Gung-ho: a boy brandishes a gun from a van taking volunteers to join the fight against jihadists in the north. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
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Could Isis take Iraq’s capital?

Despite the media’s focus on the sectarian dimension of Iraq’s current crisis, the reality is more complex.

When Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul, fell to jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) on 10 June, the sense of fear and confusion was palpable in Baghdad. There was a noticeable difference in the capital’s traffic the following morning; fewer civilians left their homes, and there were more military patrols and checkpoints.

By 11 June, Iraqi forces had lost control of Tikrit, another provincial capital to the north of Baghdad, and with skirmishes breaking out to the west and south of the city, too, residents were painfully aware of the front line moving closer to home. As the New Statesman went to press, the city of Baquba to the north-east of Baghdad was still being contested and the town of Tal Afar, close to the Syrian border, had almost completely fallen out of government control.

There are still unanswered questions about how several thousand Isis fighters were able to make such rapid gains. Some national army units were ordered to withdraw; others say they received no orders at all and decided to flee as the fighters arrived. Whatever the orders from above, the fall of these cities to Isis would not have been possible without a large degree of local support from civilians and other armed groups, including supporters of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. In Baghdad, friends wondered if this was less an Islamist insurgency, and more an uprising.

Many people in Mosul and Tikrit hate the government troops and view them as an occupying force, rather than a national army, in part due to their heavy-handedness. Likewise, many of the soldiers who fled Isis advances decided that these cities, in which they were always unwelcome, were not worth dying for.

The various armed insurgent groups might have competing ideologies – on paper, at least, the Ba’athists are anathema to the Islamists and vice versa – but they have found a common enemy in the central government. In the coming months, the ties between these insurgent groups will inevitably unravel, and when fighting breaks out it will be just as bloody as the infighting between various rebel groups in neighbouring Syria. We could see fighting between Sunni groups even as both fight the Shia-led Iraqi government.

In the face of such a brutal and unconventional enemy, the government of Iraq has relied on Iranian-backed Shia militia groups to act as semi-official paramilitary forces. These ideologically driven militias assist, and sometimes even spearhead, Iraqi army counter-terrorism operations. Shia militias were deployed in force on the outskirts of Baghdad on 11 June (they had already been active there). Iran’s shadowy general Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, visited Baghdad the same day, boosting the morale of the Shia militia fighters and doing the rounds with various Shia politicians – Iraq held its first general elections since the withdrawal of US forces on 30 April and the various blocs are still negotiating the formation of the next government.

Despite the media’s focus on the sectarian dimension of Iraq’s current crisis, the reality is more complex. During Friday prayers on 13 June, Iraq’s leading Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, declared through his official representative that Iraqis should join the armed forces to fight terrorism. This was widely portrayed as a call to arms for Shias to fight Sunnis, but that isn’t quite true.

I met with Ayatollah Sistani at his office on 14 June. The narrow alleyway off one of Najaf’s oldest streets leading to his office was packed with people lining up to visit him, as well as dozens of private security guards. He told me that his fatwa to fight Isis was not just about protecting Shias or Shia religious sites. It was about defending a nation and its people. “Isis are a threat to Sunnis, too,” he said. The same day, the ayatollah issued a statement on his website urging Iraqis to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from armed activity outside the state’s legal framework – a not-so-subtle reference to militias.

It is worth noting that some Sunni fighters are also joining the resistance against Isis. Anti-Isis Sunni tribal forces are fighting alongside the Iraqi army in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq’s large western province of Anbar, as well as other provinces to the east and north of Baghdad.

On 15 June videos surfaced, documenting the massacre of dozens of Iraqi soldiers by jihadists in Tikrit. A New York Times employee said that Sunni soldiers were given civilian clothes and sent home, while Shia soldiers were summarily executed by Isis. Yet the head of the Sunni tribal fighters in Samarra who are fighting Isis says that Sunnis were also killed in the atrocity. We may never know the truth.

Iraq may be suffering from sectarian polarisation, but that is not the only force driving this conflict. What happens next will largely depend on the conduct of the Shia militias, and on whether Isis is able to pull off another spectacular attack that will force ordinary people – not the organised militias – to pick up their weapons and join the fight.

Hayder al-Khoei is an associate fellow at Chatham House

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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America’s domestic terrorists: why there’s no such thing as a “lone wolf”

After the latest attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, America must confront the violence escalating at its heart.

First things first: let’s not pretend this is about life.

Three people have died and nine were injured on Friday in the latest attack on a women’s health clinic in the United States. Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was besieged by a gunman whose motives remain unclear, but right-to-lifers—who should really be called “forced birth advocates”—have already taken up their keyboards to defend his actions, claiming that women seeking an abortion, or doctors providing them, are never “innocent”. 

