Obama warns of long campaign as Iraq strikes continue against Isis
US president admits there is no quick fix as minorities flee Islamist onslaught and British planes join relief effort
Martin Chulov in Irbil, Mark Townsend in London, Jon Swaine in New York and agencies
The Observer, Sunday 10 August 2014
Link to video: Britain sends fresh water and tents to stranded Iraqis in Sinjarhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/aug/10/britain-aid-iraqis-yazidi-sinjar-video
Barack Obama has committed the US to long-term involvement in Iraq, warning that the rapidly evolving crisis in the north would not be solved quickly.
US aircraft have targeted armoured vehicles and militant positions in a second day of strikes against Islamic State forces. A mix of US fighters and drones attacked and destroyed armoured personnel carriers after Yazidi civilians near Sinjar came under attack from the vehicles, US central command said.
US forces "successfully [conducted] four air strikes to defend Yazidi civilians being indiscriminately attacked" near Sinjar, said a statement from the United States Central Command (Centcom), which covers the Middle East.
In the first strike "a mix of US fighters and remotely piloted aircraft struck one of two Isil armoured personnel carriers firing on Yazidi civilians near Sinjar", the statement said. After following the remaining vehicle a second pair of strikes, around 20 minutes later, hit two more armoured personnel carriers and an armed truck.
A fourth struck another armoured personnel carrier, also in the Sinjar area.
Alongside this, the US-led air campaign to deliver relief to civilians fleeing Isis continued with a third drop of supplies taking place on Saturday night. The US military said the latest air drop involved planes from multiple air bases and included one C-17 and two C-130 cargo planes supported by fighter planes. The aircraft delivered 72 bundles of supplies, including more than 3,800 gallons of water and more than 16,000 packaged meals.
Conceding that the advance of the Islamic State (formerly Isis) forces had been swifter than anticipated – details emerged on Saturday of the jihadists opening another front as they crossed into Lebanon from Syria – the US president accepted there was no quick fix.
The archbishop of Irbil's Chaldean Catholics told the Observer fewer than 40 Christians remained in north-western Iraq after a jihadist rampage that has forced thousands to flee from Mosul and the Nineveh plains into Irbil in the Kurdish north.
Archbishop Bashar Warda said: "We did not expect that one day Mosul would be without Christians and that the Nineveh plains would be emptied of minorities," referring to the stretch of land surrounding Mosul that had been hailed throughout the ages as a cradle of civilisation. "Trust is broken between the communities. Especially with the Arabs. For 2,000 years, all these minorities had lived together."
After taking in up to 1.2 million refugees since mid-June, the Kurds of northern Iraq are urging Obama not to let up in air strikes against Isis, which on Friday was only 50km from Irbil and advancing east towards the Kurdish capital. At least four US air strikes appear to have slowed the momentum of the jihadists, Kurdish peshmerga forces said on Saturday. Officials in Irbil, including Iraq's former foreign minister Hoshyer Zebari, a Kurd who quit his national post in June, urged Obama to continue the strikes. He described the attacks as "a critical decision for Kurdistan, Iraq, and the entire region ... intended to degrade the terrorists' capabilities and achieve strategic gains that have been very effective".
Obama admitted that rebuilding the Iraqi military, fostering trust among Sunnis and negating the threat from jihadists would be a long-term project. He added: "I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks. This is going to take some time."
On Friday he sanctioned air strikes against Isis fighters that destroyed arms and equipment. The military action came less than three years after the last contingent of US troops exited the country.
Meanwhile, British military aircraft joined the US in dropping food, water and tents to thousands of displaced Iraqis hiding in mountains as Obama revealed that plans were under way to create a "safe corridor" for up to 40,000 civilians – mostly Kurds of the Yazidi faith – who are besieged on Mount Sinjar on the western edge of Kurdistan's border with the rest of Iraq. However, he said rescuing the Yazidis might prove fraught. "Moving them is not simple in this security environment," Obama said.
Speaking shortly before leaving for his summer holiday, he said humanitarian assistance including a repeat of airdrops of food and water would continue.
In London the government's Cobra committee met again to assess the latest developments in Iraq, discussions that ratified the decision for British aircraft to begin aid drops immediately.
The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said air sorties from the UK to northern Iraq would run for the "foreseeable future" with France also agreeing humanitarian assistance. Earlier, two British cargo planes left Oxfordshire to airdrop bottled water, tents and tarpaulins to displaced Iraqis encircled by militants.
