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The Kurdish leadership is coming under intense international pressure to postpone the referendum on independence due to take place in Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq on 25 September.

Outside powers see the poll as destabilising Iraq and neighbouring countries at the very moment when Isis and its self-declared caliphate are being defeated. But Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, who called the referendum, says he intends to go ahead with it and it would be a humiliating failure for him to back down at this late stage, having rekindled the fires of Kurdish nationalism so successfully.

“Barzani and his advisers do not take the threats from Iran and Turkey seriously, saying that they have heard them all before and nothing happened,” says the veteran Kurdish leader Omar Sheikhmous. He adds: “I hope they are right.”

He himself warns that the Kurds are very isolated regionally and internationally, pointing out that the UN, US, UK, France and Germany are opposed to the referendum, as are neighbouring states such as Iran and Turkey as well as the Iraqi government in Baghdad. He draws a parallel with the historic betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds by the US and Iran to Saddam Hussein in 1975, when they similarly found themselves without allies.

Mr Barzani is accused by his critics of calling the poll to secure his own power as leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) by exploiting Kurdish patriotism. He can take advantage of the weakness and divisions of his traditional Kurdish political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which cannot oppose a referendum without being charged with betraying the Kurdish right to self-determination for which they have fought for 100 years.

By playing the nationalist card, Mr Barzani also diverts the attention of voters away from the disastrous economic state of the KRG since 2014 when it lost its share of central government oil revenues and the price of its own oil plummeted. Irbil is full of half-completed buildings with rusting cranes beside them while many government employees have not been paid for months.

Even if the referendum was born out of political manoeuvring within Iraqi Kurdistan, it has now built up its own momentum as Kurds rally around their red, white and green flag. There have been enthusiastic mass rallies all over KRG. “Barzani has shown that he is a real leader and has stood up to pressure to cancel the vote,” says Kamran Karadaghi, a commentator on Kurdish affairs and previously chief of staff to the former Kurdish President of Iraq Jalal Talabani. He recalls that politicians and officials in Baghdad used to make jokes in the past about Kurdish threats to secede from Iraq, but believes they will do so no longer.

Mr Karadaghi says that the Baghdad government has made a mistake in “denouncing the referendum as a sort of Frankenstein”, which will inevitably produce violence and war. He believes that this overreaction on the part of Baghdad and foreign powers serves only to anger and provoke the Kurds, citing as an example the threat by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who demanded this week that the referendum be cancelled and said that “we will not allow the creation of a second Israel in northern Iraq”.

Despite the political uproar it has provoked, the referendum does not oblige Mr Barzani to secede from Iraq and establish an independent Kurdish state, though it will show that such a move has massive popular support. It will be very different from the British vote for Brexit in the referendum in 2016 because it does not force Kurdish leaders to break away from Iraq. A more certain result of the referendum will be that it will bolster Mr Barzani and the KDP in presidential and parliamentary elections 35 days later on 1 November. Previously, he held his post unconstitutionally, having outstayed his term as president which ran out in 2015, and effectively closed down the Kurdish parliament by preventing its speaker entering the Kurdish capital Irbil where it sits.

In Irbil, the KRG authorities do not appear to have taken any concrete measures on the ground to open the way to practical independence. This is partly because the KRG already behaves, in most respects other than international recognition, very much like an independent state, having achieved political and military autonomy under a US air umbrella when Saddam Hussein withdrew the Iraqi army in the aftermath of the Gulf war and Kurdish uprising in 1991. This was enhanced further by the US invasion in 2003 when the Kurdish peshmerga joined the anti-Saddam coalition, advancing south and capturing Kirkuk and Mosul. They later withdrew from Mosul city, though not from much of the province around it, but never from Kirkuk and its oil fields.

Among the issues brought into play by the referendum is not only the right to independence of Iraqi Kurdistan but the territorial extent of that entity, which contains many disputed areas, many inhabited by both Kurds and Arabs as well as other minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians. This has always been a combustible issue, particularly in Kirkuk because of its oil fields and its ethnic diversity. Kirkuk city has large and potentially restive Arab and Turkmen communities and there are signs that the furore over the referendum is raising the political temperature. The Baghdad central government has dismissed the powerful Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, but he remains in office. On Monday night, gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on the office of a Turkmen political party and one of them was killed and two wounded when the guards shot back. Some hours later, a police patrol including the brother of the dead man attacked another Turkmen office. These were small scale skirmishes but they could escalate, particularly if the Shia militias move into Kurdish held areas.

It is not only Kirkuk city that is contested. The KRG took advantage of the defeat of the Iraqi army in northern Iraq and the capture of Mosul by Isis to expand its territory by 40 per cent, taking over disputed areas. The Kurds were always going to have difficulty clinging onto these lands, once Isis was defeated by a rejuvenated Iraqi army backed by the US. The disputed territories issue was already becoming more contentious after the Iraqi armed forces recaptured Mosul in July and the defeat of Isis ceased to dominate Iraqi political priorities. Baghdad has now declared the referendum illegal and made vague threats of military action, which the Kurds are ignoring or treating with contempt. A danger here is that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may feel that he must do something to confront Kurdish actions or lose the political benefits of victory over Isis.

Mr Barzani says that after an overwhelming “yes” vote in the referendum next week, nothing dramatic will happen but rather a slow and amicable divorce between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government. This might happen, but northern Iraq is the site of so many ethnic, sectarian, territorial and international disputes that it is difficult to see them all being resolved or bypassed without violence.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Kurds 

Isis is the most likely inspiration for the bomb explosion on the tube train at Parsons Green station. The attempted mass killing is similar to the attacks in Barcelona, Manchester and London earlier this year in that it aimed to murder the maximum number of civilians in the most public way possible.

Isis is stepping up its attention-grabbing atrocities to counterbalance its defeats on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria. It aims to show strength, instil fear and dominate the news agenda at a time when it has lost the savage nine-month-long struggle for Mosul in Iraq and is being defeated in the battle for its last big urban centres in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa in Syria. The caliphate that Isis declared after its capture of Mosul in 2014, once the size of Great Britain, is today reduced to a few embattled enclaves in the deserts of eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Unfortunately, these defeats make escalating terrorist attacks on civilians more rather than less likely in Iraq, Syria and the West. I am listing the locations being targeted in that order because the great majority of Isis’s victims are Iraqis and Syrians, though this receives scant coverage in the western media which carries 24/7 reportage of Isis-related incidents in Western Europe and the US.

