11 interesting facts from the history of Mosul, Iraq

Mosul is back in the news after its capture by ISIS militias, which triggered the current crisis in Iraq. This isn’t the first time the northern city’s fall has been a tipping point for regional disruptions. Mosul and the area around it have very long and rich histories. Here are eleven facts about that:

1. Mosul is located on the west bank of the Tigris River across from the famous Biblical-era former city of Nineveh, the capital of the mighty Neo-Assyrian Empire until its collapse (7th century BCE). In the story from the Book of Jonah (and the Quran), the titular figure is swallowed by a great sea beast while trying to avoid going to Nineveh to preach to the people. The city is featured through much of the religious literature of the whole region, due to its early and ongoing political and economic importance in the Middle East. The area around Mosul is still called the Nineveh Province to this day.

2. Mosul is the center of Iraq’s Assyrian Christian community, a diverse set of old school (2nd century CE) Middle Eastern Christian sects in the Assyrian/Syriac/Chaldean ethnicity, who still speak and read Aramaic like back in the days of Jesus & Friends. Unfortunately, most of Iraq’s Assyrians have fled the city and country since 2003.

3. Mosul is the center and originator of the production of “Muslin” fabric, a thin type of cotton cloth used even to present day for theatrical productions but once the height of fashion in Europe (and later the United States) during parts of the 18th and 19th centuries.

4. Mosul was established to replace Nineveh as the major northern crossing point of the crucial Tigris River, when the older city fell to various forces. Mosul was captured from the First Persian Empire by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BCE and then was transferred to the Greek-run “Seleucid Empire” (one of those empires that never gets much love in the textbooks) when the Alexandrian Empire was divided between Greek and Macedonian military officers. Later it fell to the Parthians (then the Sassanids) during the Roman-Persian wars over the Middle East and Asia Minor.

5. Mosul became the regional capital of what is now Iraq under the Umayyad Muslim dynasty even as it remained a major — even rising — Christian city. It also maintained a significant Jewish population well into and past the era of the Crusades.

6. Under the Abbasid Muslim dynasty, Mosul became a major economic hub on the Silk Road. From that point forward, Mosul continued to develop incredibly advanced techniques in the arts and fine goods production. Beyond the Muslin weaving, Mosul also became famous for its fine metalwork and painting styles.

7. After being the site of many power plays by competing Arab, Turkic, and Persian factions, the city was transferred without destruction to a grandson of Genghis Khan, under one of the Mongol sub-empires. Christians, including those in Mosul, came to play an important role in the Mongol courts in that part of the Mongol-ruled world. Mosul continued to be a highly contested junction point because of its strategic value and ultimately was sacked as a result, though it was rebuilt.

One of the Mongol sieges of Mosul in the 13th century CE.

One of the Mongol sieges of Mosul in the 13th century CE.

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Iraqi Kurdish PM calls for Sunni autonomy; Will Kurds leave Iraq?

Map: Ethnically Kurdish zones of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

Map (CIA): Ethnically Kurdish zones of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

What a turn of events. Once carved out with Western support, contrary to Turkey’s wishes, against genocidal oppression by the Sunni-led minority regime in Iraq, the autonomous Kurdistan Region now sits as the Turkish-backed power player in the future of Iraq during the current crisis. And for the moment it appears to be more sympathetic to the Sunnis than anyone else (while earning global brownie points for graciously sheltering a massive influx of Sunni Arab refugees).

In an interview with the BBC (video), the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, said that it will be “almost impossible” for Iraq to go back to the way things were before the fall of Mosul to ISIS. The KRG is now describing everything as pre-Mosul or post-Mosul, like the clock of history got reset last week.

As his economic and political solution to the Sunni disaffection facilitating the ISIS invasion, Barzani called for essentially a soft partition that gives the Sunni areas in the northwest their own regional autonomy like the Kurds already have. (This is, of course, the same idea Joe Biden advocated in 2007 during his presidential bid, to much criticism.)