The C-130 transport aircraft flew from RAF Brize Norton to deliver aid, with government sources suggesting a repeat of the airdrops could follow on Sunday. It followed a second US airdrop of food and water to Iraqis stranded on Mount Sinjar.
Meanwhile, the former foreign secretary, David Miliband, speaking in the Observer, acknowledged that the 2003 invasion of Iraq had contributed to the country's current disintegration and mounting crisis at the hands of Islamist militants.
Miliband, expressing fresh regret over Britain's involvement in the war, admitted that the outcome of the war in Iraq "induces a high degree of humility".
"It's clearly the case that the invasion of Iraq, or more importantly what happened afterwards, is a significant factor in understanding the current situation in the country," said Miliband, during a wide-ranging interview in New York.
The remarks on the crisis by Miliband, now the president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian charity, contrast with those offered by Tony Blair, his political mentor, who has strongly rejected claims that the 2003 US-UK invasion is to blame for the terrorism gripping Iraq.
Asked whether the chaos that it had unleashed made him regret supporting the war as a minister in Blair's government, Miliband said: "I regret it because I made a decision on the basis of upholding the norms in respect to weapons of mass destruction, and there were none."
The phenomenon of Isis and its speed of advance shows little sign of abating as Lebanese security sources indicated that Islamist militants had crossed into the country from Syria, triggering a battle with Lebanese villagers who forced them back across the border. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties in the incident, near the Lebanese town of Rashaya, some 60 miles south of the town of Arsal.
Britain has so far pledged £8m in aid to those caught up in the advance of Isis in northern Iraq. This includes £2m of emergency humanitarian supplies for 75,000 people, including aid that can be airdropped to help those trapped on Sinjar as quickly as possible.
Supplies will include reusable filtration containers filled with clean water, tents, and solar lights that can also recharge mobile phones.
****************'Isis has shattered the ancient ties that bound Iraq's minorities'
The jihadists' advance through north-west Iraq has put to the sword an understanding between communities that had survived for generations
Martin Chulov and Fazel Hawramy in Irbil
The Observer, Saturday 9 August 2014 23.09 BST
In the grounds of Archbishop Bashar Warda's cathedral, the last Christians of northern Iraq are trying to find shelter. Some huddle under parched shrubs. Others move in sync with the shadow from the church office that gives them a reprieve from the baking sun. Children and women mill around a makeshift food hall, while old men stare vacantly. There are 4,000 desperate souls in the church grounds. And all seem shocked to be here.
Inside, the archbishop is reflecting on a week that has all but ended coexistence in Iraq's Arab north-west. A multi-ethnic and religious understanding that had prevailed throughout millenniums of war and insurrection could not withstand the latest purge, led by the ruthless jihadists of the Islamic State (formerly Isis) that rampaged through the area over the last week.
"We did not expect that one day Mosul would be without Christians and that the Nineveh plains would be emptied of minorities," Warda said of the stretch of land surrounding Mosul that had been hailed throughout the ages as a cradle of civilisation. "Trust is broken between the communities. Especially with the Arabs. For 2,000 years, all these minorities had lived together."
Gesturing outside his window where the human detritus of war lingered, he said: "These people could tell you they have had neighbours for 40 years who were the first to steal from their homes and celebrate the arrival [of Isis]."
Until last Wednesday, roughly 70,000 Christians remained in Mosul and Nineveh, along with up to 200,000 Yezidis, Shabbak Shias and Turkmen. Almost all have now fled, with the exception of up to 40,000 Yezidis marooned on a mountaintop near the city of Sinjar that had been home to the sect for several thousand years.
Food and water has been slowly reaching the Yezidis in recent days. But with Isis fighters encircling them below, they have no way down the mountain. According to the Yezidi community, scores of people, among them children, have died there since Sinjar was overrun by the jihadists last Sunday.
While less dire in terms of physical suffering, the fate of Nineveh's Christians is equally bleak: the Chaldean diocese in Irbil said that just 30-35 Christians remained in the town of Qaraqosh that until Thursday was home to 50,000 – the largest Christian urban centre in Iraq.
"There are maybe one or two in Qaramless," the archbishop said. "And none that we know of in Mosul. This is the end," he said.
"Some might be able to go back eventually, but how to rebuild that trust is a very big problem. We expected some sort of serious crisis like this, because we were in a position to know that Isis were taking so much money from the people of Mosul. And recently we were informed that certain people were sacked from their jobs just for being Christian."
