On The Road In Iraq-A Diary

Iraq Diary, Day 1: Fighting incursions by fanatics tooth and nail

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 18, 2015 17:16
Reuters / Stringer

Reuters / Stringer

I arrived on Sunday in Baghdad - just miles from where Islamic State has seized control in a major nearby city - the first leg of a trip that will take me across embattled Iraq as part of a special report for RT.

During the journey from the airport, I'm struck by how relaxed the atmosphere is amongst Iraqis considering the heavy fighting that was occurring just outside Baghdad in the city of Ramadi (The key city is located 110 km (70 miles) west of the Iraqi capital, fell to ISIS forces on Sunday after government troops pulled out of a military base on the west side of the city).

The drive from the airport to our hotel is punctuated by checkpoint stops but the soldiers are courteous and helpful and all-in-all the journey is quick and easy. As we wind through the early morning traffic, a bus carrying school children pulls up next to us. The girls aboard are all cramming in some last minute revision as they prepare for end-of-year exams. As far as they're concerned, life goes on as normal; despite the fact genocidal ISIS fighters sit just 30 miles outside the city.

The mood in Baghdad is relaxed (Photo by Eisa Ali)

The mood in Baghdad is relaxed (Photo by Eisa Ali)

Iraq is a country which has experienced war after war for the last four decades, if not longer. The barbaric sanctions imposed by the US killed at least 500,000 Iraqi children alone (the number of excess deaths resulting from the Gulf War and its aftermath until 1998 was estimated between 400,000 and 500,000, according to a report by Mohamed M. Ali, John Blacker and Gareth Jones for the World Health Organization.)

And when former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked in an interview by 60 Minutes if she thought the death of thousands of children was worth getting America's old ally, Saddam Hussein, out of power, she infamously replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”

Despite it all, the inhabitants of Iraq have built up a sort of immunity to the endless calamities that have befallen this land. They have a sense of pride in their own identity as Iraqis and their resilience is manifest through their gallows sense of humor.

Two days before I arrived, ISIS took over the provincial government buildings in downtown Ramadi, in Anbar Province. Anbar sits just to the West of the capital Baghdad and is the largest of Iraq's provinces. Most of it is controlled by ISIS, although much of the region is made up of uninhabited expanses of desert.

The Hashed Al Shabi fighters are keen to join the fighting in Anbar (Photo by Eisa Ali)

The Hashed Al Shabi fighters are keen to join the fighting in Anbar (Photo by Eisa Ali)

As I begin writing this, news starts to filter through that ISIS has also taken over the Anbar Operations Command center in Ramadi. Soldiers and Hashd Al Shaabi volunteers (the young men who answered Ayatollah Sistani's call to take up arms against ISIS last summer) that I spoke to in Baghdad are seething with anger.

For months, Baghdad's government has been holding back on sending in the cavalry, under pressure not just from Sunni politicians who don't want to see ISIS defeated, but from the US too. Prime Minister Abadi announced on Sunday, however, that the Hashd should start preparing to go to Anbar. They, for their part, are chomping at the bit. They kept stressing to me how this fight isn't just for Iraq but for the whole world.

Photos of Martyrs in the fight against ISIS adorn the streets of Baghdad (Photo by Eisa Ali)

Baghdad itself is well protected. The sense of panic which followed the ISIS takeover of Mosul has largely subsided. Should ISIS try to move on the capital, they'd likely be cut to ribbons, even if the fall of Ramadi appears to offer them a clear run at the capital (the reality is that it simply isn't as straightforward as that).

Photos of Martyrs in the fight against ISIS adorn the streets of Baghdad (Photo by Eisa Ali) There are tens of thousands of soldiers on the streets and perhaps even more of the Hashd volunteers. The best, or worst, that ISIS has been able to do thus far in Baghdad is send intermittent car bombs into the capital to murder civilians. In recent weeks, an increasing number of these bombs have made their way into the city. Locals say ISIS have infiltrated by blending in with the estimated 100,000 internally displaced people fleeing the Ramadi fighting.

But Baghdad isn't Ramadi, nor is it Mosul. Thus far, ISIS has only taken and held areas with majority Sunni populations, mainly through massacring local Sunnis who resist them and terrifying others into submission.

The reaction of Iraq's Sunnis to ISIS has been patchy to say the least. In many parts of the country, thousands of Sunni tribesmen stood and fought ISIS, most notably in Tikrit and Diyala. In other parts, however, ISIS forces were aided by collusion. But Baghdad's inhabitants include millions of Shia Muslims who make up the majority and have been marked out for extermination by ISIS. They'll fight any attempted incursion by the fanatics tooth and nail.

Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. (Twitter: @EisaAli_RT)



Iraq Diary, Day 2: The role of Iraqi journalists and Christian militia fighting ISIS

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 19, 2015 16:42
Reuters / Stringer

Reuters / Stringer

On day two of my trip to Iraq we meet Hashd Shaabi, the name of a group of mainly Shia militia organizations participating in the attacks on ISIS, before meeting with a brigade of Christian militiamen in Baghdad.

On Monday morning, we travel to meet the Hashd Shaabi media team at their Baghdad offices. The facilities are modest and the men working there are all in their late teens or early twenties. I ask if they're getting paid and they say no. They tell me they are volunteering and wouldn't accept money for what they do.

On the walls are photos of cameramen from the team who have been killed filming from the battlefield. They say that 20 men have lost their lives so far. They show us some of the video footage from their collection and it is immediately obvious why so many of them have fallen. Their cameramen bravely enter right into the middle of the clashes. One clip shows a suicide bomber driving an armored vehicle right at a Hashd position. The truck is hit by a rocket and detonates before it can inflict any casualties.

We then move into another room where we meet Hajj Muhanned, the head of the media team. We explain what we want to do, where we wish to travel and he tells us what is possible. He informs us that the Ramadi front is a no-go zone since ISIS took over the Anbar Operations Command post. I don't protest too much.

This ISIS flag was captured by from the house of a tribal chief in Albu Ajeel, Tikrit (image by Eisa Ali)

This ISIS flag was captured by from the house of a tribal chief in Albu Ajeel, Tikrit (image by Eisa Ali)

He then tells us of his disappointment as to how Iraq has been covered by some Western media outlets. For example, he said that on the day some of the biggest mass graves from the Speicher massacre were discovered in Tikrit, the journalists his men were risking their lives to protect were downplaying what is ISIS's single largest atrocity to date (more than 1,700 Shia cadets were executed one-by-one in a single day), instead choosing to write about refrigerators being looted.

"We aren't angels from the heavens, but there has been a concerted campaign by some to try to equate us to ISIS. We want them to tell the truth, nothing more," he implored.

Christian community stands firm

In the afternoon, we go to meet Reain al-Kaldany, leader of the Kataeb Babylon (Babylon Brigades). As suggested by his name he is a member of Iraq's Chaldean Christian community and the head of their political movement. There is a kindness in the face of al-Kaldany and those with him and this hospitable manner makes us feel very welcome.

Al-Kaldany says his fighting group has been active since the ISIS takeover of Mosul and the crimes against Iraq's Christians that followed it. He blames politicians in Saudi Arabia for supporting ISIS and says that his men have captured vehicles with Saudi license plates and other documents.

Reain al-Kaldany, leader of the Babylon Brigades (image by Eisa Ali)

Reain al-Kaldany, leader of the Babylon Brigades (image by Eisa Ali)

For security reasons, he doesn't reveal how many men are under his control, but al-Kaldany says they have been fighting mainly in Nineveh and Salahuddin Provinces. I ask him who is training his men and whether they have previous military experience.

"Most of the men were inexperienced but have now been trained by Hashd Shaabi and have since gained experience at the front. Most of the trainers are Shia militia commanders but some are Christian generals from the time of Saddam's army,” he responds. “Since Tikrit we have more Sunnis joining too."

One of the men sitting in Reain's office is Abu Yahya (not his real name). He says he fled Saddam in 1995 and returned to Iraq from the West last year to fight ISIS. He is one of those Christian generals now training anti-ISIS forces. He tells us of one story about the Christians' ordeal.

"One elderly lady from Mosul was a teacher. An old student of hers was also her neighbor for 30 years but he joined ISIS. He robbed her house and made her leave.”

I asked why he left the comfort of the West to come here.

I couldn't just sit at home and watch this happen. I have one son back home. He is proud of me. He realizes that my heart is here in Iraq and that is all I need. I fight alongside Muslims every day and we will march together through Ramadi.”

Abu Yahya travelled from a Western country to help Iraq's fight against ISIS (image by Eisa Ali)

Abu Yahya travelled from a Western country to help Iraq's fight against ISIS (image by Eisa Ali)

Al-Kaldany, however, sounds a note of caution.

Last night, I had some leaders of the tribes from Anbar call, asking me to send men to fight ISIS. But we have conditions; they mustn't turn round later and make false accusations accusing us of looting, etc., and they can't let ISIS back in again once the fighting is over.

It seems that learning to trust some of the tribes who have assisted ISIS in the past could be a much more difficult task than winning the war itself.



Iraq Diary, Day 3: Face to face with ISIS

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 20, 2015 16:21
Abu Usamah (L) and Abu Baraa (C) speak to me, right

Abu Usamah (L) and Abu Baraa (C) speak to me, right

On Tuesday, we were invited to a detention facility in Baghdad to speak to captured ISIS militants. The experience confirmed many of my own opinions as to why people are deciding to join this radical Sunni group.