A telling example of this lopsided coverage came this week only a day before the Parsons Green explosion, when Isis gunmen and three suicide bombers attacked a police checkpoint and two restaurants in southern Iraq, killing at least 80 people and injuring hundreds more. Wearing police uniforms and driving captured Iraqi army vehicles, the Isis fighters made their attack on the main road between Baghdad and Basra near the city of Nassiriya. The carefully organised assault was carried out deep inside part of Iraq that is Shia and far from the remaining Isis strongholds in Sunni Arab districts further north. The aim was to prove that, despite its shattering losses in the siege of Mosul, Isis can still operate far from its base areas.

The British Government and public have never quite taken on board that Isis terrorist attacks in Britain and elsewhere are part and parcel of what is happening in the wars in Iraq and Syria. Isis sees the world as a single battlefield. That is why Government initiatives like the “Prevent” campaign are an irrelevance where they are not counterproductive. They purport to identify and expose signs of domestic Islamic radicalism (though nobody knows what these are), but in practice they are a form of collective punishment of the three million British Muslims, serving only to alienate many and push a tiny minority towards sympathy for Isis and al-Qaeda-linked movements.

Such an approach is attractive to governments because it shows them doing something active to quell terrorism, however ineffectual this may be. It also has the useful implication of suggesting that terrorism is domestically generated and that the British foreign ventures in Libya in 2003 and Libya in 2011 were in no way responsible for providing the breeding grounds in which Isis was nurtured. Yet when Jeremy Corbyn suggested after the Manchester bomb that a government policy that had helped produce anarchy in Iraq, Libya and Syria, enabling al-Qaeda-type terrorists to flourish, had much to answer for, he was howled down and execrated as somehow lessening the guilt of the Manchester and London attackers.

The only long-term way of preventing these terrorist attacks is not only to eliminate Isis in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere but to end these wars which have allowed al-Qaeda to become a mass movement. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Qaeda and its clones had little strength and had been largely broken up. They were resurrected during the Iraq war, were suppressed with immense difficulty only to rise again in 2011, when the civil war in Syria enabled them to spread and become the dominant force in the armed opposition. This was neither inevitable nor unforeseeable: Iraqi leaders warned that a continuing war in Syria, in which sectarian confrontation was a major factor, would destabilise their own fragile peace. They were ignored and the meteoric emergence of Isis between 2011 and 2014 showed that they knew what they were talking about. I remember in 2012 vainly trying to persuade a senior diplomat that if the war in Syria continued, it could not be contained and would destabilise Iraq. He poo-pooed my fears as exaggerated.

Western powers only truly took on board that the defeat of Isis had to be given total priority in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and the outpouring of Syrian refugees heading from Turkey to Western Europe in the same year. Previously, the governments had been laggard in seeking to carry out such obvious measures as putting pressure on Turkey to close its open border with Syria, across which al-Qaeda and Isis recruits passed unhindered for years. In the event, it was only gradually closed by the advance of the Syrian Kurds along the south side of the Syrian-Kurdish border.

But it is not just the defeat of Isis and al-Qaeda (thinly disguised by frequent changes of name) that is necessary. It is the wars in Iraq and Syria that provided the fertile soil for movements to grow again. Anything that delays the end of these conflicts contributes to the survival of Isis and groups for which the massacre of civilians is an integral part of their day-to-day tactics.

British and other western governments protest that they do indeed want to end the war, but they have pursued policies that have fuelled it and made its continuation inevitable. They declared that the removal of President Bashar al-Assad was a precondition for peace when the political and military balance of power in Syria made this extremely unlikely. Critics of government policy who pointed this out were denounced as pro-Assad sympathisers. Western policy was a self-defeating mix of fantasy and wishful thinking and fantasy. Remember David Cameron’s non-existent 70,000 moderate fighters, brave fellows who were going to take on Assad and Isis at the same time?

Not all the news is bad: Isis is being defeated in both Syria and Iraq. Its ability to organise and inspire terrorist attacks is going down. Assuming Isis was behind the bomb on the train in Parsons Green, there is some comfort in the fact that it failed to explode fully – an Isis bomb in Catalonia blew up those that were making it. Money, weapons and expertise will be more difficult to supply.

But the weaker Isis becomes the more it will want to show that it is still in business. Attacks in two places as different as Nassiriya and Parsons Green within 24 hours of each other shows that it is a long way from being eradicated. At the end of the day peace in the UK and Europe is indivisible from peace in Iraq and Syria.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Terrorism 
Father and Son Discuss Battling Mental Illness and the Art It Inspires

My son Henry was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a 20-year-old art student in Brighton in 2002. He had tried to swim across the estuary at Newhaven that February and was rescued from the freezing water by fishermen and taken to hospital, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia.

Henry was sectioned a year later and spent the next eight years confined in mental hospitals in the grip of a psychosis that ebbed and flowed but from which he could not escape. He disappeared into a mental world where no barrier existed between dreams, nightmares and reality and the voices of trees and bushes spoke to him, became his friends and told him what to do. He hated being confined in hospital but could scarcely have survived outside it as he wandered through east Kent, sometimes walking naked along railway tracks or swimming lakes and rivers in mid-winter.

He ran away from hospitals some 30 times, but his very inability to look after himself meant that he usually, though not invariably, was found within a few days. It seemed all too likely to my wife Jan and myself that he would not live long and we were in dread of a final call from the police saying that it was all over. In his more rational moments, Henry agreed with this, repeatedly saying: “I do not think I am going to live past 30.”

In the event, Henry’s strong underlying will to live, medical attention, family support and a fair measure of luck, meant that he did survive, unlike many of his friends in a similar situation. From 2007 the impact of his disorder began to recede, mainly because he came under the care of a consultant who saw to it that he was no longer spitting out his medication, which controlled though it did not cure his illness.

As he returned to a more rational view of the world, he spoke to me of a deep sense of failure and inadequacy, knowing that his friends from school were getting jobs, marrying and having children, while he sat wrapped in a blanket in the locked ward of a mental hospital. In a bid to bring success and a sense of achievement into Henry’s life, I suggested that he and I write a book about his horrible experiences as they affected him and his family. After all, he knew all too much from the inside about what it was like to suffer a psychosis and live for years in a mental hospital, things that most people regard with fear and know little about. The book – Henry’s Demons: Living with Schizophrenia, a Father and Son’s Story – comprises alternate chapters by Henry and myself and a long excerpt from my wife Jan’s diary. It was published in 2011 and became a bestseller.

