With Jews largely gone, memories of Iraq survive

Behind the high concrete walls of Baghdad's Jewish cemetery, Violette Saul lies at rest under a weathered and cracked tombstone, one of the last memorials to an ancient community that is now all but extinct. 

The Iraqi nurse was buried a decade ago alongside thousands of others, in the sands of a country where a Jewish community thrived for more than 2,500 years. 

Drive west to the shores of the Mediterranean - just a day's journey geographically but a world away politically - and there is a lament inscribed at the entrance to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre in Israel - "The Jewish community in Iraq is no more". 

It is no accident that such a sombre epitaph to Iraq's Jews should be found in Israel, where tens of thousands of them fled after 1948 amid the violent spasms that accompanied the birth of that state. 

That transplanting of an educated, vibrant and creative community unquestionably enriched Israel, which celebrates its 70th year of existence on Wednesday. But it also denuded Iraq of a minority that had long contributed to its political, economic and cultural identity. 

In 1947, a year before the Zionist state's birth, Iraq's Jewish community numbered around 150,000. Now their numbers are in single figures. And they are missed. Ziyad al-Bayati, an Iraqi Muslim who looks after the rarely visited graveyard near the East Baghdad neighbourhood Sadr City, said his father used to reminisce about an Iraq in which ethnic communities lived together. 

It was a time, Bayati said, that predated the violence around Israel's creation, the wars of later years, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed years of sectarian bloodshed. 

"My father used to say it was the good times when people lived peacefully side by side," said Bayati, 48. "There is no concern shown for the cemetery, (even if) the culture of people here is to respect the dead and their graves." 

The chronology of Jews in Iraq stretches back some 4,000 years to the biblical patriarch Abraham of Ur, and to the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar, who sent Jews into exile there more than 2,500 years ago. Key figures in that story are buried in the Baghdad cemetery, including Sassoon Effendi Eskell, Iraq's first finance minister. 

 - Old land to new state - 

The creation of Israel in 1948 on the land of historic Palestine, the Zionists' policy of ethnically cleansing its indigenous Muslim and Christian Palestinians, as well as its successive defeats of Arab armies, caused further bursts of popular anger and violence against Jews in the Middle East, including in Iraq. 

This episode of history is written on graves in the cemetery, where five Iraqi Jews accused of spying for Israel now lie side by side. Between 1950 and 1952 about 125,000 Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel. Each came with one suitcase, and all had to give up their Iraqi citizenship. 

For one of them, Aharon Ben Hur, memories of Iraq are bitter. Now 84 and the owner of two falafel restaurants in Tel Aviv, he recalled the 1941 Farhud pogrom that killed more than 180 Jews during the Jewish festival of Shavuot. His father and younger brother were among them. 

"They were thrown from the second floor. My father died ten days later and the boy almost immediately. He held him in his hands, and they threw them down 100 stairs. I was saved," Ben Hur said. 

He left early, in 1951. Some hung on much longer. Emad Levy, 52, was the last of Baghdad's Jews to immigrate to Israel, in 2010. "We kept our tradition, the holidays, the synagogue," he told Reuters during the build-up to Israel's Independence Day. 

"But it's not the joy you feel here during a holiday, walking down the street where most people are Jewish." Levy is among perhaps 600,000 Israelis, out of a population of some 8.8 million, who can claim a measure of Iraqi ancestry, according to the heritage centre in the town of Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv. 

Inside a building built in the style of a traditional two-storey Jewish home in Baghdad, there are displays of religious and cultural artefacts of Jewish life in Iraq through the centuries. Visitors walk through the reconstructed crooked alleys of Baghdad's Jewish quarter and view a scaled-down replica of the city's Great Synagogue. 

Exhibits at the museum depict a hard landing for the Iraqi immigrants in the early years of Israel, where Ashkenazim, white Jews of European descent, were the ruling elite and Sephardim, Jews with roots in the Middle East, faced a society that was deeply racist. 

One photo shows Iraqi newcomers being sprayed with DDT pesticide. A tent has been erected on the floor, showing how the immigrants were initially housed. But, it also records how Iraqi Jews have since gone on to become generals in the Israeli military, cabinet ministers, legislators, business executives, entertainers and celebrated writers. 

Few expect ever to go back, amid the violent turmoil that still envelops Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other countries which once had thriving Jewish communities. Now aged 90, Zevulun Hareli joined a Jewish self-defence underground movement in Iraq, and recalls the fate of some of his fellow Zionists in 1948. 

