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Hard Roads Across Iraq, Syria and Beyond
Freedom and safety are scarce five years after the Arab Spring
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I was planning to visit Baghdad last summer and stay with my friend Ammar al-Shahbander, who ran the local office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. I had stayed with him for 10 days in June 2014, just after Isis forces had captured Mosul and Tikrit and were advancing with alarming speed on the capital.

Ammar was a good man to be with in a moment of crisis because he had strong nerves, an ebullient personality and was highly informed about all that was happening in Iraq. He was sceptical but not cynical, though refreshingly derisive as the Iraqi government claimed mythical victories as Isis fighters approached ever closer to the capital. He did not believe that they could successfully storm Baghdad, but that did not mean they would not try – and one morning I found him handing over a Kalashnikov to somebody to have its sights readjusted.

We shared a fascination with the dangerous complexities of Iraqi life and politics and I had been looking forward to resuming our conversations in 2015. I was just about to send him a message saying that I was coming to Baghdad, when I heard that I was too late and he was dead. He was killed on 2 May by a car bomb that exploded as he left a café in the Karrada district, where he had been sitting with a friend after attending a concert. A piece of broken metal entered his heart and he died, along with 17 other people killed by Isis bombs in Baghdad that night.

All too many journalist friends have been killed in Iraq, Syria and Libya since 2011, but most were doing dangerous things when they died and knew the risks they were taking. Simply by living in Baghdad rather than London, Ammar knew that he was taking a risk but, high though the level of violence may be in the city, it is not a battle zone. He was not personally targeted so there was a greater element of ill-luck in his death than that of other journalists and people working in the media, making his murder feel all the more poignant and unnecessary.

His death made me think about how much more difficult it has become to be a foreign or local journalist in the Middle East and North Africa over the last few years. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the Arab Spring in 2011 were meant to herald greater freedom of expression and an end to censorship and the persecution of journalists.

In reality, just the opposite has happened with country after country becoming highly dangerous for foreign journalists to visit and independent local journalism being stamped out by authoritarian governments and murderous Islamist opposition movements.

Journeys I took in reasonable safety a few years ago are now impossibly dangerous. In 2003 I drove from Damascus to the city of al-Qamishli in north-east Syria in about 12 hours, passing through territory now divided up into hostile enclaves by the Syrian army, Isis, extreme Islamists and Syrian Kurds.

A year or so later, I went from Baghdad to Mosul and spent the night in Kirkuk before returning to the capital, a route that nobody would think of taking today.

In 2011, I travelled from Cairo to Benghazi in Libya without difficulty and later in the year, a little more problematically, from Tunisia to Tripoli, passing safely through territory now ruled by warring militias.

The figures for journalists killed in 2015 tell something of the story, with 110 reporters killed across the world over the year according to a report published last week by Reporters Without Borders. Unsurprisingly, the countries with the most journalistic fatalities are Syria, Iraq and Yemen. together with France – where the figure was boosted by the massacre of cartoonists, journalists and security staff on the Charlie Hebdo magazine. But the raw casualty figures do not really explain why so much of the wider Middle East and North Africa has fallen off the media map. Civil wars in Libya, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are barely reported because of the extreme danger of doing so and lack of interest in the rest of the world about what is happening there.

The fighting in Afghanistan has escalated sharply as the Taliban launch offensives across the country, but the foreign press corps in Kabul is very shrunken compared to a few years ago.

The war in Iraq and Syria is heavily covered by the international media, but much of the reporting is from other countries such as Lebanon or Turkey. Aside from a few brave exceptions, foreign journalists do not enter areas held by so-called Islamic State, deterred by the kidnapping and ritual decapitation of their colleagues. Areas controlled by non-Isis armed opposition have often proved equally dangerous.

Criminalisation is pervasive and local gangs know that a kidnapped foreign journalist is worth a lot of money because he or she can be held for ransom or sold on to Isis.

Even supposedly safe parts of Syria and Iraq are less risky only by comparison with the rest of the country.

In September, I was in the Kurdish held north-east corner of Syria that now extends from the Tigris to the Euphrates after a series of Syrian Kurdish victories against Isis. But front lines in this war are porous and it soon became clear that the threat from Isis had not wholly disappeared: in Tal Abyad, an important crossing point on the Syrian border captured from Isis in June, a local woman stopped our car to warn that a man dressed like an Isis fighter had just run through her courtyard. Police said there were still Isis sleeper cells around. In a Kurdish town, Ras al Ayn, there were two suicide bomb attacks in the brief period we were there.

