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A defunct history

Uneasy Alliance Gives Insurgents an Edge in Iraq

ERBIL, Iraq — Meeting with the American ambassador some years ago in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki detailed what he believed was the latest threat of a coup orchestrated by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

Don’t waste your time on this coup by the Baathists,” the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, chided him, dismissing his conspiracy theories as fantasy.

Now, though, with Iraq facing its gravest crisis in years, as Sunni insurgents have swept through northern and central Iraq, Mr. Maliki’s claims about Baathist plots have been at least partly vindicated.

While fighters for the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, once an offshoot of Al Qaeda, have taken on the most prominent role in the new insurgency, they have done so in alliance with a deeply rooted network of former loyalists to Saddam Hussein.

The involvement of the Baathists helps explain why just a few thousand Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters, many of them fresh off the battlefields of Syria, have been able to capture so much territory so quickly.

It sheds light on the complexity of the forces aligned against Baghdad in the conflict — not just the foreign-influenced group known as ISIS, but many homegrown groups, too.

And with the Baathists’ deep social and cultural ties to many areas now under insurgent control, it stands as a warning of how hard it might be for the government to regain territory and restore order.

Photo

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri Credit Karim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Many of the former regime loyalists, including intelligence officers and Republican Guard soldiers — commonly referred to as the “deep state” in the Arab world — belong to a group called the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order, often referred to as J.R.T.N., the initials of its Arabic name.

The group announced its establishment in 2007, not long after the execution of Mr. Hussein, and its putative leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was one of Mr. Hussein’s most trusted deputies and the highest-ranking figure of the old regime who avoided capture by the Americans.

Referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s fighters, Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has researched the Naqshbandia group, said, “They couldn’t have seized a fraction of what they did without coordinated alliances with other Sunni groups.”

In some areas under militant control, including areas around Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit, he said, “there are definitely pockets where the Naqshbandias are wearing the pants.”

Graphic: In Iraq Crisis, a Tangle of Alliances and Enmities

Mr. Douri, the king of clubs in  decks of cards given to American forces in 2003 to identify the most-wanted regime leaders, is a mysterious figure, so furtive he was even declared dead in 2005.

It is believed that he is still alive today — he would be in his early 70s — although even that is uncertain.

After the American invasion he was said to have fled to Syria, where he reportedly worked with Syrian intelligence to restore the Baath Party within Iraq and led an insurgency from there that mainly targeted American interests.

“He’s a great totem of the old regime,” Mr. Knights said. “You need that kind of individual to keep the flame going.”

The role the Baathists are playing in the current uprising justifies not only Mr. Maliki’s suspicions, but also the longstanding concerns of American intelligence officers.

As American forces were winding down operations in Iraq, they frequently predicted that the Baathists were well positioned to exploit Sunni grievances and mount a violent challenge to the government.

Iraq’s Factions and Their Goals

The goals of of the three main groups in Iraq — Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish — as the country threatens to split apart along sectarian lines.

Analysts say the former regime figures, whose group combines strands of Islamic thought with notions of Arab nationalism typical of Baath ideology, are bedfellows with the Islamist extremists in one respect: Both sides are determined to restore Sunni rule to Iraq and rid the country of what they see as the pernicious influence of Iran, which like Iraq has a Shiite majority.

Like the extremists, the former regime figures have won sympathy from ordinary Sunnis who are alienated by Mr. Maliki’s sectarian policies.

“Our problem is with Maliki, and we will take him down and anyone that stands next to him,” said Abu Abid al-Rahman, a Naqshbandia leader in northern Iraq, in an interview.

He added: “We want to control the land all the way to Baghdad to take down Maliki’s government and to end the Iranian influence in Iraq. What is happening in Iraq today is a result of Maliki’s sectarian policy in Iraq.”

The Iraq-ISIS Conflict in Maps, Photos and Video

Since seizing Mosul on June 10, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been attacking towns along the main highway heading south, coming closer and closer to the capital. Related Maps and Multimedia » Related article »

Key Towns attacked Bomb attacks

Miles from

Central Baghdad

Several clashes occurred at the outskirts of Samarra, where Shiite militiamen have been sent to protect the Al-Askari Shrine.

