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Iraqis should not let their, understandable, desire for revenge on the notorious Islamic State group (referred to herein as Daesh) cloud their judgement. If they do, even in defeat, Daesh may well prove to have dealt a fundamentally fatal blow to Iraq’s state and society.
In his 1945 essay ‘Revenge is Sour’ George Orwell recounts his time in Germany just after the fall of the Third Reich. He witnessed firsthand a young Viennese Jew overseeing a dozen or so S.S. officers who were of course by that time prisoners of war of the Allies. After all the things those brutes in the S.S. had done to Europe’s Jews and other minorities Orwell points out that he could hardly blame any Jew who would want to, say, at the very least jab or taunt those who had liquidated their families and friends. Orwell was quite skeptical about whether or not young Jews like the one he saw really enjoyed such little symbolic gestures of revenge. Rather, the famous writer contended, they told themselves they enjoyed it since they had longed for it all throughout the tyrannical reign of the Nazis when they were completely powerless. He very aptly summed up his observations as follows,
‘It is absurd to blame any German or Austrian Jew for getting his own back on the Nazis. Heaven knows what scores this particular man may have had to wipe out; very likely his whole family had been murdered; and after all, even a wanton kick to a prisoner is a very tiny thing compared with the outrages committed by the Hitler regime. But what this scene, and much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.’
I have been thinking about this old essay a lot lately given the present situation in Iraq. In light of some of the acts of sectarian violence committed by Shia militias in the war against Daesh there I find myself worrying that this will serve to exacerbate the underlying sectarian tensions in the country in the wake of the violence in the 2006-2008 period. I fear a potential scenario whereby the reforms in Baghdad either fail or turn out to be ultimately little more than superficial face-saving ones and that the Iraqi government’s only solution to defeating Daesh in Iraq is not a concerted effort aimed at helping the Sunnis rise up against their oppressors (never forget that the Sunni Arabs are as big a victim in all of this as the Sunni Kurds and the Shia Arabs) but instead a military campaign which will simply subdue them and their aspirations for more inclusivity in the country in the wake of the marginalization of many Sunni representatives in the political process during the tenure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That would further divide and damage, and possibly even break-up for good, Iraq in the long-term. Which in turn would mean that even if Daesh is completely defeated militarily they will have been victorious when it comes to dividing, and perhaps ultimately destroying, Iraq since they will have served as the catalyst for wider sectarian violence. One hopes that governmental reforms are successful when it comes to defeating Daesh and consigning it into the long and painful annals of Iraq’s tumultuous history without the country becoming permanently fragmented.
Speaking of that long and painful history one finds oneself re-reading accounts and stories of mass-killings in Iraq in the not too distant past. The Al-Anfal campaign and the brute mass-murder of revolting Shia Arabs by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in March 1991 for example. The terror and destruction implemented by that man’s regime still makes one shudder when one reads the gruesome details. Arguably the best writer on the subject as it was unfolding was Kanan Makiya, his books Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence are well worth re-reading. Detailed in those books are the various atrocities, the cruelties and the horrors that regime afflicted on the Iraqi people. Yet when the man on top, the figurehead of all that cruelty and criminality, Saddam Hussein was finally executed on December 30 2006 Kanan Makiya called it “one of the worst days of my life” and “the antithesis of everything I had been working for and hoping for.”
Makiya contended that the limited nature of the tribunal to really get into the nit and grit of the regimes crimes against humanity made it by and large a failure. When Saddam finally went to the gallows, like so many of his victims, his executioners in Makiya’s words, “actually succeeded in making Saddam look good in the eyes of the Arab world.”
That’s quite an indictment from someone who spent a large part of his life scrupulously documenting the crimes of that man and hoping to one day see him face justice for his numerous crimes. Instead that ultimate revenge on behalf of so many Iraqis was stolen from them and that mass-murdering tyrant got to look like a victim in his final moments.
Since his rule was brought to an end by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 the Shia of Iraq have largely been emancipated, as have the Kurds who already had, since 1991, some semblance of autonomy in the north of the country. Both these communities together make-up the majority of Iraq’s population. They now more-or-less stand on their own two feet, a far cry from those horrible days not too long ago when they were bludgeoned, brutalized and subjugated by the Baath. Some in the Shia community blamed their Sunni brethren for subjugating them back in the Saddam-era. However for the most part that community hasn’t sought petty vengeance, on the contrary, its preeminent Ayatollah, Ali Sistani, has been consistent in his denunciation of any infighting between the Sunnis and Shias quite rightfully pointing out that that is exactly what the likes of al-Qaeda and Daesh want them to do. And he is quite right. It’s no secret, nor surprise, that those Baathists who for so long regarded Iraqis over whom they ruled as their dispensable property have been cooperating with Daesh and have similar interests whereby sectarian subjugation is concerned.
In light of this one would impel the Iraqi state and society not to in fighting these thugs fall to their level. In their current capacity it is highly unlikely that they will be able to overrun either all of Iraq’s Kurdish region or the Shia south. It is therefore incumbent upon this government to live up to, and stand-by, its word that it will root out Daesh decisively from the Sunni-majority regions of Iraq they are hunkered down in by working with the provincial populations and tribes there. That way they will give Iraq a fighting chance to not only survive, but survive as a successful federal secular democracy and society which will not be dragged down and convulsed by the kind of destructive and divisive violence these vicious rampaging sectarians are earnestly seeking to bring about. If however the aforementioned outreach to the Sunnis isn’t wholeheartedly attempted the society could become fatally paralyzed by sectarian schisms, even if Daesh is defeated. And that will mean in defeat Daesh will still have succeeded in mortally wounding Iraq and bringing on many more years of sectarian bloodletting. Iraq and its people simply cannot afford to let that happen.