We drove to an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad where those convicted of terrorism offences are held. We met with senior security officials who were helping us to coordinate the interviews. We discussed the questions I wanted to ask and they showed no objection to any of my questions.

We were then driven to another building not too far away where we were introduced to two men, Abu Baraa and Abu Usama, both from Baghdad. They were brought out into a courtyard where we conducted the interview.

Certain issues arise in a situation like this. It is, of course, obvious that the men are in detention and that some sort of coercion is occurring. While the interview took place, however, at no point did any of the guards intervene, either by trying to control my questions or by trying to steer the answers. They stood back, mainly smoking and chatting amongst themselves while I spoke to the men through an interpreter.

There is always the possibility that detainees are giving certain answers in order to curry favor with their guards. In this case, however, the detainees gave answers that were starkly honest and dispelled any notion that they were reading off a script.

Within a few minutes it became clear that Abu Usama, despite being the smaller and more slight of the two men, was the leader. Abu Baraa helped Abu Usama to transfer car bombs in to Baghdad. Abu Baraa said he was recruited by a friend while working as a teacher at a madrassa (a religious school); while Abu Usama said he was approached by a man in prison.

They both describe being spun a narrative of glory only being returned to the Sunni Arabs of Iraq through the re-establishment of the Caliphate. They say their war is with Iraq's government, but the car bombs Abu Usama sends to Baghdad kill civilians, mainly Shia ones, in the capital's markets and restaurants.

"I don't agree with killing civilians, it is wrong, they aren't my target, the security forces are but sometimes they are in the way and are killed. I have a mission, what am I supposed to do," he said.

A sample of some of the types of bombs used by ISIS, including mines, suicide vests, grenades and booby traps (image by Eisa Ali)

A sample of some of the types of bombs used by ISIS, including mines, suicide vests, grenades and booby traps (image by Eisa Ali)

His indifferent attitude to killing civilians makes me question his sincerity when he later says he regrets his actions.

I turn to Abu Usama. He comes across as the more repentant of the two.

He is 23 years old. He would have been 11 when the US invasion took place in 2003.

"We were brought up in an environment of violence and sectarianism in Iraq. When ISIS came to us, their message was alluring," he explained.

I motion to the door of the courtyard to my right and ask what he would do if he were allowed to leave. “Would you go back to your life before ISIS or would you rejoin them," I asked.

"I would go home, get my family and leave Iraq forever & start a new life," he responded.

I ask Abu Usama the same question.

"What can I say; I don't know what I would do".

ISIS takes to satellite channels to promote message

In the afternoon we travel to another facility and meet with Taqseem, another militant involved in facilitating car bombs into Baghdad. The officials at this prison again allow us to ask anything we want but request that we only use his first name.

Taqseem tells us that he didn't actually send car bombs into Baghdad. He would pick up cars and then drop them off to another man who would then rig them. Presumably, somebody else would then take over the next stage of the process, transferring the rigged vehicles to the streets of the capital.

He says he didn't know the cars would be used for bombs.

(We were shown a sample of some of the types of bombs used by ISIS, including mines, suicide vests, grenades and booby traps)

"I don't ask questions. I just do my job and then leave," he said.

It's obvious what the cars are being used for but this is, perhaps, a fascinating glimpse into how ISIS operates. Each operative has his own role to play and nobody knows what the other link in the chain is doing, nor does he want to know. This mode of operating makes disrupting networks more difficult as it insulates senior leaders from the risk of informants revealing their identities. Some ISIS leaders are even known to wear masks at all times in the presence of everyone but their most trusted comrades.

I ask Taqseem what made him join ISIS. He says the Sunnis are being oppressed by the Shia in Iraq. Assuming that to be the case, how does he explain the killing and raping of Christians and Yezidis?

"What ISIS did at that time to those groups was ok but now it's not justified to attack them.”

I didn't bother trying to get him to explain.

He went on, saying that he was also influenced by the sermons of some sheikhs on satellite channels. My ears prick up at this point. ISIS propaganda is almost entirely disseminated through the internet. They don't have satellite channels. What channels had he been watching that caused him to join a group of brutal murderers?

He immediately reels them off; "Al Wesal, Al Rahmah, Safa TV… I listened to sheikhs like Adnan Arour (the 'spiritual leader' of Syria's revolution in the early days of the insurrection). They said that we have to follow the Quran and Sunni and that the Shia are polytheists".

Wesal and Safa in particular focus on attacking Shia religious beliefs and practices. They regularly use incendiary language against Shia Muslims, employing pejorative, derogatory terms like "Rafidhi" (one who has supposedly rejected real Islam) to dehumanize them.

