Iraq

Iraqi Leadership: Tensions Exacerbate the Difficult Road Ahead.

Author: Emilio Giuliani / Muftah

Amidst an increasingly dire security crisis, Iraq’s national leadership continues to struggle with internal grievances and disagreements over the best way to move the country forward. From debates over federalism to arguments over who is to blame for Iraq’s rise in sectarian violence, the country’s top leaders are failing above all else to set a positive example. Instead of focusing on shared goals, Iraq’s political leaders remain preoccupied with their differences, a typical feature of inefficient politics. This inability to unite ideologically reflects wider sectarian divisions facing the population as a whole.

The growing wave of violence plaguing Iraq has become an increasingly pressing issue, particularly since extremist insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the jihadi group that was recently disavowed by al-Qaida, gained significant control over the western cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in recent months. The Iraqi government and local tribes are currently mounting a counter offensive against ISIL but the relative success of the group thus far has been unprecedented. The precarious situation in the Sunni dominated Anbar province where Ramadi and Fallujah are located underscores a national deterioration in security that is not slowing down. In January 2014, the death toll in Iraq was estimated to be at least triple that of January 2013.

It is clear that political reconciliation is a necessary precondition for ending Iraq’s seemingly never-ending cycle of sectarian conflict. But, incessant infighting among Iraq’s leadership only serves to exacerbate any effort toward an efficient and lasting resolution.

The good news is that reconciliation is not completely implausible, particularly since competing political parties continue to participate in government. The two largest blocs in government, the ruling State of Law Coalition and the secular Iraqiya list, are expected to somewhat dissolve in the upcoming parliamentary elections slated for April 30th. This will result in the formation of smaller, more cohesive parties instead of the current broad and fragile alliances between different ideological groups. The elections may fall on more sectarian lines, but it will push the most effective and long-sighted candidates to seek to win favor from voters beyond their base. Looking forward, the Iraqi leadership should expedite its reconciliation efforts with all those parties willing to make political concessions for the sake of lasting stability and peace.

While trying to combat increasing sectarianism and violence inside the country, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has faced pressures, from inside and outside the country, that have further complicated efforts to resolve these problems. Internationally, Maliki has been caught between developing greater ties with the United States and building a relationship with neighboring Iran. Domestically, the prime minister, who is Shi’a, has faced sectarian-fueled criticisms from Iraq’s Sunni leaders.

These two issues are intimately connected, as the Iraqi government continues to seek help from the U.S. government to deal with increasing violence inside the country. At the same time, uniting Iraq’s divided Shia and Sunni leaders is key to helping combat insurgent groups. The Iraqi government’s legitimacy domestically depends heavily on marginalizing extremist groups like ISIL while continuing to cooperate and work with the Sunni community at large.

Maliki and other top leaders in the Iraqi cabinet have continued to request additional resources from the United States to fight insurgents while simultaneously affirming they would reject any kind of foreign troop presence in the country. But, Maliki has also been criticized by the United States for ignoring the Iranian resources, weapons, and fighters passing through Iraqi airspace on their way to Syria to help bolster Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Resolving the government’s interest in building ties with Iran with its need for US support to combat terrorist groups will be key in moving the country forward.

On January 23rd, the Speaker of the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni official, Osama al-Nujaifi, visited the United States to discuss Iraq’s deteriorating security situation and to appeal for further assistance from the United States and the international community. Nujaifi’s comments on the pressing security situation in western Iraq and ongoing political disagreements among top tier Iraqi politicians revealed the tension and sense of urgency present amongst the Iraqi leadership.

Nujaifi acknowledged government shortcomings in moving the state forward but laid much of the blame on the current administration and Maliki’s ruling Dawa party, a Shia political group. Nujaifi contended that broken promises to Sunni tribes and the failure to facilitate discussion on greater autonomy for the western provinces were the root causes of the country’s ongoing political instability.

Maliki has correctly noted that countering the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in cities like Ramadi and Fallujah depends heavily on the support and cooperation of local Sunni tribes. While he has requested their help, their compliance depends on the willingness of their tribal and political leaders to once again ally with their Shia counterparts in the interest of defeating insurgent groups.

The Maliki government’s use of anti-terror brigades, which report directly to the office of the prime minister, has also come under heavy criticism from Sunni leaders for their unilateral and extrajudicial actions. Last month, Nujaifi’s brother and governor of the volatile Ninevah province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, accused the special forces of killing his nephew and placed blame squarely on Maliki’s government.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Deputy Prime Minister, argued that politicians are capitalizing on sectarian divisions and that political reconciliation is a more critical issue than dealing with al-Qaida’s encroachment and influence on Iraqi politics.