The Iraqi army retook control of Ishaqi and Muqdadiya on June 14. In Muqdadiya, a Shiite militia assisted the government forces.

Militants took control of several neighborhoods in Baquba on June 16 but were repulsed by security officers after a three-hour gun battle. Later, 44 Sunni prisoners were killed in a government-controlled police station.

At least five bomb attacks occurred in Baghdad, mainly in Shiite areas, in the week after the rebel group took Mosul. The bodies of four young men were found shot on June 17 in a neighborhood controlled by Shiite militiamen.

Falluja and many towns in the western province of Anbar have been under ISIS control for about six months.

Having occupied crucial sections of Syria over the past year and more recently seizing vast areas of Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria controls territory greater than many countries and now rivals Al Qaeda as the world’s most powerful jihadist group. Related Maps and Multimedia » Related article »

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Sunni militant group that last week staged a stunning operation to seize Iraq’s second largest city, has been fueling sectarian violence in the region for years. Related Maps and Multimedia » Related article »

Sources: Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (attack data); Congressional Research Service; Council on Foreign Relations; Long War Journal; Institute for the Study of War

Note: Before 2011, less information was available on who was responsible for attacks, so the number of ISIS attacks from 2004 to 2010 may be under-counted.

Sources: Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (attack data); Congressional Research Service; Council on Foreign Relations; Long War Journal; Institute for the Study of War

 After sweeping across the porous border from Syria to overrun Mosul, insurgents aligned with the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continued to press south down the main north-south highway toward Baghdad. Related Maps and Multimedia » Related article »

 The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has vowed to establish a caliphate — a unified Islamic government ruled by a caliph, someone considered to be a successor to Muhammad’s political authority — stretching from western Syria across Iraq to the eastern border with Iran. This map shows the boundaries envisioned by the ISIS.
Related Maps and Multimedia »Many of the Iraqi cities that have been attacked and occupied by militants in recent days were also the sites of battles and other major events during the Iraq War. Related Maps and Multimedia »
Then: American forces took control of Mosul in April 2003. What followed was a period of relative peace until mid-2004 when periodic insurgent attacks flared, resulting in a large-scale battle in November. The death toll reached dozens, including a number of Iraqi soldiers who were publicly beheaded.Related Article »
Now: In perhaps the most stunning recent development, Sunni militants drove Iraqi military forces out of Mosul on June 10, forcing a half-million residents to flee the city. Iraqi soldiers reportedly dropped their weapons and donned civilian clothing to escape ISIS insurgents.
MosulMoises Saman for The New York Times
Then: Falluja played a pivotal role in the American invasion of Iraq. It was the site of a number of large-scale battles with insurgents. In April 2003, it became a hot bed for controversy when American soldiers opened fire on civilians after claiming they had been shot at.
Incessant fighting left the city decimated, leveling a majority of its infrastructure and leaving about half its original population. Related Article »
Now: Sunni militants seized Falluja’s primary municipal buildings on Jan. 3. The takeover came as an early and significant victory for the group, initiating a slew of attacks south of the city.
FallujaMax Becherer for The New York Times

Tikrit

Tikrit Iraq
Then: The home of Saddam Hussein, Tikrit became the target of an early American military operation during the Iraq war. Securing it proved cumbersome, however, as insurgents mounted continued attacks on the city for years afterward.
On Dec. 14, 2003, Hussein was found hiding in an eight-foot deep hole, just south of Tikrit. Related Article »
Now: Tikrit fell to ISIS insurgents on June 11, clearing a path for them to march on to Baiji, home to one of Iraq’s foremost oil-refining operations. After taking the city in less than a day, militants continued the fight just south, in Samarra.
TikritChang W. Lee/The New York Times

Samarra

Samarra Iraq
Then: Samarra is home to the Askariya shrine, which was bombed in 2006, prompting an extended period of sectarian violence across the country. Related Article »
Now: After an initial attack on June 5, ISIS insurgents have now positioned themselves just miles away from Samarra. It is unclear whether they are capable of capturing the city in the coming days, but the Shiite shrine makes it a volatile target.
SamarraAyman Oghanna for The New York Times

