photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, September 2, 2016

Banning burqinis means a ban on emancipation

The mayor of Cannes has banned so called burqinis from his beaches because he connects them to terrorism, in the same week the female Egyptian beach volleyball team in Rio was criticized for wearing body suits instead of bikinis.

With the fight against ISIS and its radical strain of Islam leading to attacks everywhere in the world, not only the burqa that completely covers women is under fire, but also clothes Muslim women put on to dress modestly during sports and leisure-time.

Long before ISIS started to impose first the face covering niqaab and then the completely covering burqa on women, tradition just as much as Islam made women dress modestly.

Often it was the combination of habits, the pressure of social control and a conservative society that made women cover up, although not as completely as ISIS made obligatory.

Recently, I was in an open air swimming pool at a hotel in the Kurdish capital Erbil, watching two women getting into the water dressed in pants and top, although their hair was uncovered.
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European Friendship Group steps in to help Yezidis in and outside Iraq

Several European parliamentarians have formed a special Yezidi Friendship Group to help attract more attention for the community’s plight, says Yezidi activist Mirza Dinnayi, an adviser to the group.

From the Kurdistan Region, Dinnayi works with five parliamentarians from different European countries and parties to improve the situation of Yezidis inside Iraq as well as those who are stuck in Greece on their flight to Europe.

One of the most urgent issues they try to address is the situation of thousands of Yezidi refugees in Greece, Dinnayi says. “They live in a bad situation, are discriminated against, even within the camps, and some of the Arabs who are with Daesh threatened them.” Deash is the local name for the Islamic State (ISIS).

About 470 Yezidi refugees have found refuge in Idomeni camp in Greece. Dinnayi visited the camp with some members of the Friendship Group last month. One of them, Portuguese Anna Gomez, lobbied to have these refugees accepted in her country for resettlement.

But the plan got stuck in Greek bureaucracy, Dinnayi says. “Greece wants to register all the refugees first. That will take until next year. Only when we asked to make an exception, they eventually promised to do it within the next weeks.”
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Sunday, August 28, 2016

What’s the future of Iraq with so many traumatized but untreated victims?

The barbarism of the Islamic group ISIS has made many victims. Directly and indirectly it has damaged entire communities and even a whole nation.

August is the time to remember that two years ago ISIS took Yezidi and Christian areas in Iraq, killing, kidnapping, looting and forcing people from their homes.

Since then, many thousands of members of these communities have been living in tents and caravans all over the Kurdistan Region. Only the lucky ones were able to find more proper housing.

Many of them did not only lose their homes and land, but their family members too, as the group killed probably thousands during its rampage in the Shingal region. Some of them witnessed the killing of their family members.

We focus on the victims when we report on these tragedies. The women and girls who returned from their ordeal, the kids being able to escape a future as ISIS fighters, the men killed. Or, the other scenario: the women still with ISIS and suffering every day, and their kids being indoctrinated to kill their own.

But we hardly talk about the family members; those still waiting for relatives that are most probably dead, or who might never be able to escape from ISIS territories.
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New market outside Erbil connects locals, refugees and IDPs

They stand proudly next to each other behind their stalls in the brand new Daratu Market place, one selling vegetables, the other cleaning materials. Soon the purple ribbon will be cut to officially open this covered market with its sixty places, and these two men have been working since early morning to fill their stalls for their first day of work.

Simmo Hussein Bero, 60, fled from the Yezidi region of Shingal (Sinjar) when the Islamic State (ISIS) invaded it two years ago. He was a vegetables seller there, too, and he thinks his clients will be mainly people from his own community who now live in the nearby Qushtapa camp.

Atta Mohammed, 36, is from Daratu itself, a small town on the outskirts of the Kurdistan capital Erbil, and he used to drive around town selling goods and household items in his van.

Hussein hopes to earn enough to finally move his wife and child from the camp to a rented home. He is already saving gas money not having to drive his van around town anymore.
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Dutch PM in Erbil: Our battle against ISIS further improves Kurdistan’s stability

“Together we fight ISIS”, was the motto of a short visit by the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to the Kurdish capital of Erbil on Tuesday. Rutte met his Kurdish counterpart Nechirvan Barzani for three quarters of an hour at the Erbil International Airport.

The Dutch Airforce flew Rutte mainly to Iraq to show his support to the Dutch military that is training Iraqi Special Forces in Baghdad and Peshmerga troops in the Kurdistan Region.

Following his meeting with his Kurdish hosts at the airport, Rutte told dozens of members of the Dutch force that he was there “to stress how crucial your task is. We have an enemy that we need to defeat, and this is a fight of the whole world against ISIS, not only of Iraq and Syria.”