Regardless of the political motivations behind these and other similar statements made by Nujaifi, Mutlaq and other top Sunni officials, criticism and open dissent toward their Shia counterparts in government only serve to exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Shia throughout the country. Reconciliation between Sunni and Shia leaders in the government, especially at the highest levels, must first occur before Iraq’s sectarian conflict stands a chance of dissipating.

For starters, Maliki and Nujaifi must stop arguing on clearly sectarian lines. Maliki should accept blame for deteriorating relations between the government and Iraq’s Sunni population and ensure that the government hold up its end of the bargain after striking deals to compensate Sunni tribes who fight against the ISIL. Simply paying the tribesmen is not enough, however. Given their pivotal role as defense units in the Anbar province, the government should also grant them greater authority and integrate them further in federal politics.

For his part, Nujaifi must stop blaming Maliki’s camp for the current situation, and help facilitate cooperation between Sunni leaders and the Shia-majority government in fighting sectarian violence and Islamic extremism.

While there may well be merit to many of the accusations made against Maliki, partaking in a constant blame game will only serve to further undermine the legitimacy and authority of the central government as a whole, at the expense of the safety and well being of the Iraqi people. Reconciliation is the only conceivable answer. While the specter of al-Qaida continues to loom, its presence can only be fought and eventually eradicated by a truly unified opposition.

The United States has finally started to take notice of the dangerous situation in Iraq and has acted more directly to help counter al-Qaida’s revival in Iraq, though continued political and logistical aid will be even more crucial looking further ahead. Washington recently sent Hellfire missiles and reconnaissance ScanEagle drones to Baghdad while additional pending U.S. legislation could see shipments of Apache helicopters over the next three years.

Despite the increase in U.S. military aid, Iraq has allegedly also signed several arms deals with Iran in violation of international sanctions, according to a recent Reuters report. If this is indeed the case, the United States and the international community will inevitably want to hold Iraq accountable and disincentivize such a back channel relationship. At the same time, the severity of the ongoing crisis and Iraq’s limited capacity to overcome it alone cannot be downplayed. It is therefore understandable that Iraq should look to multiple sources for assistance.

The ultimate goal, of course, is for Baghdad to become wholly militarily self-sufficient. Thus, resolving the current security situation should be an immediate priority so that Iraq move forward and focus solely on strengthening its military. Focusing only on purging militants and insurgents is a short-term solution. Unless the root causes are fully addressed, Iraq’s long-term problems will remain unsolved. Ensuring free and fair elections and promoting conciliatory dialogue between Iraq’s political leaders, irrespective of political party or ideology, is vital to the sustainability and durability of a prosperous Iraqi state.

The country’s leaders are directly requesting help in facilitating these political processes and the international community has an opportunity to assist them wisely and well. This opportunity should be taken advantage of, before it is too late.

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Iran, travel

Golestan Palace, Iran: Shine on you crazy diamond.

Golestan Palace, pronounced “Kakheh Golestan”,  is the former royal Qajar complex in Iran’s capital city (Tehran). The Palace is all that remains of Tehran’s Historical Citadel (Arg). In its present state, Golestan Palace is the result of roughly 400 years construction and renovations. The buildings at the contemporary location each have a unique history.  The building complex has been built and modified during four different dynasties: Safavid, Zand, Qajar and Pahlavi. All of them left their unique traces.

I often associate music with buildings. For Golestan, it’s Pink Floyd’s Shine on you crazy diamond.

Come on you target for faraway laughter, come on you stranger,
You legend, you martyr, and shine!

We can agree that it’s an amazing piece of history and art. There’s the White Palace, The Hall of Brilliant Diamonds, The Hall of Ivory, The Hall of Mirrors, Sun Building,.. Let the photos take you through it.

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In picture: A look into Golestan Palace in Tehran

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For more photos and info, go to iranreview.

 

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Lebanon, travel

Beqaa Valley, Lebanon: In vino vita.

Famous Latin phrase In vino veritas (in wine [there is the] truth), could be rephrased to In vino vita (in wine [there is] life) when it comes to the Beqaa Valley.

The Beqaa Valley is a fertile valley in east Lebanon, and today it remains Lebanon’s most important farming region. The valley is home to Lebanon’s famous vineyards and wineries. Wine making is a tradition that goes back 6000 years there.

Here are some of the grapes picking photos I collected around the web, so you can get a better impression of wine scented life in Beqaa Valley.

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To match feature LEBANON-WINE/

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art of resistance, Egypt, travel

Rare window to early 1900s Egypt.

This time travel is provided by  Brooklyn Museum Archives (© photos).