Barzani also very pointedly said that he will not order the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary — some of the best troops in the country — to help retake Mosul or any other city on behalf of the Shia-led central government. He did not however comment one way or the other on the possibility of taking the cities permanently and unilaterally for Kurdistan. I’d been speculating that perhaps the Peshmerga would “liberate” Mosul and Kirkuk, both historically Kurdish cities with large oil fields, from ISIS (and the Arabs more broadly), to reclaim them for the region, which would facilitate full independence. Kirkuk, the political and religious ex-capital, apparently fell into Peshmerga hands last Friday. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) asserts that the central government’s prime minister authorized them to take control of the local Iraqi Army headquarters in Kirkuk and provide security to the city as the Iraqi Army was disintegrating in the north.

In another extremely curious turn of events, Turkey, a country long fanatically opposed to an independent Kurdish state even in Iraq due to its own Kurdish separatist movement, seems to have warmed to the possibility of full independence next door in recent years. The party spokesman for the ruling AKP in Turkey, allegedly (according to CNN Turkey, based off incomplete quotes) recently made remarks to an Iraqi Kurdish media outlet indicating that Turkey would now be willing to back the creation of a hypothetical independent Kurdistan in Iraq.
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The Philadelphia Coup of 1776

US-flag-13-stars-Betsy_RossThe common narrative in the United States surrounding the Declaration of Independence is that everyone was so appalled by the British crackdown in Massachusetts and the lives lost at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 that all the leaders (and the majority of the populations) of the other colonies were swept up in a united front demanding the rejection of British rule (over a year later).

In reality, it was far more complicated than that. Many of the people were largely apathetic toward the whole matter one way or the other. But among those who were politically engaged, there was nowhere close to unity on the issue between the thirteen colonies (and that doesn’t even get into all the other British colonies in North America that flat-out refused to entertain the idea of joining even a conference to discuss recent events).

The lack of support for independence was so strong in coastal Georgia, for example, that the state’s leaders tried to un-sign from the Declaration of Independence and re-join the British Empire during the war. By war’s end, even after the Battle of Yorktown, the Province of Georgia was fully re-occupied by the British until it was handed over by the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally accepted U.S. independence. New York City, similarly, was fairly solidly in support of continued British rule (to protect its trade interests and keep the other colonies from controlling its internal affairs) and also remained in British control until handed over by the treaty.

In certain colonies, such as Massachusetts, the local assemblies were suspended by the British or replaced by puppet governments, and they lacked local support — often to the point of having none of the laws followed by anyone. So in those cases, it’s fair to consider the self-proclaimed “Patriot” assemblies to be the more legitimate governments of those colonies for the purposes of declaring independence. But in other colonies, such as New York, the patriot faction was so deep in the minority that even the real local governments representing popular opinion were never going to go along with plans for independence. This being inconvenient, New York patriots simply formed their own assembly when the real assembly refused to send delegates to the Continental Congress.

That’s a bit iffy, to say the least, but it’s nowhere near as questionable as the decision by the Second Continental Congress to take matters into their own hands to impose the same on the Province of Pennsylvania. The elected local government there was insufficiently supportive of the position of a majority of the rest of the provincial delegations meeting at the Continental Congress, so those other states simply voted to “totally suppress” the government of Pennsylvania, to allow themselves to move ahead with plans for an official Declaration of Independence. Read more

Amending the Constitution: The National Convention Option?

This new essay by Lawrence Lessig partially answers a question I had recently been pondering. That question was about whether it would be feasible (on paper) to do a constitutional convention through Article V (the one about how to amend the U.S. Constitution). It’s permissible but hasn’t ever been tried. Here’s the relevant part of that provision:

Article V: The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress…

Lessig points out that this alternative route, which has never been used, isn’t actually all that special or worrisome. It’s not like a free-for-all that can just junk the whole document. A Constitutional Convention could only be convened by the formal request of 2/3rds of the U.S. states (34 now) and it could only propose amendments to the existing Constitution, which would then be sent back — just like Congressional amendments! — for approval by 3/4ths of the U.S. states (38 now). That last part is always the hardest, and this doesn’t change that.

