Friday, January 23, 2015

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Iraq takes more steps in the right direction

After less than three months and a lot of bad policies to undo the new Iraqi premier is already having some tangible successes in reaching out to the hitherto marginalized Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds of Iraq. These are all very promising steps in the right direction.


The very violent jolt Daesh gave an already divided and volatile Iraqi state is slowly serving to actually strengthen and bring it back together. Those fissures which long existed in the society were exacerbated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s regressive sectarian policies which benefited no one in Iraq (not even the community from which he came, the Shia Iraqis) and are now being redressed in light of the fundamental threat posed by Daesh to the Iraqi state and society. And we’re finally seeing some successes.


Granted these successes do come after a multitude of failures. But at the same time the central government has clearly recognized that there will be no Iraq unless it reforms substantially and reaches out to its minorities, primarily of course the Sunni Kurds and the Sunni Arabs. And it is doing that. Just over the last week we’ve been hearing some promising news.


First of all the rift which existed between Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous authorities in Erbil over who has the right to export oil has essentially been resolved. That rift and those tensions existed well before Daesh marched into northern Iraq last June. Kirkuk was then home to some Iraqi Army units who were essentially there to keep the regional Kurdish government in check. As with the army forces around Mosul they immediately fled south since they had no coherent defense order nor strategy. The fighting was left to the Peshmerga who successfully secured the city of Kirkuk. A city which of course is immensely important to Kurdish nationalist and is also home to large amounts of Iraq’s oil resources. So much changed in such a short space of time.


Iraq and Kurdistan Flags

Iraq and Kurdistan Flags



The Iraqi Kurdish premier Massoud Barzani has even proposed that Iraqi Kurdistan have a referendum on Kurdish independence. Something which seems to have been put on hold since Maliki stepped down from power in September and was replaced by the present Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi who has sought to undo his predecessors divisive policies which left the state divided and helpless and almost to the mercy of a group who has none.


So Baghdad and Erbil are now working out their oil policies in a more respectful bilateral fashion. Something which will likely see to Kurdish nationalist aspirations at least postponed for now.


And speaking of divisive policies, who can forget the manner in which Mr. Maliki essentially snubbed the Sunni tribes, when it came to broad integration into the federal security forces, who formed the backbone of the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province during the surge period of the Iraq War?


Those Sunni tribes proved decisive when it came to taking the fight to the al-Qaeda in Iraq group from which Islamic State grew years later. They were left poorly equipped and poorly armed. And we’ve had to watch in recent months as they were left to the mercy of that group which has no mercy, Daesh who have slaughtered members of the Albu Nimr tribe.


Abadi has a lot to rectify. In Erbil his government is talking about everything from oil exports which are of importance to Iraq’s economy to arms shipments to the Kurds. In Anbar he has to reinvigorate faith in the Sunnis who we must remember were pushed aside and knifed in the back by Maliki after they done their part in quashing the al-Qaeda threat. Indeed the instability posed by Maliki’s sectarian and ill-governance generated genuine grievances which bred political instability which Daesh was able exploit to its advantage.


But even in Anbar there is a flicker of hope. Recently the Iraqi government and the United States in their attempts to reinvigorate the Awakening movements of the Iraq War years have trained about 2,000 Sunni fighters as part of the formation of what is being referred to as a “bridging entity”. In other words the extending of an arm to those betrayed tribes and reassurances that if they begin to rise up they won’t be mercilessly butchered by the Islamic State forces in their midst like their Albu Nimr kinsmen were.


An anonymous U.S. State Department official was recently quoted as saying that this is part of a policy initiated by Abadi who “is committed ultimately to bringing the Sunnis into the mainstream.”


So while one wouldn’t be overly optimistic about Iraq’s future for the meantime one cannot ignore the gradually shifting trend which has been demonstrated by these two stories. Daesh’s onslaught has inadvertently brought disparate sectors of Iraqi society together to the degree that they recognize the salient and fundamental importance of working together. In the post-June 2014 Iraq the hitherto lengthy Baghdad-Erbil dispute has been resolved and the Sunni Arabs are finding that the central government is setting about consigning into the past the regressive sectarian policies initiated by Mr. Maliki. All positive signs and signs which remind us that the defeat of the Daesh forces in Iraq has an important political dimension to it in addition to a military one.