"They were children, 14 or 15. They were tortured. They were hanged. Their genitals were burned," said Hareli, who immigrated to Israel in 1949. "Iraq said Zionism is a crime." Some, however, harbour more positive sentiments. 

Edwin Shuker, who was born in Iraq, has made several visits to the Baghdad cemetery in recent years, sometimes bringing people who want to say Kaddish - the Jewish prayer for the dead - over the graves. 

He says he is welcomed by Iraqis when he goes back, and encounters nostalgia for a time when Iraq included a "mosaic" of minorities. "No-one is going to move back," concedes Shuker, 62, who had to escape Iraq in 1971. 

"However there are many who would be very receptive to visiting their shrines and where there ancestors are buried. The Iraqi Jewish community is the most ardent Jewish community, probably anywhere, that is so attached to its birthplace, because of its history." 



Iraqi boy back in Oregon for long-awaited medical treatment

Ten years after a life-saving medical trip to Portland, an Iraqi boy has returned for further treatment. 

After a journey of about 40 hours that included canceled and delayed flights and misplaced luggage, an exhausted Mustafa Abed, now 15, and his mother, Nidhal Aswad, didn't speak with reporters when their flight landed Tuesday at almost 2 a.m. 

On hand for the arrival was Geri Berg, a pediatric social worker who assisted Mustafa during his first visit. Also present to greet Mustafa and his mother were Maxine Fookson and Ned Rosch, founders of the Portland chapter of No More Victims, a nonprofit that brings children wounded by war to the United States for treatment. 

They led the initial effort to bring then 5-year-old Mustafa to Oregon. Fookson got some of the warmest smiles from an obviously fatigued Mustafa. Berg said Tuesday afternoon that while it's "really early" to assess Mustafa's condition, she saw "a strong teenage boy." 

"Clearly, he's a survivor," she said. "I thought he looked terrific. He's not always been that way for the last few years so we were really happy to see it." Berg said she and Aswad bonded as mothers who "know what it means to protect our kids." 

"Nidhal learned 'I love you' and she said it over and over again when we were leaving," Berg said. Mustafa was 2 when he was badly injured in a 2004 U.S. missile strike near Fallujah. 

His leg was severed near the hip, and his internal injuries required treatment beyond what could be provided in his hometown. In 2008, he and his father came to Portland, where he had kidney and bowel surgery and received an artificial leg. 

At the time, the plan was for Mustafa to return every few years for a new prosthesis and continuing care. But cell phone and internet service were spotty in their village, and by early 2010, his Portland supporters lost contact with the family. 

When the Islamic State took over the region in 2014, the Portlanders feared the worst. "We never thought we would see him again," Fookson said. "It was really painful to lose contact for all those years." 

Then, in 2016, they spotted the boy on public television. 

Mustafa was featured toward the end of a PBS Newshour segment on a refugee camp outside Fallujah, Iraq. His friends in Portland recognized the now 13-year-old boy walking with crutches on one leg. They reached out to the piece's reporter, Jane Arraf. 

"She made it all possible," Fookson said. "I think by that night we were on the phone with them through one of our local interpreters." Since then, Fookson and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility have raised funds to send medical supplies like catheters and colostomy bags to Mustafa in Iraq. 

They've stayed in touch, learning through Arabic interpreters how Mustafa and his family have fared during the political turmoil in their country. "We've been able to talk to him a couple of times. Life has been very, very difficult for the family," Fookson said. 

During the siege of Fallujah, "there was very little food. One of the things we heard from the family was they just ate flour, because that's all they had, raw flour." The effort to obtain visas to bring Mustafa back to Portland began about five or six months ago, Fookson said. 

The nonprofit Palestine Children's Relief Fund paid for Mustafa and Nidhal's trip. They'll stay for an estimated three months at a Ronald McDonald House while Mustafa receives treatment. Many of the doctors who saw Mustafa 10 years ago are donating their services to work with him again at Doernbecher Children's Hospital and the Shiners Hospital for Children. 

"I am very excited to see him, I am also aware ... how really, really difficult his life has been," Fookson said the evening before Mustafa's arrival. "What he's been through in 10 years is so much war, poverty, hunger, refugee status, pain, more kidney infections, his own disability that limits him a country where so few services exist. There's just so many obstacles that he's had to face." 

