photo: Eddy van Wessel


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

'IS' members face controversial Iraqi court trials

Iraqi courts are fast-tracking cases in court against "Islamic State" (IS) members, but there is concern about the diligence of the speedy process. Judit Neurink reports from Qaraqosh. 

"I am looking for my son," says a woman dressed in black outside the high walls of the Iraqi court where those accused of membership of "Islamic State" (IS) are on trial. Her son was picked up eight months ago, together with the rest of their village, some 275 men in total. "Some were released, but he was not. But I know he is innocent."

Sariah Yahya tells DW that she searched for him everywhere. But her son Luay, a farmer with two children, is not listed in any of the informal prisons where Iraqi army units are holding their IS prisoners. Now she has come to check for his name at the court of investigation based in the Christian city of Qaraqosh. "No mother of a Daeshi would dare ask for her son," she points out as proof of his innocence, using the group's Arabic name.

Read on

Iraqi Kurds split over Kurdish independence vote

Iraqi Kurds are slated to vote on an independent Kurdistan on September 25. Even though most are in favor of getting their own state, many are still considering to vote 'no' as Judit Neurink reports from Sulaimaniya.

"It's hard to say 'no'," said 27-year-old Ali Faraj, a journalist working in Sulaimaniya, the second city of the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Every Kurd wants an independent Kurdish state, he added - so, when they vote in today's referendum for independence, he said most Kurds will vote 'yes'.

But like many people here in Sulaimaniya, a bastion of opposition to Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani who initiated the poll, Faraj said he wants the referendum to be delayed.
"Perhaps even till 2019, so there's time to prepare it really well," he told DW.

Even though independence is his dream, too, Faraj says "it is too dangerous now."
He points to the poor state of the economy, which could influence the outcome of the poll, but also to negative reactions from Iraq and abroad: from neighboring Iran and Turkey, in particular, who have threatened to close the borders through which the Kurds in Iraq get most of their goods.

Read on

In Iraq, minorities pin hopes on a Kurdish state

Iraqi minorities have been voting for an independent Kurdish state in a bid for stability and peace. A Kurdish passport and nationality could improve their situation, they believe. Judit Neurink reports from Irbil, Iraq.

Disappointment with the Iraqi government and loyalty to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which took them in when the terror group "Islamic State" deprived them of their homes and livelihoods, has led many Iraqi minorities to support the Kurdish push for independence. When the Kurds voted on Monday on secession from Iraq, they included not only the minorities in their own region, but also those in the lands beyond it which they are claiming for their new state.

"This is now our community," says Inaam Tomea, 45, showing her blue inked finger after voting. She is from the Christian city of Qaraqosh, on the Nineveh Plains, which IS took over in August 2014 and which the Kurdistan Region wants to be part of its future state. Most of its inhabitants fled to Kurdistan and to camps set up in Ainkawa, the Christian enclave of the Kurdish capital, Irbil.

Read on: here

Monday, July 31, 2017

War in Iraq: Why looting should be treated as a crime

It is possible that the gold jewellery you bought from a shop, or via the internet, was once a wedding present given to a Yazidi women, kidnapped by Islamic State (IS) when it captured the Iraqi province of Sinjar in August 2014; just like that painting you found in a market that used to belong to an Iraqi, whose house was looted by IS in Mosul.

Looting has always been a problem during Iraq’s many wars - but it has been especially prevalent during the past three years of IS rule.

The group didn’t just seize all the gold and valuables of the 6,000-plus Yazidis that it captured.
When I drove into the ruined town of Sinjar soon after it was liberated in late 2015, I noticed that every door of every house had been left wide open by looters. More recently, Iraqis who returned to check on their homes after IS had been driven out found that most of their valuables and furniture had gone.

Inside the occupied cities, IS gave its fighters the houses of those who fled its rule. When the time came for the fighters themselves to escape, they stripped the houses bare. The furniture eventually turned up in second-hand markets across Iraq.

It wasn’t only private possessions that were taken; heritage sites in Iraq and Syria were looted and antiquities smuggled out and sold on the black market. Some of these artefacts have been recovered from safe houses in Mosul - but most have disappeared.