The media-free zones that have opened up across the wider Middle East are worse than ever before because today both the region’s governments and Islamist-dominated opposition are targeting journalists.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Arab Spring, Iraq, ISIS, Syria 
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  1. Rehmat says:

    I’m sorry to burst your Zionist balloon again. Your Iraq friend works for a anti-Muslim Zionist advocacy group. The entire staff of ‘Institute for War and Peace Reporting’, according to Israeli Wikipedia, has no Muslim on board. It’s loaded with Zionist Christian and Jews. Moreover, it’s linked to pro-Israel advocacy groups like Freedom House, US-based HRW, which fired professor Richard Falk a few years ago for criticizing Israel, IFES, ICG, Reporters Without Borders, Open Society Institute, and Iraq Foundation given birth by Zionists Condoleezza Rice and L. Paul Bremer III.

    After that introduction, I don’t think there is no not to laugh at rest of your narrative except that you may not know, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi alia Elliott Shimon was born into a French Jewish family.

    On July 21, 2015, a frustrated US president Barack Obama couldn’t control his temper and spelled out the truth about the America’s invasion, occupation and destruction of Middle East’s oil-rich and most liberal country, Iraq for Israel.

    Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Pittsburgh via phone, Obama likened the US-Iran deal critics to the powerful neocons (mostly Jewish) in Bushes administration, who pushed US into Iraq War based on anti-Saddam lies.

    Obama said that the people who were “so quick to go to war” and who claimed that the war will take only a few months. The same people are now “chest beating” and popping off soundbites that don’t help the debate. He also said that instead of running into a military conflict with Iran, the US should only send troops to harm’s way as a last resort…..

    • Replies: @krollchem
    , @argos
  2. plantman says:

    Did I miss the part where Cockburn blames the appalling lack of security on Washington’s wars in the Middle East and N Africa???

    Judging by the title (“Freedom and safety are scarce five years after the Arab Spring”) you’d think the Arabs were to blame.

    Isn’t that what Cockburn is trying to say, that the Arabs are responsible for the wars that Washington launched??

    What we have here is another Cockburn masterpiece of deception…

  3. krollchem says:

    The Institute for War and Peace Reporting website reports never cover human right or freedom of speech in preferred countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE. When you look at their “partners” it is easy to see that they have a “soft power” role in the Neolib and Neocon full Spectrum Dominance.

  4. argos says: • Website

    Thank you for the revelation about Cockburn it did burst my bubble no wonder Pres Obama is hated and in the end Iran will overturn all that was done to the middle east and its challenge to the Zionist regime on occupied Palestine lands.

  5. The Sunni Arabs have lost in Iraq and they will be totally destroyed. Their biggest mistake was to hitch their loyalties to ISIS – though I entirely accept that there is vengeance and deep seated hatred caused by Shiite atrocities after the fall of Saddam which are responsible for this. BUT, facts are facts.

    The Shiites and Kurds control 90 percent of the oil in Iraq – and whatever is left in the hands of the Sunni Arabs is slowly becoming unusable by the bombing of supply lines by the Russians who have created a serious amount of trouble for the export of this oil out of Iraq and Syria. It is clear now to any one willing to pay attention that the survival of ISIS is dependent on the Turks without which it will collapse. One additional risk for the Sunni Arabs now is that the various Sunni militias that are NOT ISIS will not be “encouraged” by various factions to make war on ISIS. This will end up pitting Sunni Arab against Sunni Arab and wreck whatever chance there may have been for the Sunni Arabs to have a sustainable state of their own in Syria and Iraq. Saddam was really their last best hope. And although he had his flaws, he seemed to have some intelligence in holding this mad crazy country together somehow.

    Now we have two viable factions in Iraq – the Kurds of the north and the Shia Arabs of the South (the latter have even started making some gains against ISIS). The latter will also become an Iranian satellite state and will control close to 100 billion barrels of crude oil reserves of the highest quality, which will be worth much more when oil prices rebound (which they will, rapidly).

    Bush invaded Iraq and Iran won the war. Life is funny like that.

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