Bleeding Iraq

Print edition : January 24, 2014

The site of the bomb attack in Baghdad's Dora district on December 25. Photo: Ahmed Malik /REUTERS

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Photo: Ahmed Saad/Reuters

Nawras al-Nuaimi, who was killed on December 15. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Lebanese security forces and firefighters at the scene of the huge car bomb explosion that rocked central Beirut on December 27, killing six people. Photo: AFP

Mohamad Chatah, a former Finance Minister and Ambassador to the United States, one of the six people killed in the December 27 bombing in Beirut. Photo: Ahmad Omar/AP

Violence has become routine across Iraq as an instrument of political power, and the situation has been aggravated by the spillover effect of the Syrian civil war.

ON CHRISTMAS DAY 2013, 44 people died in twin bombs blasts in Baghdad, Iraq. One car bomb exploded in the southern Dora neighbourhood. A smaller bomb exploded in the outdoor market of nearby Athorien. Both are largely Christian neighbourhoods. The wounded number over 60. In 2013, close to 9,000 civilians died in car bomb, suicide bomb and sniper attacks. The number is vastly greater than the United Nations estimates for 2012: 3,238 civilians killed. The Bulgarian diplomat Nickolay Mladenov, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Iraq, said, “While indiscriminate bombings and other attacks continue to take a terrible toll on Iraqis every day, I am profoundly disturbed by the recent surge in execution-style killings that have been carried out in a particularly horrendous and unspeakable manner.” The slowdown of violence in 2009 has now been totally reversed, with violence levels taking Iraq back to the worst points of the sectarian war of 2007.

In October, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with United States President Barack Obama to ask for an increase in supply of U.S. weaponry to combat Al Qaeda-type groups that have begun to operate with impunity between the outskirts of Baghdad and Ramadi and then into Syria. The problem is indeed acute. Ever since the July prison break of 500 hardened fighters from Abu Ghraib, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has been able to consolidate its hold across the desert that stretches between Iraq and Syria. Along the Ramadi road to Syria, ISIS fighters have been blowing up bridges to reduce the ability of the Iraqi army and police to control the highway and the border. Night-time executions of army and police officers sent a chill through the Iraqi state forces. In November, Iraq’s Ambassador to the U.N., Mohammed Al-Hakim, said that there were now over 35,000 foreign fighters in Syria, many of whom were relying upon the corridor from Iraq for their passage (as the routes through Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey slowly close off). The presence of these fighters and the revival of the ISIS in Iraq have had “a significant impact on increasing the frequency of terrorist acts in Iraq”. This is why the U.S. government has now resupplied Iraq with hellfire missiles and provided its military with drones. Given the adverse strategic effect of the drone strikes in Yemen, it is unlikely that such attacks will work to undermine the ISIS and its allied groups.

Hardened groups such as the ISIS, affiliated to the loose tentacles of Al Qaeda, are not the sole cause of sectarianism in Iraq. That problem has a longer history, and its current author is not on the margins of Iraqi society but in its centre. The government of al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition has done its best to alienate the country’s Sunni political class—the arrest of the bodyguards of the leading Sunni politician Rafie al-Issawi in 2012 led to protests in cities along Highway 1, which links Baghdad to Mosul, including Samarra and Tikrit.

Al-Maliki’s politics derives from frustration at the sectarian manner in which Saddam Hussein governed since his coup in 1978; despite a public rhetoric of secularism and non-sectarianism, his regime was structured to discriminate against the Shia, largely the working class and peasantry in old Iraq. An opportunity to reverse the sectarianism of the Iraqi state was delivered to al-Maliki as Iraqi nationalism reformed in opposition to the U.S. occupation. He did not take advantage of that moment. The breakdown amongst the Iraqi political class on sectarian lines derives from the elections of 2010 when al-Maliki’s party did not secure a clear majority. Deals made then failed to be kept, and al-Maliki went after the largely Sunni blocs led by Tareq al-Hashemi, Iyad Allawi and al-Issawi. Old wounds opened up and have since festered. The Iraqi security services and the old Sunni Awakening movement as well as the ISIS and its kin groups have since been engaged in a low-level civil war with high civilian casualties.

The Iraqi government notes that the number of car bombs in the past few years has increased from an average of 10 a month to close to 70 a month. The bombs, many of them set by the ISIS and its related outfits, target Shia areas and Sunni politicians who work with the government. The Christmas bombings took place in largely Christian areas, a community that the ISIS has repeatedly threatened not only in Iraq but also in Syria.