That’s consistent with the interpretation posted on the U.S. Senate website’s page explaining different parts of the U.S. Constitution:

The Constitution also authorizes a national convention, when two-thirds of the states petition Congress for such a convention, to propose amendments, which would also have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

So, the national convention route is actually probably even more complicated to get it rolling, in that it requires all the cat-herding of more than 30 states be done twice over (once going in and once coming out), and then once it’s rolling it’s no easier or more dangerous than the usual amendment process.

The advantage it (potentially) has is that it circumvents the need to have members of Congress vote on specific amendments that might affect them or the special interests they favor. It would also be within the much stronger state-level tradition of public interest reform by direct democracy.

Interestingly, Lessig doesn’t address Article V’s provision for allowing states to create special conventions for ratification. He specifically — intentionally I assume — uses the more generic term “states” when discussing the ratification side, although he mentions legislative party control in passing. The likeliest format would be for the legislatures to vote up or down on the convention’s proposed amendments, just as they would for amendments from Congress, but it’s not required.

Let’s take a second look at Article V: Read more

EU Elections, the Rising Populists, and Why Europe is Worried

Guest post by Etienne Borocco in France: Europe went to the polls last weekend and elected a lot of fringe politicians to the EU parliament. So what does it all mean?

Traditionally, the turnout is low in the European elections: only about 40%. This year, it was 43%. The functioning of the European Union is quite complex, as depicted in the chart below:

Illustration 1: Flowchart of the European political system (Credit: 111Alleskönner - Wikipedia)

Illustration 1: Flowchart of the European political system (Credit: 111Alleskönner – Wikipedia)

Why the EU elections matter — and why the media and most voters ignore them:

The directly elected European parliament and the unelected Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers) co-decide legislation. The European Commission has the monopoly of initiative, i.e. it is the only one to initiate proposals. The European Parliament can vote on and amend proposals and has the prerogative to vote on budgets. If the Council of European Union say no to a project and the parliament yes, the project is rejected. So the parliament is often described as powerless and its work, which is often about very technical subjects, does not hold the media’s attention very much. Consequently, the European elections to vote for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have a low turnout – and a lot of electors use it to express concerns about national subjects.

For example in France, 37% of the registered voters answered that they would vote by first considering national issues and 34% also answered that they would vote to sanction the government. The proportional vote system (in contrast with America’s first-past-the-post Congressional elections, for example) gives an additional incentive to vote honestly according to one’s opinion, rather than strategically for a major party (or major blocs of allied parties in the case of the EU parliament).

The May 25th European election was a shock in the European Union, even after the small parties had long been expected to do well. The biggest parliamentary groups in the European parliaments lost seats, while parties that reject or contest the European Union rose dramatically.

In Denmark, in the United Kingdom, and in France, the anti-euro right wing took the first place. It was particularly striking in France because unlike the traditionally euroskeptic UK or Denmark, France was one of the founding countries of European integration and is a key member of the eurozone (while the other two are outside it). The Front National (FN), which has anti-EU and anti-immigration positions, gathered one quarter of the vote in France. Non-mainstream parties captured significant shares in other countries, although they did not finish first.

Populist/Right-wing/Anti-EU party vote share by country in the 2014 EU elections. Data via European Parliament. Map by Arsenal For Democracy.

Populist/Right-wing/Anti-EU party vote share by country in the 2014 EU elections. Data via European Parliament. Map by Arsenal For Democracy.

The new seat allocations:

Let’s look at the gains and losses. With the exception of the socialist bloc, the traditional parties lost seats — particularly in the mainstream conservative EPP and centrist ALDE blocs, which virtually collapsed. The May 25 European parliamentary elections also marked the notable appearance of new populist right-wing parties in Eastern Europe, among the newer member states. For example, two conservative libertarian parties (movements that are a bit like a European version of Ron Paul) won seats – the KNP in Poland and Svobodní in Czech Republic. Moreover, the national government ruling parties were hugely rejected in most countries, whether by populist fringe parties dominating (as in France, the UK and Denmark) or by the main national opposition parties beating the ruling parties.


Among the non-aligned (NA) members elected, if we exclude the six centrists MEPs of the Spanish UPyD (Union, Progress and Democracy), the 35 MEPs remaining are from far-right parties.

