ISIS & the Shia Revival in Iraq

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A screen shot of a video released by ISIS showing militants destroying antiquities in the Mosul Museum in Iraq, February 2015

“We’re ridding the world of polytheism, and spreading monotheism across the planet,” an ISIS preacher recently said in a video recording. Behind him one could see the ISIS faithful using sledgehammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the eighth-century-BC citadel of the Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad, ten miles northwest of Mosul in northern Iraq, and the colossal statues of human-headed winged bulls that had guarded it. Amir al-Jumaili, an antiquities professor at Mosul University, has recorded the destruction of some 160 sites by ISIS since June 2014, when it conquered Iraq’s second city. He showed me some recent entries in his logbook:

5 March 2015—Nimrud destroyed; 6 March 2015, Hatra destroyed; 9 March 2015, Khorsabad destroyed [i.e., the fourth capital of the Assyrians].

The full extent of the damage to these enormous and remote sites remains unclear. But on March 18, 2015, Iraq’s distraught archaeologists and antiquities experts gathered for a government-sponsored conference in Baghdad. Iraq has 12,000 archaeological sites—too many to protect, I was told by Ahmed Kamel Mohammed, the director of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the country’s greatest collection of antiquities, which had been looted when the Americans took Baghdad in 2003. Some of the experts proposed drafting a UN Security Council resolution to entrust the protection of the sites to the US-led coalition. Others advocated the creation of a national antiquities guard. Iraq’s national security adviser, Faleh Fayadh, promised to consider this and then nodded off during a presentation about the ancient temple to the sun god at Hatra, one of ISIS’s reported targets.

Islamic heritage has fared no better. In the 1920s puritanically strict Sunni fighters, who were followers of the eighteenth-century religious leader Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab and allies of the Saudi tribes, cleansed Mecca and Medina of saint-worship following their takeover. So their ISIS successors today set off explosions that demolished over a dozen mosques in Mosul. These included the Nithamiya, a twelfth-century Seljuk madrasa, which they razed because it contained a shrine to Ali al-Asghar, the youngest child of the great Shia imam Hussein, killed in the seventh century. Over two days in February 2015, al-Jumaili noted in his log, ISIS also set fire to Mosul’s public library and theater.

Some observers of ISIS say they find similarities between its cultural devastation and other state-building projects in the cantankerous region. But other motives also drive its madness. Since the nineteenth century, archaeologists had sought permission to dig beneath Nabi Yunus, the hilltop shrine of Jonah that is Mosul’s landmark, in the hope of discovering the throne room of the Assyrian rulers reputed to lie below it. Perhaps, they speculated, it might house the loot Sargon II captured when he destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BC and took its ten tribes into captivity. In the 1860s, the Ottoman governor had refused to let Sir Austen Henry Layard, an archaeologist from the British Museum, excavate, lest he violate the site’s Islamic sanctity. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new ISIS caliph, had no such qualms. Two days after blowing up Nabi Yunus in July 2014, ISIS summoned al-Jumaili and his colleagues to inspect the rubble for signs of the human-headed bulls and basalt reliefs. “They are digging, not just destroying,” said Kamel, the balding, bespectacled director of the Baghdad museum. Behind their lofty pretensions to defend monotheism, ISIS zealots, it turns out, are petty tomb-raiders.

The video that ISIS circulated of its demolition job on Mosul’s antiquities museum in February 2015 was designed to market what it did not destroy. Of the thirty original pieces in the museum’s Hatra hall, according to al-Jumaili, the ISIS jihadis had hacked at ten. They had not filmed the prehistoric, Islamic, and priceless Assyrian halls, because those artifacts were for sale. Their rampage through the Hatra hall, al-Jumaili surmised, was designed to boost demand and hike prices on the black market. An Iraqi government adviser estimated that the caliphate might have already earned hundreds of millions of dollars from its sales of Assyrian remains. ISIS, the adviser told me, is the world’s best-financed terrorist organization, worth an estimated $8 billion. But with America bombing its oil installations, it was anxious to diversify revenues. (These figures for ISIS finances can’t be confirmed but are widely believed by the informed Iraqis I talked to.)

Such is the profiteering that people in Mosul increasingly wonder where the money acquired by ISIS is going. Aside from the construction of a new desert highway running from Mosul to Raqqa, its first capital, in Syria, there is scant sign of ISIS’s billions. With government salaries barely trickling into Mosul, many locals complain of struggling to make ends meet. They know very well that the abduction and rape of thousands of Yazidi girls by ISIS have been legalized by its leaders as “the spoils of war” and that ISIS has taken over the property and belongings of hundreds of thousands who have fled the city.