He said he was impressed by the difference he saw between Baghdad and Erbil – even though he did not leave the airport during his two hour’s visit.

“Kurdistan is much more stable than a couple of years ago, and our battle against ISIS helps to improve the stability even further.”

His talks with Prime Minister Barzani are seen as “a strong message of support from the Netherlands,” said the Kurdish minister of foreign affairs Falah Mustafa to Rudaw.
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Too difficult and expensive: Rescuing Yezidi women from ISIS almost impossible

Two years after militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) kidnapped over 6,000 Yezidis from their towns and villages in the Shingal region, the chance to get them back is diminishing fast, says Yezidi activist and medical doctor Mirza Dinnayi. In the past two years around 3,000 people were rescued from the extremist group, but recently the number has declined. Some of the captives are so damaged and indoctrinated that they no longer think escape is possible, while rescuing missions in general have become too difficult and too expensive for many families to afford. Dinnayi who has helped many Yezidi victims reach Germany for treatment, says that as it becomes almost impossible to rescue more captives, his focus is on getting former ISIS victims, especially women and young girls out of refugee camps to Europe where they could recover and start a normal life again.

Rudaw: How many people are still captive in ISIS (Daesh) territories? Both 3,200 and 3,700 figures have been mentioned?

The correct figure is about 3,700 and the difference between the figures is the men, the rest are women and children.

What should be done to get them out?

I am afraid it is too late. I think most of the men could be dead. When in April 2015 we had the option to rescue 3,500 of them from Talafar, neither the Iraqis, Kurdish nor the allied forces did anything even though they knew their situation there. There was a possibility to make a quick attack because the distance with the Peshmerga troops was no more than ten kilometers. You could release them within days. I do not know why they did not do anything. ISIS, after this, divided all the people. We do not know what happened to the 500 men since then. There were some reports that they were killed. And ISIS separated the women from the children and distributed the women all over their territories. Now it is very difficult to get them back.
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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Keeping terrorist faces out of the papers does not prevent new attacks

The French paper Le Monde has decided to stop publishing pictures of terrorists so as to deprive them of a hero status. The idea being, terrorists gloat on getting exposure and to be known as martyrs after their departure to paradise.

Other French papers are considering whether to follow the example, and elsewhere in the West the discussion has started on the subject too.

At the same time, people have for some time been warning each other not to share videos of the Islamic group ISIS on Twitter and Facebook, especially those of executions and of foreigners in the group's captivity.

This is to make sure the exposure is limited, and propaganda will not reach those who might be vulnerable to the message of radical Islamic groups like ISIS.

The question is whether it works that way. Can you really limit the exposure, when a group like ISIS and others too have an active PR policy?
Read on...

Departing British Consul: Kurdistan matters to Britain

The Kurdish economy will recover, partly with the help of Britain, says Angus McKee, who after two years as the British Consul General in Kurdistan has left for London. Just as the security of the Kurdistan Region matters for the security of Great Britain, so does its prosperity to the economic wellbeing, he believes. The collective interest of defeating ISIS, says McKee, has widened and deepened the relationship between Britain and Kurdistan Region. Looking back at his time in the Kurdish capital Erbil, he praises the developments of the past decade.

How do you look at your time in Kurdistan?

Angus McKee: I arrived in June 2014, at a difficult time, as Daesh (the Islamic State- ISIS) had just captured Mosul, and was threatening the Nineveh Plain and the Kurdistan Region. A time of conflict and atrocities. Daesh is still a threat, but my time here has been defined by the counter attack. We’ve seen the Peshmerga, the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces pushing Daesh back. Daesh is a failing state, as it is losing territory. It is a terrorist threat whether you are in the streets of Baghdad, Erbil or London. We have a collective interest of defeating it. As a result of this, the relationship between Britain and Kurdistan Region has widened and deepened.
So you must have seen security measures being strengthened here too?

I was with Erbil governor Nawzad Hadi, who’s a good friend, remembering the attack on Ainkawa in April 2014. It’s to the credit of the security authorities across the Kurdistan Region that they have been largely successful in counterterrorism operations.

What are the main changes you saw during your time here?

History proves that resettling others in Kurdish land will not work

It is a policy used by dictators over the centuries: settling outsiders in areas where one ethnic group has a clear majority.

The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein did it, and so did his neighbour Hafez al-Assad in Syria. And now the Turkish president Erdogan has decided to use the tool. And all employed it against their Kurdish minorities.