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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

There Will Always Be An Iraq

Flower in the Desert - Iraq


Today as the Islamic State group rampages through Iraq’s north (the Nineveh Province where they control the entire metropolis of Mosul) and the west (the Anbar province, Iraq’s largest, of which at the time of writing they retain hold over 80%) it appears that through government ineptness and divisions throughout the country that this could be the end of Iraq. Indeed TIME Magazine ran a cover story essentially stating that this was what we were in fact witnessing. And given the dire circumstances it was hard for even the most optimistic and hopeful of people not to be cynical.


When country’s like Iraq become embroiled in such complex and complicated morasses of violence and disorder one finds oneself reading back over the country’s history and trying to understand how it go to this point and if Iraq as a political entity makes any sense. If anything given the disparate nature of Iraq’s various ethnicities and sects one finds oneself wondering how it lasted this long in the first place.


Today we’re seeking the Yazidi people were helpless as Iraqi minorities when Islamic State marched into their towns and villages and enslaved, raped and murdered them. Broken, destitute and terrified they have time and again expressed how completely letdown they were by their fellow “Iraqis”. Iraq’s Kurds were pushed around by the former government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pressured over pursuing an energy policy independent of the central government’s oversight. Iraq’s Army was given billions in training and weapons, the Kurdish paramilitary Peshmerga were given less and when push came to shove with Islamic State last June the Iraqi Army fled. The Kurds were left to fend for themselves and defend their homeland. The Iraqi state badly let them down when they needed it most. It was therefore no surprise that Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government under Mr. Massoud Barzani revisited the idea of leaving Iraq altogether through a Kurdish referendum on independence.


Given the dire picture I painted of an Iraq which just doesn’t seem to work or have any confluence whatsoever one may feel that the following well known quote made by Iraqi’s first monarch Faisal seems so true, “There is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.”


That statement was made all the way back in 1933. Two years later something very notable happened around Sinjar. The Yazidi tribesmen took up arms. Not against an attacking Islamist force but against their own government. Sinjar was the scene of a massacre. Not like the one which transpired a few weeks ago. This one was at the hands of the Iraqi Army. They quashed by force, killing about 200 Yazidi’s in the process, a revolt on the part of the tribesmen who didn’t want to be conscripted into the kingdoms army. The same was the case with the Shia Arabs and Sunni Kurds who didn’t take kindly to the idea of having a centralized Sunni Arab Kingdom telling them what to do. So they fought it and hundreds were killed in the resulting crackdown.


One finds it very hard to write a general history of Iraq without writing about just how instrumental the army has always been when it comes to the power (or lack thereof) of whatever regime wielded the reigns of power which emanated from control of the central government. And speaking of the army and the central government, before the Kingdom of Iraq was dismantled in the bloody coup of 1958 it was allegedly said of one Nuri al-Said to one of the army coup plotters that, “if your plot ever succeeds, you and the other officers will be engaged in a struggle among yourselves which will not end until each of you hangs the other.”


Prophetic certainly. But historically we know after a series of sometimes violent tumults and struggles for the power, which inevitably came with controlling the centralized government, resulted in the rise of the brutal rule of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi military and centralized control of it was of fundamental importance when it came to securing his rule. The Baath had broader goals for the army than just central control of Iraq. While the Iraqi Army generally looked inward the Baath had ambitions to be a regional hegemonic power. Which is why they sent expeditionary forces in support of the Arabs against Israel and even partook in some of the fighting on the Syrian front in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 (Iraqi state documents captured after the 2003 invasion reveal that Saddam saw the war with Iran as a pesky delay before his final confrontation with the Israelis over Jerusalem which he assumed would come sometime after that war). Indeed one of the reasons the last Shah of Iran supported the Iraqi Kurds in their revolt against the Baath in the mid-1970’s was so that Baghdad would remain looking inward instead of earnestly seeking to militarily confront Iran over the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway.