Henry was then living in a halfway house in Lewisham and by no means fully recovered when he wrote his chapters. In the last lines of the book, much commented on by reviewers, he wrote that “it has been a very long road for me but I think I am entering the final straight. There is a tree I sit under in the garden in Lewisham which speaks to me and gives me hope.” He still had quite a long way to go, moving first to a flat in Herne Bay where he lived largely independently, though there was a mental health nurse present during the day to assist or in case of emergencies. He decided to go back to art college in 2012 which gave essential structure to his life and where he got a good degree. He moved into his own flat in Canterbury in 2017 where he lives entirely independently, though still taking medication to which he sees no alternative.

Henry drew and painted with vigour and originality from an early age and always wanted to be a professional artist. The first real sign that something was going wrong in his mind, though I did not understand this at the time, came in the summer of 2001, six months before his breakdown when I took him and his younger brother Alex on holiday to Venice.

Henry was skilfull at swiftly sketching people he met accidentally and, in this case, he drew two women travelling in the same boat as ourselves on the Grand Canal in China. Usually people were full of praise for Henry’s work, but on this occasion the women looked perplexed by what he had drawn, and I could see why when I looked at his sketchpad which was covered with meandering lines. He continued to draw and paint in hospital over the coming years. This had a good effect on him, though his pictures were dark and menacing. It was only gradually that his talent fully returned and only this year that he felt distanced enough from hospital and psychosis to portray them in a series of 10 paintings published here for the first time in a three-part series.

The subject of the paintings, along with articles by Henry and myself, is what happened to him since the moment of his first breakdown and how he survived it. Our hope is that our experiences will be of practical use to others similarly afflicted and show that it is possible to struggle successfully against a psychosis and for a victim to regain a large measure of happiness.

Henry at his worst, was very mad indeed, yet against the odds, he did live through full-blown schizophrenia from which Jan and I despaired at times of him ever emerging with his personality intact and capacity to live a creative life restored. These 10 paintings take Henry from the day he hid in a tree, whose branches spoke to him, on a railway embankment while police searched for him in 2002 to rapping on stage to a cheering crowd 15 years later. Other pictures portray grim experiences: his near drowning in Newhaven estuary, solitary confinement in a locked room in hospital and his forcible sedation by hospital staff. These are depressing subjects but ones which Henry paints and writes about with surprising buoyancy and vivacity.

When Henry first became ill, I found that most of the population knows nothing about mental illness and its treatment, but a large minority knows all too much. At any one time in Britain, there are 220,000 people being treated for schizophrenia by the NHS. (Take undiagnosed cases into account, the true figure of sufferers may twice that.)

The effects of schizophrenia are devastating: some 5 to 10 per cent of those suffering from it kill themselves and only 13 per cent are able to work again. At the time Henry was rescued from Newhaven estuary, I was part of the ill-informed majority who believe that schizophrenia and bipolar depression are distinct diagnosable illnesses like typhoid or polio, though in fact they are a set of fluid symptoms that may change over time.

I remember returning from seeing Henry for the first time after his rescue in the former Brighton & Hove Priory clinic in 2002 and being horrified. I had looked up “schizophrenia” online to discover that a leading American doctor had described the condition as being to mental illness what cancer was to physical ailments. The average age of its onset is 18 for men and 25 for women. Genes may make some especially vulnerable to the disorder – doctors are always asking if there is a family history of mental illness – but most victims have no such history. Almost any personal or social adversity can contribute to producing “schizophrenia” which is not a distinct entity but is rather the severe end of psychosis.

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Counterpunch Archives, Mental Illness 

Irma is battering its way towards South Florida, where it will be the first category 5 hurricane to strike the state since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Aid for victims of Andrew was infamously slow to arrive and chaotically distributed when it finally turned up. Federal and state authorities waiting for Irma say that they learned their lesson from mistakes made then, and that nothing like that could happen again.

I doubt that: 10 days after Andrew, I was in Homestead, a devastated town 20 miles south of Miami, where I was warmly greeted by local people who initially thought I was an insurance adjuster or a government official come to help them. They were only a little less welcoming when I explained that I was a British journalist, since their expectations of speedy government assistance were realistically low.

Where aid had arrived, it was almost comically out of keeping with local needs. US army officers were frustrated because they had erected 125 tents, each capable of sheltering 30 people whose houses were uninhabitable, but the survivors were resolutely refusing to live in them.

Instead, they were camping in the wreckage of their houses, explaining that if they moved out then their furniture and anything else they owned would be stolen by looters. The army was only allowing people to bring three suitcases each into their camp, which consequently remained entirely empty.

Another reason why people could not be shifted from the ruins of their homes was that they were waiting impatiently for the insurance adjusters to turn up, and were desperate not to miss them. On outside walls that were still standing, homeowners had painted in large letters the names of their insurance companies: All State, Prudential, Utah Fire and Flood. Their disappointment that I did not come from one of these was entirely understandable.

Not everybody hit by Andrew carried insurance: near Homestead was a camp of migrant labourers, who in better times picked limes and avocados, but had seen their plywood and hardboard shacks ripped apart by the wind. They were hoping for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) whose officials were said to be in the area. I found two volunteers working for the agency sitting at a desk helping Mexican farm labourers to fill in a five-page yellow form requesting aid.

These were people in need before the storm and now their wants were even greater. They no longer had jobs picking fruit, and therefore no way to make money, which was their greatest lack. A Fema volunteer, who was normally in charge of railway safety in Washington, told me that “what we really need here is an armoured car full of money to give people.”

But cash is exactly what private charities and state agencies least wanted to dispense, though they would provide anything else – however unnecessary. The fields around Homestead were dotted with bundles of brightly coloured clothes, children’s cardigans and woolly dresses, sent by donors elsewhere in the US who obviously did not know about the muggy heat of a Florida summer.

Supposedly everything has changed since Andrew: a storm so destructive that its very name was struck from the list of those used to denote hurricanes by the World Meteorological Organisation. It destroyed 63,000 buildings and, in its wake, construction regulations were made stricter so structures could better withstand hurricane-force winds.

Fema supposedly learned from its experience in 1992, though there was little sign of this when Katrina hit New Orleans in 2006 and Sandy inundated New York in 2012.

