Indian Nurses Trapped in Iraq Return Home

Sherin, an Indian nurse caught up in fighting in Iraq, hugs her sister after arriving at the airport in the southern Indian city of Kochi
Sherin, center, an Indian nurse caught up in fighting in Iraq, hugs her sister after arriving at the airport in the southern Indian city of Kochi, July 5, 2014. Sivaram V—Reuters

"They didn't do anything, they didn't disturb us and they didn't harm anyone... They talked nicely," one of the Indian nurses said.

More than 40 Indian nurses who were trapped in a region of Iraq that was seized by Sunni extremists have arrived home in India.

When armed rebels launched a wave of attack across the region last month, 46 Indian nurses found themselves trapped in the northern city of Tikrit in a state-run hospital where they worked, Al-Jazeera America reports.

“They didn’t do anything, they didn’t disturb us and they didn’t harm anyone. They didn’t touch even. They talked nicely,” Jose said, without specifying who she was referring to.

It was not immediately clear whether they had been abducted or trapped and unable to leave.

The nurses boarded a specially-chartered plane in Kurdish territory and arrived in the southern Indian state of Kerala around noon on Saturday, local time.

[Al-Jazeera America]


Iraqi Kurdish Leader Urges Independence Referendum

The President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani visits Kirkuk
The President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani (L) visits Kirkuk June 26, 2014. Barzani called on regional lawmakers Thursday to lay the groundwork for a referendum on independence. Reuters

(BAGHDAD) — With large parts of Iraq in militant hands, a top Kurdish leader called on regional lawmakers Thursday to lay the groundwork for a referendum on independence, a vote that would likely spell the end of a unified Iraq.

The recent blitz by Sunni militants across much of northern and western Iraq has given the country’s 5 million Kurds — who have long agitated for independence — their best chance ever to seize disputed territory and move closer to a decades-old dream of their own state.

But the Kurds still face considerable opposition from many in the international community, including the United States, which has no desire to see a fragmented Iraq.

A Western-established no-fly zone in 1991 helped the Kurds set up their enclave, which has emerged over the years as a beacon of stability and prosperity, while much of the rest of the country has been mired in violence and political turmoil. The three-province territory was formally recognized as an autonomous region within Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Speaking to the regional legislature Thursday, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, told lawmakers to set up an electoral commission to “hurry up” and prepare for “a referendum on self-determination.”

“We will be in a better position and we will have better (political) weapons in our hands. But how we will do this?” he said. “What kind of steps will there be? For this, you have to study the issue and take steps in this direction. It is time to decide our self-determination and not wait for other people to decide for us.”

Barzani spoke behind closed doors, but The Associated Press obtained a video of his address.

Kurdish leaders have threatened for years to hold an independence referendum, but those moves were often more about wresting concessions from the central government in Baghdad than a real push for statehood. The recent Sunni offensive has effectively cleaved the country in three, bringing the prospect of full independence within reach.

Kurdish fighters already have seized control of disputed territory — including the city of Kirkuk, a major oil hub. The Kurds say they only want to protect the areas from the Sunni militants. Many of the zones have considerable Kurdish communities that the Kurds have demanded be incorporated into their territory, making them unlikely to give them up.

With its own oil resources, the Kurdish region has long had a contentious relationship with Baghdad, with disputes over a range of issues including how to share the revenue. In May, the Kurdish government sold oil independent of the central government for the first time, shipping about 1.05 million barrels to Turkey. In retaliation, Baghdad stopped giving the Kurds the share of the central budget they are entitled to receive.

The border of the Kurdish self-rule region is another point of contention. The Kurds say they have tried for years to get Baghdad to agree on where to draw the frontier, but the central government has dragged its feet. They point to a constitutional amendment requiring that Kirkuk’s fate be decided by referendum, but it has never been implemented.

While the Sunni militants’ offensive may have turned the situation in the Kurds’ favor, there is still significant opposition to changing the status quo.

Kurdish independence is opposed by the U.S., as well as by Iraq’s regional neighbors, Turkey and Iran — both of whom have large Kurdish minority populations.

“Iraq is divided. We have got a new reality,” Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Barzani, told reporters Thursday. He was in Washington to update senior Obama administration officials on Kurdish aspirations for “self-determination.”

