Baghdadi was born in the Samarra countryside in Iraq to a family of pastoral farmers who claimed they could trace their ancestry back to the prophet Muhammad. As a young man he had been an aloof theology student and football coach. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq he was imprisoned for ten months in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. He emerged a fanatic of the jihadist insurgency. In 2006 the US assassinated the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s successor was assassinated by the US in April 2010. Baghdadi took control of the group a month later.
When Islamic State moved into Mosul in 2014, Omar Mohammed observed and documented everything he could, from public executions to the inner workings of the hospitals. And even though it put his life in danger, he posted many of his observations online using the handle ‘Mosul Eye’. He is now concerned that the history of the city under IS could be compromised. After the 2016 operation to drive out the caliphate, the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi took nearly 16,000 documents produced during IS rule – everything from birth certificates to judicial rulings – stuffed them into bin bags, and flew them back to New York. In Mohammed’s view, the history of Iraq, and of Mosul in particular, has too often been told and controlled by outsiders.
A number of military experts – including the defense secretary, James Mattis – have warned that a US war against North Korea would be hard, incredibly destructive and bloody, with civilian casualties in the millions, and could go badly for US forces. But Lt. Gen. Herbert Raymond McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, is apparently insistent that ‘a military strike be considered as a serious option’. One of Gen. McMaster’s claims to fame is a Silver Star he was awarded for a tank ‘battle’ he led in the desert during the so-called Gulf War of 1991. As a young captain leading a troop with nine new Abrams M1A1 battle tanks, McMaster destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks in 23 minutes without losing any of his own or suffering any casualties. McMaster’s exploit (later embellished with a name, the ‘Battle of 73 Easting’) was little more than a case of his having dramatically better equipment.
'Tomorrow, are you ready to die?' Fadil asked me. He was the chain-smoking owner of the hotel in Jordan I stayed at 13 years ago, soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein. I was 22, had just finished university and was waiting for a ride across the desert to Baghdad, where I would begin working for Iraq's first postwar English language newspaper, the Baghdad Bulletin. I wasn't ready to die and thought I should maybe go home, but gave a watery smile, took a gulp of Fanta and fixed my eyes on the flickering TV, tuned to CNN.
Reactions to the Chilcot Report suggest that the only remaining argument for the Iraq War is that criticism rests on hindsight. Tony Blair explained that he invaded the country 'in good faith', as if that somehow excuses the catastrophe that followed. General Sir Mike Jackson shrugged off responsibility for British soldiers blown up in inadequately armoured vehicles by observing that their fate was unforeseeable: ‘we'll never know,’ he said, if any died unnecessarily. Listening to the deflections of blame, I was reminded of a scholar whose work Tony Blair has long admired. Philip Bobbitt warned in 2004 that the war's critics were making a basic philosophical error. He called it ‘Parmenides' Fallacy’: the mistaken attempt to assess a situation 'by measuring it against the past, as opposed to comparing it to other possible present states of affairs’. The argument sounded clever when I first read it, but not for long.
Iraq's invasion and its aftermath illustrate Lord Salisbury's maxim about the 'optimist view of politics', which 'assumes that there must be some remedy for every political ill, and rather than not find it, it will make two hardships to cure one'. The Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 war in Iraq is a world away from the whitewash obligingly thrown over the venture by Lord Hutton's 2004 report, commissioned by Tony Blair while still in office. Sir John Chilcot's summary findings mount a cumulatively devastating critique of Blair's conduct before, during and after the war.
Edward Said writing on the Iraq war in April 2003: This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology. What winning, or for that matter losing, such a war will ultimately entail is unthinkable. But pity the Iraqi civilians who must still suffer a great deal more before they are finally ‘liberated’. Since the 2003 invasion, more than 160,000 Iraqi civilians have died violent deaths.
On Tuesday I went to visit a group of refugee children in police custody in a village near Idomeni, on the Greek border with Macedonia. The policeman banged open the lock of the black metal cell door and it swung forward. The other boys moved aside to let Harith through. The door clanged shut. Harith and the seven boys with him are refugees from Syria, Iraq and Pakistan; they are all aged between 14 and 17. Under Greek law, unaccompanied minors are supposed to be held in police custody only until they can be transferred to centres for young people. But, all over Greece, the centres are full. Harith has been in jail for more than two weeks.
The Iraq National Museum reopened on 28 February. Many of the treasures of ancient Mesopotamia are in the British Museum or the Pergamon in Berlin, or were lost to looting after the 2003 invasion, but some wonderful objects are now on show in Baghdad. I visited last week. As I was looking at pieces of Iraq’s great civilisations in glass cases, the extremists of Daesh (as the Islamic State is known in Arabic) were smashing up the original sites for being idolatrous.