A doctor who fled Mosul with his family in March spoke of mounting fear at the executions. Initially, he told me, ISIS restricted its beheadings to the square outside the city administration building. But in recent months jihadis with machetes would stop traffic at intersections in the suburbs, decapitate people, and leave.

ISIS is not alone in public beheadings but no other group makes such a show of it. Rather than motivated by mere bloodlust, the practice seems designed, according to one theory, to provoke its opponents abroad to crack down on their domestic Salafi groups, and thereby broaden ISIS’s base.

As much as they condemn violence, people in Mosul express anger at the foreign Islamists who are among the prime beneficiaries of the new order. In its 2015 manual for women, ISIS contrasts its favorable treatment of expatriates with that of the “hypocritical states” of the Gulf, where expatriates

are obligated to pay a residency tax (iqamah) as if they were People of the Book, as if they are not equal to the people of the country in work, in healthcare, in social life and everything else. To hell with these laws, to hell with nationalism! Instead of this, in my state here, the Chechen is a friend of a Syrian, the Hijazi a neighbour of a Kazakh. Lineages are mixed, tribes merged and races joined under the banner of monotheism, resulting in a new generation integrating the cultures of many different peoples into a beautiful and harmonious alliance.

According to Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, foreigners make up 43 percent of ISIS’s fighting strength of 20,000 men. In some parts of Mosul like Josak, an upscale district, residents told me, English and French are more widely heard than Arabic. Blond Americans are said to have taken over the Turkish consulate. A policeman who fled his hometown of Hit in Anbar province after its capture by ISIS received a photo on his cell phone of his house. The word waqf, which refers to endowments Muslims make to a religious or charitable cause, had been scrawled on its walls. “Saudis, Tunisians have taken it over,” he told me. “They must have sold my furniture and stolen my savings.”

Foreigners have also secured important posts. A dual German-Egyptian national, Sameh Dhu al-Kurnain, now heads Mosul University’s education department. Perplexingly, he has closed the French department, which the great Orientalist Louis Massignon helped establish in the early 1950s, but not the English department; he has banned Iraqis from completing their studies abroad. “In the land of the Caliphate we need mujahideen, not doctorates from the land of the kuffar [i.e., the nonbelievers],” he explained when a medic sought an exit permit.

“So how come you have a German doctorate?” the medic bravely rejoined.

“I left my wife, I left Germany and married jihad,” replied the Egyptian, suggesting the medic do the same.

Apparently concerned by rising discontent in Mosul, the ISIS Caliphate has backtracked on its earlier easing of restrictions. Following a series of explosions in the city, apparently by opponents operating much like World War II partisans, it has restored many checkpoints, this time under foreign, not Iraqi, guard. Some Naqshbandi Sufi mystics and former army officers who used to join ISIS for Friday prayers are reported to be keeping their distance from it. “People are starting to hate religion,” I was told by an academic who has stopped praying for the first time in thirty-four years, even at home. Facebook posts by people inside Mosul mock the absurdities of ISIS’s faith.

But with the more educated and able citizens finding escape routes, those left behind may lack the leadership to challenge ISIS. Many who have known no rule but tyranny are resigned to swapping one dictatorship for another. Any change in the status quo will likely depend on forces outside the city.

At Baghdad’s once-luxurious Al Mansour Hotel a hundred sheikhs from Anbar, a mainly Sunni province west of the city, crowded into a ballroom to declare that they would fight for Prime Minister al-Abadi’s government—provided that any territory recovered from ISIS would revert to their control. (A New York Times map published on April 24 indicates that much of the northern half of Anbar province is under ISIS control.) The sheikhs were the latest group to support al-Abadi’s initiative to reconstitute the Sahwa, a conglomeration of Sunni tribal forces that, at its peak, numbered 90,000 and expelled al-Qaeda from Iraq’s Sunni cities. Further north, al-Abadi succeeded in raising a 1,500-strong force of Sunni tribesmen, which, he said, would make up the vanguard for retaking Mosul.

Army generals had confidently blustered that a counterattack would take place this spring. And yet the Sahwa force that al-Abadi has assembled so far is a meager fraction of its previous size, and little match for ISIS’s battle-hardened fighters. The record of fighting in Tikrit, 110 miles from Baghdad, suggests that the task will be daunting.* A few hundred ISIS fighters held out against a 24,000-strong government force for two months. Only after the US began bombing ISIS positions from the air did government forces finally wrest control of the city. ISIS’s force in Mosul is perhaps twenty-five times larger and more readily reinforced from Turkey and Syria, where ISIS controls large swaths of the east. For now at least, the US-led coalition is only bombing ISIS at its edges, demarcating borders with its neighbors, not threatening its nerve centers. Nor will it launch an intensive bombing of Mosul to dislodge ISIS as long as over a million civilians are living there. For all the official bravado, al-Abadi is unlikely to be claiming a victory in Mosul anytime soon.

