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

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.