Federal and state politicians and officials are terrified of being accused of not doing enough in the face of natural calamities. They all remember that President George W Bush suffered lasting political wounds from his supposedly dismissive response to Katrina, famously caught on camera as he looked down on the flooded city through the window of his plane.

In his defence, it could be argued that the media, and perhaps the public, tends to take such symbolic gestures – or the lack of them – during disasters much too seriously, as if the presence of Bush in New Orleans would have done much good to those flooded out of their houses.

At times of natural calamity, local and central governments feel it is essential to show frantic activity, pretty much regardless of its effectiveness. Bringing in the army and the National Guard shows resolution and Florida State has 113 helicopters and 30,000 troops on standby for Irma – but it is dubious if they are the best people to deal with this type of disaster.

In the case of Andrew, a former US Marine in charge of relief told me that “they should have put the Red Cross or somebody who knew what they were doing in charge from the start, so you wouldn’t have the National Guard, city officials and the army passing the buck to each other”.

The media shares in responsibility for what goes wrong because of the way it traditionally reports hurricanes and other natural disasters. There is nothing new in this: storms and wars have been the meat and drink of the press ever since the first newspaper was published at the start of the seventeenth century, and the same is true of television and digital media today. Reporting is and has always been biased towards melodrama, and no journalist ever lost their job because they exaggerated the destructiveness of a bomb or a hurricane.

The 24/7 reporting of Irma and other hurricanes should produce a clear picture of what is happening, but in practice it is difficult to know where destruction is moderate, serious or total. The decibel level of the media is invariably high, whatever is really happening.

In Antigua, officials say that destruction on the island is light, in contrast to near obliteration on nearby Barbuda. But one supposed eyewitness on Antigua was quoted in a press report as telling ABS TV: “What we have experienced is like something you see in a horror movie. People were running from house to house and we had cars flying over our heads. We had containers – 40ft containers – flying left and right.” Perhaps this did happen somewhere in Antigua, but it was certainly not typical.

In wars and storms, it is often genuinely difficult to know the true extent of the damage: this street is wrecked, but what about the next one? Andrew struck only just outside a major media hub in Miami, but even so it took days for the media there to realise that a historic disaster had happened on their doorstep.

Hurricanes like Andrew and Irma hit the poor hardest because they live in flimsy housing that can’t withstand high winds, and because the storm is only the latest trouble to hit them.

In Haiti, the storm has disrupted water supply and waste disposal in a country that has just been through a cholera epidemic started by UN troops.

In Puerto Rico, the bankrupt electricity company is using the storm, which only brushed the island, to justify closing down electric supply for up to four months.

Disaster relief fails so often because it is geared towards immediate calamity and relieving long-term social degradation. If Irma does strike Florida with its full power, it could be just as destructive as Andrew a quarter of a century ago.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Hurricane 

Al-Qaeda is creating its most powerful stronghold ever in north-west Syria at a time when world attention is almost entirely focused on the impending defeat of Isis in the east of the country. It has established full control of Idlib province and of a vital Syrian-Turkish border crossing since July. “Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” says Brett McGurk, the senior US envoy to the international coalition fighting Isis.

The al-Qaeda-linked movement, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which used to be called Jabhat al-Nusra, has long been the most powerful rebel group in western Syria. After the capture of east Aleppo by the Syrian army last December, it moved to eliminate its rivals in Idlib, including its powerful former Turkish-backed ally Ahrar al-Sham. HTS is estimated to have 30,000 experienced fighters whose numbers will grow as it integrates brigades from other defeated rebel groups and recruits young men from the camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have sought refuge in Idlib from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Al-Qaeda is growing in strength in and around Idlib province just as Isis is suffering defeat after defeat in eastern Syria and Iraq. Its latest setback was its failure on Tuesday to stop the Syrian army linking up with its enclave at Deir Ezzor, where Isis has been besieging the government held part of the city for three years. Divided by the Euphrates, the city is the largest in eastern Syria and its complete recapture opens the way to the al-Omar oilfields that once provided half of Syria’s crude production.

The end of the siege, supposing encircling Isis forces are permanently driven back, frees up a Syrian army garrison of 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers as well as the 93,000 civilians trapped in the government-held zone who had been supplied with food by airdrops. Deir Ezzor is only the latest Isis urban centre to be lost on the Syrian portion of the Euphrates valley which was the heartland of its territories in Syria. Isis is everywhere on the retreat. Upriver from Deir Ezzor at Raqqa, the American-backed and Kurdish-run Syrian Democratic Forces are fighting their way into the city and has captured its old city quarter in the last few days.

Despite its proven fighting prowess, Isis is collapsing under the impact of ground attacks launched by different parties on multiple fronts in Iraq and Syria. What tips the balance against it in all cases is the massive firepower of the Russian and US air forces in support of ground assaults. Isis’s defeat in eastern Syria will accelerate as local tribes, previously won over or intimidated by Isis, join the winning side. The US and the Syrian Kurds may not like the return of Syrian government authority in eastern Syria, south of Raqqa, but they do not look as if they are prepared to fight hard to stop it. President Trump’s priority is to eradicate Isis and al-Qaeda, regardless of who rules Syria in future.

Bad news for Isis is good news for HTS and al-Qaeda. Its defeat preoccupies its myriad enemies and largely monopolises their military efforts. Short of combat troops, the Syrian army is only really capable of making a maximum effort on one front at a time. The Syrian Kurds have an interest in fighting Isis but not necessarily defeating it so decisively that the US would no longer need a Kurdish alliance and could return to the embrace of its old Nato ally Turkey.

HTS stands to benefit politically and militarily from the decline of Isis, the original creator and mentor of Jabhat al-Nusra, as the earliest of al-Qaeda’s incarnations in Syria was known. Under the name of al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of the movement split off in 2013 and the two sides fought a bloody inter-jihadi civil war. If Isis is destroyed or rendered a marginal force, Sunni Arab jihadis refusing to surrender to Mr Assad’s army and intelligence service will have no alternative but to join HTS. Moreover, Sunni Arabs in eastern Syria may soon be looking for any effective vehicle for resistance, if Syrian government armed forces behave with their traditional mix of brutality and corruption.