Here in front of me was an ISIS militant making the clearest admission yet on the role of these extremist Sunni channels in helping ISIS's recruitment efforts. They continue to broadcast 24/7, in several different languages, causing irreparable damage to the minds of those watching.

The first thing that struck me was the demeanor of all three men. Western audiences are probably used to the sight of hooded ISIS terrorists with their chests puffed out as they stand over their soon-to-be victims. Yet these men stood, eyes to the ground, shoulders slumped. They look so pathetic and helpless that you almost feel sorry for them.

Then you remind yourself what would happen if the roles were reversed.



Iraq Diary, Day 4: Meeting one of Iraq’s most powerful men

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 21, 2015 17:41
Image by Eisa Ali

Image by Eisa Ali

On Wednesday, we got a better understanding of Ayatollah Sistani’s role in the formation of Hashd Shaabi, met a leader of an anti-IS (Islamic State, formerly ISIS/ISIL) Sunni group of fighters, and interviewed one of most powerful men in Iraq.

We traveled to the religious affairs office of the Hashd Shabi in Baghdad to meet with Sayed Kadhem al-Gabri, who is described as the spiritual mentor of Hashd Shaabi. The office oversees all religious issues regarding the fighters who are in the field battling IS.

Kadhem told us that attached to each group of soldiers are religious clerics who advise the men and, more importantly, keep them in line. He said this was a decision made by Ayatollah Sistani, whose fatwa calling on all military aged men to fight IS brought the Hashd Shaabi into creation.

Hundreds of thousands of fighters signed up immediately, but Sayed Kadhem admitted that not all of them had noble intentions.

Some of the people who joined had their own agendas. They are criminals who saw an opportunity and so joined Hashd,” he said. “They attempt to steal people’s property in areas we liberate, but we catch them most of the time and hold them to account.”

Nevertheless, Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shia Muslim Cleric, made the decision to embed the clerics with the fighters, even issuing a Warrior’s Code of Ethics.

For example, some people joined up out of anger at what ISIS were doing and Sistani issued instructions on the correct way of treating detainees so that this anger wouldn’t manifest itself in abuses against captured ISIS fighters. He also ordered fighters to only raise the Iraqi flag whenever entering an area, to avoid tensions in areas of mixed sects and ethnicities,” he explained.

I ask him why IS had emerged.

There are some governments who want to see Iraq split into three parts and they have helped the growth of ISIS for this end,” he said. “They are mainly Israel and some politicians in the US, but we also put responsibility on Saudi Arabia’s shoulders because they are funding and brainwashing these people.

We are brothers - this isn’t a sectarian war

Another individual we meet at the religious affairs office is Shaikh Taha Jubouri. He is the leader of the Hamza Brigades, a Sunni Arab force of the Hashd Shaabi. They number around 1,000 men and are active in the Dhuluiya area.

Many Western and Gulf-funded media outlets consistently refer to Hashd Shaabi as “Iran-backed Shia militias,” but Shaikh Taha refutes that assertion.

"This isn’t a sectarian war, we are brothers in the Hashd,” he insists. “This is a war for our country and we fight side by side against ISIS.”

There are thousands of Sunnis fighting against ISIS under the banner of Hashd Shaabi. Many of them hail from the Jubour tribe, one of the biggest tribes in Iraq. Like many other tribes in Iraq, however, the Jubour are currently split between pro IS and anti-IS elements.

On our previous day’s visit to the Interior Ministry’s holding facility, the walls to the entrance were adorned with the pictures and names of IS fighters who had been captured by security forces. Many of them were from Jubouri.

This demonstrated to me just how complex it will be to bridge Iraq’s many different groups. My friend and prominent Iraq analyst Sajad Jiyad summed up this dilemma during his trip to Dhuluiyah earlier this year: “One police colonel who employed his cousins as his bodyguards was killed by them at the onset of the siege.”

RT image

RT image

In the past 12 months, IS forces have massacred many Sunnis who they considered ‘collaborators’ with the government. They call them murtadeen (apostates) and Sahawat, a reference to the Sahwa Awakening movement of Sunnis who fought against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 as part of the US occupation’s surge.

These massacres have pushed more Sunnis to fight alongside Hashd and government forces and they will be key to any chance Iraq has of defeating IS.

In Ramadi, moves are already underway to bring Sunni fighters under the Hashd umbrella.

Waiting to meet one of Iraq’s most powerful men

After I leave the office, I receive a call to say that I have a chance to meet Shaikh Qais Al Khaz’ali, who is one of the most powerful men in the country. He is the leader of Asaib Ahl Haq (AAH), one of the largest militias in Iraq.
Qais favoured closer ties with Iran and his troops were said to be trained by the Iranians and Hezbollah. He was kidnapped by the Americans in Basra in 2007 for killing US soldiers, but was released in 2010 in a prisoner swap in exchange for four Brits who had been taken by AAH in May 2007.