Isis members had earlier this month given Mosul's Christian community an ultimatum to pay $10,000 in tax to retain their faith and homes, or alternatively 48 hours in which to flee. Those who chose neither faced death.
"They think they have the right from God to give orders," said Archbishop Warda. "There is no negotiating with them."
While Mosul's Christians rushed for the safety of Irbil, communities between both cities largely stayed put, believing that Kurdish forces deployed to their areas would keep the militants at bay. But Kurdish forces capitulated, first in Sinjar last Sunday and then around the Christian towns early last Thursday. Officers and troops claimed, at the time, to have been outgunned by the jihadists who were wielding heavy weapons from the Iraqi army's main arsenals when it had abandoned its posts during the initial Isis push on 10 June.
After one of the most extraordinary routs in modern military history, the peshmerga stepped in to fill the vacuum in much of north-western Iraq. But they, too, have been routed, raising fears that even Irbil may not be safe from the battle-hardened ideologues now little more than 50km away.
John Matte Hana, 30, said he was the guard at a church in the town of Bartella, 60km from Irbil, until Isis forces arrived. He stayed because he felt safe with the Kurds nearby. "We did not flee from Bartella initially because we were told that peshmerga were in charge and they were strong," he said. "Now we want to go to Europe. We can't live here any more."
Abu al-Fida, a teacher from Mosul who was sleeping rough with his family in the churchyard, said: "Are my children going to remember these days, living like beggars like this, in gardens, unfinished buildings, or on the streets? Are they even going to remember that we had a house and a life in Mosul?
"Our grandfathers a century ago were killed by the Turks. Those days have returned. The only solution for us is a Kosovo deal," he added, referring to the internationally brokered deal to bring an end to fighting between the Serbian and Albanian communities in the Balkan state.
Along the highway west of Irbil towards the frontline town of Khazer, peshmerga forces and volunteers reported hearing the sounds of jet fighters somewhere in the hazy summer sky, but no explosionson Saturday.
Near Khazer and around the Mosul dam to the north, around 150 peshmerga troops and officers have been killed in the past few days, officials in Irbil said. Up to 500 others have been wounded, so far for little gain.
The Kurds have lost control of the Mosul dam, a vital waterway and cog in Iraq's hydro-electricity generating capacity. Isis seized the site on Friday, Kurdish and American officials acknowledged, in what is one of the most serious strategic losses anywhere in Iraq since the insurrection began in June.
One peshmerga soldier, Ayub Risha, 35, who was deployed to the frontline on Friday, said: "Since last night, Isis positions have been quiet. They are not far from us. We heard the planes today, but they did not bomb."
Despite the lull, in Irbil the proximity of war is proving unsettling to the more than 1.2 million exiles who are now seeking refuge. Non-Christian Arab Iraqis who have lived or have moved to the Kurdish north are facing far more scrutiny. Those who are found with a weapon in their homes are arrested and jailed, on suspicion of being a stalking horse for the jihadists across the barren ranges.
"It is not a good time to be an Arab in the Kurdish area," said one Sunni man from Baghdad, who was too afraid to reveal his identity. "It is not a good time to be an Iraqi."
***************Isis, the jihadists who turned the tables
Isis has made a remarkable, and deadly, comeback a year after it looked all but finished in Syria and Iraq
The Observer, Sunday 10 August 2014
President Obama authorised targeted air strikes against the Islamic State's positions to stop its fighters from advancing further towards the Iraqi Kurdish region and to help avert an act of genocide against a religious minority the group considers devil-worshippers, the Yezidis.
The move, uncharacteristic of intervention-averse Obama, highlights how the jihadist group has expanded and become an unstoppable force, six months after it seemed it would not even complete a year in existence, when major rebel factions in Syria declared war against it earlier this year.
The group, which became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) after it broke away from the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in April last year, had been driven out of most of Syria, and rebel factions and al-Qaida affiliates threatened to chase it out of Iraq. But the group has made a remarkable comeback, seizing stretches of at least seven provinces in the two countries, and marching steadily into other areas.
In the last two weeks alone, Isis has fought on five fronts: against the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, the Syrian regime, the Syrian opposition and the Lebanese army. In Syria the group has all but consolidated control of the eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, as it made advances against government forces in Raqqa and subdued most of the rebel forces in Deir Ezzor. It is also advancing into Aleppo, reaching the city's eastern outskirts, and in Hasaka, and is battling the Kurdish militias in the north-east. In Iraq it has advanced to a point only half an hour's drive from Irbil, the Kurdish capital.