Fookson said Mustafa has told her he wants to continue his schooling and become a doctor. "He said to me on the phone, 'I have so many things I've had to go to the doctor for, I'd like to be able to help somebody else,' " she said. 

by Samantha Swindler


#ArabAmerica: Yale holds first-ever Arab conference

As a first year, Shady Qubaty ’20, the first Yemeni undergraduate at Yale, felt there was a need on campus for an accessible platform to hold multifaceted discussions about the Arab world. 

Last Friday — 15 months after he first presented the idea to the Yale Arab Students Association — Qubaty’s vision for such a platform became a reality, as roughly 400 students, professors and community members attended the University’s first ever Arab conference, titled “Amalna: Paving the Road Ahead.” 

Sponsored by the Yale College Council, the Office of the President, the MacMillian Center and the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, among other organizations, the conference focused on foreign policy, education, youth empowerment, refugees and women’s rights in the Middle East and featured a keynote address by Salam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority. 

Fayyad opened the conference with a speech on the importance of hope in an era of cynicism surrounding the prospects of establishing a democracy in the Arab world. Fayyad also emphasized that Palestinians must take their fate into their own hands, and he argued that political leaders should work together to end instability in the region. 

Over the course of two days, the conference featured three panel discussions on women’s rights, America’s role in the Middle East and refugee crises in the region. “I hope that this conference will raise much more awareness about what is happening in the Arab World,” Qubaty said. 

“With limited media coverage, the majority of the public in the U.S. are unsure about the developments in the Middle East since a lot of the events are unfortunately labelled as ‘more of the same thing’ and ‘natural developments’ and often under the framework of terrorism.” 

In his keynote address, Fayyad said that, as a Palestinian, “pessimism is simply not an option” for him. Although he acknowledged that pessimism about the prospects of establishing a stable democracy in the Arab region is rooted in events of the past several years, he stressed that that attitude only hinders progress. As he closed his speech, he invited the audience to engage in conversations about how to best achieve democratization in the Middle East and what an ideal government model would look like. 

The first panel on women’s rights featured Maya Alkateb-Chami, the managing director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University Law School; Mona Al-Naggar, reporter at The New York Times; and Rima Maktabi, a TV presenter and journalist at al-Arabiya. Moderated by women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Eda Pepi, the panel discussed the stereotypes commonly associated with Arab women and the ways in which Arab women are challenging the traditional customs and roles imposed by society. 

“The way Rima described the sexism Arabian women face today was very accurate,” co-director of the conference Malak Nasr ’19 told the News. 

“She said that if an Arab man is successful, no one questions who his parents are or what kind of connections he had. But if an Arab woman is successful, there is always an interrogation of what led her to be successful. This anecdote perfectly demonstrated the insane sexism and showed what we should start breaking down at this conference.” 

The second panel focused on America’s role in the Middle East, and the third addressed issues pertaining to refugees and displacement in the region. 

The third panel explored the hardships refugees in the United States face, specifically in the fields of employment and education, featuring Ahmed Badr, a writer and social entrepreneur who relocated to Syria when his home in Baghdad was bombed in 2006, Chris George, the executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, Lorna Solis, founder of Blue Rose Compass — a nonprofit that provides scholarships to refugees from conflict zones — and Mohamed Hafez, an artist and architect born in Syria.

New Haven resident Peter Petite told the News that he found the third panel illuminating because it focused on discussing the potential solutions to the refugee crisis, rather than “describing how problematic the current situation is.” 

“We explored possible solutions to the very urgent refugee problem in the United States,” Petite said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase ‘amalna,’ which means hope. Obviously there is hope, but it’s a volatile hope because there are many problems to be fixed and issues to be addressed.” 

In addition to the panel discussions, the conference included a screening of the contemporary Arab film “Soufra,” a multicultural festival and a presentation of initiatives to help refugees by Yale students. 

Students and community members interviewed by the News said they found the conference enjoyable and meaningful. 

“It is very important to show the side of Arab students at Yale,” attendee Beamlak Ashenafi ’21 said. “It also displays their culture and traditions to the rest of the Yale community. For every student here, it is very important to know more about the Arabic world, especially today.” 

Omar Abu-Qamar, a member of the Harvard Arab Students Association who attended the event, told the News that he found every discussion relevant and informative. 

“Everything was so interesting and relevant, at least because I am from that part of the world. I think the takeaway message is that everyone — or at least most people — want to help, but the problem is complex,” Abu-Qamar said. “Overall, I learned a lot and thought more deeply about the refugee problem in particular, and I commend the Yale students for organising this.” 

by Serena Cho


Manchester man set to ‘run’ for AMAR

Like most competitors, Manchester’s Hussein Al-Alak has his own unique training routine for the Manchester 10k. He begins with a cup of coffee in the morning, followed by a cigarette, prays for the best, tells himself it’s raining, then pulls on his trainers and gets out the door. 