HTS will expect the many states now attacking Isis, and battering to pieces its three-year-old caliphate, to turn on them next. But they will hope to delay the confrontation for as long as possible while they strengthen their movement. Ideologically similar but politically more astute than Isis, they will seek to avoid provoking a final territorial battle which they are bound to lose. Some Syrian specialists warn against waiting too long. “The international community must seek urgently to counter-attack HTS, which grows stronger by the day, without waiting for the complete destruction of the Islamic State,” writes Fabrice Balanche in a study published by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies called Preventing a Jihadist Factory in Idlib. He says that HTS wants to dominate the whole Syrian rebellion and is close to succeeding.

The open dominance of an extreme Islamic jihadi movement like HTS creates a problem for foreign powers, notably the US, UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, previous funders and suppliers of the Syrian rebels. HTS, whose attempt to distinguish itself from al-Qaeda has convinced few, is listed in many countries as a terrorist organisation, unlike its former ally, the Ahrar al-Sham. It will be difficult for foreign powers to do business with it, though the armed opposition to Mr Assad has long been dominated by extreme Islamist jihadi groups. The difference is that today there are no longer any nominally independent groups through which anti-Assad states and private donors can channel arms, money and aid while still pretending that they were not supporting terrorism.

Isis declared war against the whole world in 2014 and inevitably paid the price of creating a multitude of enemies who are now crushing it in Syria and Iraq. Many of the members of this de facto alliance always disliked each other almost as much as they hated Isis. It was only fear of the latter that forced them to cooperate, or at least not fight each other. It may not be possible to recreate the same unity of purpose against al-Qaeda.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: al-Qaeda, ISIS, Syria 

On 22 May, Ahmed Mohsen, an unemployed taxi driver, left his house in the Islamic State-controlled western part of Mosul to try to escape across the Tigris to the government-held eastern side of the city. He and his mother, along with ten other people, carried rubber tyres down to the river: most of them couldn’t swim, and they planned to tie them together to make a raft. The siege of Mosul was in its seventh month and Ahmed was both desperate and starving: he and his mother were living on handfuls of wheat they cooked, though he said it made him feel sick. His friends believe that lack of food made him light-headed and led him to risk crossing the river. ‘Even if I die in the river,’ he told them, ‘it will be better than living here.’

IS snipers were shooting people who tried to leave. Their commanders calculated that holding the civilian population hostage, as human shields, would deter Iraqi government troops and the US-led coalition air forces from using the full extent of their firepower. This strategy had worked, to an extent, during the siege of east Mosul, which began on 17 October; it was three months before that part of the city was captured. But by the time the assault on west Mosul began on 19 February there was little sign of Iraqi or American restraint. As the bombardment intensified, the only plausible escape route for Ahmed was across the Tigris between the Fifth and Sixth Bridges, both of which had been put out of action by coalition airstrikes. He had already seen IS snipers kill three people who’d tried to cross and his luck was no better: a sniper shot him in the back and killed him, along with nine other members of his party, before they had even put their tyres in the water. Only one man, a good swimmer, got across to the other side. According to people living in houses overlooking the riverbank, Ahmed’s mother stayed beside his body for three days. Nobody dared to go to help her because they were afraid of being shot; on the third day, they say, they could no longer see her or the body of her son. They were probably thrown into the river, like hundreds of others.

I had got to know about Ahmed in an indirect way, two months before he died. After IS captured Mosul in June 2014 it became difficult for journalists or anybody outside the city to talk to people living under its rule. IS did everything it could to seal off the population from contact with the outside world. It blew up mobile phone masts, banned the use of phones and executed anybody caught using them in the few high places where there was reception. You could always interview people who had fled IS territory, but this wasn’t a satisfactory way of gathering information: refugees from Mosul arriving in Iraqi government or Kurdish-controlled territory were at the mercy of local military and civilian authorities and had every incentive to denounce IS as demonic, to dispel suspicions that they had been collaborators or members. Mosul is a Sunni Arab city and Shia, Kurds, Christians and Yazidis suspect Sunnis in general of colluding with IS. ‘I have never seen such terrified people in my life as a group of young men who had run away from Mosul waiting to be vetted by Iraqi security to see if they were former IS fighters,’ a human rights worker in a camp for internally displaced persons 15 miles south of Mosul told me. ‘One day I saw two men of military age walk into a tent for questioning. They were carried to the camp hospital on stretchers two hours later covered in blood.’

As the assault on west Mosul gathered pace, the IS strategy of isolating people behind its lines started to falter. The Iraqi government brought in a mobile phone mast mounted on the back of a truck and put it up at Nabi Yunus, the Tomb of Jonah, a shrine that IS had blown up as heretical in 2014, but whose ruins remain the highest point in east Mosul. Phones in the west of the city started working again and IS was too busy defending itself against army incursions to hunt down civilians talking on their mobiles. I knew someone who lived on the east bank of the Tigris: he found he was able to speak, over a poor connection, to relatives and friends in the IS-held territory on the other side of the river.

Ahmed Mohsen, trapped with his mother inside the old city of Mosul, was 31 years old. His father was dead; he had a married sister living nearby and a brother who was a refugee in Germany. I asked questions through an intermediary he trusted and he gave detailed answers about the situation in west Mosul. ‘Dozens of civilians are killed every day, including children,’ he said. ‘Yesterday, two children were killed by a mortar shell of the Iraqi army coming from the eastern part [of the city].’ He derided American and Iraqi government claims that they were using ‘smart artillery’: the incoming fire, he said, was ‘stupid’ and indiscriminate. It became clear, as the assault on west Mosul went on, that the Iraqi and US generals were using their massive firepower more freely than they had in the east. The Americans had expected the siege to take two months from start to finish; by March it had already gone on for five months, with the heaviest fighting still to come in the alleyways and closely packed houses of the old city. By then, according to US Central Command, 774 members of the Iraqi security forces had been killed and 4600 wounded. The rules were changed: units on the ground could now call in airstrikes or artillery fire at will to destroy a building if they believed they had spotted an IS sniper operating from it. Alongside attacks from the air, Iraqi Federal Police and the Emergency Response Division, both heavily armed but inadequately trained, used artillery and rockets – none of them accurate – to pound the densely inhabited buildings where, even in the final weeks of the siege, 300,000 people were hiding in stairwells and cellars. Looking later at the ruins of central Mosul, I could see where shells and rockets had knocked sections off buildings and where bombs had turned a whole block into a mound of broken bricks. ‘Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition used imprecise, explosive weapons, killing thousands of civilians,’ as an Amnesty International report, At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul, puts it. By the end of March, civilians behind IS lines were being killed in large numbers by shells, rockets and bombs. They were also beginning to starve. ‘People in our neighbourhood,’ Ahmed told me, ‘are searching in the garbage to find something that can be eaten to take it to their children.’ Vegetables and fruit had disappeared from the markets that were still open; Ahmed and his family had stored some flour and rice, but wanted to keep it as a final reserve for the children of their extended family.