In a statement late Thursday, the White House said Vice President Joe Biden “dropped by” a meeting with Hussein and that “both sides agreed on the importance of forming a new government in Iraq that will pull together all communities in Iraq.” A separate White House statement said Biden spoke by phone with Turkey’s prime minister and that they agreed on “the importance of supporting lasting security and stability in Iraq.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that “a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq.” She said the country’s leaders should focus on the insurgency instead of drawing new borders, “and we should not give an opening to a horrific terrorist group by being divided at this critical moment.”

The prospect of Kurdish independence is just one of the ripple effects caused by the stunning rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the extremist group that has carved out a large chunk of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border. It has declared an Islamic state in the area.

The jihadi group’s growing strength has caused jitters across the region, particularly in neighboring Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A U.S. defense official said Thursday that Saudi troops are massing along its border with Iraq in response to the extremist group’s advance toward the kingdom’s frontier. Countries in the region are nervous about their security and are moving to protect their borders, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. is not close to launching a military assault against the insurgents, but “may get to that point” if they become a threat to the American homeland.

Dempsey said he does not believe the U.S., at this point, needs to send in an “industrial strength” force with a mountain of supplies to bolster Iraqi troops, adding that the most urgent need is a political solution centered on a more inclusive Iraqi government.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said about 200 U.S. military advisers are in Iraq assessing the situation and they have opened a second joint operating center in the north in Irbil. The U.S. has more than 750 troops in Iraq, mainly providing security for the embassy and the airport.

In northern Iraq, the Sunni militants released 32 Turkish truck drivers who were captured when the extremists overran the city of Mosul last month. The truckers traveled to the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region before flying to southern Turkey.

Militants seized the truckers June 9 in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Three days later, they took another 49 people from the Turkish consulate in Mosul. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said efforts were underway to secure the release of the Turks still in captivity.

The militants’ assault in Iraq has eased in recent days since encountering stiffer resistance in Shiite majority areas.

The rapid pace of the initial advance left 46 Indian nurses stranded at a hospital in the militant-held northern city of Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. The nurses are safe but are being forced to move to an area controlled by the militants, according to Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.

He also said 40 Indian construction workers abducted two weeks ago near Mosul were still being held, but were unharmed.

Across the border in Syria, meanwhile, the al-Qaeda splinter group seized several towns and villages as well as the country’s largest oil field Thursday as rival factions gave up the fight, Syrian activists said.

They said the jihadi group is in almost full control of a corridor stretching from the Syrian border town of Boukamal to the government-controlled provincial capital of Deir el-Zour to the northwest. Those gains in territory straddling the border between the two conflict-ridden countries effectively expand and consolidate areas held by the group — which has shortened its name to the Islamic State.

The majority of significant Syrian rebel brigades that have been fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad have rejected the group’s unilateral declaration of an Islamic state. The rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have battled the Sunni extremists since the beginning of the year. Nearly 7,000 people, mostly fighters, have died in the clashes.

However, the Nusra Front appears to be losing in Syria as fighters allied with powerful tribes in eastern Syria defect to al-Baghdadi’s group.

TIME Military

Iraq Reinforcements: Return of the ‘5 O’Clock Follies’?

A U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopter fires a missile during a live fire gunnery exercise with the South Korean army at the U.S. army's Rodriguez range in Pocheon
AH-64 Apache helicopters like this one arrived in Baghdad on Sunday. Jo Yong hak / Reuters

Evolving U.S. troop numbers raise questions about "mission creep"

Was it fair to tweet the Pentagon announcement late Monday afternoon that 200 more U.S. troops are headed for Iraq — bringing the total there about 750 — as the “5:34 O’Clock Follies”?

That’s a reference to the infamous “5 O’Clock Follies” conducted by the U.S. military in Ho Chi Minh City’s Rex Hotel during the Vietnam War. It was where the Pentagon’s local spokesmen offered up enemy body counts and other data suggesting that the U.S. was winning the war in Southeast Asia. “Early in the US phase of the war, the principal daily US press briefing became known among US newsmen as the ‘5 O’Clock Follies,’” a 1979 Army study said. “Nothing the best of the public affairs officers could do could ‘sell’ what the majority of the press had decided was a bad or at least a suspect policy.”

The term has become shorthand for the messy business of trying to sell war: a natural desire to try to put the best gloss on imprecise numbers, impossible to nail down as the situation on the ground evolves. But the Pentagon can contribute to that narrative by appearing to play “catch up” with what’s happening on the ground. That’s always a problem when the enemy appears to be succeeding, especially after the Pentagon pulled all of its forces out in 2011 (there’s a fair amount of debate over whether a residual U.S. force could have been left behind if the U.S. had pressed harder … and if President Obama hadn’t been so eager to leave).

The phrase has been popping up since Obama’s June 19 announcement that he’d ordered up to 300 U.S. troops to Iraq to advise the military of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amid the pounding it was taking from the rebels of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

But there’s a lot more going on, as the Pentagon explained Tuesday:

  • An initial 270 U.S. troops were ordered to Iraq on June 16; 170 of them arrived in the country that day.
  • In a June 26 letter to Congress, the President ordered up to 300 advisers to Iraq; 180 were there within 24 hours, divided between those advising the Iraqis and those setting up a command post.
  • On Monday, the Pentagon ordered 200 more troops to Iraq, along with AH-64 Apache helicopters, primarily to defend U.S. personnel already there. All arrived in Iraq within a day.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. had 650 of a total of 770 newly authorized military personnel on Iraqi soil. There also are about 100 additional U.S. troops who were already in Iraq working on arms sales and military cooperation.

The dribbling out of deployments makes the situation on the ground appear grim. Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, declined to say on Tuesday if al-Maliki’s forces have gained the upper hand against ISIS.

He disputed any notion that the U.S. is getting sucked into an expanding role. “There’s no mission creep because the missions have been clearly defined from almost the outset,” he said. “The situation on the ground continues to change. It’s very fluid. It’s dynamic.”

But Kirby also declined to put a ceiling on the ultimate number of U.S. troops the expanding Iraq mission might require. Obama “said he was going to send up to 300 for an assess and advisory mission … and before that, it was up to 275 for static security assistance, and then he added another 200,” Kirby said. “Is there a grand total? No.”

The Commander in Chief, he said, “needs to have the freedom to make those decisions as he and the military commanders and the civilian leadership here in the Pentagon advise him to.”

TIME energy

Oil Prices Soar as Iraq Tumbles Into Chaos

The harrowing situation in Iraq meant gains for some U.S. investors in the energy market


As the conflict in Iraq escalates, oil prices are skyrocketing — the benchmark price of Brent Crude oil stood at more than $115 a barrel Wednesday, approaching a nine-month high according to Bloomberg. And some investors are maximizing on short-term business opportunities couched within the rising costs.

Stocks at Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil have reached record highs, in part because higher energy prices translate to larger revenue for producers, and because growing tensions abroad have made U.S.-based production companies more appealing, CNN reports.

So for anyone invested in those oil companies, the turmoil in the Middle East could mean financial success. However, energy experts warn that investors should keep an eye on the potential boomerang effect that often occurs after an energy scare.

TIME Foreign Policy

Iraqi Ambassador Confirms ISIS Attack on Shi’ite Shrine

Baghdad's envoy to Washington has confirmed that the perimeter of Samarra's al-Askari mosque in Iraq was targeted by Sunni militants


Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) struck the perimeter of one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines in Iraq in a mortar attack yesterday, the country’s ambassador to the United States confirmed Tuesday.

“They hit the outer perimeter of the shrine and some people were killed,” the ambassador, Lukman Faily, said in response to a question from TIME about Samarra’s al-Askari mosque, where a 2006 attack was a catalyst for nationwide sectarian civil war. U.S. and Iraqi officials are extremely worried that a successful ISIS attack on the shrine, commonly known as the Golden Dome mosque, could re-inflame sectarian rage.

Faily did not say whether the shrine’s famous golden dome, which was blown up by Sunni jihadists in 2006 and later rebuilt, was damaged as unconfirmed reports suggest. But he insisted that ISIS, which reportedly overran much of Samarra in mid-June, no longer holds territory within the city. “It was a hit-and-run situation,” he said.

The shrine itself is heavily guarded by Iraqi forces, along with foreign fighters who consider it a sacred duty to defend Iraq’s holy sites from Sunni vandals. One of those reportedly killed in fighting at the shrine last month, for instance, was Pakistani man studying in Iraq who volunteered for its defense. He is now memorialized as a Shi’ite martyr.

Six more people are reported to have been killed by Monday’s mortar attack.

Samarra is about 60 miles north of Baghdad and 30 miles south of Tikrit, the site of intense fighting between Iraqi government forces and ISIS fighters who seized the city, where former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was born, earlier this month.

Faily said that ISIS no longer controls central Tikrit, but said countless buildings, including homes and places of worship, had been booby-trapped and would take time to clear.

Speaking before an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Faily also said it is “likely” that Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will retain his job. He added: “Is it certain? Nothing is certain.”

Faily said Iraq’s purchase of Russian aircraft, amid complaints from Baghdad about slow delivery of American F-16s, isn’t a sign of a fraying alliance with Washington. “Our countries are forever tied together because of the lives we lost and the treasure we spent in the past decade in the fight against terrorism,” he said.

For more on the Golden Dome shrine and what its fate could mean for Iraq, click here.


Iraqi Kurds to Vote on Independence

Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on June 17, 2014.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on June 17, 2014. Onur Coban—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President of Iraq's Kurdish region, already largely autonomous, says the country is already partitioned

The partition of Iraq lurched closer to reality on Tuesday when the head of the country’s already quasi-autonomous Kurdish region publicly declared he would schedule a referendum on independence. Polls and previous votes indicate that the measure is certain to pass, leading, in all likelihood, to an independent Kurdistan on the northern and northeastern borders of Iraq.

“From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Regional Kurdistan Government, told the BBC in an interview. “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people.”

The referendum will come in “a matter of months,” Barzani said. He said the Kurdistan parliament must first establish an independent electoral authority, then establish the date for the referendum that Barzani made clear will end with the creation of a state.

“We hope that this state will have the best of relations with all of its neighbors, and we will not be a threat to anyone at all, I’m sure.”

The announcement was a body blow to the frantic political effort to hold the country together after Sunni extremists allied with local tribes took control of much of the country’s west and north, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Their advance was driven by both the military daring of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, and angry frustration of Iraq’s more moderate Sunni Muslims rebelling against the frankly sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki, who openly favors the country’s previously oppressed Shiite majority.

Efforts to discard Maliki and form a more inclusive new government based on April election results have so far failed to produce a result. The new parliament adjourned on Tuesday in its first session when Sunni and Kurd lawmakers failed to return from a brief recess.

The Kurds, an ethnic group with its own language and heritage, account for about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 32 million, and have wanted an independent state for generations. Apart from an empty promise from Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of World War I, they have come closest in the last 20 years, beginning in 1991, when the United States enforced a no-fly zone over their territory to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s forces in the aftermath of the First Gulf War. Kurdish parties exploited the autonomy to set up their own quasi-state, which became more formal after U.S.-led forces deposed Hussein in 2003. The KRG “regional government” boasts a parliament, military, foreign minister, oil wells and border guards who challenge non-Kurds at roads leading from the rest of Iraq.

Actual independence came within reach when ISIS and its local Sunni allies swept across the country’s north in June. Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, or “those who face death,” swarmed into Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that Kurds regard as their historic capital, and refused to leave. They did the same in 2003, but departed under pressure led by nearby Turkey, which has since become a formidable ally, giving it crucial assistance exporting oil.

In the BBC interview, Barzani appeared prepared to hold Baghdad hostage to Kurdish aspirations. While he did not rule out using Kurdish forces to help repel ISIS, he said they were currently prepared to engage the extremists only if they only if they threaten Kurdish territory. Going beyond that, he said would first require concessions from Baghdad: “If you mean a comprehensive solution in all Iraq, there has to be a political solution and real participation, involving all components of Iraqi society. In that case, we’ll have no hesitation in playing a part.”

“Of course we’ll help all our Arab and Sunni brothers to get out of our crisis,” Barzani said. “But that doesn’t mean we will abandon our goal and our basic project, which is the independence of Kurdistan.”


MONEY stocks

Iraq Crisis Fuels Short-Term Boom for Energy Stocks

Investors, though, must beware of the potential boomerang effect that almost always occurs following an energy scare.

Despite the incendiary conflict in Iraq that last week sent the benchmark price of Brent crude oil to more than $115 a barrel, U.S. stock markets largely shrugged off the oil threat.

In fact, a new energy crisis in the Middle East presents something of an opportunity for investors — albeit a fragile, short-term one.