During his rule, Saddam offered Arabs from the south of Iraq all kinds of incentives to move to the disputed oil city of Kirkuk that the Kurds consider as their Jerusalem.

The prospect of a good job, with a good salary and a house attracted many, while at the same time Kurds were evicted from the city.

Assad also was able to send thousands from his Arab population to the Kurdish region, like Saddam did next door, in order to further marginalize the Kurds through Arabization.
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Banning the magic wand is not enough, heads must roll

Finally, the device that caused thousands of deaths in Iraq has been banned from the streets.

As Prime Minister Haider Abadi finally bans the device that Iraqi guards were using at checkpoints and was supposed to detect explosives, it will end up where it should have been long before: in the garbage.

The tragedy is that all of Iraq has known for years that the device, the ADE-651, which is shorthand for Advanced Detection Equipment, and that is internationally and cynically known as the ‘magic wand’, does not work.

British businessman James McCormick was convicted in Britain for fraud last year, after he sold for as much as $85 million of the devices to Iraq, receiving around $8,000 per piece, and now is serving a ten-year jail service.

Yet in 1996 the American security agency FBI had already ruled that the empty box with a short antenna was fake, and after a British Home Office scientist tested it in 2001, he issued a strong warning against its use.

But to no avail, as the BBC recently uncovered, that for years the device has been sold by different fraudsters for different purposes – to find golf balls, to find drugs, to detect explosives, and most recently even to detect HIV and hepatitis – and all are equally bogus. 
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Resilience in the face of adversity: Hardship brings out the strength of the Yezidi community

Through the ages the Kurds have been subject to attacks time and again. The Yezidi history counts over seventy attacks, some of them clear cases of genocides. The Kurds in general were the victim of dictatorships, persecution and genocide.

And through the times, often the victims of these atrocities, who survived, came out stronger. However terrible the suffering or the crimes committed, people have the talent to survive by holding on to the stick held out to them not to drown.

That goes in particular for the Yezidis and the Kurds. When their land was split over four nations, they put up a fight not to be crushed completely. When Arab regimes tried to Arabize them, their identity only became stronger.

The former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein tried to beat the resistance out of the Kurds, by gassing the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 which killed more than 5,000 people. And by destroying thousands of Kurdish villages and killing 180,000 in the Anfal campaign, he tried to destroy their urge for autonomy and independence.

Yet the opposite happened. The Kurds rose against Saddam when he was weak in 1991, and were able to turn the tables and get their autonomy.
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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Two years on: How does Mosul resist its ISIS occupiers?

Two years after militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) captured Iraq’s second largest city, most people in Mosul are still waiting to be freed from the rule of the extremist group. People who are in touch with relatives in the city testify to this reality.

One piece of news reaching outside tells of peaceful resistance by civilians in Mosul. Even though all resistance is punishable by death, people have found ways to show their anger.

They paint on walls the letter ‘M’ the short for Muqawama, or resistance in Arabic. They also write the letter on pieces of paper and photograph it in parts of the city before posting it on social media.

The letter also gets sprayed on houses where ISIS fighters or leaders live, who often flee once they discover it, fearing it might means they are going to be targeted by coalition air strikes.

Possibly the most striking act of resistance is when civilians spray on public walls words such as ‘your days are numbered’ or ‘leave us alone’.
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Tikrit University brings life back to Saddam’s hometown

The re-opening of the University of Tikrit in December 2015 was the main reason many civilians decided to return home before there was even a council to handle the city’s daily administration, says Waad Raoof, the university’s president.

“Some 20,000 families came back with the students, and even at a time that Tikrit did not yet have a working council,” said Raoof.

The university campus was badly damaged in the fight for the city’s liberation from the Islamic State (ISIS) in April 2015.

ISIS briefly occupied the campus and when the Iraqi army recaptured months later and turned it into a base, the radical group made the place the target of its daily attacks.

Not much of the ruin is visible now, though some buildings are still partly destroyed and others show bullet holes and bomb scars. Most have been reconstructed, repaired, cleaned and painted.
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Take religion off Identity Cards: leave a blank

Years ago, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the Netherlands very proudly showed me one of the changes he had made during his term: the application form for a visa for the small Gulf state no longer asked to state your religion.

I hardly realised then how extra-ordinary his move was, as I was so used to our European passports not disclosing a person’s believes, as a result of the separation between state and religion.

Since then, I have filled in many application forms for visa in the Middle East that did ask for that information. And when I went to live in the Kurdistan Region, it also was a question I got asked by officials filling in my registration papers that led to my residency permit.