A look at the goals of of the three main groups in Iraq — Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish — as the country threatens to split apart along sectarian lines. Related Maps and Multimedia »

 The insurgents, originating in Syria, moved through Iraq’s Sunni-dominated north and west, occupying cities and towns surrendered by Iraqi soldiers and police. They have largely avoided the Kurd-dominated northeast, but have threatened to march on to Baghdad and into the Shiite-dominated areas of the south.
Related Maps and Multimedia »The United Nations estimates that at least 500,000 Iraqis were displaced by the takeover of Mosul. Food supplies are low and there is limited fresh water and little electricity. An additional 430,000 people were displaced by fighting In Anbar Province, which insurgents have controlled for more than six months. Related Maps and Multimedia »

Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
An Iraqi family, one of thousands who have fled Mosul for the autonomous Kurdish region, walks past tents at a temporary camp.

Background on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Islamist group that appears to be in control of the second largest city in Iraq. Related Maps and Multimedia »

Rekan al-Kurwi, a tribal leader in Diyala Province, where both groups have been operating, said: “ISIS are extremists and strangers. The Naqshbandias are not strangers. We know most of them. In some areas that ISIS has taken they are killing our people, they are imposing their Islamic laws on us. We do not want that, and the Naqshbandias are not doing this. They have a good strategy in cooperating with the people.”

Last year, Iraq experienced a mini-version of the Sunni uprising it faces today. In that case, the Naqshbandias seemed to be in the lead, directing groups of fighters who briefly seized some territories after Iraqi security forces opened fire on a Sunni protest camp in Hawija, a village near Kirkuk that is a Naqshbandia stronghold, killing dozens.

In many ways that fight, after the Hawija raid, presaged what is happening now. It galvanized Sunni opposition to the government, which is being exploited by the alliance between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group and the Baathists, who are positioning themselves as secular guardians of Sunni Arab nationalism.

Continue reading the main story 237Comments

While they may be allies today in the interest of fighting a common enemy — the Shiite-dominated government of Mr. Maliki — the two sides are unlikely to coexist if they should attain power in some areas. The Baathists, being more secular and more nationalist, have no interest in living under the harsh Islamic law that ISIS has already started to put in place in Mosul.

“We are fighting now with ISIS, but we are protecting Iraq from their religious ideas,” said Abu Tulayha al-Obaidi, a Naqshbandia fighter in northern Iraq, who said the group gets most of its weapons from smugglers coming from Syria, Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish region in the north. “We will not kill innocent people, or soldiers who put down their weapons. We are like the new brain of ISIS.”

Already, there have been reports that the two sides have skirmished inside Mosul, but the Naqshbandias denied that. Mr. Knights said: “For the moment they need each other. But they are going to fight each other eventually.”

Sources: Institute for the Study of War; Long War Journal

Arab secularism? In what forms and shapes? Its demise?

The end of Christianity in the Middle East could mean the demise of Arab secularism

In this current Middle East rebuilt on intolerant ideologies, there is likely to be little place for beleaguered minorities

The past decade has been catastrophic for the Arab world’s beleaguered 12 million strong Christian minority.

In Egypt revolution and counter-revolution have been accompanied by a series of anti-Copt riots, killings and church burnings.

In Gaza and the West Bank Palestinian Christians are emigrating en masse as they find themselves uncomfortably caught between Netanyahu’s pro-settler government and their increasingly radicalised Sunni neighbours.

In Syria most of the violence is along the Sunni-Alawite fault line, but stories of rape and murder directed at the Christian minority, who used to make up around 10% of the population, have emerged. Many have already fled to camps in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan; the ancient Armenian community of Aleppo is reported to be moving en masse to Yerevan.

arab christian retreat

An Iraqi security officer guards the Church of the Virgin Mary in the northern town of Bartala, near Mosul, in 2012. Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

The worst affected areas of Syria are of course those controlled by Isis. Last weekend it issued a decree offering the dwindling Christian population of eastern Syria and northern Iraq a choice: convert to Islam or pay a special religious levy – the jizya. (It is business as usual for hard cash to replenish the treasury)

If they did not comply, “there is nothing to give them but the sword”. The passing of the deadline led to possibly the largest exodus of Middle Eastern Christians since the Armenian massacres during the first world war, with the entire Christian community of Mosul heading off towards Kirkuk and the relative religious tolerance of the Kurdish zone.