While not a serious athlete as such – “I like to walk, a fast walk,” he says – Hussein is deadly serious about helping make a difference in Iraq. Although Manchester-born, Hussein’s family hails from Iraq, fleeing the country with the outbreak of war imminent under dictator Saddam Hussein. 

“There was a window of two weeks for Dad to get my mum, who was pregnant with me, and my sisters out of Iraq,” the 38-year-old said. Appreciative of a safe and peaceful childhood in Manchester, Hussein now wants to pay it forward, by taking part in his fourth Manchester 10k as part of the Simplyhealth Great Manchester Run on May 20. 

It is the second year he has fundraised for the AMAR International Charitable Foundation. “It’s the only charity in the United Kingdom that supports health, education and, more importantly, mental health programmes, in Iraq,” Hussein said. 

“It takes me an hour to walk 10km and I enjoy walking it because you get to talk to other people and engage in the buzz. “You’ve got a lot of amazing causes and it’s nice to be able to say: ‘This is what we’re doing at AMAR’. “Because ultimately British people don’t know about Iraq and what’s happening over there. I like them to know that there is an alternative to war and violence.” 

It’s a message that is particularly poignant for Manchester in the wake of last year’s Manchester Arena attacks on May 22. Taking part in last year’s Simplyhealth Great Manchester Run in the aftermath of the tragedy, Hussein said the atmosphere was sombre. 

“It was a very tense atmosphere – I felt like I was back in the Middle East,” he said. “I remember because my friend Claire was nervous doing the Manchester 10k for the first time and she asked: ‘will it be safe?’ “And I said: ‘it will be perfectly safe – people experience things like this every day in Iraq’. “If we allow our lives to be dictated by terrorists, we may as well not do anything.” 

To donate to AMAR, Hussein is asking people to visit the website directly at www.amarfoundation.org 

by Kaitlyn Fasso-Opie 

Photo caption: Supporter Orla Fitzsimons, pictured with Manchester 10k participants Claire Carrie of Edinburgh and Hussein Al-Alak of Manchester in May 2017. The pair used the opportunity to fundraise for British NGO AMAR. Hussein will be taking part again on May 20.


Award-winning Welsh doctor helps British charity in Iraq

An award-winning Welsh medical specialist has been working alongside local doctors in war-torn Iraq helping to improve the lives of some of the country’s poorest citizens. 

Dr Laith Al Rubaiy spent several days with doctors from the British NGO, AMAR International and its mobile health clinic during a visit to Basra, in southern Iraq, earlier this month. 

Dr Al Rubaiy is a specialist, based in Swansea, and was recognised as Young Gastroenterologist Doctor of the Year 2017 by the British Society of Gastroenterology. Trained in Iraq, Dr Al Rubaiy graduated from Basra School of Medicine in 2003 and worked in Iraq until 2005. He has lived in Wales for the past 10 years, working in Bangor, Swansea, Llanelli and Merthyr Tydfil. 

During his visit home to Basra, Dr Al Rubaiy joined AMAR’s mobile clinic team, helping treat scores of patients. AMAR’s General Director in Iraq, Dr Ali Muthanna said his local colleagues were “highly impressed” by Dr Al Rubaiy. 

“Dr Al Rubaiy did a fantastic job for us. He is obviously very skilled and it was wonderful to have his expertise on board the mobile clinic,” said Dr Ali. Dr Al Rubaiy said while visiting family in Basra for Easter, he took advantage of the opportunity to offer his services to AMAR, working alongside his brother Dr Ali Kadhim, manager of the AMAR mobile health clinic. 

With the Basra region being remote, the mobile clinic is an opportunity for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to access basic healthcare. Dr Al Rubaiy said people presented to the clinic with chest infections, temperatures, sore throats and diarrhoea, as well as for maternal health checks and scheduled vaccinations. 

“One of the mornings I was working with AMAR I saw about 15 patients, with the majority being women and children as the men were at work,” he said. “The sanitation situation is not perfect, there is a lot of stagnant water, so I spoke to people about the importance of immunisation and washing hands.” 