So throughout Iraqi history we see the repetitive tendency of that theme. We saw it with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A man who emanated from a long trod-upon sect who believed it was in his and his sects interest to use state power to dictate to the others how things should be. That has backfired and it is clear that most Shiites don’t have such a black-and-white approach. Which means for now that the idea of whipping the population into submission using the power of state coercion is bankrupt at its core. That is actually a promising sign in a lot of respects. Now if Iraq can pull together with greater autonomy given to minorities, such as the Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds, whereby issues like security amongst minority sects are given a structural framework so we never again have an instance of a tribe, such as the Albu Nimr, who are opposed to, and have actively fought against the likes of al-Qaeda and Islamic State are not denied, as those tribesmen scandalously were, admission into the broader security apparatus. Also such tribes who were never affiliated with any terrorist group should also have greater freedom when it comes to forming provincial security forces and police organizations. A loosely federated state body whereby people from different sects, beliefs and communities can for the most part stick to themselves their lives and their business but at the same time remain within the confines of the federal polity then we may have an Iraq that is worth fighting for and that will realize its long lost potential.


Iraq has always been a disparate state. But it has lasted through wars and violence worse than ones which have ripped apart and destroyed similar states with varied ethnicities and religions. Yugoslavia strikes me as the most salient example. Furthermore a successful federal secular Iraq would be a victory for secularism and concordance over fundamentalism and division. And that is certainly a victory worth an earnest fight for.



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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

An inadvertent slander of Iraq’s Sunnis

After the gunfire stopped 34 were dead. The massacre had taken place at the mosque during noon prayers. Those who carried out the massacre did so with automatic AK-47 assault rifles. Given the nature of its execution it could indeed have been any sectarian massacre in Iraq.


This one happened to take place in Musab bin Omar Mosque which is in a village just under fifty-miles from Baquba on August 22 of this year. What makes this particular incident notable was its executioners. The Human Rights Watch group have compiled testimonies of survivors which points a clear finger at the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) working in cahoots with Shia militants. A damning and disturbing situation.


The town of Baqubah located less than 50 miles from Baghdad, Iraq


Human Rights Watch (HRW) goes on to point out that the nature of that horrible mass-murder is not unlike other instances it has become aware of at the hands of Iraq’s Shia militias. Groups like the Badr Brigades. It is of course no secret that such militias have sympathizers within the ranks of the army, government and security forces. But the nature of that chilling incident at Musab bin Omar Mosque cannot be ignored. And one is glad that HRW is investigating it and finding out just who is responsible and how high-up this grizzly affair goes.


The situation in Iraq is indeed highly unstable and one is disheartened to see that in the middle of establishing a new government, in the wake of the pure ineptitude of the Iraqi state which was a direct result of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki divisive governance, Sunni lawmakers are withdrawing support and demanding those responsible for that mass-murder be arrested. One of course agrees wholeheartedly that the perpetrators should be arrested. But one also recognizes that a thorough investigation needs to be undergone first. And one thinks those Sunni lawmakers should not withdraw from those important negotiations (it is not by far an exaggeration to say these negotiations are of vital importance to the Iraqi states’ future) but instead demand that the first order of the day of the new government is a thorough investigation of that massacre and the bringing to justice of its persecutors.


Iraq Divided into three states


Iraq cannot be divided any more, especially in the wake of the threat it faces. The more divided it is the easier it will be for Daesh to rule (in other words the Iraqis will end up doing the “divide” part of Daesh’s “divide and rule” strategy themselves). That is in no ones interests.


Enter Joe Stork. He is the deputy Middle East director at HRW. Recently he rightfully points out that, “Pro-government militias are becoming emboldened and their crimes more shocking,” in light of the threat posed by Daesh. I concur and would add that in such times its more important than ever not to downplay, ignore or trivialize certain actions carried out by the side in a war you are supporting.


But Stork takes this into territory I quite frankly find a little bit disturbing. He says that, “Iraqi authorities and Iraq’s allies alike have ignored this horrific attack and then they wonder why the militant group Islamic State has had such appeal among Sunni communities.”