It’s fantastic archive gives us a rare look at inherent beauty of the land, that we now, so often, hear about only in terms of violence and disrupted lives.

vintageegypt1-thumb-600x546-51807Egypt: Partly submerged palms above Nile dam, Upper Egypt Copyright, 1908, by Stereo-Travel Co. Brooklyn Museum Archives

tumblr_mlw5qaNEe61rtgfyao9_500Egypt: Donkey and Cart, Kasr-en-Nil T. H. McAllister, Manufacturing Optician. 49 Nassau Street, New York. Brooklyn Museum Archives

vintageegypt10-thumb-600x561-51836Egypt: Pyramids of Dashur from Sakkara T. H. McAllister, Manufacturing Optician. 49 Nassau Street. Hooper. Brooklyn Museum Archives

tumblr_mlw5qaNEe61rtgfyao7_500Egypt: Arab porters, Alexandria Brooklyn Museum Archives

tumblr_mlw5qaNEe61rtgfyao3_500Egypt: Arabic Window and Native Bazaar, Cair T. H. McAllister, Manufacturing Optician. 49 Nassau Street. Brooklyn Museum Archives

tumblr_mlw5qaNEe61rtgfyao1_500Egypt: Arab water-carrier girls. Brooklyn Museum Archives

vintageegypt13-thumb-600x558-51845Egypt: Pompey’s Pillar, Alexandria T. H. McAllister, Manufacturing Optician. 49 Nassau Street. Brooklyn Museum Archives

vintageegypt11-thumb-600x568-51839Egypt: Sunset on the Nile. Brooklyn Museum Archives

 

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

Filming on the Fringe – Saudia Arabia’s and Yemen’s first female filmmakers.

Author: Natalie Shooter / Reorient

In the midst of a nascent film industry, a handful of female filmmakers have emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, pioneering film in the region and using it as a tool to fight for change. Saudi Arabia and Yemen both present volatile environments for any director; in the former, cinemas are illegal, and in both, authorisation from the government prior to shooting is obligatory. However, in these conservative, patriarchal societies, the challenges for female filmmakers are even greater.

As Yemeni documentary filmmaker Khadija Al-Salami was witnessing the 2011 revolution against the now-ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh on television, the presence of women amongst the crowds of protesters came as a shock. Segregated from men in many areas of public life, their boldness inspired her to leave her diplomatic job at the Yemeni embassy in Paris and document the movement. ‘For me, this was a true revolution – all this oppression had been lingering for so long’ Al-Salami says. ‘To see these women uncovered and not shy of the camera was unbelievable. They just wanted to be a part of this; they were just saying “we exist”’.

Al-Salami’s 2012 documentary, The Scream, follows the women of that revolution. Originally in search of Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman – the human rights activist considered the ‘mother’ of the Yemeni revolution – Al-Salami came across thousands of other women fighting not just for the collapse of the regime, but also for their place in society. Accordingly, Al-Salami followed journalist Rahma Hugira, human rights activist Balqis Al-Lahabi, and poet Huda Al-Attas, all of whom were fighting for the liberation of Yemen. ‘The presence of women in the revolution is a message’, says one of the women in the documentary. ‘I want to be present, and my presence will be prolonged throughout and beyond the revolution’.

640x392_44318_255618Khadija Al-Salami

In The Scream, Al-Salami explores how much has actually changed for women in post-revolution Yemen; barely anything seems to be the general consensus. ‘There’s change, but there are still a lot of restrictions and oppression from families’, says Al-Salami. ‘I now see thousands of girls that have awareness of their rights. They have to keep their courage and continue to fight for change’.

The tradition of child marriage in Yemen presents a hotly debated topic with respect to the situation of women therein. According to a 2012 UNFPA report, 32% of 20 – 24 year-old Yemeni women in 2011 were previously married under legal age. In Al-Salami’s adaption of I Am Nujood, the memoir of a ten year-old Yemeni girl married to a man 20 years her senior, it’s the focus of the film – a fact made more poignant by Al-Salami’s own story. Married at 11 and disowned by the male side of her family after fighting for divorce, she had to juggle a job at her local television station with school to support herself and her mother.

Desperate to leave Yemen to study abroad after being exposed to the outside world through her job at the station, Al-Salami was awarded a scholarship at 16, and left shortly afterwards for the United States. Now based in Paris, her documentary work has been almost entirely dedicated to highlighting the plight of Yemeni women. ‘Since I was a kid [I’ve been] fighting for my rights’, she remarks. ‘I fulfilled my dream in liberating myself, but I needed to go back to try and help these women’. With the illiteracy rate among women in Yemen currently at around 70%, Al-Salami set up the My Future Foundation in Sana’a, which helps provide young girls with an education. ‘My grandmother used to say a girl was only born to be buried or married. She and my mother never went to school, and I decided to go back and fight for that’.

Working within an almost nonexistent film industry is not without its challenges, but filming in a country where one cannot freely express themselves also involves courage and persistence. Nobody believed Al-Salami would get the go-ahead to film a female prisoner inside a cell for her 2006 film, Amina, but the director not only received permission to interview the woman who was given a death sentence at 14, but was also able to temporarily live with her in her cell. At other times, her filming was suspended by the authorities, and she risked the penalties of illegally filming in the street with hidden cameras.

