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Jerome Starkey

Iraq-4132.jpg on Flickr.

The sound of civilisation: Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra giving Baghdad a chance to “breathe”.

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad

From the first notes of the national anthem, it was clear this performance was about something more than music.

In a city besieged by barbarian hoards, who view musical instruments as blasphemy and concerts as profane, listening to Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra was an act of dignified defiance.

For more than 850 people, who packed the National Theatre in Baghdad, the sounds of Elgar, List and Stravinsky were a chance to forget the daily drumbeat of car bombs and suicide attacks, which have once again become the city’s unwelcome soundtrack.

“This is the only way we can breathe,” said Naji Hassan, an art student, who was ten years old when the US-led invasion, in 2003, unleashed a decade of violence on Iraq.

Today, it is Islamic State militants who have captured huge swathes of the country’s north and are threatening Iraq with another civil war.

“These concerts make us think we are people, not just numbers and statistics and casualties of war,” said Dr Mustafa Saleh, a dentist from Mansour, an upmarket suburb in the west of the city.

“We are not barbarians,” he added. “The situation is overwhelming. Events are smothering us. This is the only release we have.” (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad

For some, it was the executions. For others, it was seeing young men flogged in public and old women harangued by teenage jihadists for infringements of the militants’ rules.

One man could not tolerate the destruction of historic tombs. Yet residents in Iraq’s second city, Mosul, said their main complaints with Islamic State were over shortages of food, money, medicine and electricity.

“Every five days, we get just one hour of electricity. Water, every three days. We get a just a small bit of water,” a labourer in the city’s northern suburbs said. “There’s a shortage of food, a lack of medicine. No one has been paid since June.” He added that he had seen a young man hit with sticks for “joking with a girl”.

Some people welcomed the militants from Islamic State (also known as Isis) when they advanced across Iraq in June, because they were tired of abuses by the Iraqi army. Residents in Mosul said that soldiers ran a kidnap racket, arresting young men for ransoms. Yet three months after the soldiers fled, patience with their replacements is wearing thin. (Read more…)

Muezzin Mohammed Abbas, Baghdad on Flickr.

In the bombscarred remains of the Imam Ali mosque, in Baghdad-e Jadeeda, where 11 people died on August 25, 2014.

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

The suicide bomber who attacked the Imam Ali mosque in Baghdad had been there before.

When the survivors found his severed head amid the slabs of flesh and gore smeared across the walls by the blast from his explosive vest, a policeman recognised him from the previous day. “He came for evening prayers,” said Nabil Ali, who was one of six officers attached to the Shia mosque in the Jadida neighbourhood, in the eastern outskirts of Baghdad.

That was how the bomber, a heavyset man in his 30s, knew to bring a pistol to shoot Mr Ali’s colleague, who was frisking worshippers as they arrived. The blast was the first of seven on Monday which left at least 53 people dead, in a week of deadly tit-for-tat attacks that have fuelled fears of a return to civil war.

The latest round of blood-letting followed an attack on a Sunni mosque in Diyala, where 70 people died when gunmen opened fire on Friday. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Iraq’s Shia government was blind for years to the suffering of the country’s Sunni Muslims, fuelling a discontent that helped to give rise to Islamic State, according to an heir to the country’s royal family.

Sharif Ali  bin Hussein, who tried to resurrect the Iraqi monarchy in 2003, said that Sunnis had been killed, abused and marginalised at the hands of the army and the government, but reports of “real grievances fell on deaf ears” in Baghdad.

“They didn’t understand that people were being kidnapped by the security forces, who were then demanding ransom,” he said. “They didn’t realise the extent of the arrests, without evidence. Thousands of Sunnis were put in jail and there was no recourse. There was marginalisation in decisions, marginalisation in the participation in government. The Sunnis feel totally out of the system and the Shia just don’t see this.” (Read more…)

The Times
Catherine Philp, Beirut
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

A Syrian tribe has appealed to the West to save it from extermination at the hands of Islamic State after hundreds of its members were murdered for refusing to submit to the terrorist group’s authority. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad

The battle to retake Iraq’s second-largest city is expected to be months away, and will succeed only if there is a popular uprising against Islamic State militants who hold sway, a senior military official said yesterday.

Lieutenant-General Qassim Atta said Iraq’s armed forces could never recapture Mosul without the support of the local people, and some of the 53,000 policemen who, he said, had simply melted away when the militants advanced in June. “It is difficult to give a timetable, but it will depend on the people of Mosul,” he said. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

A carpenter, a taxi driver and a university student are among those forming Baghdad’s last line of defence.

Barely a mile beyond the city’s airport, along the steep banks of a canal known as the Saddam River, volunteer soldiers aged 16 to 60 live in tents next to earth defences .

They are ready, they say, to fight Islamic State (formerly known as Isis).

One of them is a lieutenant-colonel who quit the Iraqi army in protest over a scandal involving fake bomb detectors.

Another is a Christian whose family live in Canada, and a third owned a photography shop, but was moonlighting with the militia. (Read more…)

Iraq-3659.jpg on Flickr.

Badr Brigade on the barricades, in Baghdad’s last line of defence

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Islamic State militants are not plotting to attack the United States, according to America’s most senior military commander. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if they were, then “the United States would deal with it”.

Speaking on a flight to Afghanistan, General Dempsey appeared to douse fears about the ambitions of Islamic State (formerly Isis) and the need for US airstrikes inside Syria. (Read more…)

Iraq-3645 on Flickr.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of Iraq’s Asaib al-Haq militia

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

One of Iraq’s most powerful commanders has warned Britain and America not to get involved in the fight against Isis, saying that his militia and the armed forces could handle the terrorists.

Qais al-Khazali, who was captured by the SAS and jailed by US forces during the occupation of Iraq, said that the Islamic State (Isis) was a common enemy that would unite his nation. He echoed claims that US airstrikes had not been authorised by the Iraqi government. “We don’t want fighters from other countries. We will fight,” Sheikh al-Khazali said. “We don’t want fighters from Iran, Saudi Arabia or America.” (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Islamic State militants have captured a strategic airbase in eastern Syria and launched a fresh assault on Iraq’s largest refinery in a two-pronged offensive just days after they were repulsed from the Mosul dam.

After three failed attempts last week to breach the perimeter of Tabqa airbase in eastern Syria, Isis fighters stormed it yesterday and raised their black flag over the sprawling complex. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Baghdad

Armed men stormed a Sunni mosque northeast of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 70 people during Friday prayers, amid fears that the country was racing towards another civil war.

Police blamed Shia militias for the attack on Sunni worshippers in Diyala province, which came as the country’s top Shia cleric urged Iraq’s leaders to put aside their sectarian ties.

The attack in Imam Wais, about 120 miles northeast of Baghdad, came as Islamic State (formerly Isis) militants stoned one of their fighters for adultery in Mosul.

Residents said the extremists — who beheaded the American journalist James Foley — had started issuing passports and ID cards under the auspices of their self-styled caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria. It was the first time the Sunni extremists, who espouse a medieval strand of Islam, had stoned one of their fighters in Iraq, but similar killings have been reported in neighbouring Syria, where they are fighting forces loyal to President Assad and more moderate rebel groups. (Read more…)