When I was 17, I was graduating high school. My biggest concerns included finding a college roommate and deciding on a major. When my father was 17, he was pulled into the Israeli Defense Forces to fight in the Yom Kippur War (sometimes referred to in English as the October War (1973)). On the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest holiday in Judaism, Syria and Egypt launched a joint surprise attack on the two fronts gained by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War (Sinai Desert to the south and Golan Heights to the north).
The goal was to gain the territories lost, driven by the embarrassing defeat during the Six-Day War. Egypt wanted to be seen as a powerful neighbor ready to play on the world stage, cutting ties with the Soviet Union and beginning talks with Washington, D.C. Syria, not so much. Hafez al-Assad had little to no interest in potential negotiations and wanted to make Syria the dominant military power of the Arab States. Knowing they only had a chance at succeeding if working together, Egypt and Syria launched their attacks on October 6, 1973.
The attack was truly a surprise. My mother was 14 at the time.
“I had no clue that a war is looming…The only unusual thing was a heavy traffic on the main highway nearby the night before; it was Yom Kippur eve; which is extremely quiet with almost no traffic on the roads, so there was some feeling among the adults that something is not quite right. So, for me, the war started with a loud siren in the middle of Kippur day. Everybody was shocked but we all knew very well what a siren means. It was very strange to watch my dad having a meal on Yom Kippur and then driving his car to his base. He insisted on eating something before driving to the Army (he knew that he might be without food and working hard for some time). We were not scared for him since we knew that he was based nearby (and not on the border), but I remember feeling so proud of him, thinking that he was very handsome in his uniform and I knew that he had an important job in the event of a war.”
My father had just finished high school. His IDF start date was October 16, ten days after the start of the war.
“On that day I was with my family at the synagogue and suddenly people were being called out very quietly leaving the services. Soon the understanding was that war broke out, Israel was being attacked on two fronts at once and there is a general call up of all soldiers on leave and all of the reserves. Within minutes there were only half the people in the synagogue. The fact the war broke out came as a surprise to all of us. The IDF was not on alert during the holidays and in fact many of the troops were home for the holidays. The sirens and the radio announcements (on Yom Kippur – which was unbelievable that radio would be working) brought this home right away. Everything changed at that moment. ”
“Ten days later I enlisted in the IDF and instead of going to basic training like you normally would, I was put to work unloading trucks of guns and munitions and preparing them for being sent to the front.”
After the heaviest fighting initially passed, he attended a very accelerated basic training near Ramallah (north of Jerusalem). Supplies and instructors were scarce (everyone who could fight was sent to the front). Some of the instructors were injured soldiers.
“From there we were shipped to the Giddi Passage in the Sinai desert… We did a very abbreviated tank crew training (a couple of weeks instead of three months) and I was chosen based on my skills and performance to be a tank gunner. I was very proud to have be awarded the outstanding crewman award (a ‘best in class’ designation) at the end of the course”
“We were quickly sent up to through the Golan Heights to the Syrian Enclave (a part of Syria that they lost to the IDF when Israel launched the counter attacks based on the reserves joining the regular army, pushing the Syrians back and then some). We became the newest members of the famous 7th Brigade, replacing tank crews that went through the hardest battles with the Syrian Army, including in the ‘’Valley of Tears’.
Even as we were getting off the buses that first night, and before we saw our tanks for the first time, we were shelled by Katyusha rockets, a scary thing. Of course I threw up – it was the first time I was shelled and the shelling was very close, but that was the last time I threw up in battle. Life on the front was very dynamic – there were hours where nothing would happen (but you still had to do guard duty, maintain the tank, do kitchen duty, clean the house where we lived, and in general try to stay healthy).
Staying healthy up there in the Syrian Enclave was important, as we were located in the ruins of a Syrian town, located in a swamp. The concern was malaria and we had to take two pills every Tuesday and sign we did that. These would help prevent getting sick and apparently it worked. This was a big, ongoing concern.
Other days were much more busy, from an operations standpoint. We would get shelled for a while and then Syrian commando would try to attack our line of tanks or their air force would try to cross the lines and bomb us. Mostly, these planes would be intercepted and dropped out of the sky by IAF pilots. Other times we would shoot at them, but that was never effective. It did make us feel better – that’s for sure. Once I got the chance to phone home and while talking with Savta Bev [his mother], an artillery shelling started. She heard the booms and asked me what was going on. I told her not to worry and all it was was a thunderstorm.”