I have addressed the plight of Iraq’s Sunnis and think it’s a very real and very important issue. Their grievances against the former Maliki government were genuine and one does sympathize wholeheartedly with them. And one has also contended many times that Maliki’s divisive government was bad for Iraq and thankfully not necessarily supported by the Iraqi Shia community. Far from it in fact.


Furthermore analysts and observers shouldn’t fall into the trap of conflating the Iraqi government of the day with Shia militias as a whole. Even the leader of the Sadrist movement has expressed sympathy with those mass Iraqi Sunni protests which began in late 2012 as a result of the popular feeling of discontent with Maliki’s quasi-sectarian governance.


Stork’s comment simply will not do. It is an insult to most Iraqi Sunnis to conflate their discontentment with top-down political marginalization in a multi-denominational state to sympathy with a brutal and violent mass-murdering terrorist group like Daesh. It is also very irresponsible for HRW to call on the United States and other countries to stop giving Iraq “military support and assistance until the government ensures that such widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity have ended.”


Ceasing support in the wake of Daesh’s continued onslaughts and atrocities in Anbar is unrealistic. Once again HRW should be commended for its important research, but these suggestions (and that suggestive comment made by Stork) are quite ridiculous given the circumstances. At least 200 members of the Albu Nimr tribe were executed just days ago in Anbar. Those same brave Sunni tribesmen repudiated Al-Qaeda in Iraq and helped in the fight against it – those very same Anbar-based tribes were later disgracefully discriminated by Prime Minister Maliki who refused to incorporate them into the security services, another reason the Sunni Awakening needs serious re-invigoration as part of the broader political situation to this crisis. They are among the bravest and best of Iraq’s Sunnis. The ones who when reinvigorated and empowered will dispense themselves and their society of a barbaric force of reaction like Daesh. A process that will indeed require a more inclusive government in Baghdad, a government whose first steps will indeed see to it that the perpetrators of that disgusting massacre at Musab bin Omar Mosque are jailed.


Iraq Magnifying Glass - Baghdad


But for the meantime to imply that Iraq’s Sunnis would naturally find a group which kills Iraqi minorities, enslaves and murders women and children and executes en masse fellow Sunnis in an intentionally barbaric fashion “appealing” is frankly insulting. A man of Mr. Stork’s professionalism and humanity should know – and I really hope he does and this was mere hyperbolic – so much better.



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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Barbarians at the Gates of the Cradle of Civilization

Momentous buildings, monuments and ruins which still stand testament to Iraq’s rich and ancient heritage should be protected at all costs against the rampaging Islamic State (Daesh) group.


Destruction of Assyrian artifacts by IS militants.

Destruction of Assyrian artifacts by IS militants.



As grandiose a term it is for itself the land which conforms to the present day polity of Iraq really does deserve the title the ‘Cradle of Civilizations’.


Unfortunately at present that country is once again being attacked by the dark and barbaric forces of reaction. The modern-day Mongol-like Daesh. The group which shows it has no compunction whatsoever when it comes to murdering and enslaving civilians of communities and sects it finds distasteful, and of reducing to rubble rich and ancient buildings and monuments which have stood for centuries, as well as withstood that tough test which time gives. Iraq is dotted with such sites which could potentially fall victim to that group and consequently be lost forever.


UNESCO presently lists only four world heritage sites in Iraq deemed to be of notable cultural and historic significance. However eleven more sites in Iraq are on a list to be evaluated and considered. One suspects that at least some of them are worthy of the stature expected of a site to be considered worthy of inclusion on that renowned list of sites possessing “outstanding universal value.” And with that inclusion also afforded protection by the international community wherever possible. One hopes more Iraqi sites will be added to that list in the near future, sites such as ‘The Sacred Complex of Babylon’ near Baghdad (the capital of the Old Kingdom of Babylonia), the Mesopotamia Marshlands and the Ancient City of Nineveh which is home to many artefacts which extend back to the early origins of human civilization. Sadly that last site may not make the list since it is in this area where the reputed site of the Tomb of Jonah is, which Daesh overran and blew-up last July.