Attacks on journalists

Iraq has for a long time been a dangerous place for reporters. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, independent reporting had been forbidden on pain of arrest and torture. During the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. authorities went after journalists (among those killed were Al Jazeera’s Tariq Ayoub, ITV’s Terry Lloyd, Reuters’ Taras Protsyuk and Telecinco’s Jose Couso). Ayoub was killed when Al Jazeera’s bureau was directly attacked. Protsyuk and Couso were killed when a U.S. tank fired at Palestine Hotel, the base for many journalists. Four years later, U.S. helicopters killed two Reuters’ journalists, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh (“The Dogs of War”, Frontline, May 7, 2010).

Executions of journalists have now become a weekly affair in Iraq. The day before Christmas, gunmen stormed the Al Iraqiya TV studio in Tikrit, killed five journalists and wounded five more. One of the journalists killed was a female anchor. Nearby, at Salah El-Din University, four students were killed. The U.N.’s Mladenov said he was “increasingly and gravely concerned about the targeting of journalists by terrorist elements over the past few weeks. This latest blatant act of terrorism at the Tikrit television station should be properly investigated.” Mladenov referred to the spate of killings of journalists in the region north of Baghdad, notably in the northern city of Mosul. Here is a shortlist of the journalists killed over the past few months:

December 15: Nawras al-Nuaimi, a television anchorwoman for Al-Mosuliyah TV, was shot outside her home.

December 5: Kawa Germyani, editor of Rayal and a correspondent for Awene, shot by unidentified gunmen.

December 3: Aadel Mohsen Husain, active with the Iraqi Journalists Rights Defence Association, shot.

November 24: Alaa Edward Boutros, TV journalist for Nineveh al-Ghad, shot near his home by unidentified gunmen.

October 24: Bashar Abulqader Najm al-Nouaymi, TV cameraman for Al-Mosuliyah TV, shot by gunmen who used a silencer.

October 5: Mohamed Karim al-Badrani and Mohamed al-Ghanem, both TV cameramen for Al Sharqiya TV, shot in the head. The pattern for these killings was set in 2010 with the abduction and killing of Sardasht Osman, a journalism student who had filed two stories critical of the government for Kurdistan Post. His killing remains, despite a commission of inquiry and the passage of time, a mystery.

A journalist in Mosul, under condition of anonymity, told me that they faced three problems. The first problem is that journalists are being dragged into the web of violence that Iraq seems to have succumbed to. It is likely that Nawras al-Nuaimi was killed during a robbery, as her mother alleges, and that she was not a political target. She was 19 and had barely begun her journalistic career. Iraqi Major General Ali al-Fraiji, who ran the investigation, says that her killer has been arrested and that her family identified him as the killer. Reporters from Al-Mosuliyah talked to Nawras al-Nuaimi’s mother, who cried as she recounted her daughter’s intelligence and confidence, clutching in her arms a blood-stained copy of Introduction to Human Rights, which her daughter held as she was shot.

The second problem that journalists face is the danger of following stories about political corruption. The death of Sardasht Osman, likely for doing stories with titles such as “Ah, if only I were Massoud Barzani’s son-in-law” (Barzani being the President of Iraqi Kurdistan from 2005 to the present), is emblematic of the problem. Kawa Germyani of Rayal, who was killed in early December, was a fierce critic of the corruption of the government of Iraqi Kurdistan. He had been repeatedly threatened for his stories. Two days before his murder, a protest by Iraqi Kurdish journalists in Sulaymaniyah called for established press freedoms: new laws and procedures to protect the right of journalists to report freely. Germyani’s death put a chill on Iraqi reporters.

The third problem, the Mosul journalist notes, is the growth of the ISIS in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital. The ISIS and its allied groups thrive through control over animosity amongst disenfranchised young people and the collection of protection payments from small business.

In 2012, General Mahdi Gharawi, who headed the Nineveh Police, led a campaign to close down the financial linkages that earn the ISIS and its groups close to $8 million a month. ISIS-type groups attack government officials, including police and army officers, for their campaigns against terrorism. Sectarian attacks and spectacular attacks have drawn former insurgents, even Baath Party members, into the ranks of the terror groups. The December attack on Al Iraqiya is in line with the intimidation of these groups against journalists. One of the reasons the Mosul journalist will not give his name is fear that the ISIS or its kin groups will target him. “I’m already well known to the government,” he says resignedly, but it is the ISIS that he fears.

As I finish this column, Beirut begins to come to terms with a large bomb blast that killed six people, including Mohamad Chatah, a former Finance Minister and Ambassador to the U.S. (he was also a director of the International Monetary Fund). This is one of a string of car bombs and suicide attacks in Lebanon. What struck Beirut on December 27 is what has become routine across Iraq—violence as an instrument of political power, and violence that has begun to spill over from the ongoing civil war in Syria.