Destroying Iraq's Cultural Heritage

The fundamentalist retro-gang that has conquered Northern Iraq has decided it needs to go Taliban on cultural monuments it disapproves of. One of the most recent outrages was the destruction of the tomb of Yunus, better known in the West as the prophet Jonah (yes, the biblical one who spent some time in the belly of a whale). Jonah is one of the prophets revered by both Christians and Muslims, so the motivation is not entirely clear. However, this is by far not the only ancient religious site ISIS has destroyed in the vicinity of Mosul. Reportedly the group has by now destroyed some 30 ancient shrines, churches, mosques and Hussainiyas in the area of Mosul alone. Oddly, this included at least four Sunni mosques, so there appears to be a certain degree of arbitrariness to these actions. Yazidi monuments are of course also on the list of things ISIS destroys whenever an occasion presents itself.

In short, the group is not only killing people that don't conform to its harsh version of Islam, it is also trying to erase all traces of their history and culture. It cares not one whit how old or unique these buildings and monuments are. For instance, the mosque of Yunus was built on an archeological site the oldest parts of which date back to the 8th century BC. In short, there are buildings in Iraq that have survived 2,800 years of upheaval and strife, but they haven't survived the coming of ISIS. Apparently ISIS considers all the shrines and mosques it destroys “places of apostasy”. In the course of its rampage it has also burned the books of the Diyala province's library, so reading is apparently a no-no for ISIS as well.


It should be noted that this rabid interpretation of Sunni Islam is quite a retrogression from Islam as it was originally practiced in the centuries after its founding. The schism between Shi'ites and Sunnites of course goes back almost to the beginning of the Muslim religion. However, although the Muslim rulers of old were expansionist and not at all averse to warfare, were actually relatively tolerant of members of other religions living on their lands.

A tiny part of the traditions established at the time are even preserved by ISIS in a way. It reportedly gives Christians living in the areas of Iraq and Syria it controls the choice between conversion, paying the jizya tax, or death. The payment of this special tax was historically actually not regarded as an injustice, but was rather seen as an attempt to balance the Muslim zakat tax and so to speak create a level playing field. Of course for ISIS it is just another source of revenue.

It is quite ironic that one of the main financial backers of ISIS is finally getting worried a bit in light of all these events:


“Saudi Arabia is seeking help from Pakistan and Egypt to protect its borders and religious sites from attacks by the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the International Business Times reported.

"The kingdom is calling in favors from Egypt and Pakistan. No one is certain what ISIS has planned, but it's clear a group like this will target Mecca if it can. We expect them to run out of steam, but no one is taking any chances," the International Business Times wrote Sunday citing an adviser to the Saudi government. The jihadist group started a large-scale offensive against Iraq’s Shiite government led by Nouri Maliki in June, aiming to seize Baghdad.

Militants have destroyed several prominent religious sites in the Iraqi city of Mosul, some 400 kilometers (nearly 250 miles) north of Baghdad, over the past weeks. The group defended their actions by saying, "The demolition of structures erected above graves is a matter of great religious clarity," according to Agence France-Presse.

Among the levelled sites were some of the main mosques, the Nabi Yunus shrine (Tomb of Jonah) and a shrine to The Prophet Seth. Eleven sites of Christian worship have been destroyed, including the Chaldean archdiocese, as well as the Diyala Province Library, where approximately 1,500 books were burnt.


(emphasis added)

We would add to this that there is no proof that the Saudi government has done anything beyond tolerating that rich private Saudi citizens supported ISIS with donations, but let us apply some logical thinking here. This is an army that has grown from an “estimated 2,000 fighters” to “no-one knows how many fighters” practically overnight. As we have pointed out previously, it has quite a lot of sophisticated equipment at its disposal as well. Not only military equipment, but also things like construction machinery. It runs its own oil and gas fields and even has a kind of propaganda ministry capable of regularly putting out slickly produced recruitment videos. When it was recently reported that the group has taken over the Mosul dam, it was revealed that there are also numerous engineers in its ranks who have previously helped with employing water as a weapon to help its war effort (see also below).