AAH forces were also involved in heavy fighting in Syria against the rebels, as well as Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. When Mosul fell last summer, most of his fighters headed back to Iraq to fight radical Islamic groups there.

We drive to Taji, which is to the north of the capital Baghdad, to a dusty staging post where hundreds of AAH fighters are gathering as they prepare to fight at the Baiji oil refinery north of Tikrit. In the morning I had been anticipating an interview with some political figures, but it was pushed back and so here I am, standing in a shirt and tie in the midst of hundreds of armed men dressed in fatigues. I think it’s safe to say I stand out.

It is mid-afternoon and the temperatures must be in excess of 40 degrees Celsius. We wait for a while and several large convoys carrying men, weapons and supplies enter the post. Eventually the convoy carrying Qais arrives and he exits his car to chants and salutes by his men.

I eventually get to ask him about the fight against IS and the fact that some accuse his group of being sectarian.

"This is not a war between Iraq’s different communities, this is a national war against IS and there are thousands of Sunnis fighting with us to free Iraq,” he tells me.

I move around, speaking to some of the fighters. Some of them ask who I work for and then smile when I say RT. Roosiya Al Yawm, RT’s Arabic language service is very popular in Iraq as many Iraqis don’t like the Qatari-funded Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya (owned by Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal) because of the way they have covered Iraq.

"Ahlan beek" one of them says to welcome me. They are mostly remarkably young, in their late teens to early twenties. They are all in good spirits, laughing, joking and performing the traditional Iraqi dance called Hosat. Hosat involves one person reading some lines of poetry and then everyone else joining in with the chorus and dancing, in this case as they wave their weapons in the air.

As we leave, it dawns on me that many of these young men may not make it back alive.



Iraq Diary, Day 5: Economic challenges

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 24, 2015 13:17
Reuters / Mohammed Ameen

Reuters / Mohammed Ameen

​Thursday is the quietest day yet of my trip here.

It helps because I think I need a day to relax after the sheer pace of the first few days. In the morning, I manage to meet up with Sajad Jiyad, the prominent Iraq expert, now living between Baghdad and London.

He is working for a think tank that focuses on reform of the economy and tells me of the need for Iraq to diversify its economy & how oil prices falling have taken their toll.

Factor in the cost of the war against ISIS and Iraq has real economic problems to deal with.

It's Thursday night in Iraq, which for Westerners is the equivalent of Friday night. The streets are filled with people and families out and about.

Earlier in the day, I read an article which talks of the sense of fear enveloping the people of Baghdad. If that's truly the case, then I'm not sensing it. Don't get me wrong, people are both wary and weary of the terrorism inflicted upon Baghdad by ISIS, but that isn't stopping them from laughing and living. I've visited countries with better security, economies and infrastructure but whose people walk around with a dark cloud above their heads. People here realize there is a danger every time they go out, but it doesn't dominate their lives like we would think.

I wonder whether these people would be the same had they not gone through such trials and tribulations for so many years. "Diamonds are only made through intense pressure, after all," one of my Iraqi colleagues tells me. "Iraq would overtake all the Gulf countries if it could have a chance to stand on its feet."



Iraq Diary, Day 6: 'Iraq must tilt to Russia & China'

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 24, 2015 13:38
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari (RIA Novovsti / Grigoriy Sisoev)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari (RIA Novovsti / Grigoriy Sisoev)

On Friday, we meet with Muafak Ruba'i, Iraq's former national security adviser, at his home on the River Tigris.

During the interview, I ask him about the fall of Ramadi and he is scathing about the American attitude to the fight against ISIS.

"The Americans aren't serious about fighting ISIS. They have one policy in Iraq and a different one in Syria. To fight ISIS, you need one coherent approach everywhere."

He also talks about the almost non-existent airstrikes in Ramadi, contrasting it to the heavy airstrikes launched when ISIS approached Erbil. I ask him about Prime Minister Abadi's trip to Moscow and he is positive about it.

"Iraq must diversify its friends and tilt to the east, to Russia for military and intelligence cooperation and China for economic cooperation. We already have a relationship, but it must be strengthened."

He finishes with an interesting observation.

A new Iraq

"There is a new nationalism in Iraq which is manifested in the Hashd Shabi. It is inclusive of all of Iraq's communities but also has influences of Shia culture and identity" Ruba'i says.