Yet these advances appear to be only the tip of the iceberg. Away from the publicised gains, Isis is quietly making progress on other fronts. Perhaps the most worrying is the fact that armed groups backed by the US have been co-opted by Isis.
After its sweeping military success in Iraq in June, Isis moved to take over the strategic province in Deir Ezzor, where the rebels controlled lucrative oil and gas resources. To the surprise of many, the group quickly controlled towns and villages that were home to some of the group's most powerful adversaries, including Jabhat al-Nusra and locally rooted tribal militias.
According to Samer al-Ani, an opposition media activist from Deir Ezzor, several fighting groups affiliated to the western-backed Military Council worked discreetly with Isis, even before the group's latest offensive. Liwa al-Ansar and Liwa Jund al-Aziz, he said, pledged allegiance to Isis in secret, with reports that Isis is using them to put down a revolt by the Sha'itat tribe near the Iraqi border.
He warned that money being sent through members of the National Coalition to rebels in Deir Ezzor risks going to Isis. Another source from Deir Ezzor said that these groups pledged loyalty to Isis four months ago, so this was not forced as a result of Isis's latest push, as happened elsewhere. Such collaboration was key to the takeover of Deir Ezzor in recent weeks, especially in areas where Isis could not defeat the local forces so easily.
This is not the first, or the only, time in which groups affiliated to the military structures backed by the US and the Gulf states have worked with Isis. Saddam al-Jamal, a top commander for the Free Syrian Army's eastern front, pledged allegiance to Isis in November and fought in its ranks, wreaking a grisly carnage in his hometown of Abu Kamal in April. Other groups affiliated to the western-backed military councils that have pledged allegiance to Isis include Liwa Fajr al-Islam in Homs.
Moderate religious groups that had been established mostly to fight jihadists are now working closely, if quietly, with Isis. Liwa Ahl al-Athar, for example, has discreetly pledged allegiance to Isis. The Salafi-leaning rebel alliance, which has a strong presence in many areas in Deir Ezzor and beyond, is financially backed by private donors from the Arab Gulf states, but is said to be in the "good guys" list by governments that back the Syrian opposition.
A provincial leader of the alliance in Abu Kamal, according to an influential opposition figure in the area, is related to an Iraqi emir of Isis and has worked with the jihadist group to mediate a truce with the Sha'itat tribe. According to the same source, other rebel groups have often travelled to the Iraqi border town of Husaiba to win support from Isis for leadership in their areas.
Moreover, Isis has followed new strategies during its latest offensive, in Iraq and Syria, to establish long-term presence in the areas it controls. Such strategies include greater leeway for local forces to run their daily state of affairs, instead of the old strategy of directly managing these areas. In areas where it still fears an uprising, the group maintains direct control. Isis is also planning to recruit foreign jihadists within the ranks of groups co-opted by it to ensure their loyalty.
Even in Deraa, where Jabhat al-Nusra has steadily consolidated its presence, sources say that Isis has supporters close to the top leadership of the al-Qaida affiliate and there are clans willing to declare allegiance to Isis. Increasingly, Isis is becoming more sophisticated and resilient. Contrary to speculations that the group is overreaching itself, Isis gains the loyalty of more forces every time it controls a new area. It is expected that if the group makes headway into Aleppo, members of like-minded jihadi factions such as Ahrar al-Sham will defect and join its ranks.
Beyond its advertised victories, Isis is building a vast network of supporters even within moderate ranks that could help it persist in the face of a military action similar to this weekend's American air strikes.
Time appears to be on its side, and unless there is a comprehensive political and military approach to fight it in both Iraq and Syria the group is here to stay.
Hassan Hassan is an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research centre in Abu Dhabi, and a columnist for the National newspaper. Follow him on Twitter @hxhassan
***************'In Iraq, there is no peace for Yazidis'
When our correspondent visited the Yazidis’ region in 2011 it felt like the garden of Eden. Today, they tell him, it is hell on earth
theguardian.com, Saturday 9 August 2014 15.17 BST
When I visited it in 2011, the mountain shrine of Lalish, the most sacred site of the Yazidi faith, was an idyllic place. Old men sat in the sunshine in prayer and conversation; women and children used their bare feet to crush olives for oil in ancient stone troughs. The ancient temple that sits atop the holy site was surrounded by shaded courtyards; stone huts and olive groves dotted the hills around.