So this is clearly not a fly-by-night operation at all, quite the contrary (for some additional background on this, here is a list of our previous articles on ISIS, or IS as it is now calling itself since it has proclaimed its caliphate, in chronological order:  “ISIS Attempts to Establish Islamist Caliphate” , “The Cheerful, Yet Lethal Prophet”, "Iraq Continues to Unravel and "Islamic Caliphate Proclaimed).

What can one conclude from this fact? That some unknown djihadist with the nom-de-guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi managed to actually create a huge, well-trained and well-equipped army plus an apparatus that has many characteristics of a State, or better said, a well-run vertically integrated military-industrial-religious conglomerate, out of thin air? And every single intelligence agency in the world just happened to 'miss' that this was happening? Doesn't sound very credible, does it?

It seems far more likely that ISIS did in fact receive state support, quite possibly from more than just one state. Probably it was intended as a counterweight to Shi'ite (or Allawite), influence in Iraq and Syria, mainly in order to thwart Iran, resp. lessen its regional influence. Presumably, this abomination has eventually developed a dynamic of its own and has ultimately gotten out of control, big time.


yunus mosqueThe prophet Yunus Mosque before it was blown up by ISIS. Henceforth, it will forever remain a post card.

(Photo via / Author unknown)


Water as a Weapon

Using water as a weapon in Iraq is not exactly a new idea. Saddam reportedly already considered flooding a large area of Iraq by blasting the Mosul dam so as to entrap the US army, but evidently reconsidered this course (too much damage would have been wrought). What he definitely did do was to divert water from the Southern Iraqi marshes, where Euphrates and Tigris meet – the largest area of natural wetlands in the Middle East. This was done to drive out the so-called Marsh Arabs, nomadic Shi'ites who have lived in the area for centuries. He actually managed to almost completely dry out this unique habitat, poisoning the soil over a vast area, as salts would no longer be washed out. In an astonishing demonstration of nature's persistence, the marshes have almost completely recovered since Saddam's exitus.

Anyway, Saddam was no doubt a fount of rationality and reserved politeness compared to ISIS. Hence recent news that the group had captured the huge Mosul dam was greeted with some trepidation – especially as the dam is already considered an accident waiting to happen, due to long neglected maintenance.

In the meantime it has emerged that Kurdish Peshmerga have apparently managed to hold or retake the Mosul dam, although these reports emanating from the fog of an ongoing war are probably not very reliable. After all, the ISIS takeover of the dam was originally reported by Kurdish forces as well, which incidentally lost three cities and an oil field to ISIS over the very same weekend. One thing is certain, if the ISIS leadership were to prove crazy enough to use the dam to create an artificial flood, it would be a gigantic catastrophe.


Aerial_view_of_Mosul_Dam.jpg.1538675An aerial view of the Mosul dam

(Photo © Ali Haidar Khan)


Mosul_Dam_BW_Overhead.jpg.1538705A close up picture of the Mosul dam installations made by the US army corps of engineers in 2006. At the time it was already noted that the rickety structure was in urgent need of renovation. It may not even require sabotage by ISIS for a catastrophic breakdown of the dam to happen.

(Photo © Reuters)


Whether or not ISIS actually controls the dam, it definitely does control large parts of the upper reaches of both Euphrates and Tigris in Northern Iraq. With that it has already control over several major dams, and is presumably in a position to make life difficult for those living downstream. In fact, the New Scientist reported in mid June already that ISIS had apparently captured the Mosul dam (that is the one at “risk of collapse” in the excerpt below):


“Iraq is ancient Mesopotamia, the once-fertile floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates that cradled the first human civilization. The rivers remain crucial to the farming on which most Iraqis depend, according to a report by the International Centre for Agricultural Research on the Dry Areas, which was once based in Aleppo, Syria, but has now decamped to Amman in Jordan to avoid fighting.