Read on here: 

Children survive 'Islamic State' hungry and traumatized

Children have been among those worst hit by "Islamic State" occupation and the battle to liberate Mosul. They suffer malnutrition for lack of food, and toxic stress from the violence they witnessed, Judit Neurink reports.
"Look, he is walking again!" Hanan Mohammed, 43, smiles, setting her two-year-old down on his skinny legs. The family of three recently escaped the Old City of Mosul, where fighting had been going on for weeks, and food and water had been scarce for months.

"Daesh left us hungry," she says, using the local abbreviation for the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) militant group. "There was nothing to buy, and what was there was very expensive." That's why she could not feed her children and lost a six-month-old baby to malnutrition. Her son had started walking, but stopped again for the same reason.

Read on here:

Iraqi refugees seek family reunion in Germany

The German consulate in Irbil is helping Iraqi refugees overcome bureaucratic obstacles on their way to rejoining family members in Germany. Judit Neurink reports from Irbil.
"I miss him so," Mahdia, 17, says, as tears roll down her face. Her twin brother Mehdi fled to Germany a while ago and she is now with their family in the office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Irbil to prepare the paperwork needed to join him there.

Her father, Abas Khalil Elias, wipes his eyes too. He looks haggard after living in a camp for the past three years, trying to feed his eight remaining children by working on the fields. Before the "Islamic State" (IS) group entered their village of Khanasur in the Yazidi province of Sinjar in August 2014, he was a driver. The Yazidi family fled to the Sinjar mountains where a corridor was created to keep them out of IS' hands. Thousands of other Yazidis were not so lucky; IS captured at least 6,000 women and children and killed thousands of men.

Read on here:

Fallujah still bears scars of 'Islamic State' occupation

A year ago the Iraqi town of Fallujah - captured by IS in 2014 - was liberated. When Judit Neurink visited the town, she found the scars of occupation still prevalent.

The scenes in the town are depressing. Dead bodies are still being found under the rubble of destroyed buildings. And at least once a week, injured children are being brought into the only partly operational hospital after playing with or stepping on explosives left behind by the "Islamic State" (IS).

"Only about half of the town has been cleared," Hamid Abud Fahd, assistant director of a local health center, told DW. "The government has no money, but the rest needs to be cleared urgently, and the city has to be rebuilt."

Only those who can afford it have left the camps around the city, where thousands of Fallujah's inhabitants still live a year on, to rebuild or repair their homes. And even if the government has started paying its civil servants again, there's no money on its way from Baghdad to help rebuild the many government buildings that have been destroyed.

Read on here

'IS' splits Iraq's Sunni community and families

Although the "Islamic State" (IS) group has been driven from the eastern half of Mosul, their influence is still keenly felt within the Sunni community. Judit Neurink reports from Khazir Camp.
Taking a break from shoveling sand against the bottom of the tent his family has been assigned in Khazir Camp southeast of Mosul, Ahmed Ali Hamna, 39, relates how he spent two years hiding from the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS). The former policeman recently arrived from Iraq's second city Mosul.

"When Daesh catches you, they will behead you," he tells DW, using the local Arabic name for IS. That risk was not new to him: As a police sergeant in Mosul, he was always at risk for not joining the group. "For two years, I hid, going from house to house. And when you do go out, you make sure your trousers are short and your beard long enough, so you nobody notices you."

A young woman appears from the tent. She is his widowed sister, Hamna says. "Daesh killed her husband, my cousin. They took him from his home because he was in the intelligence services before. After a month in prison, he was executed."

Read on here

Islamic State families fear persecution in Iraq

An Iraqi aid worker calls them a ticking time bomb. Almost 170 families are being held in isolation in the Shahama camp, near the city of Tikrit, without access to even a phone to check on their loved ones. Al-Monitor received permission from security forces to visit the camp and spoke with some of the people living there.

“We were not with Daesh [Islamic State (IS)], and they never gave us anything,” Samara Musa said inside the almost empty tent she occupies with her nine children. Her husband was picked up by the Iraqi army because his brother was with IS. Musa said, however, “We opposed his decision.” Her brother-in-law is currently in Syria with the extremist group.

Shahama is the only official camp for the family of IS members in Iraq. While the war against IS rages, women, children and some elderly couples whose husbands, brothers, fathers and sons joined IS find themselves locked in Shahama, the Iraqi army having judged them guilty by association, without the involvement of a single court or judge. Protecting the community is the official reason given for their treatment, but the inmates appear to need protection as well, from members of the community seeking revenge.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Stop the killing, create a corridor

We knew the fight for the West of Mosul was going to be a tough one. Yet the deaths of hundreds of civilians, under the rubble of collapsed buildings, are much more than collateral damage on the just cause to beat the Islamic terror group ISIS.