Among the 60 “Others” MEPs, there are 3 MEPs of Golden Dawn in Greece and 1 MEP of the NPD in Germany, both of which are neo-Nazi parties. The NPD was able to win a seat this year because Germany abolished the 3% threshold. With 96 seats for Germany, only 1.04% of the vote is enough to get a seat. The Swedish Democrats (far right) got 2 seats. In total, 38 MEPs represent far-right parties, out of a total of 751 MEPs.

So why do observers talk about an explosion of far right?

Beyond those scattered extremists, the vote for the more organized euroskeptic, hardcore conservative, and far right parties all increased sharply. The UKIP in UK (26.77%, +10), the National Front (FN) in France (24.95%, +18), the Danish People’s Party (DPP) (26.6%,+10) and the FPÖ in Austria (19.7%,+7) rocketed from the fringe to center stage. The UKIP, the FN, and the DPP all arrived first in their countries’ respective nationwide elections, which is new.

Other parties elsewhere did not come in first but performed unexpectedly (or alarmingly, depending on the party) well this year. For example, although the Golden Dawn only won three seats from Greece, they did so by winning 9.4% of the country’s vote, even as an openly neo-Nazi party. The Swedish Democrats (9.7%, +6.43) and the Alternative For Germany (7%, new) also made a noteworthy entry in the parliament.

Their shared characteristic of all these parties, regardless of platform and country of origin, is that they are populist in some way.

True, under the word “populism,” a lot of different parties are gathered and their ideologies may vary. While most of these parties claim to be very different, we can, nonetheless, put everyone in the same basket for the purposes of this analysis, to understand why the results were so shocking. Their core point in common is that they all claim represent the people against “the elite” and “Brussels” which embodies both “evils”: the EU and the euro.

We could use the following system to classify like-minded populist parties:
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Infographic: Iraq War vote vs. VA scandal critiques

The Iraq War sent a lot more Americans to the VA for serious long-term care issues. Where did current U.S. Senators stand on George W. Bush’s Iraq War in 2002? Have they publicly criticized the Democratic successor to George W. Bush for the Veterans Affairs scandal? Find out from these graphics on both the Republican and Democratic U.S. Senators in 2014:
Note: Senators who were elected to Congress significantly later than the 2002 Iraq War Resolution or the 2007 surge and were not involved in the Bush Administration’s war effort have been omitted from this list.

As an additional reminder, although President Obama famously opposed the Iraq War in 2002, the past and present Obama Administration prominently includes four ex-Senators who voted in favor of the Iraq War Resolution: Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel.

Corrections/Clarifications: 1) The Republican chart was corrected to reflect Cornyn’s election was November 2002, not October 2002 as initially stated. 2) The short-form social media version of the charts did not indicate clearly that Sen. Blunt was a U.S. Congressman in 2002.

12 fatal mass shootings in 5 months

I researched and penned this section on a new op-ed from The Globalist on the NRA’s death grip over American policymaking:

There are, in fact, so many mass shootings now — the government has reported a big increase — that only a few, truly elaborate sprees make the national news anymore. The UCSB shooting is actually the 11th fatal mass shooting in 2014, but perhaps only the second to get wall-to-wall coverage.

With the exception of the UCSB shooting and the Fort Hood shooting, barely a dent was made by the killing sprees that left at least four dead in each of the 2014 mass shooting events in these U.S. cities and towns: Spanish Fork, UT; Cypress, TX; Defiance, OH; Alturas, CA; Indianapolis, IN; Glade Spring, VA; Oak Lawn, IL; Jonesboro, AR and Tampa, FL.

The common denominator in all of them is less “did we miss the signs?” on this particular, isolated individual — often a domestic attack — and more about the rampant access to guns and a powerful “movement” that fetishizes killing instruments.

Beyond that are the more than forty dead children under 14 killed so far in 2014 by “accidental” gun deaths, at a pace that researcher David Waldman found matches the 2013 child casualty pace like clockwork. Unlike an accidental automobile death, few accidental gun death cases result in any prosecution.


Update 6/8: The day after this original post there was another domestic incident mass shooting, in Mission Viejo CA, resulting in 4 deaths. The total for January through May ended up as 12 events.

You can hear more on this topic in AFD Ep. 61.