Nor, for all their distrust of ISIS, is it clear that most Sunnis favor such an assault. Many have come to regret promises of liberation since the Americans first marched into Iraq. They fear it could be a euphemism for a fresh bout of sectarian cleansing. “Why should militiamen from Basra in the south invade a city in the north?” asked Taha Hamid al-Zaydi, a Sunni preacher and spokesman for the capital’s Sunni clerical establishment, which is based at Baghdad’s Abu Hanifa mosque. “It will simply make matters worse.” Each time I try to talk to him about ISIS he lists the crimes the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad continues to commit against Sunnis. “Life is normal in Mosul,” al-Zaydi says. “People of Mosul are more afraid of the future than of the present. We fear huge massacres to come.” As we leave, my driver Abbas tells me, with an eye on his rearview mirror, that al-Zaydi’s underlings in the corridor had joked about how much ransom I might fetch.

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Mike King

Yet Sunni fears are not without basis. Ten days after Mosul’s capture, as ISIS approached Baghdad airport, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader based in Iraq’s Shia shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, issued a call for jihad against ISIS and its Sunni allies. In their panic, cloistered and quietist Shia clerics who for a decade had struck pacifist poses turned into militant mullahs. The night I arrived in Najaf, a Qatari Shiite preacher, Nazar al-Qatari, had put on military fatigues to rally worshipers after evening prayers. All were obliged, he cried, to fight for Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against “the slayers of Imams Hasan and Hussein”—i.e., great imams of Shia history—and join in what the clerics have dubbed the hashad shaabi, or popular mobilization.

To ward off the threat to Baghdad from the Sunni north, Shiite volunteers converged on its streets from the south. Baghdad’s public space feels overwhelmingly Shiite. Leaders of Shiite militias who had previously denounced al-Sistani’s vacillation now celebrated his de facto legalization of the militias’ advance. Abu Jaafar Darraji, a senior commander from the Badr Organization, the largest and most openly pro-Iranian of the militias, told me that not even Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had dared to declare such an open-ended jihad against a Sunni enemy. In the recruiting center he ran in Baghdad he had covered the walls with portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei and al-Sistani. The ones of al-Sistani had stencils of guns on them.

With a fresh supply of arms and training from Iran, Darraji claimed that his Badr militia could outgun the official Iraqi army and set up an alternative system of government. Pointing at Khamenei’s portrait, he said, “He’s the wali amr al-muslimeen, the legal ruler in all the Muslim lands.” Once the militia—the hashad—had accomplished its mission of vanquishing ISIS, it would, he said, be the Iraqi branch of Iran’s Basij, the zealous youth group of vigilantes Khomeini founded in 1979 to uphold his revolution and purge Iran of his enemies.

Iran’s presence, once a hidden force, has shed its camouflage. On billboards in the capital he struck with rockets during the war with Iraq of 1980–1988, Khomeini now can be seen holding a map of Iraq in his hand. Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian commander of the Quds Force, a division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that functions as the Iranian revolution’s foreign legion, has toured front lines in Iraq where the militias he backed fought against ISIS. His close adviser is the hashad’s deputy chief, an Iranian-Iraqi dual national—and veteran of the covert war between Iran and the US—called Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. He is still on America’s terrorism list for bombing the US and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983. When the Americans tried to capture him in 2007, he fled to Iran. Yet he now shares Baghdad’s government enclave, the Green Zone, with the American embassy.

With over 100,000 registered recruits the hashad is willing to expend young lives. While I sat at the gates of Najaf’s shrine, a fresh funeral cortege arrived every five minutes. Each makeshift coffin is wrapped as if for a military funeral—flags made in China stuck on with sticky tape. Relatives wept; fellow fighters stared blankly ahead awaiting their turn to go to the front lines like sheep in an abattoir. In much the same way as Ayatollah Khomeini sent his human waves to block Saddam Hussein’s eight-year invasion, so large numbers of low-income southern Shiites are heading north. “We know we’re going to die. We go to the front as if on a pilgrimage,” an armchair apologist with a UNESCO seat in religious studies at the local university told me. The editor of a local periodical, al-Asala, is more circumspect: “They don’t send their sons to the front,” he said. “They send the poor.”