In a predominantly Muslim country it’s not an option to say you do not have a religion. If you are not Muslim, then you must by Christian, is the automatic assumption for a Westerner.
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In Baghdad it’s not all the smoke of bombs, drifting is catching on, too

It’s five o’clock on a Friday afternoon in the Baghdad area of Zeyouna, and it’s racing time. In a city that sees almost daily bombings, weekly rallies of fast cars still attract crowds of mostly young men.

“We love cars,” says one of them, hanging about with drivers of BMWs, Challengers, Infinitis and even Mustangs, all showing the capabilities of their cars.

The smoke rises high into the sky behind the mosque where the rodeo-ground is situated and the smell of burned rubber is thick in the air. Tires shriek and smoke, while engines roar and bits of rubber fly around, when drivers drift their cars on their pumped-up front tires.

With the black humour that Baghdadis are known for, they call this ‘executions’, and the cars used are mainly fast ones that have been adapted for the races but are also still driven around the town.

And there, they attract much attention as some drivers like it to be known by revving their engines and making smoky turns and stops, that once a week they are real racing car drivers.
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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Life goes on in Baghdad mindless of government and bombing threats

The world hardly notices it anymore, but daily bombs still explode in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Only when the number of casualties is high the attack gets mentioned; like the three explosions that recently caused over a hundred deaths in different parts of the city.

Not only has the international media gotten used to the violence in Iraq, Iraqis themselves too leave their homes daily and go about their business, almost as if they want to block out the reality of the dangers that engulf them.

While in Europe every bomb attack shakes a whole nation, and even those around it, leading to people making monuments with flowers and toys for the victims, in Baghdad traders and civilians go back to the targeted market as soon as the blood is washed away.

In Europe the media give the victims names and faces, while in Baghdad only the exceptional ones get some attention. Even though they are labelled as martyrs, and should therefore be revered, most are soon forgotten in the news of the next attack.

When I was in Baghdad recently people complained about this, as they expected the government not only to do more to remember their beloved ones, but also to prevent the attacks.
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What’s a sofa, compared to the real damage done?

Pictures of people looking worriedly at sofas have been going viral on the Internet in Iraq. A man looking at an orange three-seater, a girl at a brown canapĂ© – all poking fun at the pictures that Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi posted after demonstrators stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad.

About 100,000 people breached the walls around Baghdad’s most secured area which houses the national parliament, Prime Minister Abadi’s office, foreign embassies, the homes of high officials and some hotels.

The protesters demanded that the parliament would finally make the change possible they had been calling to combat corruption and nepotism, and approve a cabinet of technocrats.

But members of parliament were not in favour of the change, as it would decrease the power of the parties and the flow of money into their pockets.
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Holocaust remembered in Kurdistan for the first time

In a historic ceremony in the Kurdistan capital Erbil, Kurds with Jewish roots together with Kurdish officials and foreign dignitaries remembered for the first time in the Kurdistan Region the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

The first Jewish Remembrance Day for Victims of the Holocaust in Kurdistan was organised by the Jewish representative in the Kurdistan Ministry of Religion, Sherzad Mamsani, who also led the ceremony.

The event ended with the lighting of six candles, one for every million Jews killed by the Nazi regime in the 30s and 40s of the last century. A minute of silence was also observed.
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Dutch MPs visiting Kurdistan assess Netherlands’ part in ISIS war

A Dutch parliamentary delegation visited Erbil, the Kurdish capital this week where they saw the Netherland’s contribution to the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) through helping the Peshmerga forces and whether to decide later this year to extend the mission.

“It is great to see how Dutch military are contributing directly to the fight of the Peshmerga against ISIS,” said Social Democrat parliamentarian Michiel Servaes. “We know that explosives cause most of the victims, so it’s great that in this way you can literally save lives.”

The Netherlands has trained Peshmerga troops and supplied equipment such as radios, bomb disposal equipment, helmets and vests.

Currently Dutch military trainers are training a group of female Kurdish combatants who impressed the MPs on their visit.

Part of the training includes first aid administration. “Again we contribute to save lives, as we hear that too many die for lack of knowledge how to treat the wounded,” Servaes said.
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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Kurds in the cyber warfare against ISIS

A friend sends you the link to a National Geographic video about the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), but when you try to watch it, you find it has been removed from YouTube.

You post a picture about Kurdish fighters who battle ISIS in Syria on Facebook, and find it gets removed. The same can happen on Twitter.

That is the fallout of the ISIS war that is not only fought on the battlefield, but also on the Internet. Because of the endless stream of propaganda ISIS is posting and its use of social media both as a recruitment tool and for communication between its members, social media companies are blocking ISIS content and accounts.