Lalish sits in the region the Yazidis believe was the garden of Eden. In 2011, it felt like it.
Today, it is hell on earth. As Islamic State (Isis) forces move into Iraqi Kurdistan they are targeting the Yazidis, whom they consider devil-worshippers. The region is home to more than half a million Yazidis, many of whom are now displaced. Many Yazidi towns, including the largest, Sinjar, are in Isis hands.
“An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth,” said Vian Dakheel, the only Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, in an emotional speech to the council chamber.
The tombs of the ancient Yazidi angels are crowded with refugees. “They demolished our houses,” Ali, a Yazidi who fled Sinjar for Lalish and is now sheltering there along with hundreds of others, said by telephone this week. “They destroyed our families. They are killing, they are killing.”
He said that behind him, as he escaped, he watched Isis forces murder neighbours and friends, and told the Guardian Isis were taking Yazidi women as sex slaves. “The west must understand,” he said. “They must see us. We want help. They are killing our children, they are killing the old people, all the people they are catching they are killing or enslaving.”
“They are coming like barbarians, blowing up everything.”
As well as Lalish, many Yazidis have fled to the surrounding mountains. As many as 50,000 were trapped for days on another peak, near Shingal. Scores died of hunger and thirst until Kurdish peshmerga fighters broke through and created a corridor through which they could escape. More than 100,000 have fled north to safer parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurdish-controlled Syria.
“The situation is very bad,” Dakheel told the Guardian. “People are very afraid about Lalish. It is a very old place for our religion.” She said many of the families currently sheltering there were in immediate danger, and thought they might try to flee further from the Isis advances.
Dakheel said some Yazidi guides were planning to stay behind to protect the holy site from the invaders, who have already destroyed the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, another Yazidi holy site in Sinjar. Many of the families at Lalish have fled from there.
Ali, at the holy site, does not believe this is now possible. “We are in a cage,” he said. He thought that people there could last “10 or 15 or 20 days” but said that they would rather kill themselves than be captured. “Our families are in the hands of Isis and they are playing with them,” said Ali. “It is worse than death.”
The Yazidi religion may be one of the oldest in the world. Their calendar dates back 6,756 years, nearly 5,000 years further than the Christian or Gregorian calendar and nearly 1,000 years further than the Jewish calendar; the religion may be descended from similar roots to Zoroastrianism.
Yazidis worship a god who is incarnated in the form of seven angels. Tawzy Melek or Melek Tawwus, known as the “Peacock Angel”, is their most-favoured; but they have often been persecuted by jihadist sects who believe Melek to be Satan.
Yazidi is a religion, I wrote in my journal after my visit to Lalish, based around the concept of wishing. Even in Kurdistan, a region which prides itself on hospitality, the Yazidi tradition of welcoming outsiders stood out. As soon as we arrived, my companions and I were ushered excitedly into their most sacred catacombs by a guide, and followed by a crowd of children. In one of these caves, the faithful traditionally tie a knot in one of a myriad colourful silk rags; this is said to help solve their troubles.
yazidi shrine In this 2005 file photo, Yazidi men enter a shrine at the top of Mount Sinjar. Photograph: Jacob Silberberg/AP
In the lowest cavern, through an ancient stone doorway, is the “wishing rock”, where if you throw a silk rag on to a lit candle on the stone, we were told, your wishes come true. From an antechamber, you can also access the tomb of Sheikh Adi, said to have been an incarnation of the Peacock Angel. His tomb, if circled eight times, was also said to grant wishes. We were invited to try.
The place enchanted me. Now, from that same place, Ali spoke by phone in a voice tinged with fear and anger.
“In our hands we have nothing,” he said. “We have no food. We have no power, no guns, no defences.” He said they were encircled.
The Yazidis are no strangers to massacre. In her speech to the Iraqi parliament, Dakheel referenced 72 massacres in the religion’s history, including the August 2007 coordinated jihadist suicide bombing in Yazidi towns which killed almost 800 people, and wounded more than 1,500 more.
“In Iraq, there is no peace for Yazidis,” Ali said.