Limiting ourselves to the four listed sites for now one cannot but fear for their structural integrity when one sees how closely to the north and west of the country they are situated. In other words how close they are to Daesh forces in Iraq, a group that has, as you know, made highly substantive and worrying gains in recent months in light of the weak governance of Baghdad and the embarrassing inefficiency of Iraq’s Army.


Hatra ruins.

Hatra ruins.



Today it is possible, and I hope will be for many many years to come, to see the remnants of the capital of the first Arab Kingdom, Hatra. This ancient thick-walled structure was attacked by the Romans who were repelled in two periods at both ends of the first century (the years 116 and 198CE). It is a rich architectural combination of Hellenistic, eastern and Ancient Roman architecture. Truly one, amongst many, highly notable structures still preserved from ancient times.


In Samarra we have the archaeological city which still stands as a preserved example of an Islamic capital city of an empire which stretched as far west as Tunisia and east to Central Asia. Again according to UNESCO some 80% of this site has yet to be excavated. In other words, this site still has so much to teach us about the Abbasid Empire, its culture, how it functioned among other things. It along with the ancient ruins of Ashur (the first capital of the Assyrian empire) are two sites in Iraq that UNESCO proclaim to necessitate safeguarding from attack given their proximity to Daesh’s savage rampage across Iraq.


We have witnessed the kind of nasty deeds such fanatics can do to sites of cultural importance they find distasteful. Al-Qaeda in Iraq after all successfully managed to bomb the Al-Askari Shrine, a site of immense importance to Shia, as well as many Sunni, Muslims (“I swear by the shrine” is a common phrase used by Muslims which itself signifies the importance and value of the shrine to them) and destroy its beautiful golden dome. A blatant act of sectarian-motivated destruction.


Al-Askari mosque in Samarra Iraq undergoing repairs.

Al-Askari mosque in Samarra Iraq undergoing repairs.



Such deeds are certainly not below a group like Daesh. Their like-minded compatriots of the violent Islamist persuasion around the world have intentionally destroyed heritage sites around the world which they allege are anti-Islamic and should be destroyed. This has ranged from the defacing of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu to Buddha statues in Afghanistan. That is what has happened. In Iraq we shouldn’t run the risk of simply standing by in shock on the sidelines and watching it transpire yet again. Remember, the heritage is not just Iraq’s, but by extension, given its age, humanities as a whole.


Similar such sites testify to Iraq’s rich and diverse culture are of risk of wanton destruction. Not simply risk of being damaged or destroyed in the crossfire of fighting, as has happened so many wondrous sites in places like Aleppo in neighbouring Syria (one sad thing about those sites even before the war began there is how neglected they were by tourists and world travelers in relative comparison to such sites in other nearby countries). That’s bad enough in and of itself. But the threat posed by Daesh is of much more fundamental and pressing concern. These are very resolute and innovative fighters when it comes to carrying out deeds they deem commensurate with their obscurantist beliefs. This should not be allowed happen. We know where the sites are and cannot not know they have been identified as being in danger. Surely the least the world community can do is offer to assist the Iraqi authorities in upholding the protection and structural integrity of these sites by whatever means necessary.


One sincerely doubts Daesh will succeed in its efforts to establish a caliphate. But just because they will eventually, one hopes sooner rather than later, become history shouldn’t mean we should run the risk of letting them desecrate more of these sites unopposed. Sites which have stood the test of time and will hopefully stand for centuries to come as testament to Iraq’s long history.




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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Daesh may prove to have a unifying affect in Iraq

The barbaric fighters of the self-styled “Islamic State” (Daesh) are consciously and openly trying to destroy the Iraqi state. Their head-on attack on Iraq and its society however may prove to have a unifying affect on that state and society in the long run.


As I write these words what is being termed a new and more inclusive cabinet is being established in Baghdad. The government seems to recognize the fundamental faults which were inherent in former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s governance, which the Sunni Arabs and Kurds of Iraq felt discriminated and marginalized by, and are consequently setting out to ensure the government is more inclusive and representative. Because what Iraq needs if it is going to pull itself out of another sectarian morass of violence and avoid fragmenting as a state altogether is inclusive governance and a society which feels at least broadly united.


