Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Falih Hassan

 

Shiite Ritual Draws Historic Parallels: Bloody. And belittled

The blood oozing from the cuts in the top of Ali Rassoul’s head on Tuesday had crusted in streaks around his eyes and ears and soaked the front of his long, white gown.

But his wounds had nothing to do with the car bombs and urban battles that have torn Iraq apart:  they were his way of commemorating a much older battle: that of Karbala, where in the year 680, the army of  Omayyad Caliph Yazid slaughtered Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and cut off his head.

Baghdad- For many Iraqi Shiites who commemorated the death of Hussein on Tuesday in an event called Ashura, the current threat against their community from the extremists of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has profound historical parallels.

“This year Ashura is more important because of the threat against us from ISIS,” said Mr. Rassoul, who runs a woman’s shoe store and had a long dagger in a shiny scabbard hanging from his shoulder. “They have come to kill us, just like Yazid came to kill Hussein.”

Photo

Shiites in Baghdad bled Tuesday to commemorate the slaying of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in 680. Credit Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Mr. Rassoul spoke from a street in the Kadhimiya district of northwest Baghdad, in front of an ornate mosque that houses the tomb of a martyred Shiite leader.

While millions of Shiites across the world observe Ashura, Kadhimiya is one place where a minority pays homage to Hussein through the contentious practice of self-cutting called tatbir.

As the sun rose, hundreds of mostly young men gathered in a street here dressed in white robes.

While a few beat drums, the crowd chanted, “Haidar! Haidar!” invoking Hussein’s father, Ali. Some waved colored flags. Others carried long knives brought specifically for tatbir.

When the time came for the procession to start, Amer Matrouk, the leader of one group, drew his blade and the men, some of whom had shaved their heads, knelt before him so he could give them swift blows to their scalps, just enough to open the skin and start the bleeding.

“Not everyone knows how to do it,” said Mr. Matrouk, 63, who said he has been practicing tatbir since he was a child and had a row of straight scars on his scalp to show for it.

He rejected the idea that it could seriously hurt anyone.

“We have never had any accidents,” he said. “Sometimes there are those who are not very strong and they get dizzy from all the blood, but they are fine in the end.”

The practice of tatbir is debated among Shiites and many respected clerics have spoken against it.

Some argue that it is a form of self-harm, which is religiously forbidden.

Others have written it off as a folk practice, that may have seeped into Islam from Christian Passion plays about the crucifixion or from indigenous mourning rites that communities brought with them when they became Shiites.

Still others have argued that it makes Shiites look bad, which is reason enough to avoid it in a region where they are a minority and often looked on with suspicion by Sunnis.

These practices used to be limited and no one paid attention to them, but they have started to spread and defame the image of the event in a huge way,” said Abbas Shams al-Din, a Shiite cleric and writer during an interview in his book-lined Baghdad home. “If you search for pictures on Google and type ‘Ashura’ or ‘Shia Muslim,’ you won’t see anything but blood. It’s terrible!”

Ayatollah Khomeini went on record against tatbir, and it has become punishable by law in Iran, although some still do it in secret.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, too, has criticized it, and his movement has sought to channel the fervor in a more productive direction by holding Ashura blood drives. But other Shiite groups in Lebanon still do it.

And it persists in Iraq, where clerics who have spoken against it have faced popular criticism, Mr. Shams al-Din said.

“There are some who do not want to issue a fatwa because they know that people will do it anyway,” said Abbas Kadhim, a senior foreign policy fellow at Johns Hopkins University who has studied Shiite theology. “If you do this, you set them up to be sinners.”

But those arguments meant little to the hundreds of men marching in Kadhimiya, blood dripping from their heads, soaking their white robes and pooling in the street.

A woman who gave her name as Um Salah sat with two friends on the sidewalk, thumping her hand rhythmically on her chest as the procession passed.

“Yesterday, there were attacks and explosions, but we are still here,” she said, saying that the event showed the steadfastness of the community.

Two of her sons were serving in the Iraqi Army, she said. They never told her much about what they saw, other than calling to say they were fine and making progress “in the fight against the terrorists,” she said.

A short drive away at the Kadhimiya Blood Donation Center, an employee said that many people had come to donate.

“It can help the wounded person or the soldier,” the employee said, giving only his first name, Jassim.

But when a visitor observed that the clinic was deserted, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “People come.”

Others wish tatbir would go away.

“Why do they do it?” said Haidar Abu Yassir, a taxi driver, screwing up his face in disgust. “Did Hussein do that? No! He was cut into pieces!”

Mr. Abu Yasser said that he felt that donating was better than “letting all that blood drip off your head for nothing.”

But when asked if he knew anyone who had donated, he paused to consider the question.

“Nope,” he said. “They all want to do tatbir.”

 

ISIS Wave of Might Is Turning Into Ripple

Photo

A destroyed school in Qirnas, a village that Iraqi forces took back from the Islamic State. Credit Ali Mohammed/European Pressphoto Agency

BAGHDAD —

The international airstrike campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has clearly played a role in slowing the Sunni Muslim group’s advance.

Analysts say other factors are having a major effect, including unfavorable sectarian and political demographics, pushback from overrun communities, damage to the group’s financial base in Syria and slight improvements by ground forces in Iraq.