This was not unexpected. Abortion providers have been shot and killed before in the United States. The recent book Living in the Crosshairs by David S Cohen and Krysten Connon describes in sanguine detail the extent of domestic terrorism against women’s healthcare facilities, which is increasing as the American right-wing goes into meltdown over women’s continued insistence on having some measure of control over their own damn bodies. As Slate reports

In July, employees at a clinic in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, reported an attempted arson. In August, firefighters found half a burning car at the construction site of a future clinic in New Orleans. On Sept. 4, a clinic in Pullman, Washington, was set ablaze at 3:30 a.m., and on Sept. 30, someone broke a window at a Thousand Oaks, California, clinic and threw a makeshift bomb inside.

The real horror here is not just that a forced-birth fanatic attacked a clinic, but that abortion providers across America are obliged to work as if they might, at any time, be attacked by forced-birth fanatics whose right to own a small arsenal of firearms is protected by Congress. 

The United States is bristling with heavily armed right-wingers who believe the law applies to everyone but them. This is the second act of domestic terrorism in America in a week. On Monday, racists shouting the n-word opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring three. This time, the killer is a white man in his 50s. Most American domestic terrorists are white men, which may explain why they are not treated as political agents, and instead dismissed as “lone wolves” and “madmen”.

Terrorism is violence against civilians in the service of ideology. By anyone’s sights, these killers are terrorists, and by the numbers, these terrorists pose substantially more of a threat to American citizens than foreign terrorism—but nobody is calling for background checks on white men, or for members of the republican party to wear ID tags. In America, like many other western nations, people only get to be “terrorists” when they are “outsiders” who go against the political consensus. And there is a significant political consensus behind this bigotry, including within Washington itself. That consensus plays out every time a Republican candidate or Fox news hatebot expresses sorrow for the victims of murder whilst supporting both the motives and the methods of the murderers. If that sounds extreme, let’s remind ourselves that the same politicians who declare that abortion is murder are also telling their constituents that any attempt to prevent them owning and using firearms is an attack on their human rights. 

Take Planned Parenthood. For months now, systematic attempts in Washington to defund the organisation have swamped the nation with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric. Donald Trump, the tangerine-tanned tycoon who has managed to become the frontrunner in the republican presidential race not in spite of his swivel-eyed, stage-managed, tub-thumping bigotry but because of it, recently called Planned Parenthood an “abortion factory” and demanded that it be stripped of all state support. Trump, in fact, held a pro-choice position not long ago, but like many US republicans, he is far smarter than he plays. Trump understands that what works for the American public right now, in an absence of real hope, is fanaticism. 

Donald Trump, like many republican candidates, is happy to play the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist fanatic in order to pander to white, fundamentalist Christian voters who just want to hear someone tell it like it is. Who just want to hear someone say that all Muslims should be made to wear ID cards, that Black protesters deserve to be “roughed up”, that water-boarding is acceptable even if it doesn’t work because “they deserve it”. Who just want something to believe in, and when the future is a terrifying blank space, the only voice that makes sense anymore is the ugly, violent whisper in the part of your heart that hates humanity, and goddamn but it’s a relief to hear someone speaking that way in a legitimate political forum. Otherwise you might be crazy.

American domestic terrorists are not “lone wolves”. They are entrepreneurial. They may work alone or in small groups, but they are merely the extreme expression of a political system in meltdown. Republican politicians are careful not to alienate voters who might think these shooters had the right idea when they condemn the violence, which they occasionally forget to do right away. In August, a homeless Hispanic man was allegedly beaten to a pulp by two Bostonians, one of whom told the police that he was inspired by Donald Trump’s call for the deportation of “illegals”. Trump responded to the incident by explaining that “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

But that’s not even the real problem with Donald Trump. The real problem with Donald Trump is that he makes everyone standing just to the left of him look sane. All but one republican governor has declared that refugees from Syria are unwelcome in their states. Across the nation, red states are voting in laws preventing women from accessing abortion, contraception and reproductive healthcare. Earlier this year, as congressmen discussed defunding Planned Parenthood, 300 ‘pro-life’ protesters demonstrated outside the same Colorado clinic where three people died this weekend. On a daily basis, the women who seek treatment at the clinic are apparently forced to face down cohorts of shouting fanatics just to get in the door. To refuse any connection between these daily threats and the gunman who took the violence to its logical extreme is not merely illogical—it is dangerous.

If terrorism is the murder of civilians in the service of a political ideology, the United States is a nation in the grip of a wave of domestic terrorism. It cannot properly be named as such because its logic draws directly from the political consensus of the popular right. If the killers were not white American men, we would be able to call them what they are—and politicians might be obligated to come up with a response beyond “these things happen.”

These things don’t just “happen”. These things happen with escalating, terrifying frequency, and for a reason. The reason is that America is a nation descending into political chaos, unwilling to confront the violent bigotry at its heart, stoked to frenzy by politicians all too willing to feed the violence if it consolidates their own power. It is a political choice, and it demands a political response.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.