For that reason, ISIS sympathisers are hard to follow on Twitter, as their accounts get closed constantly, and ISIS movies are now mainly found through organisations following the group for research purposes and posting them on their own sites, away from the blocking policies of YouTube and others.
Read more here

Lack of Kurdish unity endangers future disputed territories

Unity between the Kurdish parties is essential for the future of the disputed areas, says Nasreddin Saeed, the minister heading the General Board for Kurdistani Areas Outside the Kurdistan Region. These are generally known as the disputed areas that both the Kurds and Baghdad claim.

Saeed warns that Sinjar, the disputed Iraqi province that was for the most part liberated from the Islamic group ISIS in December, could fall apart.

Sinjar (or Shingal) was until the occupation by ISIS in August 2014 administrated mainly by Baghdad. Here ISIS murdered almost 2,000 members of the Yezidi population and kidnapped over 6,000 when it overran the area.

After the liberation, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has put in its own local government and police, but forces that were involved in the liberation have not yet left. Amongst them are not only Peshmerga troops of the main Iraqi Kurdish parties KDP and PUK, but also fighters of the Turkish Kurdish PKK and some Yezidi militias.

Saeed sees this as a major obstacle why Yezidis are hardly returning home to Sinjar – whilst in a comparable situation in Ramadi inhabitants have -- stressing that “after liberating the place, the forces should go and leave it to the people. Because of them, people are afraid of a new conflict.”
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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Don’t make refugees completely dependent on aid

“Many people here don’t even have money to buy bread,” the manager of the camp at the outskirts of Ainkawa, the Christian neighbourhood of Erbil, told me, as some inhabitants forced themselves into his office to see who had come to visit and what she had brought for them.

The camp with its caravans holds Christians who fled for ISIS from Mosul and the Christian towns and villages near to it, many of whom have been stuck here for over eighteen months waiting to be able to return.

In the beginning their camp was one of the best supplied in the region, as NGO’s and a local church were happy to look after the inhabitants and brought them what they needed.

But when I visited the camp recently, most of that was past. The former NGO darlings no longer had anyone regularly supplying them, apart from the food aid offered by the UN-organisation UNHCR, next to a bit of money collected during church service. 
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Nineveh ready to build peace, activists tell Duhok Forum

The time of talking is past, was the message from a forum held in Duhok, with participants complaining that all conferences held since 2003 on reconciliation did not prevent the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).

“We have to do it together, and we have to do it ourselves,” was the mood at the International Forum on Recovery, Stabilization and Peace in Nineveh, that brought together activists, scholars, politicians and students at the recently opened American University of Duhok.

“Why do we need international organisations to build peace? We have to put words into actions,” as one of the participants, a young Sunni woman from Mosul, said.
Read on here

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Cutting Iraq’s excessive fat is not enough

Iraq is like a fat man who desperately needs to lose weight - was the image the Iraqi minister of Oil, Adil Abdulmahdi painted during the recent Sulaimani Forum of the American University (AUIS).

It was an image that stuck, in relation to what the economic world calls the Dutch disease, or how a country that earns big on oil, neglects to work on incentives to build a strong private sector. A disease that has brought Iraq into serious problems when the oil prices went down to an all-time low.

The fat is made up by the 7 million employees of the Iraqi state, gone up from a mere 850,000 in 2004, said the Iraqi minister. “Fat people have less energy and more health problems. If we do not get rid of this fat, we will go down a bad road.”

He was calling for major reforms, repeating what has been said by many: that now is the correct moment to do so. Meaning that if the painful task of cutting government jobs is not conducted at a time that the state is suffering from budget deficits, it will never happen once the oil price goes up again and the need for reform becomes less pressing. Read more here

Sulaimani Forum unites leaders on ISIS threat -- but not its causes

At the Sulaimani Forum when US columnist Thomas Friedman made a comparison between the Islamic State (ISIS) and presidential candidate Donald Trump – to illustrate how propaganda can successfully energize large crowds -- he connected two main subjects that had been engaging many of guests and participants at the annual meeting in the Kurdish city.

“They both validate grievances,” Friedman said about the two, speaking to a packed hall at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), which organised and hosted the two-day conference on “ISIS and beyond.”

Earlier, panelists had already decided that the next American president will be Hillary Clinton, because Trump is “too racist and too authoritarian.”

Friedman was the guest of honor at the conference and featured prominently in a live TV-interview conducted by AUIS chairman and politician Barham Salih during dinner at the Shari Jwan hotel, the most prominent hotel in Sulaimani, Kurdistan’s second city.
Read all here

ISIS’ chemical weapons: a mix of Saddam, Assad and the West

The recent capture of one of the main ISIS operatives on its chemical weapons program has not only provided the Americans with details about ISIS’ production and storage of chemicals for warfare, but also once and for all confirmed that the radical group actually has such a program.