It would be foolish to state from our present vantage point that we are witnessing a pivotal moment in Iraq’s modern history. Nevertheless we could soon very well see Daesh ending up being the unwitting catalyst that brings about a stronger and more unified Iraq. There are plenty of historical parallels to draw from in order to illustrate why this may prove to be so. Limiting ourselves to Iraq we just have to recall Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran and his campaign of genocide against the Kurds.


In the case of the former he invaded Iran at a time when the new government was in disarray and there was infighting amongst the many ideologues who had been loosely united primarily due to their mutual disgruntlement with the rule of the Shah (it is vital to remember that the Ayatollah Khomeini was seen amongst many secular Iranians as a figurehead, they supported him under the impression that he wouldn’t, as he continuously promised before his famous return, seek power but would support the establishment of a republic). After Saddam hit the Iranians hard in his September 1980 invasion they were forced to organize on their feet as it were and unite in order to repel the invading Iraqi force. In the midst of that war Khomeini and his inner clique seized absolute power and gradually oppressed and forced from the center of power their various opponents. In essence Saddam’s attack ultimately served to strengthen Khomeini and his clique and solidified his regimes power.


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In the case of the Kurds Saddam set out to completely subdue them and kill any who resisted his regimes rule. This saw to the instigation of the genocidal and infamous Al-Anfal campaign which saw extensive amounts of chemical weaponry used. At least 180,000 Kurds were killed and many ‘relocated’ from their villages into crowded internment camps. It seemed as if their spirit had been brutally broken. But what it ultimately saw to was the Kurds eventually (by mid-1991) garnering the sympathy of many nations and gradually building up the foundations of their own autonomous homeland. Today it is one of the wealthier and more stabler parts of Iraq and has its own regional government and security forces. It is far from perfect but at the same time far from the intended result of Saddam’s genocidal campaigns against them.


Today the idea that Daesh’s rapid gains in Northern Iraq will ultimately have a unifying affect on Iraq, in both the upper echelons of the government and amongst ordinary Iraqis of different ethnicities and denominations, is more likely an outcome than one might otherwise think. Such an unintended result of such an action on the part of Daesh certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented when one takes into account those two episodes I alluded to.


June 2014 was a very humiliating month for Iraq. We saw how the divisive governance of Maliki rendered the country completely inept in face of such a nasty adversary which humiliated the Iraqi Army and threatened to subject minorities to a campaign of genocide (seeing footage of thousands of civilians being once again hounded into desolate mountains in Northern Iraq in fear of being massacred was quite a horrible sight to behold). It forced all Iraqis to pull their socks up and reevaluate the way their country is being run. That reevaluation is starting to be shown in the political process as the society does its part of dispensing itself of this nasty foe. Daesh’s victory after all is Iraq’s defeat. And for Iraq to stave off such a defeat such inclusiveness is a fundamental necessity.


By hitting Iraq so hard and so quickly Daesh may have temporarily sent a very painful shockwave through the system and rendered it temporarily inert. But as it continues to try and blatantly exploit the fissures which exist in Iraqi society the society is recognizing that the only way it can pull itself out of the hellish sectarian morass of endless violence is through a broad form of inclusiveness which will in the long-run enable Iraq to overcome these sectarian rifts which are kept alive only by the most reactionary elements in the society, who are clearly very vocal minorities. That is being recognized and that recognition is finally being acted upon. The Kurds haven’t declared independence and broken away. Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric has called for concordance with his Sunni brethren and clearly shown he doesn’t endorse any sectarian, not to mention theocratic, form of governance by his Shia kinsmen, who are of course the majority sect in Iraq. All of these are positive signs.


Daesh hit Iraq hard across the head, but it didn’t knock it out. It gave it a concussion. Now that the state is recovering from that concussion it is clearly being recognized that the society can only function properly and effectively through concordance. Which is why this band of a few thousand violent sectarian fanatics may very well prove to be the catalyst for a reinvigorated, stronger, more unified and overall better Iraq.




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