Haifaa-Al-MansourHaifaa Al Mansour

For Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, getting authorisation to shoot her film, Wadjda – the first feature film short entirely in the country – wasn’t so much a problem as filming within a conservative society. Her 2012 film, recently released in European cinemas, follows Wadjda, a rebellious ten year-old girl, who challenges her country’s rigid laws in a quest to purchase a bicycle and race against her friend Abdullah; not exactly a thrilling subject for Hollywood’s standards, but in Saudi Arabia, it’s the stuff of revolution. Filmed in Riyadh, Al Mansour had to direct her actors via walkie-talkies from the back of a van in the city’s more conservative areas.

Al Mansour’s realist drama highlights the marginalisation of women in Saudi society through the character of Converse-clad Wadjda. Though the director plays it safe in the subtlety with which she tackles the subject of women’s rights, the more trying aspects of the situation of women in Saudi Arabia are clearly highlighted throughout the film, in which the desert surroundings under a stifling blue sky are devoid of any trace of womanhood. As Al Mansour’s film provides a rare glimpse into a relatively insular and misunderstood society, it’s no wonder why Wadjda has received so much international attention since its release.

A co-production between Saudi Arabia and Germany, Al Mansour’s real challenge came in finding a young actress to play the leading role. ‘A lot of parents don’t want to have their girls appear in cinema’ says Al Mansour. ‘We had many girls come to casting, and then at the last minute, they would dissapear’. Waad Mohammed came to casting only one week before the movie was set to be shot. ‘She was wearing jeans and an 80s-style jacket with loose curly hair, listening to Justin Bieber. It was exactly this global youth culture I wanted to capture’.

wadjdaWadjda, still from the movie

Though many restrictions remain in place for women in the Kingdom, progress, some might say, has been made there in the last few years: female athletes competed in last year’s Olympic games, and women were appointed to the government’s advisory council last January. ‘[Those among] the new generation in Saudi are different’, Al Mansour says. ‘They have access to information and the internet, and want to live like everybody else’. However, real change for Al Mansour will come only from the bottom up. ‘It’s not about making one big change; it’s about breaking it down and making it more tangible for our own lives’.

Both Al-Salami and Al Mansour are confident about cinema’s role and ability with respect to social reform. Though Yemeni intellectuals initially predicted a violent public reaction to Al-Salami’s Amina, screenings in rural areas of the country were received in a positive light. ‘After that film,’ remarks Al-Salami, ‘journalists were encouraged to tackle subjects they considered sensitive. Expose your problems, and you’re forced to find a solution’. Al Mansour is also hopeful that the wheels of change are slowly being set in motion. ‘There’s a debate going on now about cinema’, she says, hoping a national dialogue will bring new opportunities for herself and others. ‘For women, sharing something [about yourself] was considered ayb’, (lit. ‘wrongdoing’) says Al-Salami. ‘Now, you see how eager they are to express themselves. Al Mansour, while optimistic, is more of a realist. ‘Cinema is a tough place to be. There is no funding, no system’. The solution? ‘You need to be individual [and] persistent, find your voice, and carry on’.

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art of resistance, Iran, travel

Iran’s parkour women.

Parkour has gained a foothold in Iran — and not only among the usual young male aficionado. There are a lot of girls practicing it, and AFP recently run a little story about it.

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The experience of parkour, in their words, is:

“I am really stressed out because of my studies but parkour helps me a lot to deal with the stress. I feel happy.”

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“There was a jump I couldn’t do at first … learning it made me realise I am capable of doing anything and defeating any obstacle. I feel free.”

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“Practising parkour shows that even if you are a woman, you are not bound to stay at home.” 

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“Sometimes people criticise us saying this isn’t a sport for girls. They say we’re supposed to knit … They can’t imagine a girl exercising like a boy.”

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We encounter problems but we try our best to cope with them because we love doing parkour.”

Photos © AFP

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travel, Turkey

Istanbul’s enchanting melancholia.

Istanbul’s one of my favourite places ever. Last time I was there was almost three years ago, and these are some of the photos from that journey. I spent my days sitting with fishermen, drinking black tea, trying to play backgammon, and – getting lost in the sea.

Marmara sea and sunsets and sunrises over Bosphorus are beyond words. Everything in Istanbul feeds itself on that endless blue beauty. It’s life. And what is so incredible – there’s this instant nostalgia, even if you’re for the first time in Istanbul and know nothing about it, I’m sure you would feel it. The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy. That’s how Pamuk started his book on Istanbul. From my very first day there, I understood what he meant.

Enjoy the photos.

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