****************This Islamic State nightmare is not a holy war but an unholy mess
It isn’t religious zeal but the collapse of state power that makes the clash in Iraq feel like a return to the dark ages
• US begins air strikes against Isis targets in Iraq, Pentagon says
The Guardian, Friday 8 August 2014 19.50 BST
In a voice pleading and in despair, the woman who had fled for her life asked: “What century are we in?” She was an Iraqi Christian, reached by the BBC World Service even as she sought to escape the self-declared Islamic State, or IS (formerly Isis). “They will sell us,” she said. “They will rape us.” Her words echoed this week’s tearful warning to the Iraqi parliament from a Kurdish MP who described the fate befalling her fellow Yazidis. “Mr Speaker, our women are being taken as slaves and sold in the slave market.”
The year is 2014 and yet 40,000 followers of a 1,000-year-old faith are huddling on a mountainside said to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark, fearing their women are to be dragged to a slave market. As the woman asked, what century are we in?
When news reports speak of ancient sectarian loathings, when the gap between Sunni and Shia comes down to a theological dispute originating in the seventh century, when the Islamic State declares its defining mission to be the restoration of a caliphate from the same period, then it is tempting to believe this is indeed the curious fate of our supposedly modern era – that we are being drawn back to a medieval or pre-medieval world of holy war and wholesale slaughter in the name of religion. The irony of it seems so rich: that just as technology is accelerating, making once impossible feats of connection routine, so the clock is turning backward, towards a new dark age of beheadings and enslavement, a fearsome army threatening a tiny sect with that ancient ultimatum – bow to our god or die.
From the vantage point of avowedly secular Britain, where even the most watery form of Christianity has become a minority interest, the persistence of religion is indeed one of the 21st century’s great surprises. For so long, progress and the decline of faith – what enlightened types prefer to call “superstition” – were thought to be symbiotic if not synonymous. As the world advanced, as more of its people got running water, TV and smartphones, surely the old, primitive beliefs would fade. But the Middle East has confounded that now quaint conviction. Large swaths of states that were once secular – the Ba’athist republics of Iraq and Syria used to revere nationalism over Islam – are now under the black flag of IS, ruled by a Qur’anic scholar who has anointed himself caliph.
Yet neat though it is to see return to holy war as the motif of our age, it might be wrong. The rolling advances of IS – brutal and laden with treasure, conquering one city or stronghold after another – may indeed resemble the world of several centuries ago but not in the way we’ve imagined. It is instead a story that is both ancient and very modern.
According to Toby Dodge, the scholar of Iraq at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), what’s driving IS, or at least making its phenomenal success possible, is not pre-modern religious zeal so much as a pre-modern absence of state power. The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognised in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.
“Islamic State are jihadis with MBAs,” says Dodge, speaking of a movement so modern it has its own gift shop. He notes its combination of fierce religious ideology, financial acumen and tactical nous. “It’s Darwinian,” he adds, describing IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his inner circle as those strong enough to have survived the US hammering of al-Qaida in Iraq between 2007 and 2009. But what has been crucial, Dodge says, is “not ancient hatreds but this collapse of state power”.
Which partly explains IS’s choice of targets. It attacks wherever it sees a gap, an area of weakness where the state’s writ does not run or that will be too feeble to resist. So when IS’s advance south to Baghdad was repelled, the organisation turned and looked for vacuums to fill. Christian areas were one such target; the remote Sinjar stronghold of the Yazidis is another. With a merciless appetite for territory, IS hunts down any patches of Iraq or Syria it believes can be conquered easily.
In Syria, the degradation of the state has been the consequence of a civil war in which the government of Bashar al-Assad has turned its fire on its own people. In Iraq, the explanation comes in two parts. First, the US-led invasion of 2003 smashed the Saddam state. Second, the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has hollowed out what was left, eviscerating national institutions lest they pose a challenge to him and his narrowly Shia ruling circle. Most important, he gutted the Iraqi army, seeing a body of one million men under arms as a personal threat rather than a national asset. Little wonder that Mosul, defended by al-Maliki cronies rather than able commanders, fell at the first sight of Isis. Despite its expensive US training, the Iraqi army simply melted away.
The void in Iraq can, then, be doubly blamed on the US. The 2003 invasion is, of course, the original sin. But the manner of the withdrawal in 2011 – gifting state-of-the-art US military hardware worth billions to an army headed by al-Maliki, only for that hardware to fall into the hands of Isis – was clearly a catastrophic error too. The result is that Barack Obama, whose presidency was predicated on a promise to end the war in Iraq, has been drawn into combat once more. His air strikes on IS forces in northern Iraq on Friday make him the fourth US president in succession to order military action in that country. Ronald Reagan was the last one not to drop bombs on Iraq.
