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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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.