As the war progressed, feelings of confidence turned into sadness, and then anger. As a 14-year-old girl, my mother said that no one really knew how bad things were at first, and they were more worried than scared (compared to the terror of the Gulf War my family also lived through in the early 90s).
“Moreover, we all felt the Israeli Army cannot be defeated and expected the war to be swift and over with a big victory. As time went on, bad news started to arrive and the mood turned very bad and depressing. Worse than that was the increasing news about people around us that died, injured, or want missing. We had one guy living not too far from our home that was never found (and presumed dead). Some just finished high school and I knew them or they were brothers or fathers of kids that I knew from school or the neighborhood.”
My father’s high school graduating class suffered greatly.
“Meanwhile, names started coming in and I learned about a large number of friends from high school and from the Scouts that fell in battle both in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. All I hoped for was for my closest friends to pull through – but there is no question, my school year paid a heavy price. “
While the war ended in victory for Israel, the Israelis lost many young men, and the feelings of anger and insecurity never really left. The government was highly criticized for its lack of preparedness. U.S. assistance may have been what allowed Israel to win the war. Syria suffered a terrible defeat, with Israel seizing even more land. In 1979, Syria was part of the successful vote to expel Egypt from the Arab League. The initial military successes of Egypt gave Anwar Sadat some prestige and allowed him to begin peace talks from a new position of global power. He was able to gain the Sinai Peninsula back from Israel (though these talks led to his assassination in 1981). This really highlights the fragmentation of this region, making it difficult for there to be an umbrella of the “Middle Eastern interests”. You can’t simultaneously have Israel as an enemy and in a peace treaty. It seems you are either isolated from the Arab World, or from the national stage. The Yom Kippur war is clearly not the first or last war of this region, but it is a great example of the complexity of both middle-eastern and international politics.
Here is a great collection of photos from the Yom Kippur War:
Each year the United Nations holds a meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. This council consists of representatives from 45 different countries, and they gather to discuss gender equality, including specific challenges and policy changes to promote equality and advancement of women. Last week, this session closed singling out Israel as a violator of women’s rights. The Commission apparently ignored reports on female genital mutilation and punishment by stoning for acts of adultery in other Middle Eastern countries, but condemned Israel for acts of violence against Palestinian women. This was the only resolution that was approved singling out any one country, and it was only opposed by Israel and the United States. This week, the United Nations Human Rights Commission concluded its session with four more resolutions approved against Israel while no other country received more than one.
While the verbiage of these resolutions in such a political setting cannot possibly convey actual human rights violations and real world problems to be addressed, the emphasis on Israel seems surprising, biased, and more politically than socially driven than a committee on human rights should be. It is interesting to note that even Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is commonly believed to be one of the worst human rights violating countries, received only one resolution against them. So is the UN condemning Israel more harshly than other deserving countries to prove a point, or is this some way deserved?
Many believe that this has been a recurring theme going almost all the way back to Israel’s admission to the United Nations in 1949, questioning the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Anti-Israel propaganda has been said to circulate the United Nations general assembly since 1975 when an official resolution stated, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” This sparked accusations of anti-Semitism throughout the general assembly, and eventually the resolution was revoked, but not until the end of the Cold War in 1991. Another notable instance of this bias appeared in the 2006-07 session of the general assembly, during the height of the Darfur conflict in Sudan. During this session, while mass genocide was occurring in Darfur, Sudan did not receive a single resolution while Israel received a staggering twenty-two resolutions. Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan of Ghana, even came out and made official statements denouncing anti-Semitism and bias against Israel in the UN, making it obvious that this is not an accident and clearly a politically driven and lasting consensus throughout the general assembly.
The United Nations is meant to be cooperative organization to avoid international conflict, protect human rights and the environment, and assist in general peacekeeping and conflict resolution worldwide. Regardless of one’s stance on the legitimacy of the state of Israel, it seems glaringly evident that this forum is being used for political grudge keeping, and time that should be put towards real issues, like the Darfur conflict, are used to push diplomats’ general feelings about Israel.