Were the buildings, where ISIS had collected civilians as a human shield, rigged by explosives set off by the group, as the Iraqi army is indicating? Or was the information the Iraqis fed the coalition on targets incorrect? Or did the Iraqis chose the location too lightly, just targeting the sharp shooters on the roof who were taking the attention away from the real targets next door?

There are many questions that can and should be asked, because killing hundreds of innocent civilians in one day can never justified.

The coalition has since said they take "deliberate actions to minimize unnecessary suffering" and that they will "continue to prioritize the protection of the people of Iraq".

But what is unnecessary suffering, if not the way men, women and children died, cramped in a cellar trying to survive from the ferocious bombing campaign?

I absolutely agree that ISIS needs to be defeated, but surely not to the costs of civilians who also spent almost three years under the cruel rule of ISIS.

The way they now get killed, makes you wonder about the care that the military has been taken in this battle.

By trapping ISIS on the Westbank of Mosul, one could predict that the fighting would be fierce as all these brainwashed men can do is fight till death that they believe will bring them paradise.

Their cause, the jihad, is omni important for them; civilians who are not supporting it are unbelievers and seen as the enemy.

These civilians are really caught in the middle, as on the one hand the ISIS top issued a special fatwa making it OK if Muslim civilians get killed in the fight for the good cause.

And on the other hand, the policy of Baghdad in the past has shown that it considered Mosul as a city that deserved ISIS for the way it showed its unhappiness with the Shiite government.

Moslawi civilians are very aware of the fact that Baghdad was forewarned about the activities of ISIS that led to its take over of the city in Juni 2014, and did nothing to prevent it.

They also remember very well that Iraqi troops got out when ISIS entered in stead of defending them, based on orders from then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Even though civilians are grateful to and happy with the troops that liberate them from ISIS, and have shown this in every area the Iraqi army reached, that feeling does not extend to the Iraqi government.

Bombing civilians, and then refusing to come clean and taking the blame for what happened, is not 
helping to increase the popularity of the Shiite politicians in charge in Baghdad.

Moslawis have been through hell, as they told me, lost three years of their lives and are now confronted with the loss of houses and livelyhood.

They now need a government that they can trust, to be able to put their trust in the future and start rebuilding. And they need to be sure that ISIS will not in some way get back and retaliate.

What is needed first is to finish off ISIS in Mosul, but as the neighbourhoods left are old and cramped, the policy of leaving the ISIS fighters no corridor to escape should be reconsidered.

Let the fighters know they can leave, as long as they leave all behind, and part of the desperation will leave the battle for them too.

Finish them off elsewhere, where civilians are not going to be involved. Lure them to another place to smoke them out. Whatever policy is used will do, as long as inocent people are left off the hook.

We expect they will regroup in the border area of Syria and Iraq, which is mostly desert and hardly inhabited, so that sounds like the perfect place to contain and beat them.

Because if the government is honest about wanting to liberate Mosul, it needs to show it cares for its people. 

And only if Moslawis have the feeling that their urge to rebuild their city and their lives will be supported by politicians that run the country, they will be tempted to make this happen.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Mosul’s westside longing for liberation

“When are you coming to liberate us,” desperate civilians from Mosul’s occupied Westbank ask the world, in SMSs sent to the Moslawi radio station Alghad, broadcasting from the Kurdistan capital of Erbil.

These are voices that are hardly heard outside the occupied neighbourhoods of Iraq’s second city, of the thousands that are still suffering under the control of the Islamic terror group ISIS.

In the daily phone-in at the station, civilians from the west of Mosul reach the program only through SMS, as the telephone signal is too weak in ISIS territory where none of the telephone repeaters pulled down by the group have been reinstated yet, like in the liberated East.

Presenter Ahmed al-Moslawi (not his real name) reads them out, and adds details, sometimes a soothing comment or a call for the authorities to act.

Abu Amjed sounds desperate in his MSM: “When are they going to liberate us? We are hungry. If it takes too long I will put poison for myself and my children to get rid of this life.”