Across the territories the Islamic State holds, the group has overhauled its operations. Bases and hospitals have been evacuated and moved to civilian homes that are harder to identify and bomb, Iraqi officials said.

Fighters who used to cross the desert in convoys now move in small groups or by motorcycle.

Fallout From the Battle With ISIS for Kobani

A visual guide to the crisis in Iraq and Syria.

 

OPEN Graphic

“The airstrikes from the coalition have been very helpful, and now the ISIS fighters are confused and don’t know where to go,” said Maj. Gen. Hamad Namis al-Jibouri, the police chief of Salahuddin Province in Iraq, where a combination of government security forces and Shiite militias have been fighting the jihadists near the town of Baiji. “They have also raised the spirits of the groups on the ground that are fighting ISIS.”

Still, airstrikes alone cannot achieve President Obama’s goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, analysts say. And they have not been the only reason the group’s advance has seemed to slow.

One main factor in the shift has been demographics.

ISIS thrives in poor, Sunni Arab areas that have lost their connection to the central state. The Sunni-led uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria opened up such areas there. And the neglect of such areas in Iraq during the tenure of former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki made them an opportunity for the jihadists.

But after months of steady expansion, the Islamic State has taken most of these areas in Iraq while failing to seize areas with non-Sunni populations. And although it could still expand in Syria, the group also faces resistance from rival rebel groups there.

ISIS can only expand in areas where it can enter into partnerships with the local population, and that largely limits the scope of the expansion of ISIS to Sunni, disenfranchised areas,” said Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

It is in Iraq, where coalition forces began bombing in August, that the Islamic State has lost the most ground.

In recent weeks, combinations of Iraqi government units, Kurdish pesh merga forces, Shiite militias and armed Sunni tribesmen have seized the Rabia crossing with Syria; taken back the area of Zumar in the north and Jurf al-Sakr south of Baghdad; opened crucial roads in the country’s center; and held off Islamic State advances elsewhere.

For the first time since the jihadists seized Mosul and much of north-western Iraq in June, an Iraqi military vehicle can drive from Baghdad to the northern city of Erbil on a main highway.

Hisham Alhashimi, an Iraqi researcher and an expert on the Islamic State, said those changes had broken up the group’s territory, making it harder for it to move its forces and for its couriers to relay messages among the leadership and the field commanders.

And indications have emerged that Sunni populations in some areas it controls are trying to undermine it.

In Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, ground forces have cut the group’s supply lines and killed a number of its local leaders with the help of tips from angry residents, security officials there said, speaking on condition of anonymity under government protocols.

Others say the group’s own rhetoric has left it vulnerable.

What differentiates the Islamic State from Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is that it claims to have re-established the Islamic Caliphate, making its commander the spiritual leader of Muslims everywhere.

Very few Muslims abroad agree, and the group’s argument would further fall apart if its fighters went underground.

“So central to this group’s appeal is its ability to keep expanding,” said Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group. “But as soon as that stops, the whole narrative is less convincing.”

While the group appears to have lost no ground in Syria, the air campaign has forced it to leave its headquarters in former government buildings and lighten its patrols in the city of Raqqa. And strikes on oil wells and small refineries run by the Islamic State have undermined its economic base, making fuel prices rise.

Over the last week, Islamic State fighters have been struggling with government forces for control of natural gas fields in Homs Province, facilities that are unlikely to be bombed because they fuel electricity plants.

While airstrikes have weakened the Islamic State, its adaptations will make it even harder to fight without effective ground troops, Mr. Alhashimi said.

Its fighters now move in small groups, making them less vulnerable to air power. And instead of storming into towns with overwhelming force, the group has begun establishing sleeper cells in areas it wants to seize.

“It used to be that a force would come from the outside and attack a city,” Mr. Alhashimi said. “Now the forces rise up from inside the city and make it fall.”

It has certainly not been all setbacks for ISIS.

While the various Iraqi ground forces have generally grown more effective, they are still lacking in many parts of the country, including Anbar Province, a vast and predominantly Sunni Arab region that abuts the capital.

Last month, Islamic State seized the Anbar town of Hit and has since been killing members of the Albu Nimr tribe, which resisted its advance. The Iraqi human rights ministry said this week that more than 300 tribe members had been killed.

Because of Iraqi’s sectarian dynamics, most agree that the government cannot send Shiite forces to fight in Anbar. The result has been a delayed, anemic attempt to push back ISIS there.

“The executions continue, and the support is weak,” said Naim al-Gaood, an Albu Nimr leader who has spent recent weeks asking Iraqi officials for arms support while receiving nearly daily reports of new killings from home. “All we are asking for is supplies to protect people from getting killed and food to keep them from starving.”

The Islamic State faces even less resistance in Syria, where government forces and the rebels are exhausted from three and a half years of civil war. A covert program by the United States to arm select rebel groups has made little difference, and a Pentagon program to train 5,000 fighters a year is still in the planning stages.

In many areas dominated by the Islamic State, residents still cannot imagine a force that can push it out.

“There are a few guys who try to launch attacks on them or shoot at them, but there is no force that can really challenge their control,” said an activist reached through Skype in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour.


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October 2020
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