Up till now, some twenty chemical attacks by ISIS have been reported in Iraq and Syria, but only a few have been independently confirmed as such.

The Islamic group is suspected to have deployed two kinds of chemical weapons up till now: crude chlorine and mustard agent, and mostly the latter.

According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it used mustard gas on three fronts in August 2015: in an attack on the city of Marea in the Syrian Aleppo province and in two attacks in Iraq, on the Makhmour front near the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

Recently, an attack has been reported on the village of Taza, near Kirkuk, hitting mainly civilians who sustained skin burns and breathing problems.

The question is: where did ISIS get these chemicals from? Read more here

Equality starts with mothers

The organizers in the Dutch capital Amsterdam had chosen the picture of a female Kurdish Peshmerga fighter killed fighting the Islamic group ISIS in Syria for the debate on ‘Women in conflict and refugee situations’.

The hall mirrored the situation in the Netherlands; women of all colors and ages had come to watch and join in. Amongst them also a delegation of young Kurdish men, who pointed to the epic role of Kurdish women fighting against ISIS.

Their struggle – not only against the Islamic radicals but also for their personal freedom in a conservative society – has become the symbol of the struggle of all women worldwide.

Because of the 1,5 million refugees who use the Balkan route to find refuge in Europa, 55 percent are women and children. That number is up from 27 percent last year, as many European countries are making it more difficult for spouse to join their husbands.
Read all here...

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Of animals and man

The story of Kunkush, the white agora cat from Iraq who was reunited with his family after having got separated when they fled from Iraq to Norway, was a big hit.

Many newspapers published it, and some media even posted the video of the tearful reunion on internet, collecting many hundreds of thousands of hits.

Kunkush’s fate touched many hearts, starting with those who found him, those who searched for his owners and reunited them, and finally those who heard the story.

Even though it was an emotional story, of getting lost and being found, it still raises a general question: why do stories about animals have this effect, whilst those about people are often ignored?
Read more here

Friday, March 11, 2016

Jewish delegation receives warm welcome in Kurdistan

I still savour the moment I witnessed earlier this year, which was also symbolic for the short visit of a small Jewish delegation I guided around in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It was their first visit, meant to establish what is the state of Judaism in a region that has a rich and long Jewish heritage, but lost most of the Jews after they left mainly in the fifties and seventies.

I was asked to show them the visible remains of 3000 years of Jewish life in Kurdistan, and we visited amongst others the tomb of some prophets, a synagogue that badly needs to be reconstructed and the old hamam in the Erbil citadel that bears something that looks like the Star of David.

It is amazing how little is left, of such a rich past. But that is not counting the people, nor the feeling of connection that became apparent during the two days the three Israelis spent in Kurdistan.
Read more here

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Indian families searching for loved ones missing in Mosul

No ransom demand was made, no video has surfaced, no grave has been found. That is why almost two years on, family members of 39 Indian workers kidnapped in Mosul by the Islamic group ISIS, are still searching for their loved ones – even though one of their companions says they were all killed.

When ISIS took over Mosul in June, 2014, around one hundred foreign workers were trapped at the construction site of University Lake Towers in Mosul. The 40 Indians and 52 Bangladeshis had been contracted for the work by the Tariq Noor al-Huda firm in Baghdad, and were building 1,000 flats, a mosque, schools, roads and a sports stadium in the Jamia district of the city.

The Iraqi workers had left the site when ISIS started attacking the city a few days earlier, telling the foreign workers to lay low. They expected the danger would only last a couple of days. “You are from another country, they will not touch you,” they told them.
Read more here

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The caliph runs a bandit state

When ISIS-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his Islamic state in June 2014, the only thing that was clear about it was that it would be run according to the Sharia law, and based on the reign of the first caliphs after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

Yet when you build a state in the 21st century, with all the knowledge of the centuries in between, you will have to adapt your concept accordingly.

And so did Al-Baghdadi, who was joined by many former administrators and officials of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. They must have known that in order to convince civilians to join them, they would have to offer them more than security and services.
Read more here

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Grab the vision, don’t let returnees leave again

Back to Canada, to Holland, to Britain. Many of my Kurdish friends who a couple of years ago left their new lives elsewhere to help the Kurdistan Region of Iraq towards a better future, now plan to use their double nationalities and return to what had before become home.