Another caller who does not mention a name says in his SMS that “everyday bombs are falling, we don’t know what will happen, please liberate us”.

After the eastside of Mosul was declared liberated last month ago, the Iraqi army has focused on securing the area and getting rid of ISIS there, but the operation for the westside has been announced to start soon.

Desperation is clear from an SMS that asks whether “it is true that the liberation has been delayed by six months”, showing the result of the propaganda ISIS uses to make sure the civilians on the Westbank get a bad impression of the efforts of the Iraqi army.

Ayman says in an SMS he is waiting for the forces to come; “even the mountain cannot bear what we have to bear”, adding they only have one meal a day.

Humanitarian organisations have sounded the alarm about the situation of some 750.000 civilians locked in the western side of Mosul, where because of the siege many suffer from a lack of food.

As a result, the prices have gone up enormously; during the program a price of 100 dollar is mentioned for 50 kilo of flour, and 10.000 dinar (9 dollars) for a kilo of rice, both essential products in the traditional Iraqi kitchen which now sell at a tenfold of its normal price.

“ISIS is taking the food stuffs off the markets, we cannot find them anymore,” another desperate SMS from the Westbank reads.

Even though in the liberated neighbourhoods in the East life has gone back to normal, with shops reopening and young people cleaning the streets, not one of the phone calls from there during the phone-in hour sounds happy.

Most phoning, complain about the lack of a salary, saying that the Iraqi government still is not paying its civil servants even though they have done all the paperwork needed. 

While those who fled the city usually receive their government salaries within weeks after applying, in Mosul most inhabitants still suffer from a lack of money.

Abu Mohammed from the Eastbank even declares that the difference between West and East is not that big: “We have no electricity, are drinking rainwater from the valley, nobody is helping us, not the provincial authorities, not internationally.”

“We don’t have any money, we sold everything,” another person using the same name of Abu Mohammed says.

Apart about the lack of money, people from the liberated parts of Mosul still complain about the security. ISIS still has been able to infiltrate, and exploded a number of bombs there recently.

An SMS from Rashidiya, one of the areas hit, asks if there were chemicals in the bombs: “We need advice, do we stay or leave?”

A young woman called Raghad phones to say that her father, a teacher, had been taken by the military as being involved with ISIS, or Daesh as the group is called locally, which she says is not true.

“Since 18 days we do not know anything about him. Some people who hate my father just told the army that he is with Daesh.”

A student says people in her neighbourhood gave information about someone who was with ISIS: “They came and picked him up, but he was released two days later. But we know Daesh has fake ID’s.”

Radio Alghad’s editor in chief, using the name Mohammed al-Mosuli, says the station has received many similar complaints, as many ISIS-members went underground after shaving their beards.

He recounts an incident that was recently reported from the Eastside, where ISIS supporters were able to enters mosques to call for allegiance over the speakers: “People thought Daesh was in control again.”

Because of the attacks, people start wondering about safety again, he says, doubting the police and the army, and the effectivity of checkpoints.

He asked the provincial government repeatedly but in vain to answer their questions. “People are getting impatient. They need to be reassured.”

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Offer Iraq’s Christians the safety they need to go home

On Christmas Eve church bells rang for the first time in two years on Christmas in Bartella, a predominantly Christian town outside Mosul.

Even though the Mar Shimoni church has been badly damaged by ISIS, it was filled with Christians who returned to their town for this occasion.

For the most part, they would return afterwards to their places of refuge in Ainkawa, the Christian enclave of the Kurdish capital Erbil, where they fled when ISIS entered their town in August 2014.

Not only because they had since found homes, work and income, and not even because their houses have been looted, or have been used as bomb factories and pharmacies, or damaged by tunnel building or air strikes.

The reason why hardly anyone has in the past two months returned to the liberated Christian towns of Nineveh was clearly illustrated by the gunmen that guarded churchgoers on Christmas Day from the roofs in Qaraqosh, where hundreds attended mass in the Mar Yohanna Church.

ISIS had left its graffiti there, as a warning for those daring to consider returning, written inside the church, declaring that ‘the Islamic State remains and extends’.
Read on here:

Journalists must be able to witness the war

For over ten days the Iraqi arm’s Golden Brigade has refused to allow foreign journalists into eastern Mosul to cover the battle against ISIS.