Even before this latest exodus, at least two-thirds of Iraqi Christians had fled since the fall of Saddam.

Christians were concentrated in Mosul, Basra and, especially, Baghdad – which before the US invasion had the largest Christian population in the Middle East.

Although Iraq’s 750,000 Christians made up only 7% of the pre-war population, they were a prosperous minority under the Ba’athists, as symbolised by the high profile of Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s foreign minister, who used to disarm visiting foreign dignitaries by breaking into Onward, Christian Soldiers in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

According to tradition it was St Thomas and his cousin Addai who brought Christianity to Iraq in the first century.

At the Council of Nicea, where the Christian creed was thrashed out in AD325, there were more bishops from Mesopotamia than western Europe.

The region (East of the Euphrates, under Persian Empire) became a refuge for those persecuted by the Orthodox Byzantines, such as the Mandeans – the last Gnostics, who follow what they believe to be the teachings of John the Baptist.

Then there was the Church of the East, which brought the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, as well as Greek science and medicine, to the Islamic world – and hence, via Cordoba, to the new universities of medieval Europe.

Now almost everywhere Arab Christians are leaving.

In the past decade maybe a quarter have made new lives in Europe, Australia and America.

According to Professor Kamal Salibi, they are simply exhausted: “There is a feeling of fin de race among Christians all over the Middle East. Now they just want to go somewhere else, make some money and relax.

Each time a Christian goes, no other Christian comes to fill his place and that is a very bad thing for the Arab world. It is Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world ‘Arab’ rather than ‘Muslim’.” (It is them who translated the Greek, Byzantium and Syriac scientific and philosophical books into Arabic)

Certainly since the 19th century Christian Arabs have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity.

It is no coincidence that most of the founders of secular Arab nationalism were men like Michel Aflaq – the Greek Orthodox Christian from Damascus who, with other Syrian students freshly returned from the Sorbonne, founded the Ba’ath party in the 1940s – or Faris al-Khoury, Syria’s only Christian prime minister.

Then there were intellectuals like the Palestinian George Habash, and George Antonius, who in 1938 wrote in The Arab Awakening of the crucial role Christians played in reviving Arab literature and the arts after their long slumber under Ottoman rule.

(And don’t forget, Lebanon Antoun Saadeh, who founded the secular Syria National Social Party and was executed without trial from claiming that oil must be used as strategic weapon in 1947, against Zionist expansionism in Palestine)

If the Islamic state proclaimed by Isis turns into a permanent, Christian-free zone, it could signal the demise not just of an important part of the Arab Christian realm but also of the secular Arab nationalism Christians helped create.

The 20th century after 1918, which saw the creation of the different Arab national states, may well prove to be a blip in Middle Eastern history, as the old primary identifiers of Arab identity, religion and qabila – tribe – resurface. (The Nationalist Turks started the genocide against the Christian sects and Armenians in 1915)

It is as if, after a century of flirting with imported ideas of the secular nation state, the region is reverting to the Ottoman Millet system (from the Arabic millah, literally “nation”), which represented a view of the world that made religion the ultimate marker of identity, and classified Ottoman subjects by their various sectarian religious “nations”.

Despite sizeable Christian populations holding on in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, there is likely to be little place for Christian Arabs in a Middle East rebuilt on intolerant ideologies like those of Isis.

Their future is more likely to resemble that of the most influential Christian Arab intellectual of our day, Edward Said. Born in Jerusalem at the height of Arab nationalism in 1935, Said died far from the turmoil of the Middle East in New York in 2003. His last collection of essays was appropriately entitled Reflections On Exile.

Note: The demise of the Christians would become final if they are Not quickly incorporated in the political system and institutions in the Arab World. Only a solid political quota for the Christians can encourage the Christians to remain and return home

• The headline of this article was amended on 24 July 2014.


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