Some are bitter, most are disappointed. They had left behind careers, homes and friends because they felt they should play a role in rebuilding their fatherland. And many feel that if they had been allowed to use their experience and knowledge, things could have turned out quite differently. Then the present economic and political crisis could possibly have been prevented.

Many returnees to the Kurdistan Region have met distrust, and were not allowed to take up the positions that would have fitted their education and experience. And even if they did, their opinions would often not be heard.

Because the very knowledge and experience they wanted to offer their country, was considered a threat by locally educated Kurds, who as they could not compete decideded to block these competitors. And the politicians let them, because they needed to reward the locals to tie them to their parties.

Returnees were often seen as too critical, as in the cultural ways of the region, compliments are expected even when criticism really is due.

The present crisis is partly a result of this policy. Experts who talk about what caused it, name a number of things, and amongst them are nepotism and the lack of vision.

I know of western ministers who employ advisors to read books for them and brief them on the content, so they can get as much information from different places as possible to help them make well based decisions. 

When this is suggested to politicians in the Middle East, the general reaction is: do you think I don’t read books? But they do not realise they can never read all the books that are useful to shape a vision, nor all the background articles on line needed.

Caused mainly by nepotism and the need to buy votes, the Kurdistan region pays 1,4 million people a monthly salary or allowance, of whom 700.000 work as civil servants. And those are said on average to effectively work a total of only 28 minutes a day. 

An economic expert made the sum that this means, that the Kurdish government really could make do with 50.000 civil servants on a full time job.

It also means that often people were not employed for their capacities. Yet government jobs were popular because they came with a car, a piece of land, a pension. This led to people hanging on, instead of finding a job that would really suit them, as the private sector did not offer all those perks.

Whilst the economy was growing, nobody worried about it. Many civil servants had two jobs, and would just sit out their time in the government office before getting some real work done.

But now that war and low oil prices have changed it all, the truth about the government apparatus has been revealed. Because suddenly there is no money any more for all those people working just 28 minutes a day. And their second jobs have disappeared along with the investors and businessmen. 

This is the situation where returnees consider going back. No government income, no other jobs available and yet they have to pay their children’s schools fees – as the private schools offered their children the best education.

Yet the fact that they have learned to think ‘outside the box’ could be valuable, and the government would be well advised to listen to their opinion. Because vision does not come with the wind. It needs different opinions and analyses to be gathered and processed. It needs experiences from abroad to be compared to local ones. But it first and foremost needs an open mind to accept valuable influence from outside.

Returnees offer all that, plus their idealism to help their country to the best of their capacity. But very soon now, they will be gone. And they will not return, as they will not allow themselves to experience the same disappointment twice. Instead, they will put all their energy into building their future and that of their children outside Kurdistan.

It will be a tough decision for politicians, to choose between those who will vote for them, and those who will be able to make the country move out of recession and back into stability. I am not even talking about laying off people, but about getting the right man/woman on the right place to even help prevent too many lay-offs. But it should not be so tough. Not if they really care about the future of their voters.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Start rebuilding Shingal to keep more Yezidis from leaving

Some shops have opened in Shingal, the Yezidi-town recaptured two months ago from the Islamic group ISIS who occupied it for a year and a half. The local telephone tower has been re-equipped, after having been taken out of use as part of ISIS’ no-connection policy. Water tankers drive on and off to bring water to soldiers and shopkeepers, and generators hum to provide electricity.

But the rubble still lies where it was when Peshmerga troops liberated the town in November. Even the collapsed Manara, a historical monument that was part of the face of the town, has been left untouched. As have the roads, of which many are blocked by the effects of the bombing campaigns that eventually led to ISIS fleeing the town.

Some of the enormous tunnel network under the town still has not been discovered. The same goes for some explosives and booby-traps ISIS left behind. And most importantly, ISIS still is out there, only at about 10 kilometres from the town.

Yet the Kurdish mayor of Shingal, Mahma Khalil, states that civilians will return as soon as the most important services have been restored. Give them water and electricity, and they will come back, is his message.

Read more here

Friday, January 22, 2016

The men’s right over women

The news of the sexual abuse in Cologne, Germany during New Year’s Eve reverberated across the West. Over 350 women have filed complaints with the police.

As someone living partly in the Kurdistan Region and partly in the West, I am touched by the way the incident is creating waves that have results for asylum seekers who recently came to Europe: borders are closing and single men are less welcome.

But it also affects those who already are living in Europe; in Germany some swimming pools will no longer accept single men.

Voice from the extreme right claiming that allowing Middle Eastern men in will lead to a rise in sexual violence, have become even louder. Now this can no longer be brushed aside as racist.

