Iraq Chris­tians con­front their painful mem­o­ries Mil­i­tants des­e­crated church, used yard for prac­tice

Sur­prise re­cap­ture of Palmyra gives IS boost

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

For decades, the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion Church in Qaraqosh was the heart of Iraq’s largest Chris­tian town. Af­ter two years un­der Is­lamic State rule, it lies scarred and des­e­crated. In the church’s in­ner court­yard, Is­lamic State fight­ers set up a shoot­ing range for tar­get prac­tice, leav­ing be­hind bul­let-rid­dled fe­male man­nequins and hard­board fig­ures when they were driven out. The yard’s arches and walls are cratered. At one end, empty shell cas­ings car­pet its flag­stones near piles of trash and sheets of hymn mu­sic; a wooden pul­pit for ser­mons sits pock­marked and cracked by bul­lets at the other, now with a small pink “Hal­lelu­jah” flag posted on top.

More than a month af­ter Iraqi forces re­gained Qaraqosh, the church’s spire cross

The Is­lamic State group’s sur­prise re­cap­ture of Syria’s famed an­cient city of Palmyra has given the ji­hadist group an im­por­tant pro­pa­ganda boon as it comes un­der attack else­where. Here are some ques­tions and an­swers about the group’s attack on the city:

How did IS cap­ture Palmyra?

The ji­hadist group be­gan an as­sault on gov­ern­ment po­si­tions in Homs prov­ince, where Palmyra is lo­cated, last week. It quickly over­ran army check­points and seized oil and gas fields un­til it reached the city’s edge. The ji­hadists briefly en­tered the city on Satur­day be­fore be­ing forced to with­draw af­ter gov­ern­ment ally Rus­sia launched in­tense air strikes. But de­spite the raids and the ar­rival of Syr­ian army re­in­force­ments, IS seized con­trol of the city hours later, a mon­i­tor­ing group and the ji­hadist-linked Amaq news agency said. Ex­perts said sev­eral fac­tors ex­plained IS’s shock re­cap­ture of the city, in­clud­ing its iso­lated lo­ca­tion in the eastern desert of Homs prov­ince, where the group was able to over­run ter­ri­tory quickly.

“The ge­og­ra­phy of the city, which is sur­rounded by moun­tains, makes it very dif­fi­cult to de­fend,” said Ro­main Cail­let, an ex­pert on ji­hadist groups. Gov­ern­ment and Rus­sian forces, on the of­fen­sive else­where in Syria, may also have been vul­ner­a­ble to a sur­prise attack, a fa­vored IS tac­tic. “One of the key things IS is very good at is launch­ing sur­prise at­tacks from desert po­si­tions,” said Char­lie Win­ter, a se­nior fel­low at the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for the Study of Rad­i­cal­iza­tion and Po­lit­i­cal Vi­o­lence at Kings Col­lege Lon­don.

“They have a high level of op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity so they are able to es­sen­tially launch shock at­tacks and gain lots of ground.” The Krem­lin blamed the United States, say­ing that IS’s ad­vance could have been stopped if Wash­ing­ton had co­or­di­nated bet­ter with Moscow. “We also re­gret that there still is a lack of co­or­di­nated ac­tion and real co­op­er­a­tion with other states-with the United States first and fore­most-that do not want to co­op­er­ate, and this co­op­er­a­tion could al­low us to avoid such at­tacks by ter­ror­ists,” said spokesman Dmitry Peskov. still hangs at an an­gle, its in­side is black­ened by fire and its walls are daubed with Is­lamic State slo­gans and mil­i­tant names scrawled on its pil­lars. Mass has been held in the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion for the first time in two years and Chris­tians are vis­it­ing to see what re­mains. But few think of re­turn­ing for good to Qaraqosh, which once had 50,000 res­i­dents but is now all but a ghost town.

“Per­haps they should leave it like this and peo­ple visit and see what Is­lamic State did,” said Aram Alqas­toma, a stu­dent who came from a nearby Chris­tian en­clave in Iraq’s au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion with friends to help clean up the church. “They de­stroyed ev­ery­thing. And it de­stroyed my heart to see this.” The army re­took Qaraqosh in late

Why is Palmyra im­por­tant?

De­spite its rel­a­tively small size, Palmyra is con­sid­ered sym­bol­i­cally im­por­tant and of in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est be­cause of its an­cient ru­ins, which are a UNESCO World Her­itage site. IS rav­aged the ru­ins dur­ing the 10 months it held Palmyra from May 2015 to March 2016, sys­tem­at­i­cally blow­ing up an­cient tem­ples in at­tacks that pro­voked world­wide hor­ror. Rus­sian forces played a key role in Palmyra’s cap­ture, which Moscow cel­e­brated by fly­ing in Rus­sian mu­si­cians to per­form a clas­si­cal con­cert in the city’s an­cient theatre, where IS had staged mass ex­e­cu­tions of gov­ern­ment troops.

IS’s win in Palmyra at the week­end comes as the ji­hadist group faces ma­jor of­fen­sives against its two most im­por­tant bas­tion­sSyria’s Raqa city and Iraq’s Mo­sul. In both ci­ties, the group has been forced to is­sue daily de­nials about its losses, so the Palmyra ad­vance gives it a chance to change the nar­ra­tive, Win­ter said. “It re­ally feeds their abil­ity to en­gage in a tri­umphal­ist pro­pa­ganda frenzy... They want to show that they are still a po­tent mil­i­tary ac­tor,” he said.