Such is that supply that the Shia militias have enough excess manpower to carve out Sunni-free zones in and around Baghdad. At his fortified villa in Baghdad, Mudher al-Janabi, a Sunni tribal leader and politician, despairs of ever leading his tribesmen back to their home village of Jurf al-Sakhar, just south of Baghdad. Local officials had failed to repair the irrigation system from the Euphrates, he said. The farmlands of his region, regarded as Baghdad’s breadbasket, had turned into caked scrub. Some of his kinsmen had changed their names from Omar, a Sunni name, to Ammar, a neutral one, in the hope that they might slip through Shiite militia checkpoints barring their return. Al-Abadi had promised to include Sunnis in the Iraqi government but al-Janabi didn’t believe him. “What can the prime minister do?” he asks. “He’s not in charge.”

The huge cavernous Republican Palace in Baghdad seems several sizes too big for al-Abadi and his allies. Saddam filled it with his megalomania; America with its occupying army of soldiers, spies, and carpetbaggers; and Nouri al-Maliki, the previous prime minister, with many lackeys. Walking through it, I passed the locked offices of Paul Bremer, the American governor who dismissed Iraq’s army, gutted its state infrastructure, and laid the foundations of its current dysfunction. I passed no officials. Where in that silent opulence were all the king’s men? Al-Abadi, a jolly man, recalled to me his modest home in Karrada, a central Baghdad neighborhood. It had a small garden, he said, where friends sometimes visited him on a summer evening, sipping lemon and mint tea, klaxons hooting from the streets. “I was about to move in after I had it renovated,” he says sadly. “And they made me prime minister.”

For all its successes, he worries that the hashad might prove a double-edged sword. The militias have punctured the psychological pall that ISIS cast over Iraq, which he insists is half the battle, and for the first time they have forced ISIS onto the defensive. But “any force which you arm is a threat,” he tells me, sounding more like a pundit than Iraq’s chief decision-maker. “I remember in some countries with a history of coups d’état, usually leaders are afraid of arming the army…. And the same I think [holds] for this popular mobilization force.” When I suggest that some commanders are indulging in excesses, he agrees, voicing concern at their “uncontrollable vendettas.”

Some find him too nice to be leading a war. “ISIS doesn’t think so,” he protests. His popularity ratings have climbed steadily, particularly among Sunnis. But the Shiite leaders who miss the lucrative posts they held under his predecessor, al-Maliki, mock al-Abadi’s limpness. A Shiite politician told me that al-Abadi, now commander in chief of the army, is a draft-dodger; he fled conscription into Saddam’s army for a calmer life as a college student in Manchester, England. Even a traffic warden has more of a presence on the ground, said another. No one I spoke to could remember a security post or committee seat he had held since first joining Iraq’s government in 2003. “How will he ever disarm the hashad?” asks Wathiq al-Hashimi, a Baghdad University political scientist. The militia might even march on Baghdad.

On April 1, 2015, al-Abadi walked into Tikrit after the ISIS retreat, triumphantly waving the Iraqi flag. But while he rejoices in his military accomplishments, his civilian advances have won him the most plaudits. After eight years of al-Maliki’s increasingly dictatorial methods, many Iraqis welcome al-Abadi’s lighter touch. In February he lifted the capital’s midnight curfew and opened an underpass through the Green Zone, the Forbidden City that America carved out of the center of the capital, which has snarled Baghdad for over a decade. He has freed the state television channel from the obsequious managers who tried to please al-Maliki with Saddam-style paeans.

In a country tired of and torn apart by militias, al-Abadi’s lack of a martial background seems almost refreshing. He represents the civilian side of Iraq that despite decades of foreign and internal wars has somehow survived. Inside the capital a rare normalcy is taking hold. Under the Americans, suicide bombings, largely by Sunnis, peaked at seventeen a day; they have now fallen—the prime minister proudly notes—to perhaps one a week, and then mainly in its peripheral suburbs. Although Baghdad has as many checkpoints as most cities have traffic lights, the only time I heard gunfire was when I passed a military unit trying out its guns as it headed to the front. Private security companies still earn handsomely by playing on visitors’ fears, but “we have yet to hear a mortar this year,” says a Western diplomat in the Green Zone.

In other ways, too, Baghdad and the southern part of Iraq seem less of a failed state than normally depicted. Police at checkpoints fine drivers whose car papers are not in order. The courts sentence those who fail to pay. Bureaucrats largely show up on time. Twelve years after America promised it, signs of reconstruction are finally visible. New overpasses relieve clogged intersections. A sleek new Chinese train took to the rails in February, cutting the journey time from Baghdad to Basra to an almost bearable ten hours. Some businesspeople are beginning to invest their takings locally rather than send them abroad.