I am reminded of incidents we hear of in the region where some of the perpetrators originate: about taxi drivers who abuse women after they step in their cars in their own, and men who grope women in shopping centres and bars.

Read more here

Sunday, January 10, 2016

End the crisis: Kurds must help Kurds

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has started the New Year in a somber mood. To overcome, it needs the help and initiatives of all its citizens.

After four months without salary, many Kurds are desperate. Civil servants did not get their salaries, because the government does not have money due to the low price of oil, the continuing disputes with Baghdad and the consequent budget cut, on top of the costs of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).

First the lower classes were hit, especially those civil servants who do not have a second job. But as people are tightening their belts, additional income from other sources such as owning a taxi, have decreased as well.

The Kurdish middle class is now also feeling the effect. Doctors, engineers and others working for the government on a higher wage, have hit the end of their reserves too. And with most of those around them not getting paid either, it has become harder to even find loans to tide things over.

Read the rest here

Saturday, January 9, 2016

No democracy without functioning parliament

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq presently has a parliament with not one, but two speakers. In some situations, this might be acceptable, for instance if they would share the presidency of the parliament, but in the reality of Kurdistan it shows that democracy has reached a stalemate.

Since October 12, 2015, the chosen chairman, Yusuf Mohammed, is no longer welcome in the capital of the region, Erbil, where the parliament is based. He is member of the second largest political party in the Kurdistan Region, Gorran or the Change-party.

His banning is the result of a political fight over the extension of the term of Kurdistan’s president Massoud Barzani, who ended his final official term in August without an agreement between the parties about his future. Constitutionally, the speaker of the Parliament then temporarily should have taken over, until a new president was elected. 

Instead, Barzani stayed on, creating a conflict with his supposed temporary successor plus his party, which turned violent when protests – also about the lack of salaries for civil servants - got out of hand.

All Goran MP’s were then evicted from Erbil, or were stopped entering, as were its ministers, who were part of a unity government lead by Barzani’s nephew Nechirwan Barzani. Three months later, they still have not returned to their posts, and their colleagues from other parties are still taking care of their ministries next to their own.

The speaker since has tried to do his job from his office in Sulaimani. He signed his last official document six days after he was prevented from returning to Erbil, on October 18, which was accepted by the parliament. And even though he still receives guests and delegations in his Sulaimani office, his documents have no longer been accepted into the parliamentary system.

His deputy, the senior KDP-member Jaafar Emniki, is now taking care of business in Erbil. Both the speaker and his deputy run their own websites, releasing different versions of the news.

When the internet site Niqash talked to MP’s of KDP, it was told that the parliament is functioning, apart from the ‘former’ speaker, who ‘had to leave his job as he could not act in an independent way’. The only unusual thing is at the parliament is not holding sessions, they claimed.

Yet the remaining MP’s may be going to parliament regularly, but they too cannot do their job, as the 23 parliament committees cannot hold their weekly meetings for lack of members and a quorum.

A parliament that is not discussing issues and voting on documents and laws, whose committees are not doing their work either, is a parliament that is not functioning. That means that the democratic system that it is part of, is not functioning either, because the parliament is chosen by the people to make sure the government is really working on their behalf.

The last time the Kurdish parliament suspended its work was during the civil war of the nineties. The present situation could bring us back to the time when two separate administrations and their parliaments were functioning in the Kurdistan Region, one in Erbil and one in Sulaimani.

Then, the conflict was between the two main parties, KDP and PUK, who both had their own territories. While now Gorran has taken over the former role of PUK, again a virtual wall has risen between Erbil and Sulaimani.

Not only is the parliament not functioning that melted the different territories into one Kurdish entity, these are once again following their own policy. Checkpoints, that were mixed before, are again one-party operations, and those who travel with permits or papers from the one area may have problems traveling in the other.

At the same time, the president has called to prepare a referendum about Kurdish independence from Baghdad. Which makes you wonder: does he intend this as a method to bring together again all Iraqi Kurds, or will the independence only cover the areas where his party is ruling?

The conflict between the parties is a major setback at a time the Kurds have plenty of enemies outside that should force them to unite. Instead, the young democracy has reached a stalemate. The longer this situation persists, the more difficult it will be to get it back on track, with politicians shouting at each other instead of talking to solve the problems, and civilians distrustful of their intentions and the reasons behind them.

The Kurds of Iraq were giving an example to their brothers in other Kurdish regions. They owe it not only to themselves, but also to others who may look at them for guidance, to end the strife – and as a first step get the parliament back in function again. That is the first demand for a government to be able to call itself democratic.