Funeral of a Peshmerga solider, one of dozens killed in recent battles with Daesh (ISIS).

I spent Eid in Dohuk – one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s three provinces, and the one hit hardest by the influx of refugees from the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in Iraq. My host family put on traditional clothes and kept a basket of sweets for children going door to door, but otherwise spent the day in muted relaxation; far from their usual programme of non-stop guests, all-day tea-boiling and gastronomic over-indulgence.

“This is no time for celebration. Every family knows somebody who has lost a relative fighting Da’esh. How can we celebrate, with such unhappiness everywhere?”

The Battle for Shingar

The main problems with press coverage of the fight with Daesh (ISIS) in the north of Iraq are the absence of decent maps (the BBC one is just plain wrong) and the western press’s general lack of understanding of the strategic and geographical issues in play (with some notable exceptions – see further reading below). Here’s a very basic outline to help explain.KRG map

Where is Kurdistan? The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is an autonomous region of northern Iraq. It has its own parliament, army (Peshmerga) and domestic security force (Asayish). Then there are the areas outside of their borders where the population are mostly Kurds, but they do not come under KRG administration. These are often known as the Disputed Territories.

Why the dispute? This strip of land contains many billion barrels of oil beneath its surface, which both the central Iraqi government and the KRG would like the profits of. For the KRG however, it runs deeper – control of Mosul, Kirkuk and the areas around them would allow the KRG to look after their fellow Kurds.

Why do Daesh want this area? Primarily oil. Selling oil on the black market brings in millions of dollars a day, allowing them to recruit, fight and function like a state army.

But why Sinjar in particular? Sinjar, or as the Kurds call it, Shingar, is actually a region as well as a town. West of Mosul, it helps Daesh to shore up the link between Syria and areas of more solid Sunni Arab support. It also gives them access to Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul.

Shingar is also the homeland of the Yezidis, who are a religious minority persecuted by Daesh for their beliefs. When Shingar fell to Daesh, many Yezidis fled to Syria or Erbil, but geography forced some of them up Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped for many days. This is inhospitable terrain, especially in the height of summer, and those trapped on the mountain suffer greatly.

Blog Shingar

Graphic from the Washington Post. A little confusing as it’s the view from the West, but helps to understand the terrain. The red line at the bottom is the border with Syria.

Military Strategy In the battle for Shingar, there are several strategically important towns; Zumar (Zummar), Sinjar (Sincar, Shingar) and Rabi’a (Rabia). Whoever controls these, controls access to the whole area.

Interactive Daesh map

Excellent New York Times map.

Fierce fighting continues in Rabi’a and Zumar and control changes regularly. The Peshmerga sustained significant casualties in the battles for these towns but today have regained control of Rabi’a. It is expected that they will progress to Shingar soon.

On a lighter note, Zagros TV just showed Peshmerga delightedly holding up fake beards they had taken off Daesh fighters killed in the battle for Rabi’a.

Further references This New York Times interactive graphic is about the best and most accurate map I’ve come across, and although it’s from 2009, descriptions of the ethnic, strategic and political issues are pretty spot on. This Al Jazeera video gives you an impression of the battle around Zumar. This Washington Post series of graphics illustrates things from the perspective of US air strikes.

A Brief History of Iraq, Part One: Cradle of Civilisation to the Coming of Islam

This is the first instalment of a very short and simplified history of Iraq aimed at drawing out some of the threads that have lead to the current situation.


c. B.C. 4,000 – A.D. 750

Iraq is almost exactly twice the size of the UK but has less than half the population. The hostile deserts of Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia leach across its borders, confining most of its inhabitants to the broad stripe of green that sweeps diagonally across an otherwise sandy yellow map. This fertile corridor, Mesopotamia, follows the course of Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the mountains of Turkey in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south-east and gave rise to the earliest human civilizations.

The earliest cities were founded here after the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago, when humans began to settle and cultivate rather than wander and hunt, leaving more time for building the physical manifestations of societies.

Map 1

NB: Colours relate to height above sea level (green being lowest). Climate change since the earliest settlements has rendered much of this area desert today, so altitude maps are the best illustration of the low-lying areas that defined fertile Mesopotamia

Kingdoms centred around cities such as Babylon and Ur flourished for thousands of years throughout until around B.C. 1360, when the Assyrian kings of the city of Ashur on the river Tigris began to conquer lands across much of Mesopotamia. The following two millennia were characterised by the conquest and re-conquest of Mesopotamia by the great civilisations of the time; Ancient Greece, Egypt and Persia.

In A.D. 636, Arabs of the newly established Islamic faith defeated the Sassanid Empire (then covering modern day Iran and Iraq) at the battle of Qadisiyyah and paved the way for the Islamic dynasty of the Abbasids, who ruled Mesopotamia between A.D. 750 and 1258, establishing their capital in Baghdad.

Recommended listening:

“The City – a history, part 1” (an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time)