What will IS do now?

The group’s fight­ers have con­tin­ued to push for­ward, ad­vanc­ing to­wards AlQary­atain, a vil­lage that the ji­hadists also rav­aged dur­ing an eight-month rule. But they have come un­der heavy Rus­sian air strikes, and it was un­clear how long they could hold on to the ter­ri­tory they have cap­tured in re­cent days. Win­ter said Rus­sia and Da­m­as­cus were likely to push hard to force IS out of Palmyra, “be­cause it is a sym­bol­i­cally po­tent site”. But with key bat­tles rag­ing else­where, mainly gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tions to re­cap­ture rebel east Aleppo, a ma­jor push to ex­pel IS could be de­layed un­til more re­sources are avail­able. Cail­let said IS would con­tinue push­ing to take ad­di­tional ter­ri­tory. “It’s a mis­take to think that they will stop at lo­cal ob­jec­tives, they will con­tinue to the max­i­mum of their abil­i­ties, even if their op­er­a­tions... some­times ap­pear ir­ra­tional,” he said. “With their cap­ture of Palmyra, de­spite Rus­sian bom­bard­ment, ji­hadist morale has been boosted for at least an­other six months,” he added. —AFP Oc­to­ber as part of the cam­paign to re­cap­ture nearby Mo­sul, Is­lamic State’s largest Iraqi strong­hold, two years af­ter the group swept across the north of the coun­try to form its self­de­clared “Caliphate” there and over the bor­der in Syria.

Fam­i­lies come briefly to Qaraqosh to check on burned out homes and col­lect be­long­ings from a town that was one of the ear­li­est sites of Chris­tian­ity. Me­chan­i­cal dig­gers sit ready in the town cen­tre to help re­build, and main streets have been cleared of rub­ble. But many of its shops are burned out and ran­sacked. Water or elec­tric­ity have yet to re­turn. Walls in the town cen­tre are sprayed with “NPU” - the 500-strong Chris­tian para­mil­i­tary bri­gade Nin­eveh Plains Pro­tec­tion Units that pro­tects Qaraqosh un­der the aus­pices of the Iraqi army. Chris­tian­ity in north­ern Iraq dates back to the first cen­tury AD. The mi­nor­ity grad­u­ally fled the vi­o­lence af­ter the 2003 over­throw of Sad­dam Hus­sein. When Is­lamic State ar­rived, many aban­doned their homes and fled to Kur­dis­tan.

New de­fenses

Gen­eral Behnam Aboush, who helped form the NPU to fight for Qaraqosh, said his units were pro­tect­ing the Chris­tian town to free up the Iraqi forces try­ing to take back Mo­sul, 30 km to the north­west. He said Chris­tians would re­turn to their towns and vil­lages only if Chris­tian forces pro­vided se­cu­rity rather than Iraqi Arab or Kur­dish forces like be­fore, and if they had some guar­an­tees of in­ter­na­tional pro­tec­tion. “Al­ways we have lost our land. We will stay if we guide our own se­cu­rity,” he said. The NPU is funded by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment and gets its weapons from the Iraqi army.

A newly bull­dozed earthen bar­rier sur­rounds the town as pro­tec­tion against Is­lamic State in­fil­tra­tion from the Nin­eveh plains. Res­i­dents say two men on mo­tor­bikes were stopped re­cently, sus­pected of be­ing Is­lamic State sui­cide bombers. But even vic­tory against Is­lamic State and the pos­si­bil­ity of a per­ma­nent Chris­tian force in the town will not be enough for many. Al­han Man­sour re­turned to Qaraqosh just for a sec­ond time to pack more clothes and her son’s toys from the fam­ily home into their car. Her sis­ter’s home was used by the mil­i­tants and later de­stroyed, she said. But mem­o­ries are too much now.

“We’re go­ing to em­i­grate. We just came to see our home and our mem­o­ries, it’s too sad,” she said be­fore driv­ing away. “It’s hard to leave your mem­o­ries, but I don’t trust liv­ing here any­more.” At the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion, one of sev­eral churches in the town cen­tre, the clean up is only just be­gin­ning in­side its charred and wrecked nave. On one wall black mil­i­tant graf­fiti still reads: “Is­lamic State is here to stay de­spite the Cru­sader coali­tion thanks to the blood of our mar­tyrs.” Nearby some­one has scrawled a de­fi­ant re­ply: “Je­sus re­mains in our hearts.” —Reuters

MO­SUL: Iraqi fam­i­lies, who fled their homes in the Iraqi town Sh­wah west of Mo­sul due to the fight­ing be­tween gov­ern­ment forces’ and Is­lamic State (IS) group’s ji­hadists, are be­ing es­corted, from their makeshift camp to safer ar­eas by Shi­ite fight­ers from the Hashed Al-Shaabi (Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion) para­mil­i­tary forces yes­ter­day. —AFP

ALEPPO: A Syr­ian pro-gov­ern­ment fighter car­ries a wounded woman who was re­port­edly shot by rebel sniper while flee­ing with her fam­ily Aleppo’s eastern Al-Sal­i­hin neigh­bor­hood yes­ter­day af­ter troops re­took the area from rebel fight­ers. —AFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.