Iraq's Shia majority for years were stifled and suppressed in expressing their identity. Under Saddam, even simply performing the pilgrimage to Karbala would mean certain death. Millions of Shia were dismissed as 'Iranians' due to the fact their ancestors settled in Iraq hundreds of years ago and they were killed or expelled from the country as a result. But now there is a sense of defiance, as the new existential threat in the form of ISIS looms large over Baghdad.

People hang flags and banners celebrating Ali and Hussain, the two Shia Imams buried in the Holy cities of the south. The message is clear: We are Shia and proud of it. ISIS will have a major fight on their hands to take Baghdad.

Interestingly, this has influenced other communities as well. The annual commemorations of Arbaeen now always include delegations of Christian pilgrims. A few years back, Christmas fell at the same time as Arbaeen and one Baghdad church toned down its decorations as a sign of respect. Earlier this year, a group of Shia militia and government leaders visited a Baghdad church to mark Easter and also to assure the Christian community that they would protect them at all costs.

In the evening we get our things together and head to the south for the next stage of the journey.



Iraq Diary, Day 7: The threat to Karbala and the plight of Iraq's IDPs

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 25, 2015 19:10
Imam Hussain mosque. Photo by Eisa Ali.

Imam Hussain mosque. Photo by Eisa Ali.

On Saturday, we enter the mosque of Imam Hussain in Karbala, a stunning piece of architecture which just days before had been threatened by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who said Baghdad and Karbala were next in the jihadists’ sights.

In the ISIS reading of Sunni Islam, monuments like this are polytheistic and must be destroyed. Not all Sunni schools of thought agree with this rigid interpretation. We see Barelvi Sunnis who are visiting from Pakistan, while Sufis also visit the shrines of their holy figures regularly.

For the Shia, Karbala is one of the holiest places of Earth.

Hussain was killed here in the 7th century by the forces of the Caliph Yazeed in a battle which is reenacted by Shias to this day, in a not too dissimilar way to passion plays. For the Shia, the battle of Karbala is the archetypal battle between good and evil.

The mosque's foundation has been part of efforts to look after the thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing ISIS. They have helped Iraqis from all walks of life.

Dr. Abdul Aziz. Photo by Eisa Ali

Dr. Abdul Aziz. Photo by Eisa Ali

"We have helped Sunnis from Ramadi and Christians and Shia from Tal Afar and Mosul," one official tells me.

We travel the road between Karbala and Najaf. Every year, somewhere between 15 and 20 million people walk this route as part of the Arbaeen commemorations, defying the bombs and bullets of ISIS, who consider the Shia to be heretics worthy of only death.

In recent years, makeshift mosques have been built along the route to look after the pilgrims as they undertake the walk, which lasts around three or four days.

Those temporary structures are now being used to house tens of thousands of IDPs from around the country.

The home of a displaced family on the Najaf-Karbala highway. Their newborn daughter sleeps in the wooden cot. Photo by Eisa Ali

The home of a displaced family on the Najaf-Karbala highway. Their newborn daughter sleeps in the wooden cot. Photo by Eisa Ali

We speak to Dr Abdul Aziz, a doctor from Tal Afar who lost six members of his family, including his son.

"We resisted ISIS the first two days of their attack and killed many of them. On the third night, however, some sympathetic local Sunnis helped them enter by attacking the army and police. Finally, after ISIS sent a suicide truck bomb they were able to take the whole town."

He says they fled to Sinjar first and were looked after by the Yazidi community there. When the Yazidis couldn't do anything more for them, they tried to go to the Kurdish region of Iraq but, like so many others fleeing ISIS, were not allowed to enter without a sponsor because they weren't Kurdish.

He eventually made it down to the south, together with a few other families. He thanks the religious institutions and the local people for their help, although he acknowledges that they are limited in what they can offer. I ask him whether the government has done much.

"[Prime Minister] Abadi put money aside for the IDPs but none of it has made it down. He wants to help, but there is corruption from the top officials right down to the bottom."

Iraq is hamstrung by corruption. At every level, in almost every institution, graft is having devastating consequences. The army has well-known problems of corruption, with some blaming corrupt generals and local politicians for “selling” Ramadi to ISIS. In Mosul, local generals were inflating the number of soldiers on the payrolls in order to claim salaries from Baghdad, and then pocketing the money for these “ghost soldiers.” All of this has helped ISIS in their rampage across the country.

Other families who fled ISIS are living in shipping containers, sat along the same stretch of highway. The conditions are upsetting and unhygienic. As we drive to Najaf, I look to the right to see a new football stadium being built. What Iraq needs less than anything right now is another white elephant casting a shadow over its destitute people.

Dr Abdul Aziz has a final message he wants me to pass on to the world. "Russia is our friend and we support them. But they need to back Iraq with arms to fight ISIS so we can all go home one day."



Iraq Diary, Day 8: Does the DIA report talk about ISIS roots?

