US reports death of ISIS chemical weapons expert

A former Iraqi chemical weapons engineer from the Saddam Hussein era — later a veteran insurgent styling himself as “Abu Malik” — has been killed in a coalition airstrike near Mosul, according to the United States. He was believed to be advising ISIS personnel on handling and use of chlorine weapons (which are not, incidentally, banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention).

By most accounts, both ISIS and the Syrian Armed Forces are using makeshift chlorine weapons for dramatic effect — though not necessarily for battlefield utility, as they are difficult to use effectively in improvised explosive devices.

ISIS combatants are believed to have used chemical IEDs in Iraq (New York Times, October 23, 2014):

Unconfirmed reports of improvised bombs made with chlorine gas and used by militants have arisen from time to time since the Islamic State began seizing territory in Iraq at the beginning of the year, raising concerns that Iraq’s old chemical weapons stores had fallen into the militants’ hands.

The weapons referred to above, as summarized here, are the really old rusty ones from before the first Gulf War. However, while largely unusable as intended, some of the ingredients in them can be re-purposed into IED additives. Additionally, chlorine (which was not discussed in the major Times investigation) is not just used in weapons and is thus far more readily available as an ingredient than other chemical weapons agents.

ISIS allegedly detonated a chlorine-filled IED in September against Iraqi police officers (Washington Post, October 23, 2014):

The police officers, all members of the Sunni Jabbour tribe, which has turned against the Islamic State, were guarding a line in the town’s north. After an exchange of fire, they said, they were surprised to see Islamic State fighters retreating from their position about 150 yards away.

Suddenly there was a boom in the area the extremists had just vacated, said Lt. Khairalla al-Jabbouri, 31, one of the survivors. “It was a strange explosion. We saw a yellow smoke in the sky,” he said. The wind carried the fog toward their lines. The men say it hung close to the ground, consistent with the properties of chlorine gas, which is heavier than air.

“I felt suffocated,” Jabbouri recalled. “I was throwing up and couldn’t breathe.”

Another officer, Ammer Jassim Mohammed, 31, who suffers from asthma, said he passed out within minutes.

Other minor ISIS chemical IED attacks in Iraq have also been reported. There are also allegations that ISIS used some other type of chemical agent in Kobani.

Aircraft participating in U.S.-led coalition airstrike missions in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. (Credit: Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)

Aircraft participating in U.S.-led coalition airstrike missions in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. (Credit: Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)

De-Baathification: An ISIS misstep the US already made?

ISIS appears to have made the same major error in Sunni Iraq as the United States did nearly 12 years ago, pursuing a de-Baathification policy and thereby alienating a key constituency that might otherwise have backed their occupation — Baathist military officers and pro-Baathist Sunni tribes.

These Baathists generally have the most military and administrative experience in the the Sunni regions of Iraq, due to their military and governmental service under Saddam Hussein. Additionally, most membership/follower estimates of both the new paramilitary wing (which aided the ISIS capture of Mosul) and the political party put them at significantly larger numerical strength than the ISIS brigades operating in Iraq, if not all across the so-called Islamic State.

All in all, this policy seems to be backfiring on ISIS much the same way it backfired on the United States, as demonstrated below in a comparison between recent articles and articles from various points in the U.S. war effort after March 2003.

Late Baathist-era flag of the Republic of Iraq, 1991-2004.

Late Baathist-era flag of the Republic of Iraq, 1991-2004.

The Atlantic, this week:

But once its initial gains were secured, ISIS quickly betrayed the very groups that had aided its advance. Most prominently, ISIS declared the reestablishment of the caliphate, with the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani claiming that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilafah’s authority.” The statement clearly signaled that ISIS believed it had usurped the authority of its allies; indeed, in early July it rounded up ex-Baathist leaders in Mosul (doing so proved particularly problematic for ISIS because the ex-Baathists were also managing the actual governance and administration of the northern Iraqi city, and their arrest hastened the rapid disintegration of basic services).
And ISIS’s bureaucratic mismanagement has alienated local populations, leaving them with a lack of job opportunities and essential services.