Dr Al Rubaiy praised the AMAR team and the mobile health clinic, describing it as “very well managed”. “I was impressed, to be honest,” he said. “There are a lot of obstacles, but the AMAR staff are getting around them to treat people the best they can. “When I left Basra in 2005, there was a huge gap in medical education, but the gap has narrowed. I am very optimistic.” 

by Kaitlyn Fasso-Opie


Searching For Iraqi Antiques On A Sunken British Treasure Ship

During the first world war, a British ship carrying antiquities sank near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, after being hit by enemy fire. And, having recently stumbled upon a new avenue of enquiry, Qahtan al-Obeid, the head of Basra’s recently opened Museum of Antiquities intends to find it. 

He says he is inspired because of the discovery of a canon from a British warship that dates back to the turn of the 20th century. 

“The workers of the company who were excavating for a new suspension bridge here found the cannon. But they tried to hide it,” al-Obeid recalls. “Because they did not want their work to be held up. But just by coincidence, there was a security guard who had worked for us there and he had some awareness about antiques. He contacted us and we took responsibility for getting the cannon – which weighed almost three tonnes – out of a hole that was about five meters deep.” 

Now al-Obeid is turning his attention to the ship he believes lost that cannon. British sources suggest that the ship was carrying at least 1,000 ancient Iraqi items, including some of the famous winged bull statues. Some have cast doubt on his treasure hunt but al-Obeid explains that there were two similar incidents that occurred around the same time. 

The incident is confirmed by both the British and older Basra locals, he says. “Ships have to slow down at the Tigris because there is a sharp turn,” al-Obeid explains. “There were two English ships coming from the north. The Ottoman army fired at both of them. One was carrying mail and the other was carrying guns and antiquities. If one ship was carrying statues of winged bulls [which are made of stone and very heavy], that means it was the military ship and capable of carrying big loads,” he notes. “Because at the time the ship would also have been carrying eight canons and the cannons didn’t weigh less than three tonnes each.” 

In the 1970s, a team of Japanese archaeologists came to the area and deduced that the ship that had gone down in the Qarna district was the one carrying the winged bulls and other antiquities. But al-Obeid now believes it was the mail ship. Since then several other teams have tried to find the mail ship but, even using modern equipment in 2013, nobody has sighted anything more. And al-Obeid now thinks they are looking for the wrong ship in the wrong place. “The military ship that was hit continued on its journey, trying to get to a British area in Muhammara,” he suggests. “So we are going to search further along the river, together with researchers from Basra University and using radar.” 

Al-Obeid is a dedicated man and it was painful for him to see how the extremist group known as the Islamic State destroyed ancient Iraqi statues in the northern province of Ninawa. 

He decided to get more seriously involved in the search for the antiquities that were sunk because, as he puts it, he wants to compensate Iraq for its loss of antiquities in some way. He is collaborating with the British Museum, which also helped open the Basra museum he heads, and the library at the University of Newcastle which holds documents about the ships and their cargo.

“If the ship is found our next job will be to determine their age and to figure out where they were going and with whom,” says Abdul Hakim al-Kabi, a professor of history at the University of Basra. “We know the British had a lot of interest in antiquities and we know that one of the English consuls in Basra used to roam the markets, looking to buy antiques at the market at Marbad-Zubair, where locals were selling such things for very little. The British took a lot of important and precious things,” he adds. 

In fact, that is something of an understatement. During the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, “the documentation and preservation of the Orient’s past was considered far too important to be entrusted to the locals,” as one writer put it, not to mention that collectors in Europe were willing to pay good money for artefacts of ancient civilisations. 

It is hard to know whether the antiquities that were being carried away on the now-sunken ship are in good condition, al-Kabi continues. There is a lot of mud in the Shatt al-Arab and it moves around, he says. “We can only hope that the antiquities have not been greatly damaged because most of them were made of granite or stone and this could have survived in that environment.” 

Both al-Obaid and al-Kabi have high hopes for the sunken ship. But in general, al-Obaid says, their work is hindered by a lack of funding. “We are not supported by the provincial or federal governments and we depend on coordination with foreign expeditions and international museums,” he says, noting that his own institution was established with that kind of aid. 

There are 165 sites of archaeological importance in Basra but only seven of them are even protected, he continues. “How can we protect the rest from violations, criminals and randomly built housing? The Basra police have established an antiquities protection unit but there are less than 100 members and they can only really patrol four sites. They have one used car between them. We rely on volunteers and civil society groups.” 