ISIS now controls several major dams on the rivers, for instance at Haditha and Samarra. It also holds one 30 kilometers north of Mosul that was built on fragile rock and poses a risk of collapse. It holds at least 8 billion cubic meters of water. In 2003, there were fears Iraqi troops might destroy the dam to wipe out invading forces. US military engineers calculated that the resulting wave would obliterate Mosul and even hit Baghdad.

ISIS has already used water as a weapon, in a smaller way. In late April ISIS stopped flow through the relatively small Nuaimiyah dam on the Euphrates in Fallujah, reportedly with the aim of depriving Baghdad and southern Iraq of water. It could also have been to block military approaches to the town.

Instead, the river backed up and poured into an irrigation canal, flooding the town of Abu Ghraib and dozens of surrounding villages over 200 square kilometers. Five people died, and 20,000 to 40,000 families fled to Baghdad. 


(emphasis added)


dn25722-5_1094Dams allegedly controlled by ISIS as of mid June.

(Map via


As can be seen above, ISIS definitely doesn't shy away from using water as a weapon when it feels that occasion demands it.


ISIS Conquers its First Slice of Lebanon

In order to blackmail Lebanon's government into releasing one of its leaders who was recently captured, ISIS recently expanded its conquest into Lebanon as well, capturing the fairly large city of Arsal, in a Sunni majority region near the Syrian border. Arsal houses 40,000 regular residents and 120,000 Syrian refugees, so it is not just some hick town. According to the Wire:


“Militants associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the Lebanese city of Arsal in fighting that began on Friday and continued Monday. 

According to The Telegraph, a Syrian rebel group set up check-points in the border city but have not yet declared the area as part of the caliphate. In addition to 40,000 residents, there are roughly 120,000 refugees living in Arsal. 

The conflict broke out after the Lebanese Army arrested Abu Ahmad al-Jumaa, a former commander in the Free Syrian Army who later declared allegiance to ISIS. Officials said they arrested Jumaa because he planned to attack an army outpost. 

Since the Syrian Uprising began in 2011, an estimated one million refugees have crossed the nearly 250 mile border from Syria into Lebanon, a number expected to hit 1.5 million by the end of 2014 The United Nation's Refugee Agency predicts. 

The Sunni insurgents said they will leave Arsal if the government releases Jumaa, something Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Slama flatly rejected on Monday. 


(emphasis added)

National borders haven't stopped ISIS before, and evidently the border between Syria and Lebanon isn't regarded as anything special by it either.  Moreover, this incursion potentially promises a to give it a chance to tussle with Hezbollah, the Shi'ite political party and militant group that predominates in Lebanon. Since its members are apostates in ISIS' book, it probably relishes the opportunity.


Lebanon incursionThe Lebanese city of Arsal has been captured by ISIS as well now, so to speak in passing.

(Map via


Amazingly, this happened practically concurrently with ISIS' forays into Kurdish held territory, which shows what enormous reach the organization actually has by now. It seems pretty clear that its membership is far larger than the estimated 2000 fighters that were attributed to it as recently as in April or May.



Luckily, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Not only do the Saudis believe that “ISIS will run out of steam” just before it gets to Mecca (see above), but more importantly, “the US State Department also issued a statement that it was “actively monitoring” the Iraqi situation” (apparently it neglected to “actively monitor” the Lebanese situation though).

What could possibly go wrong?


Addendum:  Even More War, Just Around the Corner …

Just in case you thought there wasn't enough bloodshed and war in the world just yet, another old conflict has just broken into the open again, namely the never-ending battle between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.


“Azerbaijan and Armenia on Monday both reported more losses in a sharp escalation of fighting over the South Caucasus region Nagorno-Karabakh, with 18 soldiers now confirmed dead.” 


What the hell is going on we wonder? Is it something in the air? Note that all of this is happening with stock markets still fairly close to their recent all time highs. If the markets decline from here, it will signal a worsening social mood, which as a rule tends to invite even more war.



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