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Monday, January 26, 2015
What follows are two rather vivid and disturbing excerpts from eyewitness accounts of systematic executions of unarmed males.
Herein follows the first,
“Their opponents were helpless and there was no chance of any interference from any quarter whatsoever. Machine gunners set up their guns outside the windows of the houses in which the Assyrians had taken refuge, and having trained them on the terror stricken wretches in the crowded rooms, fired among them until not a man was left standing in the shambles. In some other instances the blood lust of the troops took a slightly more active form, and men were dragged out and shot or bludgeoned to death and their bodies thrown on a pile of dead.”
And the second,
“They took us to an open area in front of a trench. They told us to make a row. We looked down and we saw bodies. We were all lying on top of each other. They thought they killed everyone. They came through and shot everyone in the head and the back. Then they left.”
Both of these accounts describe massacres which transpired in Northern Iraq. They are quite similar. The latter comes from a 15-year-old Yazidi who survived being butchered like his many counterparts by hiding under dead bodies of people who, like him, were being put to death for who they were. That was just a few months ago. The first account however transpired in the same general region over 80-years-ago at Simele, the town after which the Assyrian massacre of Assyrian Iraqis is named.
Genocide is one of those terms which shouldn’t ever be employed lightly. After all given the various horrors and evil the term invokes and given what it has been used to describe in the past (the extermination of European Jewry, Saddam Hussein’s mass-murder of Kurds throughout his so-called ‘Al-Anfal’ campaign and the infamous genocide in Rwanda to name just a few) genocide is one of those words we rightfully reserve for the very worst of atrocities and crimes against humanity.
In Northern Iraq today the representatives of the Kurdish and Yazidi communities are calling on the International Criminal Court to classify as genocide the crimes of the Islamic State group. A Yazidi leader named Hazem Tazin Saeed insists that Islamic State is guilty of this crime. In the town of Sinjar his kinsmen, in his words, “have been displaced, they have been killed, raped, kidnapped, and executed en masse.” He rhetorically asks, “What more proof do you need to label this a genocide?”
“A month before Daesh attacked Sinjar, we finished building our house.” the words of a Yazidi Refugee. Bless her. http://ift.tt/1yHFXsz
— Baghdad Invest (@baghdadinvest) January 25, 2015
As of writing the Kurds are pushing back Islamic States’s earlier territorial gains. In Sinjar Kurdish fighters are fighting to kick out the Islamic State forces who overran the Yazidi community there and, as Saeed reminds us, massacred many of the men (the way they execute unarmed men in large numbers and dump their corpses in large pits is uncannily reminiscent of how the Nazi German Einsatzgruppen systematically murdered Jewish partisans on the Eastern Front in World War II) and enslaved and raped many of their wives and daughters. Those Yazidi’s who managed to escape that onslaught, and ultimately that fate, ran the risk of nearly perishing on the mountains where they became trapped after frantically fleeing in terror.
Now the Kurds are taking the fight to Islamic State and are fighting to rid Sinjar of them while working on the political front to convince the rest of the world that those who they are fighting are guilty of the crime of genocide. The 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide defines genocide as, “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Nations who have signed the genocide convention are encouraged to prevent genocide and/or punish those who perpetrate it. Given what Islamic State has done in that region in recent months the classifications of their actions as such doesn’t appear to be far off the mark. The group has made no secret of what they wish to do to their enemies and where they have been able to brutalize or butcher those they despise they have done so without any hesitancy, compunction or scruple whatsoever.
It’s remarkable that in roughly that same region of Northern Iraq the actual man, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide was preparing a legal presentation about this particular kind of war crime when, to his dismay, he got the news about the aforementioned massacre of Assyrians in 1933. The numbers of dead in that massacre were comparably small to most instances of genocide which transpired in the very bloody 20th century, estimates of the number dead run from around 600 to 3,000. Nevertheless it was the systematic nature of the massacre and the indiscriminate way Iraqi soldiers shot people when they entered the Assyrian communities which made that massacre so horrifying at the time.
Before that massacre Lemkin had already been appalled by the killings of Assyrians and Armenians which transpired as the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes. Even though a century has elapsed there is some acrimony and controversy over whether or not events of those years constituted genocide. In Turkey the idea that the Armenians were subjected to a genocidal campaign is officially denied, even though an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians and other minorities lost their lives in less than ten years in death marches and massacres. Similarly the Assyrians of Northern Iraq (a region which was then part of the Ottoman Empire) were targeted in a manner which leads most historians to conclude that it was indeed a genocide. Actions and killings such as those were distinctive in Lemkin’s mind due to their uniquely nasty nature. He subsequently explored what it was that distinguishes genocide from other crimes and excesses of war more deeply and ardently campaigned to have it recognized for what it is which led ultimately to the clear definition we have of it today.
Were any of the crimes Islamic State committed in Iraq the past few months genocidal?
While no human rights expert one nevertheless suspects the Kurds have a case here. Just because the number of those killed by Islamic States’ vicious rampage across that region doesn’t add up to the hundreds-of-thousands or millions doesn’t negate the fact that the intent was there on their part to do away with whole communities and peoples just because of their particular creed or ethnicity. That in and of itself makes their criminal actions particularly odious and certainly warrants a legal investigation to conclusively determine if Islamic State is guilty of genocide, the wickedest crime of all.
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