Indeed, for a city that only last summer feared it would be overrun by jihadis, Baghdad feels uncannily lacking in trauma. Perhaps Iraqis have learned how to live with their fears, but ISIS feels more threatening in European capitals than it does in Baghdad. Too complacently, Iraqis talk about ISIS in the past tense, as if its defeat was a foregone conclusion. Young men drive through the streets, playing a pop song mocking ISIS’s “feminine” fighters at full volume on their car stereos. Cafés spill onto sidewalks, their tables filled with families late into the night. Hip eateries have opened around Baghdad University where dressed-up girls go to smoke water pipes. Closed by Saddam Hussein’s faith campaign in the early 1990s, the bars that tentatively reopened in 2010 are now jammed. Bartenders cheer the greater margin of freedom they have gained since Sunni and Shia militias turned their guns on each other instead of on their customers. A banner over the entrance of a nightclub advertises the unveiled starlets who keep dancing until dawn.

There is higher-brow entertainment too. When others head to the mosque before lunch on Fridays, thousands throng to Baghdad’s historic book market on Mutanabbi Street for a weekly literary festival. So crammed were the approach roads the Friday I went that my driver eventually abandoned his taxi and we caught a boat down the Tigris. University lecturers and former politicians held forth in the packed lecture halls of a cultural center, debating Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen and the Iraqi government’s lack of an economic program. Impromptu shouting matches erupted in the courtyard below. Students shook buckets, collecting money to buy back Yazidi wives and daughters whom ISIS has reputedly sold to the Gulf’s brothels. Critics heckled the students for inadvertently financing ISIS.

Never have I returned from a foreign assignment so laden with books, some just published. In Najaf the Shia shrine of Imam Ali was the scene of a book fair, where in two days Lwiss Saliba, a Lebanese theology professor and publisher of comparative religious texts, sold all fifty copies of his new book, Towards a Christian-Shiite Dialogue. It has a picture of Jesus on its front cover. Occupying a prominent place on his stall were his Arabic translations of the Bible, Talmudic tractates, and Baha’i texts. When politely asked by a cleric to remove them, Saliba replied that if the books went, he would go with them. Across the aisle, an Egyptian bookseller displayed his collection of works by Marx, Kant, and Spinoza. Whenever clerics approached, a Baghdad bookseller turned over the covers of collections of Sappho’s poetry sporting disrobed women, and turned them back again once they had passed. This year’s best seller, particularly favored by Najaf’s seminarians, he said, was a new Arabic translation of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

Southern Iraq’s long-shuttered museums are also finally reopening. The National Museum of Iraq reopened in February 2015 after a $40 million renovation. And in Nasiriya, a city famed for its step ziggurat, the director of the antiquities museum, Iqbal Ajeel, proudly displayed the museum’s exquisite Sumerian miniatures and naked figurines to her first group of high school visitors since the 1991 Gulf War forced its closure.

Few Iraqis in the south openly champion separation from the rest of the country, but the chasm is widening. It is not only a question of ISIS imposing its rules on personal behavior and punishing people only slightly out of line. While ISIS destroys museums, the south refurbishes them; while ISIS destroys shrines, the ayatollahs expand them; and while ISIS is burning relics and books, the Imam Ali shrine hosts a book fair where scripture shares space with romantic novels. On the new campus of Kufa University, a burned-down wreck under American occupation when last I saw it, three engineering professors spoke of the golden age that awaits a united Iraq, or at least its Arab provinces, once the militias defeat ISIS.

But a dissenting fourth engineer quietly questioned why the south should bother. As long as al-Sistani’s jihad was defensive he supported it, but why, he asks, shed blood against ISIS for a Sunni population that is neither welcoming nor particularly wanted? The further north the militia advances, the more lives are lost, and the returns from the battle diminish. Compared to the south’s mineral wealth, the Sunni provinces offer few natural resources. Much of their territory is desert, and their feuding tribes will only cause trouble. Better, he argued, to safeguard what the south already has. In short, he said, breaking a taboo by uttering a word he claims many privately already espouse, why not opt for taqsim, partition? A heavy silence followed.

—Baghdad, May 6, 2015

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    For an account of Tikrit under ISIS rule, see Zaid Al-Ali, “Tikrit: Iraq’s Abandoned City,” NYRblog, May 4, 2015—The Editors.