Hassan Blasim's short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, 'set up after the fall of the dictator', to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are 'stranger, crueller and more crazy' than everyone else's. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may 'turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire'.
The killing of James Foley by Isis caused an upsurge of international revulsion and condemnation with harsh words from the US defence secretary and others. But the Obama administration is trying hard not to be sucked into a war that could be more serious than the US invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011. What Isis showed by Foley's very public murder is that it will always raise the stakes in any confrontation with the US and anybody else. It trumped America's reassuring portrayal of the recapture of Mosul Dam by the Kurds aided by US air strikes as a sign that Isis could be defeated.
Edward Said writing in the LRB in April 2003 on the US-led invasion of Iraq: With countries like Syria and Iran involved, their shaky regimes shaken even further, and general Arab outrage inflamed to boiling point, one cannot imagine that victory in Iraq will resemble any of the simple-minded myths posited by Bush and his entourage... This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology. What winning, or for that matter losing, such a war will ultimately entail is unthinkable.
The Iraq war is not over; it never really ended. It just spilled into a new war, the war in Syria. We may one day speak of Iraq-Syria the way that we speak now of 'Af-Pak'.
In response to a wave of attacks by the al-Qaida group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the United States is supplying Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's embattled government with Hellfire missiles and drones. The Obama administration also wants congressional approval to lease (and eventually sell) six Apache helicopter gunships to the Iraqis, a plan held up by lawmakers who fear they will be used against Maliki's political opponents.
As reported by the New York Times, the arming of the Iraqi government is a story about instability inside Iraq, counter-terrorism and the effectiveness of drones. But the regional implications are much larger.
The former Saddam Hussein Gymnasium stands on the east side of the Tigris in Baghdad, next to Iraq’s national football stadium. It was built between 1973 and 1980 to designs made by Le Corbusier in the late 1950s. He also planned a giant stadium and other facilities in advance of a mooted Olympic bid, but only the gym was built. His designs for the Olympic project were on show at the V&A a few years ago, but City of Mirages: Baghdad 1952-82, at the Center for Architecture in New York until 5 May, puts the work in a larger context.
In his most recent book, Thomas Friedman – New York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner, presidential adviser – says of the Iraq War that he has ‘nothing but regret for the excessive price that America and Iraq have had to pay in lives and treasure’. The body count seems to be less cause for concern, however, than the fact that China, which has not been distracted from domestic infrastructure projects by pricey wars abroad, can now build a convention centre in approximately the same time it takes for the Washington Metro crew to repair two escalators in Friedman’s local subway station (the book is called That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back). Still, he’s come a long way since May 2003, when he said that the US military had to go ‘house to house from Basra to Baghdad’, wielding ‘a very big stick’ and instructing Iraqis to ‘Suck On This’.
On Friday Tony Blair returned, orange and varnished, to the Chilcot Inquiry to clarify his doctrine of sovereign exceptionalism. As his deposition to the inquiry explains, after 9/11 ‘the calculus of risk on global security had radically and fundamentally changed.’ Blair did not mean that it had changed because after 9/11 the global police got more trigger-happy. It changed because al-Qaida had shown that random sets of hoodlums could hook up and wreak mayhem. Hence the 2003 coalition of the willing. The US was going anyway, and Blair was with them.
Interviewed on PM this afternoon, fresh from giving evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, Tony Blair spoke scornfully of 'all those people' treating Iran ‘softly', which is to say, not bombing it. Presumably, 'people' means Barack Obama. He was speaking only days after Tunisian public rage rose up against one of those 'Bastions against Muslim Extremism' that replaced the 'Bastions against Communism'. What has happened in Tunisia could happen across the Middle East. As Patrick Cockburn points out in today's Independent, one of Blair's problems is ignorance:
This year’s Association of American University Presses conference was held in Salt Lake City.
The Chilcot Inquiry is providing further evidence that Tony Blair misled the British public in the run up to the war in Iraq in 2003. Five years earlier he less famously deceived the people of Northern Ireland into believing that paramilitary prisoners wouldn’t be released and Sinn Fein wouldn’t be able to enter government until the IRA had decommissioned its arms. On the basis of this deception, Northern Ireland’s Catholics and a bare majority of Protestants ‘consented’ to the Good Friday Agreement.
In the latest chapter of How Radical Christianity is Destroying the West from Within, the English-language internet has finally picked up a story that has been in the French newspapers for at least two years.In 2003, George W. Bush called Jacques Chirac to persuade him to join the Coalition of the Willing in the jihad against Saddam Hussein. Appealing to their 'common faith', Bush said:Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East... The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled...