August in Iraq: More Destruction, Humanitarian Catastrophes
Since my last post at the end of July the situation in Iraq has changed dramatically in a number of ways. Obviously, at this point the heritage crisis takes a back seat to the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Nevertheless, destruction of Islamic sites has continued unabated in areas under the control of ISIS.
On August 1, forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in the region of Jebel Sinjar. Kurds had occupied the area two months prior but only stationed two brigades of light infantry in the area. Jebel Sinjar is a mountain ridge which rises 2800 feet above the surrounding flat plains. The mountain itself is inhospitable rocky terrain with very little water. The Kurdish troops were surrounded on three sides by ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria while trying to hold mostly indefensible territory.
ISIS forces already held Tall Afar, and quickly captured Sinjar (Shingal in Kurdish) as well. The primary thrust of the offensive was not at the mountain but the plains to the northwest of Tall Afar. By doing so, ISIS hoped to link up with ISIS forces in Syria at Jaz’ah, Yarubiyah and Tall Hamis, thereby surrounding Jebel Sinjar. Within days, this was accomplished.
The result was mass panic followed by a clearly emerging picture of a humanitarian disaster amongst Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority. Tens of thousands fled to Jebel Sinjar. Reports have steadily increased of widespread massacres, rape, and the taking of women as slaves by ISIS fighters. Some reports indicate that the local Sunni Arab population joined in pogroms against the Yezidis as soon as ISIS forces drew near.
On August 6, in an even more stunning move ISIS launched another offensive into the region of Nineveh Plains. Assyrian-majority cities such as Bakhdida and Bartella emptied of their inhabitants in another wave of refugees. ISIS forces also captured Al-Kuwayr and Makhmour to the south of Arbil.
The August offensive exposed major deficiencies in the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Kurdish troops lack adequate equipment and ammunition. Kurdish commanders are experienced fighting defensive and guerrilla campaigns in the mountains but have little experience in maneuver warfare. No heavy weapons seem to have been deployed to protect Sinjar or Nineveh Plains as they were all shepherded for the defense of the capital of Erbil. Command and control is a jumble of political loyalties with the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan each controlling their own militias outside of KRG control. Battlefield reverses led to recriminations between the KDP and PUK as to who was to blame. Command was further fragmented by inviting armed units of the YPG and PKK (Syrian and Turkish Kurdish militant groups) into Iraq to aid the KRG (further complicating matters, the PKK is Marxist in political orientation and is considered a terrorist organization by the US, EU and NATO).
The fall of Erbil to ISIS would be a disaster beyond imagining and on August 8 F/A-18 Hornets from the USS George H.W. Bush began airstrikes against ISIS forces advancing towards Erbil. Further airstrikes have been carried out against ISIS forces in the Sinjar region. The United States, Germany, France, the UK and several other nations have pledged military assistance to the KRG. The initial airstrikes seem to have helped blunt ISIS’ advance while the Kurds have opened a corridor to evacuate refugees from Sinjar.
Predictably, ISIS has responded to the airstrikes by dispersing its forces, making them harder to hit from the air. This will protect their forces from airstrikes but also make it harder to concentrate them for new offensives. Dispersed forces are vulnerable to ground attack, especially in flat areas like Nineveh Plains and Sinjar, and in this way even limited airstrikes can aid Kurdish troops in re-taking those areas.
Heritage Sites Destroyed
ISIS released another series of photographs of the demolition of shrines and mosques yesterday. Many of the photos show the already well documented destruction of the shrines of Jonah and Seth and the tomb of Imam Hassan Aoun al-Din in Mosul last month. Nevertheless, others show destruction of other sites not widely reported previously:
The Tomb of the Prophet Daniel
Mosul official Zuhair al-Chalabi told al-Sumaria News on July 24 that the Tomb of Daniel in Mosul had been destroyed, but his claim was not widely reported. ISIS have now released photos claiming to show the shrine being destroyed. I have been unable to locate any photographs of the shrine before its destruction in order to confirm the reports.
Mausoleum of Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim
This tomb was built Badr al-Din Lu’lu, a 13th century Mamluk sultan of Mosul and the patron of historian Ibn al-Athir whose tomb ISIS destroyed last month. Badr al-Din was a Shia, and so was the Imam who he honored in 1239 with a massive mausoleum on the banks of the Tigris.
At one point riverbank erosion caused the structure to begin leaning and massive buttresses had to be constructed to keep it from collapsing into the river. Its interior was decorated with ornate carvings, mosaics and architectural features, all of which are now gone since it has been blown into tiny pulverized pieces.
Tomb of Sheikh Qadeeb al-Ban al-Mosuli
Pictures claim to show his shrine and tomb being destroyed. I am unable to find any pre-destruction photographs to confirm.
Images published by ISIS show the destruction of two sites labeled the Tomb of Ibrahim and the Shia al-Faisaliyah Mosque. No other information is available.
According to CNN, last week Iraqi Air Force Su-25 attack aircraft bombed the al-Mufti Mosque in western Mosul, which an Iraqi government security official and two local residents alleged was being used as a military recruiting center by ISIS. There are no reports as to what damage, if any, the mosque sustained in the raid.
The region of Nineveh Plains was the heartland of ancient Assyria and is full of archaeological sites, many of which will now be open to ISIS’ by now well known propensity to profit from archaeological looting. On the other hand, it is also currently the front line of the battlefield between Kurdistan and ISIS, which may reduce the looting in the immediate future but raises the possibility of damage to sites from heavy weapons.
The choice of more obscure targets in the latest ISIS release is sadly indicative of the fact that ISIS has already destroyed most of the better known shrines and monuments in Mosul. Sufi and Shia sites continue to be especially targeted. At the same time, the use of Sunni mosques for military purposes by ISIS makes them targets for attack and destruction.
This conflict is not likely to end any time soon, and threats to Iraq’s cultural heritage can only be expected to increase with time.