Under threat: displaced Iraqi Christians take refuge in the garden of Saint Joseph church on the outskirts of Erbil, 12 August. Photo: Getty
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With the beheading of James Foley by Islamic State, a red line has been crossed at last

Channel 4 News’s foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Rugman on a dramatic week spent in northern Iraq.

My hotel lobby in Erbil plays unwanted muzak while I sit sipping coffee, reflecting that the gun-toting crazies of Islamic State are a mere half-hour’s drive away. Should the jihadists ever conquer this Kurdish city, I guess the muzak would cease and the subsequent round of beheadings would probably include mine.

The journalist James Foley disappeared near the Syrian town of Taftanaz in Nov­ember 2012. I was in the same town a few months earlier, welcome (or so I thought) to report on the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Now, James has been executed and I cannot understand what changed in the hearts and minds of some of those who took us in and helped us. After not one but a multitude of jihadist atrocities too many, a red line has been crossed at last.

Britain and the US veered from over-intervening in Iraq to neglecting it. Now, there’s the inevitable talk of “mission creep” and being “sucked in” but at least we are trying to find a middle way: surveillance, arming the Kurds, air strikes, using special forces for whom discretion is the better part of valour. By the end of my week, I must allow an hour to reach the “Islamic caliphate” front line – maybe more during Kurdistan’s rush-hour traffic. This military reversal has been prompted in part by the tragic fate of a religious minority that most of us had never even heard of a fortnight earlier.

Intervention came too late for 100,000 Assyrian Christians abandoning some of Christendom’s earliest outposts. And too late for the vast majority of Yazidis – but at least their exodus caught the world’s attention. My reporting rarely changes anything but maybe the first pictures broadcast on Channel 4 News of desperate Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar helped prick the conscience of reluctant policymakers. Anyway, that’s what I like to think.

Into the mountains

Major General Majid Ahmed Saadi was the Iraqi helicopter pilot who made it possible. We were staying at the same hotel and my producer, Sarah, spotted him coming out of his room in his flying suit. We drank tea and smoked with him and struck a deal: he would take us up the mountain the next morning. The Iraqi army had just four ancient Russian Mi-17 choppers to rescue the Yazidis – and often they were being diverted to fire rockets at jihadists instead. On the way up to Sinjar, I tried amusing myself by dreaming up a T-shirt slogan for our crew: “Our country got invaded by the US and Britain – and all we got were these Russian helicopters, which we had already.”

Our pilot warned us that the Yazidis might try to storm the helicopter and so it proved: a desperate crush, bodies clambering over one another and people screaming. I found myself dragging dehydrated children towards the back. One of the Iraqi machine-gunners kicked refugees away so he could shut the door. Then, when we thought it was all over and our cargo of human misery was airborne, the gunner started firing because jihadists were shooting at us from below.

Weight of desperation

The next day, I returned to the airbase to find Alissa Rubin of the New York Times in the helicopter, sitting where I had sat. Major General Majid was at the door, making his final checks. “Maybe it is too heavy to take off,” he said to me gravely. That afternoon, we heard that the helicopter had crashed and our pilot was dead. Alissa was among the injured. The major general had taken on more refugees than he could carry and had tried to plunge the helicopter down the mountain slope until he could gain lift for take-off. Later, we were told that two Yazidi refugee children had died in hospital.

Hope for Iraq

My camerawoman, Philippa, has an 11-month-old baby at home and I have three children. So what were we to make of our near miss? “It is good news! God has decided it is not your time,” Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times tells me later, giving me a mystical, Middle Eastern look. My other conclusion is, strangely, one of hope for Iraq’s future: the major general was an Arab from Basra on a courageous mission to save his fellow Iraqis on the remote fringes of Kurdistan when nobody else would.

Scattered to the winds

Father John Tarachee is the man I am happiest to see all week. I first met him two months ago outside his church in Bartella, 13 miles east of Mosul, where he made the bold claim that if jihadists invaded and executed him, his place in paradise was assured. On 6 August, Islamic State arrived and Father John abandoned the prospect of paradise, preferring to flee for the Kurdish hills. Ours is an emotional reunion, though his village is empty and more than 2,000 Christian families have been scattered to the winds. “America said it would help us – but it is late,” he says sadly, showing me around a community centre hall packed with Christian refugees.

Among them is Mabel, who was born two days before jihadists overran Qaraqosh, Iraq’s biggest Christian city. Every family here wants a passport and a passage out, should it prove impossible to return home. A question bothers me: is the UK government, in its political correctness, so anxious not to be seen solely defending the rights of Iraq’s Christians that it will leave them here?

Homeward bound

By the time I am on the plane home, I have reduced a presenter on Fox News to tears with my tales of suffering Yazidis – tales undoubtedly helped by how photogenic these gentle mountain people are. Both the BBC and ITV claim to have found babies named “Hope” born on the mountain, while I’ve met a mother who had her infant suckle the milk of a mountain goat to survive. Now the inflight menu arrives and I try to put an exhausting week behind me and face a perplexing question: chicken or beef? 

Jonathan Rugman is a foreign affairs correspondent for “Channel 4 News”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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