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Counterpunch Archives, Iraq, ISIS 

There is a famous scene in Shakespeare’s Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt, when the French lords speak of the inevitability of their coming victory. Puffed up with arrogance, they deride the English: “Do but behold yon poor and starved band.” Of course, all this is to be exposed as bombast when the over-confident lords get their comeuppance the following day.

I was thinking about this scene when Donald Trump was elected President last year, contrary to the predictions of almost every commentator in the US. I thought about it again when pundits in Britain had their own St Crispin’s Day on 8 June, as Theresa May lost her majority in Parliament, dumbfounding expectations that Jeremy Corbyn was leading the Labour Party to calamitous defeat. A comical outcome of the general election was the way in which the commentariat, who has by and large lauded May as a mix of Queen Elizabeth I, Judi Dench and Margaret Thatcher, switched at high speed to seeing clear similarities between her and Inspector Clouseau.

It is always satisfactory to see anybody in the prediction business tripping over their feet and getting egg on their faces. Most commentators admitted error, noted that everybody else had also got the election wrong, but still managed to sound as if they knew what made the nation tick. It was particularly easy to move on the agenda in the week after the election because of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The American political establishment – at the core of which is TheNew York Times and CNN – have been busily counterattacking Trump and his election victory as the outcome of a Russian plot. Evidence for this is scant.

The anti-Trump forces may well be right in their strategy. Simple innocence is not going to do Trump a lot of good, and refuting vague and exaggerated charges can be difficult because of their very lack of substance. The Republicans should know this because they persecuted the Clintons for years by manufacturing scandals such as the Whitewater real estate deal, the murder of the US ambassador in Benghazi and Hillary’s supposed mishandling of her private emails.

Current political battles are so intense that they mask crucial long-term developments: Britain and America both look much more unstable today than they have done at any time since the Second World War. Some weakening of Anglo-Saxon dominance on the world stage had been expected in the wake of the Iraq war in 2003 and the financial crisis in 2008, but suddenly both powers feel as if they are starting to implode.

The pros and cons of Brexit are furiously debated in Britain, usually with the point at issue being the ultimate political and economic outcome of leaving the EU. But two important negative consequences are already with us: Britain is far more divided than it used to be and the Government is entirely preoccupied with Brexit to the exclusion of anything else. Brexit is like the tremors of an earthquake that shake apart weak and vulnerable points in British society, state and nation.

The British ruling class used to have a high international reputation for intelligence and realism in pursuit of its own interests. This may have been exaggerated, but latterly it seems to have lost its touch and to be happiest when sawing off the branch on which it is sitting. Privatisation and globalisation since Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979 were always going to weaken Britain because these exalted private gain over public and communal interests. The political selling point was the old saying that a rising tide raises all ships, but this turned out to depend on how big or small a ship you were sailing in and many of the latter were soon foundering. What the three political earthquakes in the Anglo-Saxon world – the Brexit referendum, the British general election and the US presidential election – have in common is that they showed that there are many more people unhappy with the status quo than anybody had suspected.

Loathing for Trump on the part of most of the US media is so intense as to make sensible commentary a rarity. They see Trump as a demonic conman who is ruining their country and they may well be right, but this makes it all the more necessary to ask what are the real grievances among voters that he was able to identify and exploit. Edward Luttwak, political scientist and historian, has a compelling article in the Times Literary Supplement pointing to an all-important but little regarded statistic for car “affordability” in the US which shows that almost half of American households have “been impoverished to the point that they can no longer afford a new car”. This is in a country where a car is a necessity to get to work or shop for food, but where wage stagnation and the rising price of vehicles makes it an increasing strain to buy one. Luttwak argues that Trump got “the political economy” right in a way that none of his opponents even tried to do and this made him invulnerable to attacks on his character that his opponents thought would destroy him.

The affordability of housing is to the British what the affordability of cars is to Americans: the prohibitive cost of buying and the extortionate cost of renting a place to live increasingly determines political choices. Ownership of property underpins the political chasm separating young from old voters, the dividing line being the advanced age of 47. Below this, the majority vote Labour and above it Conservative. Students are supposed to have been energised into voting Labour by the promise of abolishing tuition fees, but when I talked to them they were much more worried about paying high rents for miserable accommodation which, unlike tuition fees, they have to pay cash down.

The results of the Brexit vote, the US presidential election and the British general election were all so close that any factor can be highlighted as the one which made the difference. Conservatives tend to point to a poor and over-confident campaign on their part, emphasising marginal considerations such as Theresa May’s spectacular lack of the common touch. Less talked about by Conservatives was the surprising failure of the campaign of vilification directed against Jeremy Corbyn which not only failed to sink him but confirmed his status as the anti-establishment candidate.

Corbyn is a much better person than Trump, but both men benefit from the impossibility of putting somebody on permanent trial by the media without continually mentioning their name. Trump evidently calculates that it scarcely matters what he is accused of so long as he tops the media agenda. Corbyn likewise draws benefits from media hostility so unrelenting that it discredits itself and no longer inflicts real wounds. Political establishments are baffled by successful challenges from those they had dismissed and despised, unlike Shakespeare’s defeated French leader at Agincourt who says: “Let’s stab ourselves. Are these the wretches we played at dice for?”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Jeremy Corbyn 

The catastrophic number of civilian casualties in Mosul is receiving little attention internationally from politicians and journalists. This is in sharp contrast to the outrage expressed worldwide over the bombardment of east Aleppo by Syrian government and Russian forces at the end of 2016.

Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurdish leader and former Iraqi finance and foreign minister, told me in an interview last week: “Kurdish intelligence believes that over 40,000 civilians have been killed as a result of massive firepower used against them, especially by the Federal Police, air strikes and Isis itself.”

The real number of dead who are buried under the mounds of rubble in west Mosul is unknown, but their numbers are likely to be in the tens of thousands, rather than the much lower estimates previously given.