While energy production has become much more geographically diverse, lessening the severity of a Mideast production shortfall, Iraq is still OPEC’s second-largest producer. And as is the case during any threat to global oil production, the share prices of oil companies and the funds that invest in them soar on bad news, which is what happened last week.

Owing to greater demand for oil and geopolitical tensions, ExxonMobil EXXONMOBIL CORP. XOM 0.0288% , the largest energy company by market valuation, climbed 10.5% over the three months through June 20, compared to a 5.3% gain in the S&P 500 Index S&P 500 INDEX SPX 0.0488% . BP BP PLC BP 0.3907% was up nearly 15% over the three months ended June 20.

The last three months are important because they include a spate of good reports on economic growth in Europe and the U.S. and a run-up to the political strife in the Middle East. These events, and growing demand from developing countries such as China and India, have pressured oil prices upward.

The Vanguard Energy ETF VANGUARD WORLD FDS VANGUARD ENERGY ETF VDE 0.0968% , which holds a broad portfolio of oil and gas exploration, refining and pipeline companies, gained 16% in the quarter through June 20. It holds companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron CHEVRON CORP. CVX 0.7245% and Schlumberger SCHLUMBERGER LTD. SLB 0.8831% , and nearly all its holdings are based in North America. It’s up about 16% in the three months through June 20.

For a fund that’s not dominated by the most popular energy stocks, consider the Guggenheim S&P 500 Equal Weight Energy ETF RYDEX ETF TR GUGGENHEM S&P500 EQUAL WEIG RSP 0.208% , which holds a global portfolio of energy producers in roughly equal proportions.

The Guggenheim portfolio places more emphasis on smaller, lesser-known companies like Newfield Exploration Co. , Anadarko Petroleum and Nabors Industries . The fund is up nearly 16% for the three months through June 20. Independent companies like these may have more drilling activities in the areas where shale oil and gas are being discovered throughout North America.

Energy Shock Boomerang

Over a short period of time, it makes sense to hold energy stocks as a defense against rising oil prices. After all, companies make profits on price surges.

But on the consumer level, higher petroleum prices can act as a damaging boomerang.

When prices soar beyond a certain level, it brakes economic activity across the board. Higher fuel prices force people to drive less and stay away from stores, raise prices for everything from farm goods to plastics, and act as a tax on economic growth.

During the last draconian oil-price run-up in 2008 — when crude oil prices topped $140 a barrel — the combination of an energy shock, a banking meltdown and massive unemployment from Athens to San Francisco created a recession in Europe and North America. Towards the end of that year, energy prices bludgeoned an already-hobbled economic situation and the Vanguard Energy fund lost nearly 40% of its value, slightly more than the S&P 500 Index.

Looking ahead, what may mitigate any traumas in terms of oil prices will be growing U.S. oil and gas production, particularly in regions where “fracking” technology has liberated more hydrocarbons from shale formations from the Appalachians to North Dakota.

Production in the U.S. was up a record 1.1 million barrels per day last year, offsetting declines in global output from Libya, Nigeria and Iraq — all due to political strife.

“The huge investments seen in the U.S. have been encouraged and enabled by a favorable policy regime,” BP economist Christof Ruhl told Reuters. “And this has resulted in the U.S. delivering the world’s largest increase in oil production last year. Indeed, the U.S. increase … was one of the biggest annual oil production increases the world has ever seen.”

Across the globe, the future for energy stocks is positive long term. Consumers in China, India and Africa are buying petroleum-hungry vehicles. And until less-costly alternatives present themselves, fossil fuels will power the engines of these developing economies.


Iraq’s New Parliament Convenes to Choose PM

Nouri al-Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Baghdad, June 23, 2014. Brendan Smialowski—AP

Iraq's new parliament has convened amid pressure on lawmakers to quickly choose a new prime minster who can confront a militant blitz that threatens to rip the country apart.

(BAGHDAD) — Iraq’s new parliament has convened amid pressure on lawmakers to quickly choose a new prime minster who can confront a militant blitz that threatens to rip the country apart.

The inaugural session opened on Tuesday with the playing of Iraq’s national anthem. The proceedings are chaired by the legislature’s oldest member, Mahdi al-Hafidh.

The country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged lawmakers last week to agree on a prime minister, president and parliament speaker before meeting in hopes of averting months of wrangling that could further destabilize the country.

But the prospects of a quick compromise appear distant, and embattled incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — whose bloc won the most seats in April elections — has shown little willingness to step aside.


What is the Caliphate?

Silhouetted behind the Arabic word "cali
The Arabic word for "caliphate" ABBAS MOMANI—AFP/Getty Images

For centuries, the Caliphate claimed dominion over all the world's Muslims. It was abolished in 1924. Now Sunni extremists say it's back.

Most Westerners have only the dimmest idea of what the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) claims to have set up on the desert flats and cities it controls.

Just what is the Caliphate?

At its most basic, the Caliphate is how Muslims organized themselves for centuries after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. In life, Mohammed led the faith that Muslims believe he channeled directly from God, serving as both religious leader and temporal ruler of the legions drawn to his teachings.

But when the Prophet died in 632 A.D., he left no heir, and the search was on for a successor—which is what caliph means. The caliphate (or succession) is what he rules, the governing body that claims dominion over all believers.

The competition for caliph would split the faith. After Mohammed died, some thought his favorite son-in-law, Ali, should serve. A supporter of Ali was rendered as Shiaat Ali, which became “Shia.”

Others said the caliph should be drawn from those who were especially close to the Prophet, and followed his teachings and example, or Sunnah. They formed Islam’s Sunni tradition.

Shiites stopped selecting caliphs fairly early on, but in the dominant Sunni tradition, the office held ultimate religious and political authority. The combined powers held together empires based wherever the Caliph chose: Baghdad, Damascus or, finally, Istanbul, from which Ottoman sultans governed an empire stretching across three continents for more than 500 years.

But the Ottoman Empire collapsed in World War I, and its remaining land was divided up into the form preferred by the European victors: nation-states. And as it happened, perhaps the most emphatic nation-state in the world, the Republic of Turkey, emerged on its own in the Anatolian peninsula that had been the heart of the empire. Its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, viewed Islam as a rival to the power of the secular state, and literally packed the last caliph out of town on the Orient Express—Abdulmecid Efendi, an urbane scholar who by some accounts was reading the essays of Montaigne when the police came for him. He retired to Paris and Nice.

Decades passed, and the West largely forgot that there ever was a caliphate. But Muslims did not. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 on the desire to re-establish it. Other groups followed, all of them radical in the sense that they sought to upend the world order by ending what one scholar called “the division of Muslim lands into measly pieces which call themselves nations.”

But many moderate Muslims like the idea as well. Some cite the dysfunction of the Arab world as defined by colonial borders, especially compared to Ottoman times. Others note that Catholics have their pope. “The concept of the caliphate is very much alive in the collective memory of society,” a Turkish author, Ali Bulac, once told me. “There is absolutely nothing to keep Muslim society together at the moment.”

Dignity, or its loss, plays a significant role. Osama bin Laden called the attacks of 9/11 “a very small thing compared to this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years,” counting from the 1924 elimination of the caliphate. And in its statement asserting a restored caliphate on the lands it holds between Syria and Iraq, ISIS appealed to “generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation.”

Even before the caliphate was officially declared June 29, ISIS, which uses social media masterfully, promoted the Twitter hashtag #sykespicotover. (Mark Sykes and Georges Picot being, as Arabs know only too well, the British and French officials who secretly divided up the Middle East in the waning days of WWI.) ISIS supporters also gleefully posted videos of captured earth movers breaching the berm separating Syria and Iraq.

But the group is radical in more ways than one. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS founder who now claims the mantle of the Prophet, calls for a war on the 10 percent of the world’s Muslims who follow the Shia tradition. His foundational screed calls for his soldiers to “greedily drink the blood” of non-believers.

“This is something that is characteristic of our time, to reestablish an ideological empire,” a Turkish scholar named Serif Mardin once told me, a look of distaste crossing his face. “A sweet caliph of ancient times is overwhelmed by this modern military idea. I mean, the caliph is supposed to be a nice guy.” That is one thing the new self-declared caliph does not appear to be.