Al-Obaid has other ambitious projects in mind, as well as his mission to find that sunken ship. He has been working with the University of Manchester exploring Charax Spasinou, a city founded in 324BC by Alexander the Great, which was an important trading port. Al-Obaid says the area was discovered in 2007 after it became more accessible; previously it had been planted with mines during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1990s and some of it was also submerged by marshes. 

by Saleem al-Wazzan


In Iraq's oil-rich Basra, shanty towns flourish

From his small home nestled alongside train tracks in the southern Iraqi province of Basra, Sultan Nayef looks out at plumes of smoke billowing across an expanse of oil fields. 

Like thousands of others, the unemployed 25-year-old moved to oil-rich Basra in the hope of finding work in the energy industry, Iraq's primary source of wealth. 

Instead, he and many others like him live in cramped and chaotic shanty towns in a province already suffering from a lack of infrastructure. Absent of any urban planning or public services, Basra's informal settlements are an anarchic clutter of breeze-block homes and ad-hoc electricity wires. 

"All we get from oil is pollution," said Sultan who, along with his four brothers, still relies on his parents for living expenses. A small stone wall is the only thing keeping cows and sheep grazing in a grassy field behind him from wandering into oil fields where burning gas flares emit thick black smoke.  

Most of the young people arriving in Iraq's only coastal oil province hoped to secure high-paying jobs with foreign companies. "But most companies import their employees from abroad," said Nayef, a resident of the Zoubeir district south of Basra city. At least 18 percent of Iraqi youth are unemployed, with rates even higher among college graduates. 

- 'Can't buy a centimetre' - 

According to the UN, Iraq's oil sector accounts for 65 percent of the country's gross domestic product but only one percent of its labour force. Even for those who work, buying a home is often only a dream. 

"My husband is a civil servant, but with his salary we can't even buy a centimetre of land," said Umm Ahmed. Even though they are against "the idea of squatting", she and her family were forced to build a makeshift home on government land. The municipality has already destroyed their home once. 

"We had to completely rebuild it," the 48-year-old said, her face framed by a long black veil. Local authorities say the land belongs to the state, denouncing the illegal structures and the theft of water and electricity. 

The last study on Basra's informal settlements was completed in 2014, just a few months before the Islamic State jihadist group swept across Iraq seizing nearly a third of the country. At the time, there were more than 48,500 informal homes in the province, said Zahra al-Jebari, head of urban planning at Basra's provincial council. Today "there are many more, but there is no figure," she said. 

- Illegal construction - 

Many internal refugees displaced by IS fled to Basra, untouched by the jihadist takeover, often finding homes in shanty towns. Nearly 10 percent of Iraqis live in informal settlements, one fifth of them in Basra, according to the ministry of planning. 

The only other province hit harder by illegal construction is Baghdad. Basra authorities say they lose money every time a home is built illegally, as Baghdad bases provincial budgets on the number of officially registered residents. 

Taxes in informal settlements are also left unpaid, said Jebari, adding the budget deficit was acutely felt in "allocations to education, health and other services". For Wissam Maher, it feels like authorities are "only interested in destroying our homes". 

"We live under power lines without any services," said the 32-year-old metal worker. "This area is huge and it doesn't belong to anyone," he said, pointing down a narrow sandy street lined with ramshackle houses and abandoned cars.


The toxic legacy of chemical weapons in Iraq

It’s good to see Theresa May clarify, that the chemical’s used in Syria were “chlorine”, after people saw “the appalling social media images and first-hand testimony of some of the hundreds of victims.”  

Between October 2006 and June 2007, Iraq experienced fifteen chlorine bomb attacks by Al-Qaeda. According to the US Defence Department, the first incident was in Ramadi, where Al-Qaeda detonated a car packed with 12 120 mm mortar shells and two 100-pound chlorine tanks.  

Further Al-Qaeda chlorine attacks, occurred in Fallujah, Balad and again in Ramadi. An incident against Forward Operating Base Warhorse, saw a car bomber detonate two tanks of chlorine and 1,000 pounds of explosives, causing an adverse reaction to over 65 US service personnel alone. 

It’s interesting how the Telegraph reported on September 20th 2016, how ISIS fired a shell at a US military base in Qayyarah, which tested positive for mustard gas and on 28th January 2017, the Guardian reported that during the Battle of Mosul, French and Iraqi special forces discovered mustard chemical warfare agents in eastern Mosul.

Hussein Al-alak is the editor of Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)


After Syria, what now in Iraq?

Now that the USA, the UK and France have taken the decision to "intervene" in Syria, one can only wonder if and what the "blow back" will be in neighbouring Iraq? 