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Tomb of the Prophet Jonah blown up outside Mosul

In the continuing battle over the religious future of the city of Mosul, the modern heir to the Biblical city of Nineveh, the Tomb of Jonah (also known as the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus, after his Arabic name) was blown up today. Video showed the structure being completely leveled by explosives.

The Mosque, previously a Church and originally part of an Assyrian palace complex, was supposed to be the burial ground of the 8th Century BCE prophet most famous for being swallowed by a fish when he tried to avoid going to Nineveh to preach. Today the area is a suburb of Mosul, which lies across the river from where Nineveh stood.

Government officials blamed ISIS for the attack, which seems to be the case. It was not immediately obvious exactly why the extremist Sunni Islamist would target a Sunni Mosque of significance to the core of Islam. Jonah/Yunus is one of the crossover figures from the Hebrew Bible, Christian Old Testament, and Quran.

However, ISIS has reportedly destroyed a number of other Sunni Mosques in Mosul already since capturing it in June, perhaps to remove competition against their hardline views.

Less than a week ago, ISIS expelled all the Christians from the city for the first time in 18 centuries.

Video still seconds after detonation of the minaret and building complex. Watch

Video still, seconds after detonation of the minaret and building complex. Watch

Mosul empty of Christians for first time in over 18 centuries

Al-Arabiya and AFP are reporting that the city of Mosul’s Christian community, dating to the 2nd Century CE, has evacuated en masse to Iraqi Kurdistan in the past 48 hours, following a specific threat of extermination from ISIS. Although it’s possible some members are still hiding in the city, the leaders of the close-knit and small community believe everyone is gone. Some who had pre-emptively fled when the city fell to ISIS in early June had tentatively returned, hoping for the best, but today the evacuations appeared definitive and total.

Christians have fled Iraq’s northern city of Mosul en masse before a Saturday deadline issued by the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for them to either convert to Islam, pay tax, leave or be killed.
Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP on Friday: “Christian families are on their way to Dohuk and Arbil,” in the neighboring autonomous region of Kurdistan. “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” he said.

Witnesses said messages telling Christians to leave the city by Saturday were blared through loudspeakers from the city’s mosques Friday.
“We were shocked by the distribution of a statement by the Islamic State calling on Christians to convert to Islam, or to pay unspecified tribute, or to leave their city and their homes taking only their clothes and no luggage, and that their homes would then belong to the Islamic State,” Sako said.

It remains to be seen if any of the community will return if ISIS is ever dislodged from Mosul in the near future, but they may not have homes to return to. In past waves of emigration of ethnic and religious minorities from the city, especially under the intentional policies of Saddam Hussein, abandoned homes have quickly been taken over by Sunni Arabs.

For the past 18-19 centuries, Mosul was the continuous center of Iraq’s Assyrian Christian ethno-religious community, despite basically every war in regional history coming through. The community was a diverse set of old school (2nd century CE) Middle Eastern Christian sects within the Assyrian/Syriac/Chaldean ethnicity, whose members still speak and read Aramaic, one of the most important language families in Middle Eastern ancient and classical history, as well as across multiple religions.

St. Elijah's Monastery, near Mosul, a site dating to 595 CE, seen here in 2005. (Credit: Doug - Wikimedia)

St. Elijah’s Monastery, near Mosul, a site dating to 595 CE, seen here in 2005. (Credit: Doug – Wikimedia)

Unfortunately, most of Iraq’s Assyrians had been fleeing the city and country since the 2003 invasion, even before the latest — and perhaps final — crisis, with ISIS.

The city has long been a holdout against sectarian pressures until now. Mosul became the regional capital of what is now Iraq under the 7th century Umayyad Caliphate (an early 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.
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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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