Iraq Christians confront their painful memories Militants desecrated church, used yard for practice
Surprise recapture of Palmyra gives IS boost
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.
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