Whilst the situations in both countries are often treated as two separate entities in the Western media, one could easily forget that in Iraq, the three "allied" countries of Britain, France and America have troops, translators, aid agencies and diplomatic staff based there. 

Since before the 2014 invasion of Mosul by so-called Islamic State, it has been a long held belief by many across the Middle East, that ISIS was a creation of the American CIA and the British MI6 intelligence agencies. 

These views were reinforced by the failure of Western countries to prevent Jihadists from joining ISIS after the invasion of Mosul, and from speculative reports of American aircraft flying over and in some cases, were said to have "air dropped" into area's that fell under ISIS control. 

In a study conducted by the U.S. State Department in 2015, it found that one third of Iraqis believed the USA “supports terrorism in general or ISIL specifically,” and the USA is purposefully “working to destabilize Iraq" and the region to "control its natural resources.” 

As people who know Iraq well, history also knows from experience, that when decisions are taken for any kind of military intervention, the "effects" across the region are often felt in the least expected of places, despite the personal feelings of those immediately involved. 

Hussein Al-alak is editor of Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)


Iraqi boat-makers struggle to keep their trade afloat

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi paid a visit to the Iraqi marshlands in September 2017, photos showed him on a mashoof, the traditional narrow canoe that has been in use in the region for centuries. 

Yet the boat, a symbol of transportation in this UNESCO-protected area, may well be the part of the region’s heritage on the verge of extinction. The owner of a mashoof boat, Razaq Jabbar, a traditionally dressed man with a sunburnt, wrinkled face, told the media March 25 that he was proud to take the Iraqi prime minister on his boat. 

Jabbar is one of the few dozen skilled artisans who continue to build these boats, and he might be the last in his family to continue the trade. According to the head of the Chibayish Tourism Organization, Raad Habib al-Asadi, there are less than 50 mashoof manufacturers in southern Iraq who continue their craft. 

They are located mostly in the towns of Basra, Hillah and Kufa, where vast rivers and swamps are found. “Our organization is observing the disappearance of this traditional industry, as manufacturers abandon it in search of other work,” Asadi told Al-Monitor. 

“The decrease in manufacturers is in parallel to the decrease in water levels [in the Iraqi marshes] and the drying up of rivers and swamps.” The Iraqi marshlands were drained in parts from the 1950s onward, to reclaim land for agriculture and oil exploration. In the 1980s and 1990s, President Saddam Hussein drained the area even further. 

“The campaign sought to wipe out government opponents who were hiding among the marsh reeds and forests, ultimately forcing local people to migrate. The drying of Iraq’s marshes and rivers from low water levels has led to the disappearance of many workshops of this traditional industry,” Asadi said. 

By the 1970s, the area of 7,700 square miles had been reduced to 3,500 square miles, and following Saddam's drainage campaign in the 1990s it stood at 290 square miles. UNESCO eventually placed the wetlands, thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden, on its heritage list in September 2016, describing it as "one of the world's largest inland delta systems in an extremely hot and arid environment" and "a refuge of biodiversity in the relict landscape of the Mesopotamian cities." 

The history of the mashoof, one of the main ways of regional transportation, goes back to the Sumerian civilization that flourished in Iraq around 5,000 B.C. Iraq’s inhabitants of the time manufactured mashoofs from tar materials, a tradition that is used until now. 

“We have drawn attention through the media of the extinction of this profession, but there is no response from the government to improve the situation [and make this profession attractive to the younger generation],” Asadi noted. 

Asadi introduced to Al-Monitor one of the longest-standing families in the trade — the al-Kanbar family, who has been manufacturing mashoofs in the ​​Chibayish region for as long as anyone remembers. One of their sons, Ali al-Kanbar, explained that many different materials can be used to build the narrow boat, such as “mulberry trees, cedar and jasmine trees, as well as the reeds and papyrus growing in the marshes.” 

These are used to make the skeleton of the mashoof. “Later, industrial fiberglass material was also used to build the structure. It is then lined with cotton to fill the gaps between the arched wooden panels that give the mashoof its streamlined shape. It is then coated with oil and tar to prevent water and moisture leaking into the boat,” he explained. 

The mashoof is not the only type of boat that is seen in the marshlands. The long and lean mashoof is used mostly for transporting various goods; the “kaad” is a smaller fishing boat, and the “jalibut” even smaller and narrower that is used for river excursions. A larger boat made with the traditional design — called "basim” — is also used for river tours as it can seat more people. 