People have difficulty understanding why the loss of life in Mosul was so huge. A good neutral explanation of this appears in a meticulous but horrifying report by Amnesty International (AI) called “At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul.

It does not give an exact figure for the number of dead, but otherwise it confirms many of the points made by Mr Zebari, notably the appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.

However, even this does not quite explain the mass slaughter that took place. Terrible civilian casualties have occurred in many sieges over the centuries, but in one important respect the siege of Mosul is different from the others. Isis, the cruellest and most violent movement in the world, was determined not to give up its human shields.

Even before the attack by Iraqi government forces, aided by the US-led coalition, started on 17 October last year, Isis was herding civilians back into the city and not allowing them to escape to safety. Survivors who made their way to camps for displaced people outside Mosul said they had to run the gauntlet of Isis snipers, booby traps and mines.

Determined to hang on to its hundreds of thousands of human shields, Isis packed them into a smaller and smaller space as pro-government forces advanced. Isis patrols said they would kill anybody who left their houses; they welded shut metal doors to keep them in, and hanged people who tried to escape from electricity pylons and left the bodies to rot.

“Consequently, as IS lost territory during the course of the battle, IS-controlled areas became increasingly crowded with civilians,” says the AI report. “Mosul residents routinely described to Amnesty International how they sheltered in homes with relatives or neighbours in groups of between 15-100.”

It was these groups that became the victims of the massed firepower of pro-government forces. In many streets, every house is destroyed and I could not even enter some badly damaged districts because access was blocked by smashed masonry, craters and burned out cars.

Outside Mosul, people tend to assume that most of this destruction was the result of airstrikes – and much of it was – but Mr Zebari is correct in saying that it was shell and rocket fire from pro-government ground forces, particularly by the Federal Police, that caused the greatest destruction and loss of civilian life.

How this happened is easily explained by a look at the types of ordnance used by pro-government forces: these include 122 mm and 155mm howitzers, but also notoriously inaccurate 122mm Grad rockets and locally made Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions (IRAMs) that might land almost anywhere.

The Grad is a Soviet weapon that dates back fifty years, and consists of 40 rockets mounted in a vehicle which can be fired in volleys over a half minute period. Earlier versions of this weapon had a devastating effect on dug-in German infantry in fortified positions in World War II. Civilians crammed together in fragile houses in west Mosul would stand little chance.

The US-dominated coalition said that it tried to avoid carrying out air strikes where civilians were present, and its planes dropped leaflets telling them to move away from Isis positions. People on the ground in Mosul regarded this as a cruel joke, because they had nowhere else to go to and Isis would shoot them if they tried to run away.

In addition, the Isis system of defence was based on quickly moving its fighters from building to building through holes cut in the walls in the newer parts of Mosul; meanwhile in the Old City, where most houses have cellars, Isis linked these by tunnels so they could fire and retreat before the building they were in was destroyed, most commonly by 500 lb bombs.

“There were very few Daesh [Isis] in our neighbourhood, but they dropped a lot of bombs on them,” Qais, 47, a resident of Mosul al-Jadida district told me. He reckoned that between 600 and 1,000 people in the district had been killed, and he showed me pictures on his phone of a house that had once stood beside his own but had been reduced to a heap of smashed-up bricks.

“There were no Daesh in the house,” he said. “But there were seven members of the Abu Imad family there, of whom five were killed along with two passersby.”

A further reason for the devastation caused by the battle for west Mosul was the outcome of the fighting for east Mosul between 17 October and 24 January. The Iraqi government and the Americans had expected a hard fought but relatively swift victory, perhaps taking about two months to seize the whole of the city (in fact, it took nine months).

The attack on the part to the east of the Tigris River was primarily undertaken by the highly trained and experienced Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), fighting house to house. Air strikes were usually against carefully selected targets, and not called in at will by ground troops at the first sign of resistance.

These tactics of the pro-government forces did not work. True, they eventually captured east Mosul after three months of heavy fighting and at the cost of casualties to the CTS reported as being between 40 and 50 per cent. But they could not afford this scale of losses repeated in west Mosul, where Isis was even more deeply entrenched.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Iraq, ISIS 
True civilian death toll feared at 40,000
More than one million people have been displaced, it has been claimed. Credit: Reuters/The Independent
More than one million people have been displaced, it has been claimed. Credit: Reuters/The Independent

More than 40,000 civilians were killed in the devastating battle to retake Mosul from Isis, according to intelligence reports revealed exclusively to The Independent – a death toll far higher than previous estimates.

Residents of the besieged city were killed by Iraqi ground forces attempting to force out militants, as well as by air strikes and Isis fighters, according to Kurdish intelligence services.

Hoshyar Zebari, until recently a senior minister in Baghdad, told The Independent that many bodies “are still buried under the rubble”. “The level of human suffering is immense,” he said.

“Kurdish intelligence believes that over 40,000 civilians have been killed as a result of massive firepower used against them, especially by the federal police, air strikes and Isis itself,” Mr Zebari added.

Mr Zebari, a native of Mosul and top Kurdish official who has served as the Iraqi finance minister and prior to that foreign minister, emphasised in an exclusive interview that the unrelenting artillery bombardment by units of the Iraqi federal police, in practice a heavily armed military unit, had caused immense destruction and loss of life in west Mosul.

The figure given by Mr Zebari for the number of civilians killed in the nine-month siege is far higher than those previously reported, but the intelligence service of the Kurdistan Regional Government has a reputation for being extremely accurate and well-informed. Isis prevented any monitoring of casualties while outside groups have largely focused on air strikes rather than artillery and rocket fire as a cause of civilian deaths. Airwars, one such monitoring group, estimated that attacks may have killed 5,805 non-military personnel in the city between 19 February and 19 June.

Mr Zebari accuses the government in Baghdad, of which he was until recently a member, of not doing enough to relieve the suffering. “Sometimes you might think the government is indifferent to what has happened,” he said. He doubts if Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and other minorities, who have lived in and around Mosul for centuries, will be able to reconcile with the Sunni Arab majority whom they blame for killing and raping them. He says some form of federal solution for future governance would be best.

Reading from Kurdish intelligence reports, Mr Zebari says that a high level of corruption among the Iraqi military forces occupying Mosul is undermining security measures to suppress Isis in the aftermath of its defeat. He says that suspect individuals are able to pass through military checkpoints by paying $1,000 (£770) and can bring a vehicle by paying $1,500. He says corruption of this type is particularly rife in the 16th and 9th Iraqi army divisions and the Tribal Volunteers (Hashd al-Ashairi), drawn in part from the Shabak minority in the Nineveh Plain.