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 26, 2015 23:30


We return to Baghdad, and my social media feeds are buzzing over a released DIA report from 2012 that talks about US policy in Syria.

The report states that "Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting" the efforts of opposition forces to take full control of Syria's eastern areas adjacent to western Iraqi provinces.

The location and description of the nature of the Salafist group matches perfectly the so-called Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL]. It has served as a vindication for those who have long suspected the Gulf dictatorships, Turkey and the Western powers of being behind the rise of IS.

Seymour Hersh wrote in 'The Redirection' in 2007 about the change in US policy towards the backing of Sunni extremists against Iran and its allies, primarily Syria. The perception on the ground, among the vast majority of people I've spoken to anyway, is that the US is behind the rise of IS, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

This DIA document, and the silence in Western media that has met it, will only fuel that perception.

‘I feel like a stranger in my own country’

We have just spent several days travelling through different towns and cities in the South of Iraq.

One of our cameramen, who goes by the alias Zaid, is from Basra. He is a black Iraqi, one of hundreds of thousands who have lived in Iraq for centuries. Zaid traces his family’s presence in Iraq back more than 400 years, to a family of wealthy landowners who migrated from Africa.

As we drive, we pass through checkpoint after checkpoint and I start to notice a trend. The soldiers ask where Zaid and I are from. I apparently am too pale and Zaid apparently is too dark to be Iraqi.

Zaid answers 'Basra' in a thick Iraqi accent and teases the soldiers, who laugh and send us on our way.

Zaid is sitting on the driver’s side so the soldiers see him first and thus inquire about him first. It doesn’t happen at every checkpoint but it happens enough to catch my attention.

Zaid is a softly spoken, funny and hardworking young man and even though he laughs when it happens, something tells me it must be pretty tiresome. I try to broach the topic gently about how he feels constantly being tested.

“Honestly I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own country and sometimes I just want to get up and leave. I always have to prove who I am in my own country.”

The profiling that takes place at the checkpoints and elsewhere is probably motivated as much by ignorance as it is by hatred, he says.

In one sense it is understandable. There’s a war going on and the security forces have to check if people are who they say they are. Foreigners regularly blow themselves up to kill Shias in Iraq and apparently book themselves a place in paradise.

(The kind of genocidal sentiments that IS terrorists, this one a British citizen, show towards Shia Muslims)

On the other hand, IS in Iraq (as opposed to Syria where most of the foreign fighters are based) is primarily made up of Iraqis who look just like the soldiers. Perhaps they should be profiling each other. It doesn’t happen at every checkpoint and most politely wave us on after they establish who we are.

But for Zaid it is an issue deeper than just profiling at checkpoints.

“I wanted to marry this one girl, her family were supposed to be communists, all about justice and so on,” Says Zaid. “But as soon as I proposed, they told her they’d cut relations with her if she married me.”

The real issue, Zaid says, is the refusal of society to even accept that the country, like most others, has an issue with racism. “You can’t deal with a problem if you don’t even want to admit that it exists.”

Back in Baghdad, a soldier at a checkpoint in Karrada takes one look at Zaid and without skipping a beat asks

“Basrawi?” (Are you from Basra?)

Zaid smiles and with palatable relief in his voice says:

“Yes. I’m Basrawi.”



Iraq Diary, Day 9: A tragedy visits our team

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: May 31, 2015 03:26
Reuters / Stringer

Reuters / Stringer

Today is sad day for our team. Our fixer Mohammed is a Shia from Baghdad. His sister married a Sunni man from Saqlawiyah, in Anbar province.

For hours I couldn't get through to him on the phone. Eventually he calls me back "I'm so sorry, but we just had some bad news. My sister’s mother in law has been killed. She was hiding two soldiers who had fled from Ramadi and ISIS found them and killed them all.”

He explains that Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) had gone house to house trying to find anyone hiding policemen and soldiers. Worryingly they knew exactly who they were looking for.

“They dragged them out of the house and killed them in the streets in front of everyone. Before they killed her they told her 'we know your son is hiding in Baghdad with the Shia',” Mohammed said.

Quite possibly, the only people who IS hate more than the Shia are Sunnis who oppose them, who they call 'murtadeen' (apostates). They are also their weak point because Sunnis are vital to defeating IS as it is Sunni areas which IS ultimately control. It explains why the terrorist groups hunts them down as it also instills fear in anyone else who thinks to oppose them.

His brother in law, a Sunni, has been quiet since he found out and wants to join Hashd Shabi to fight IS.

Eventually IS will be the cause of its own downfall, by angering the people they are supposed to be 'defending'.

There are also reports that amongst the 200 suspected IS members that Kata'ib Hezbollah arrested in Anbar, 37 of them were citizens of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations. Baghdadis suspect that the visit of Qatar's foreign minister is partly to try to spring their release by bribing the Iraqi government.