These boats cost between $500 and $1,000 to manufacture and can go as high as $4,000. “The mashoofs have decreased in number and size,” said Kanbar, explaining that the mashoof is now rarely used for transporting food, agricultural products and animals. 

“Fuel-driven boats — which can carry larger loads — replaced traditional ones, destroying a manufacturing industry that requires more effort, time, special materials and rare skills.” In the district of Krit'a on the Hillah River in central Babil governorate, boat craftsman Hussain al-Khafaji told Al-Monitor that there are only four workshops remaining that build boats. 

“The city used to be teeming with fishing and picnic vessels made in these workshops,” he said. In the surroundings of the Kufa River, a southern branch of the Euphrates, only four traditional workshops remain. Sheikh Haider al-Kufi, who lives in Kufa, in Najaf province, learned the profession from his ancestors, who have been masters of the trade for some 200 years. 

He told Al-Monitor that thousands of boats were manufactured in local workshops in the past. “The times when Kufa's Corniche Street was home to around 30 mashoof workshops is now a thing of the past. There are now only about 10 manufacturers left. We are making barely four or five boats [per year] because of a lack of demand,” he said. 

The head of the Agricultural Committee and member of Babil Council, Suheila Abbas, gave further reasons for the decline of this heritage industry, besides new means of transportation. She told Al-Monitor, “The decline in river levels has led to a reduction in the number of fishermen and a reduced need for the transport of agricultural products.” 

Abbas believes that it will not be long before these workshops disappear completely. “An intervention by the relevant heritage manufacturing industries is therefore needed to address the issue, before the mashoof becomes a mere relic in museums,” she said. 

Member of parliament Abdul Hadi Mohan al-Saadawi expressed his concerns to Al-Monitor about the disappearance of the mashoof and reports indicating the loss of this symbol of Iraq’s marshes and waterways. “There is a reduction in the need for this type of boat in many rivers. 

This makes the industry’s workshops — a key facet of our heritage — worthy of support and development by the related committees in the Ministry of Culture,” he said. 

He concluded, “The Ministry of Industry must support these skills and craftsmen, encouraging the continued practice and innovation of the trade, because it is a national icon representing some 5,000 years of our history. The mashoof that is used in the marshes today is the very same mashoof used in the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations, in terms of its form and raw materials, as is depicted in historical drawings and artifacts." 

Wassim Bassem is an Iraqi journalist who tracks social phenomena in investigations and reports for various media outlets, including Al-Esbuyia, Bab Nour and Elaph.


Sport offers gateway to reproductive health, human rights, peace

“Sport promotes cooperation and creativity, attracts positive energy, breaks deadlocks and develops innate talents and skills,” said Fatima, a 27-year-old youth leader, from Dhi Qar Governorate in southern Iraq. 

Sport also does something else – it helps draw vulnerable young people to programmes where they can receive critical information and services. This is particularly important in the Syrian refugee communities of Iraq, where many people lack access to health services and information. 

The main issue, many refugees say, is difficulty navigating the Iraqi health system. Some women even resort to giving birth at home rather than go to health facilities, for example. UNFPA supports five youth centres in Iraq’s refugee camps. 

These centres offer information sessions and workshops on a variety of topics, including how to access health services. 

A door to engagement 

Sports like football attract refugees to the youth centres. And these activities offer their own benefits, such as promoting health and social unity. The right to play is even recognized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. 

“The activities that I participate in at the youth centre boost my self-confidence and perseverance and introduce me to new friends,” Fatima told UNFPA. She was attending a UNFPA-supported youth leadership workshop in Baghdad, where several participants highlighted the value of sport in increasing youth engagement. 

UNFPA’s youth centres use football, volleyball, basketball, table tennis and chess tournaments as an entry point for spreading critical messages. The Y-Peer youth network, for instance, conducts information sessions that offer accurate, non-judgmental information on sexual and reproductive health. 

Human rights and peace 

Sport can also teach mutual respect, collaboration and conflict resolution – lessons that segue neatly into messages about human rights and peacebuilding. 

“It teaches the values of teamwork, fairness, discipline, respect for the opponent and the rules of the game, which can be translated into our everyday lives,” said 28-year-old Hussam Mohammad, from Ninewa Govenorate in northern Iraq. 

Every month, the five UNFPA-supported youth centres reach an average of about 3,600 young men and women, and the UNFPA-supported Y-Peer network reaches an estimated 1,500 youth.


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