The ability of Isis militants to remain free or be released from detention by paying bribes has led to a change in attitude among people in Mosul whom Mr Zebari says “were previously willing to give information about Isis members to the Iraqi security forces”. They are now wary of doing so, because they see members of Isis, whom they had identified and who had been arrested, returning to the streets capable of exacting revenge on those who informed against them. Several anti-Isis people in Mosul have confirmed to The Independent that this is indeed the case and they are frightened of these returnees and Isis “sleeper cells” that continue to exist.

Civilians in Mosul say they do not fault the behaviour towards them of combat units that have borne the brunt of the fighting, such as the Counter-Terrorism Service, but they are concerned about what to expect from less well-disciplined troops. A belief that Isis fighters and officials detained in Mosul are later able to bribe their way free explains why soldiers, most of whom are not complicit in bribery networks, have summarily executed Isis prisoners, sometimes by throwing them off high buildings.

Corruption by the occupying military forces takes different forms, according to Kurdish intelligence information cited by Mr Zebari. Some people are “being charged $100 for removing a body from the rubble and others $500 to reoccupy their house”, where it is still standing. Iraqi army and militia units have always been notorious for exacting fees and protection money from civilians, with trucks moving goods on the roads being a particularly profitable target when they pass through military checkpoints.

Much of the blame for the calamitous level of destruction in west Mosul has been put on air strikes, but it is evident at ground level that a lot of the damage was caused by artillery shells and rockets. This is confirmed by an Amnesty International report issued last week titled At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul, Iraq, which points to a greater and more indiscriminate use of its firepower by pro-government forces in the final stages of the attack on east Mosul, starting in January 2017 and continuing over the following six months during the assault on west Mosul. It says that Iraqi government and US-led coalition forces “relied heavily upon explosive weapons with wide area effects such as IRAMs (Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions). With their crude targeting abilities, these weapons wreaked havoc in densely populated west Mosul, where large groups of civilians were trapped in homes or makeshift shelters”. The UN estimated that Mosul had 1.2 million inhabitants at the start of the siege.

In addition, Isis snipers killed great numbers of civilians trying to escape. The militant group was using civilians as “human shields”, though in the event their presence shielded very little. Mr Zebari said that intelligence had even intercepted messages “from Isis fighters to their commanders saying they were tired of killing civilians”.

Mr Zebari says that he is disappointed by the lack of Iraqi government plans to reconstruct Mosul. As finance minister in Baghdad until late last year, he had made provision for $500m in the budget for rebuilding Mosul. He says: “I wanted $500m upfront to encourage other donors, but now the government has withdrawn from the fund and used the money elsewhere. This was not an encouraging sign.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Kurds 

Iraqi security forces kill Isis prisoners because they believe that if the militants are sent to prison camps they will bribe the authorities in Baghdad to release them. “That is why Iraqi soldiers prefer to shoot them or throw them off high buildings,” says one Iraqi source. A former senior Iraqi official said he could name the exact sum that it would take for an Isis member to buy papers enabling him to move freely around Iraq.

The belief by Iraqi soldiers and militiamen that their own government is too corrupt to keep captured Isis fighters in detention is one reason why the bodies of Isis suspects, shot in the head or body and with their hands tied behind their backs, are found floating in the Tigris river downstream from Mosul. Revenge and hatred provoked by Isis atrocities are motives for extrajudicial killings by death squads, but so is distrust of an Iraqi judicial system, which is notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional.

Paranoia at the end of a very violent war partially explains why so many Iraqis are convinced that dangerous Isis members can always bribe their way to freedom. Dozens of posts on social media from Baghdad allege that suicide bombers who blow themselves up killing many civilians had previously been detained by the security forces and released in return for money. “We die in Baghdad because of corruption,” reads one post, frequently shared with others. One tweet says: “Daesh [Isis] pays the government and kills us in Baghdad.”

Fears may be exaggerated, but are not entirely without substance. Isis may have suffered heavy losses in Mosul, but can still operate. A senior Kurdish official said that “recently, during the funeral of a leader of the Shammar tribe in Rabia, no less than 17 Isis suicide bombers were discovered. This shows they can still plan and carry out operations even if they are weaker.”

Anti-Isis residents in Mosul are now making the same allegation. “I know two men in my neighbourhood notorious for being members of Daesh who have just been released by the government,” complains Saleem Mohammed, a resident of the Nabi Yunus district in east Mosul. “One of them used to go on Daesh patrols in the markets here to look for people who were smoking cigarettes.” He added that people were frightened that the suspected collaborators, who had been freed, were members of Isis “sleeper cells” or had now been recruited as Iraqi government spies.

Saleem says that an important cause of distrust between those who had always opposed Isis and those who had joined it or collaborated with it is that the latter had often developed prosperous businesses during the three years that Isis was in power. He said that “many of these collaborators have shops in the markets and people buy from them, though they may shun the owners”. He knew one man who had been poor before Isis arrived, but made money working as a security man at Isis checkpoints where large bribes were often paid for free passage. The man had been arrested, was released and has now moved with his family to Turkey.

Isis commanders and militants often came from impoverished Sunni villages on the outskirts of Mosul that look like a collection of huts. While they controlled Mosul there was hostility between them and the traditional inhabitants of the city. “What is provoking particular anger in Mosul is that well-off Daesh families are being released and coming back to live in well-furnished apartments, while poor people are still living in the camps,” says Saleem.

The situation in east Mosul is far better than in the west of the city because it was always wealthier, saw less destruction from air strikes and artillery, and has been free from Isis control for six months. Though the Iraqi government claims to have won a complete victory over Isis in the Old City in west Mosul, there is still the occasional sound of gunfire and air strikes. There is an exodus of people across the Tigris river from neighbourhoods in the west that are damaged but not totally destroyed to east Mosul where there is electricity and water. A shortage of accommodation for those moving within the city has led to a tripling of rents.

A crucial boost to the economy of Mosul is that the government is paying back salaries for public employees that were not paid under Isis rule. Education, health and municipal workers are getting their salaries leading to much more activity in the local markets. People have started buying cars and property again and there are long queues of trucks bringing goods from Irbil and Kurdish controlled areas into the city.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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