These types of rumors regularly seek to put pressure on the government as weak in the face of the Gulf countries. My own suspicions are that they come from supporters of former PM Nouri Maliki, who want to portray the government of Haider Abadi as incapable of defending Iraq.



Iraq Diary Day 10: 'The US calling us terrorists is an honor'

Opinion pieces by Eisa Ali, RT UK’s correspondent in London. follow him on Twitter.

Published time: June 01, 2015 19:39
Reuters / Stringer

Reuters / Stringer

On the 10th and final day in Iraq, I go and speak to the spokesman for Harakat Nujaba, Sayid Hashim Al Mousawi. Nujaba are led by Akram Al Kabi who the US considers a terrorist for his role in fighting US and UK troops during the 8-year occupation.

I’m driven to several locations and told to change cars each time before finally being driven to a compound in Baghdad, behind several layers of checkpoints manned by young fighters, no older than 21 or 22.

We go in and wait for Mousawi to arrive. He arrives after about 10 minutes, but even so apologizes for keeping us waiting.

Mousawi is a young man in his early 30s. His eyes betray his youthfulness and he is jovial and welcoming. He is one of the more interesting of the many people I have met during my journey. He is a cultured and educated man, quoting the first Shia leader Imam Ali ("People are either your brothers in religion or your equals in humanity"), along with Ghandi ("I learnt from Hussain how to attain victory while being oppressed") and also, as he complained bitterly about the woes of his favorite team Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho (‘A team with Lionel Messi is unstoppable’).

He also tells me of his admiration for Che Guevara: “I like him because he was a rebel. I like rebellious people”

Sayid Hashim Mousawi, spokesman for Harakat Nujaba

Sayid Hashim Mousawi, spokesman for Harakat Nujaba

I raise the issue of the US considering the leader of his group a terrorist.

“An honor! If defending your country from an occupation is terrorism then it is an honor to be called that. We have no issue with the American people but their government brought nothing but misery to Iraq.”

I also ask him about the repeated accusations that the groups fighting the Islamic State militants (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) are sectarian.

“Abu Bakr Baghdadi says he will come to Baghdad and Karbala after Ramadi. We will have tens of thousands of fighters waiting for his gang. We have four divisions of Sunni fighters alone.”

One division of those is from the Albu Fahad tribe whose opposition to IS has marked them out as targets. IS refer to them and all Sunnis who oppose them as ‘murtadeen’ (apostates).

“We will hand the land over to the people it belongs to, the Sunni sons of Anbar,” Mousawi confirms.

It is my last day in Iraq. I have a final chance to meet with Hashd Shabi fighters who are heading out to Ramadi. Again they are young and eager to join the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

The 'Victory Arch' in Baghdad's green zone

The 'Victory Arch' in Baghdad's green zone

“We are not doing this for the government to sit on their chairs,” says one young fighter who says he has come from Diyala. “We are doing this to stop Daesh (Arabic acronym for IS) before it is too late”.

The sentiment about the government is not so uncommon. There are whole neighborhoods carved out in Baghdad, which are the fiefdoms of the different political blocs in Parliament and the phenomenon crosses sectarian and ethnic divides. As you drive out of the Green Zone, where government offices are based, you are met with a picture of Jalal Talabani (the Kurdish former president of Iraq) on one side and Ammar Al-Hakim (leader of the Shia ISCI bloc) on the other. Every single one of the parties owns land, properties and other business interests.

They also treat the government ministry portfolios as their own personal property. It explains why the Iraqi government is so divided and incapable of functioning in a coherent manner. Different parties with completely differing agendas have control of entire ministries, giving jobs to their supporters as opposed to the most capable people. It was the system imposed on Iraq by the occupation authorities under the pretext of ‘power sharing’ and was reinforced again last year when new PM Haidar Abadi was pressured into being more “inclusive.”

Upon my return to London, news filters through of a bomb ripping through a few hotels in Baghdad. Ten people, simply trying to enjoy their evening with family and friends, who have their own hopes and dreams, are snuffed out, their lives tragically cut short.

As I leave Iraq, I think of all the characters I have met, all the people working to help Iraq get back on its feet and all the hope they express. Some people have given up on this beautiful country, declaring it a lost cause but Iraq has a chance through its people, despite all the deep problems plaguing the country.

PIC With internally displaced people (IDPs), Shia Turkmen Muslims who fled IS in Tal Afar

PIC With internally displaced people (IDPs), Shia Turkmen Muslims who fled IS in Tal Afar

I leave with a yearning to one day return and continue to report about this enigmatic place, which is hailed as the birthplace of civilization.



May 26th 2015  Rev - 13