The army is upset about the high death toll published by the foreign media, fearing that it is something ISIS could use in its propaganda. The order to ban the media has supposedly come from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Dozens of journalists have come to Iraq to report the war by embedding with the Golden Brigade, other divisions of the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia.

Since the Peshmerga have finished most of their fight, the attention now is mainly on the Iraqi army in Mosul.

These are stories of soldiers’ heroism, of civilian suffering, of ISIS method of fighting and of weapons and explosives factories.

It is clear that the use of car-bombs and snipers has claimed the lives of hundreds of people with ISIS even shooting at playing children, but the army death toll has remained a secret.

And I do not think the only concern is ISIS propaganda.
Read on here

No pills, but art therapy for trauma victims

With a shortage of therapists in the country, many of the thousands of traumatized victims of war and violence in Iraq are treated with pills that often do not offer a solution for their trauma.

The most well-known cases of trauma are among the many Yezidi victims of ISIS. But as the militant group gets pushed back further, more victims are emerging in towns and villages around Mosul, and from the city itself.

As the number of people needing therapy is rising, it is increasingly important to find ways to educate more therapists. A training of trainers in art therapy program was, therefore, set up in the Kurdistan Region capital Erbil.

“The training teaches trainers to use skills that will be an alternative to the medicine,” said Bahar Ali of the local Emma Foundation, who organized the training. “Art is an easy tool. We can use it in schools and shelters, anywhere in the society.”

She pointed out that “especially now after ISIS, it is a good time to start with this therapy, as we do not have the experts.”
Read on here:

Moving on from an overstaffed idle government to a vibrant private sector

He was photographed in his graduation costume, with some sheep on a Kurdish mountainside. The Kurdish student who graduated earlier this year as one of the best of his year from the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Duhok, had not been able to find a job, and therefor joined his brother as a shepherd.

Citing the young man who said he would like to continue studying for a Masters and Doctorate of Philosophy, but that the economic crisis and lack of support from the government had compelled him to become a shepherd, his fate drew the attention of the Kurdish press.

Message: bright young man wasted years of studying because the government does not help him get a job.

Apart from the hardship the economic crisis in the Kurdistan Region is causing him, the very expectation that the government should give fresh graduates a job is very much part of the cause of the crisis.
Read on here:

Struggling against winter cold: Life inside Debega camp

The young woman holds her sleeping baby tight; the little girl is ill, because of the cold wave that has suddenly set in, and because they have had to sleep on the floor, she says.

The 22-year-old mother from Qaraj, near Makhmour who has been in the camp for less than a month, says her little Sabrina is two years old, but with a pacifier in her mouth and bundled up in a small blanket she looks a lot younger.

On top of the cold the baby is dealing with the consequences of a malnutrition she suffered under ISIS. Her mother searched for baby milk from village to village for almost a year, and this has left its mark on her and her two children.

Baby milk is still scarce, so is nappies, warm clothes and bedding.

“I stay with my husband’s family, and they have everything, I have nothing,” she complains.
Read on here:

Iraq’s heritage sites must be sealed off, documented after Mosul liberation

The damage done to archeological and heritage sites in Iraq under ISIS did not stop when these places were liberated and the radical group expelled, says Abdullah Qader, the director of Iraqi institute for Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil.

He believes that the damage to major sites such as Nimrud and monasteries and churches should have been documented immediately after liberation, which was not the case, for lack of planning and money. Qader, who also heads the Association of Archaeologists in Kurdistan, argues that the sites should be closed until proper documentation is done to make ensure that nothing is or will get stolen and so rebuilding will be possible.

What should be the policy for the archeological sites, after ISIS?

Abdullah Qader If I were to decide, I would send teams of archeologists with the army to start documenting the sites. But we are an institute for training, and this is an issue for the authorities in Baghdad. Only in Mosul we had ninety archeologists working, as guides, supervisors, teachers; most of them are now living in Duhok, Sulaimani and Erbil. What is their role now? In Amman, a workshop has been held for ten archeologists in Iraq and Syria, who even got a bag with cameras and other things to use for the documentation of liberated sites. But we see on TV that churches are being liberated and then people go there and start cleaning. That should not happen. First the damage needs to be documented, then they can clean. I would prefer these areas to be closed so that nobody can go there until the specialist teams have done their work.

Read the whole article here