Which brings us to the new aspect of the geopolitical landscape. It relates again to the absence of power, this time at the global level. The analyst Ian Bremmer says we live in a G-Zero world, one in which we don’t have one true superpower, let alone two. The US is weaker than at any time since 1945, unable to force a breakthrough in Ukraine or Syria or, most recently, Gaza.
Islamic State may wrap itself in the flag of jihad, but its success owes more to medieval lawlessness than medieval religious enmity – helped by the very 21st-century decline of the global behemoth. Our world is being shaken, but the persistence of religion is more a symptom than a cause. The larger problem, as old as mankind, is power and the lack of it. For sometimes weakness can be just as dangerous as strength.
**************David Miliband: the Iraq war and its aftermath contributed to current crisis
Former foreign secretary accepts responsibility for leaving many people in the UK unwilling to support other military interventions
Jon Swaine in New York
theguardian.com, Saturday 9 August 2014 21.30 BST
The 2003 invasion of Iraq contributed to the country's current disintegration and mounting crisis at the hands of Islamist militants, David Miliband has conceded, as he expressed fresh regret over Britain's involvement in the war.
As US president Barack Obama authorised potential US air strikes against Islamic State jihadists, who have seized control of swaths of the country, the former foreign secretary said that the outcome of the war in Iraq "induces a high degree of humility".
"It's clearly the case that the invasion of Iraq, or more importantly what happened afterwards, is a significant factor in understanding the current situation in the country," said Miliband, during a wide-ranging interview with the Observer in New York.
The remarks on the crisis by Miliband, now the president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian charity, contrast with those offered by Tony Blair, his political mentor, who has strongly rejected claims that the 2003 US-UK invasion is to blame for the terrorism gripping Iraq.
Asked whether the chaos that it had unleashed made him regret supporting the war as a minister in Blair's government, Miliband said: "I regret it because I made a decision on the basis of upholding the norms of respect to weapons of mass destruction, and there were none."
Miliband said that he accepted personal responsibility for the Iraq war leaving a majority of the public in Britain and the US unwilling to support military intervention to halt urgent humanitarian crises such as in Syria.
"You have to, you have to take responsibility," said Miliband. He added: "You can't press the rewind button."
Asked whether Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who was deposed by the 2003 invasion, might have held the country together, Miliband said: "Perhaps."
In an essay published on his website in June, Blair dismissed as "bizarre" the notion that the war had led to the development of groups such as Islamic State, the Sunni militants previously known as Isis. "We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that 'we' have caused this," Blair said. "We haven't."
Miliband went on to say that the full extent of the CIA's use of British territory for the rendition of terrorism suspects should be made public, as he acknowledged for the first time the possibility that the US had misled ministers about the programme.
Amid concerns that the government has lobbied the US to censor references to Diego Garcia, a British-owned island in the Indian Ocean, from an impending Senate report detailing America's torture of detainees after September 11, Miliband said that any new information should be released.
"We were told absolutely there had only been two flights that went through Diego Garcia," he said, insisting that he had no grounds to suspect otherwise. However he added: "You know, if that's not the case, it should certainly come out."
As foreign secretary, Miliband told Parliament in 2008 that only two planes carrying the subjects of American "extraordinary renditions" had stopped during 2002 to refuel at Diego Garcia, which is leased to Washington and hosts a US military base.
But it has repeatedly been claimed that other detainees were held on the island. Last month al-Jazeera reported that two sources who had read parts of the Senate intelligence committee's 6,600-page study said it confirmed that a so-called "black site" was indeed operated there by US authorities.
Last month a Foreign Office official was photographed carrying documents, marked "sensitive", which suggested British authorities now hold more information about flights into and out of Diego Garcia at the time than was previously acknowledged, and that these logs had been given to police.
William Hague, the foreign secretary until last month, has also confirmed that the government had "made representations to seek assurance" about the handling of "UK material" in the Senate report, which is being heavily redacted. A 480-page summary is expected to be published in the coming weeks.
"In plain English, it is a request to the US to keep Britain's role in rendition out of the public domain," said Cori Crider, the strategic director of Reprieve, the legal charity.
Asked whether potential disclosures about further US activity on Diego Garcia would mean that he had been duped by his American counterparts, Miliband said: "That would be very serious indeed. But let's wait and see what happens".