Iraq Warplanes: When Subsonic is Faster than Supersonic

Russian soldiers unload Russian Sukhoi SU-25 plane in al-Muthanna Iraqi military base at Baghdad airport in Baghdad
Russian troops unload a Russian Su-25 attack plane in Baghdad on Saturday. REUTERS

Baghdad pivots to Russia for aircraft to fight Islamic terrorists

The lone acknowledged confrontation between a U.S.-made F-16 jet fighter and a Soviet Su-25 warplane took place over Pakistan near the Afghan border on August 4, 1988. The Pakistani F-16 destroyed the Su-25 with a missile, reportedly after it had strayed into Pakistani air space during Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan.

Now a second dogfight between this pair of 20th Century war birds is underway. But the Su-25 appears to be winning. This time, it’s not in the sky, but on the ground: Iraq wants those warplanes on its runways and in its inventory as soon as possible so they can be flown into the fight against the rebels of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who are threatening to topple the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

The U.S. has sold Iraq 36 speedy F-16s for $3 billion, but the first pair isn’t slated to arrive in Iraq until September. So Iraq has turned to a pair of former Soviet republics, Russia and Belarus, and is buying used Su-25s, lumbering “low and slow” aircraft like the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 Warthog, from them. Moscow apparently has accelerated delivery of the already-ordered planes at Baghdad’s urgent request.

Think of it as the military equivalent of the half-a-loaf argument: when your nation is in danger of collapsing, aging Su-25s beat brand-new F-16s every time.

“The United States remains committed to delivering the F-16s to Iraq as quickly as possible,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday, blaming some of the delay on the “completion of required financial and administrative details, which the Iraqi government has been slow to complete.” The U.S. plans to deliver two F-16s to Iraq monthly beginning in the fall, with all 36 delivered by 2016.

Amid all the geo-politicking over Iraq’s future, its choice of airplanes now that it’s in extremis highlights what’s good and bad about U.S. military hardware. It is, by most accounts, the best in the world—but the ponderous bureaucracy associated with its delivery, financing, training and logistics means that while it may be suited for tomorrow’s conflicts, it isn’t much help in today’s.

Iraq took delivery of its first F-16 June 5 at the Lockheed factory in Fort Worth where it was built (it still needs more work before they’re ready for delivery). Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, expressed delight. “It gives us the confidence that we can have enough capability of our own that we can protect the borders, to be able to protect our pipelines, and more importantly to deal with any threat of terrorism,” he said at the handover ceremony.

Five days later, ISIS took Mosul, and Iraq no longer seemed satisfied with Washington’s F-16 delivery schedule. “I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract” for the F-16s, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the BBC last week, complaining that the process was “long-winded.” He said Iraq would have been better off trying “to buy other jet fighters like British, French and Russian to secure the air cover for our forces; if we had air cover we would have averted what had happened.”

Certainly, the Su-25 (NATO nickname: Frogfoot; Russian nickname: Grach, Russian for Rook) is better-suited for plinking terrorists down below than the F-16. An initial batch of five reportedly arrived in Iraq on Saturday, part of a bigger package totaling 12 aircraft and the personnel needed to keep them flying. “The Sukhoi Su-25 is an air-ground support and anti-terrorism mission aircraft,” Iraqi Army Lieut. General Anwar Hamad Amen Ahmed told Russia’s RT news service. “In these difficult times, we are in great need of such aircraft.”

Iraq flew Su-25 attack planes during the 1980-1988 war with Iran. That means there’s an aging cohort of Iraqi pilots who could be flying the planes pretty quickly, Pentagon officials say. Iraq hopes to have the planes attacking ISIS targets within days. “God willing within one week this force will be effective and will destroy the terrorists’ dens,” Maliki said.

ITAR-TASS, the Russian news service, has repeatedly jabbed at the slowness of the U.S. deliveries in recent days. “Iraq has requested Russia to urgently supply Su-25 (Frogfoot) ground attack aircraft over Washington’s delay in delivering F-16 fighters,” one dispatch said.

But that’s not quite correct. The F-16 deliveries haven’t been delayed. “There’s been no slow-rolling,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “I’ve said it from here for the last several months that the first deliveries, the first two were scheduled to be delivered in the fall… I don’t know how one can make the case that we’re slow-rolling it when they weren’t even supposed to be delivered for another few months.”

But Army Colonel Steven Warren said Monday that the insurgency has forced the evacuation of contractors from the base north of Baghdad readying for the F-16s’ arrival. “I don’t have a specific timeline for how the relocation of contractors from Balad will affect the delivery of the F-16s,” he said. “It certainly will.”


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