While the problems with the general assembly’s behavior in this matter are obvious, it is a more controversial topic than just the question of corruption and unjustified wrist slapping. The UN Special Committee on Palestine has an important role in protecting Palestinian refugees displaced by Israeli intervention as well as a role in peacekeeping relations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, though the effectiveness of these measures is questionable. The region has been at war with itself in very recent years and tensions are always high, meaning that the UN should tread carefully regarding such delicate matters.
It seems the United States also undoubtedly plays a major role in this issue. The US diplomat has voted in favor of Israel in every resolution brought to a vote in recent years. Essentially, the general assembly has been divided on this Israel debate similar to how congress is split on issues simply due to party lines. Diplomats are no longer voting in favor of what they think is right, and instead they are simply voting where their allegiances lie.
Regardless of how a person feels regarding the state of Israel and conflict with Palestine, it is obvious that the United Nations is not successfully performing the duties that it is meant to accomplish. Time is being wasted, and politically charged factors are affecting allocation of resources meant to aid in human rights preservation and general peacekeeping throughout the world.
SInce almost the beginning of Islam, there has been a deep schism between the Sunnis and the Shiites. These two sects of Islam have been in wars, battles, and rebellions with each other throughout history. This conflict can even be seen in modern times with the militant group, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and very recently with ISIS, a Sunni terrorist group in Iraq and the Levant region with the goal of taking over the middle east and implementing religious law, beheading anyone who stands in their way. These specific extremists groups and various nations’ efforts to combat these extremest groups, are a few of many examples of the conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam. Another example, which has had a prominent presence in the news this week, which also shows this conflict is what is now turning into a civil war in Yemen. The Yemeni government is currently combatting, what is called the Houthi Rebellion, a movement started by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a cleric with the goal of fighting the Yemeni government and implementing his own brand of Shia religious law. What is different about the Yemen conflict, that separates it from the others in the middle east, is that this has obviously become a proxi war between larger, more influential nations. Yes, it started out has just a conflict between two factions in Yemen, but other countries have decided to give their support to either side and promote their own religious ideals as well. Iran, a major power in the middle east, is a predominantly Shia state and is backing the Houthis in their endeavor against the Yemeni government. On the other side, Saudi Arabia, a major Oil producer and economic power, along with other smaller nations such as Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain, as of recently, are providing air support and air strikes against the rebels. Egypt and Pakistan, it appears, will also be giving support. What all these nations have in common is that they are mostly of Sunni Islam. So what started as a small conflict in a small country, has become a major proxi war between a major Shia power and a major Sunni power, who are fighting a religious battle.
This proxi war bears a striking resemblance to the proxi fights during the cold war. For example the Korean War, was really a conflict between China and the US, who were giving aid to two much smaller countries. The cold war was about the conflict between to major ideals: communism and capitalism. The only difference here is the two conflicting ideals are Shia and Sunni Islam.
The Houthi rebellion, does not just have to about religion though. It could also be about regional influence and long term strategy. After all, Iran and Saudi Arabia are two of the most important powers in the middle east and Yemen holds a strategic location on the Arabian peninsula.
Another point worth looking at is the relationship between Iran and the US. Iran and the US are currently in the process of diplomatic talks, with the goal of coming to an agreement about Iran’s nuclear program and coming to a peaceful solution. Iran is also helping combat ISIS, and though this may not directly with the US, both nations have the same goal of exterminating ISIS and establishing peace in Iraq. It should appear that Iran and the US might have the goal of having a diplomatic relationship, like the US has with Saudi Arabia. However, the US has picked an opposing side in the conflict in Yemen. Though not directly providing troops, the US is providing Saudi Arabia with logistical support in their effort to fight the rebels and has given vocal support of the Saudi efforts. So on one front, the US and Iran are on the same side, but on another, they are not. It seems that while the US has the goal of fighting all rebels and helping established governments in the middle east, Iran’s goal is to promote Shia Islam and neither of them seem to want long term agreements with each other. In the ISIS example, the US might be fighting for regional stability, but Iran might only be doing it because ISIS is a Sunni group.
What can be taken away from this all is that it appears in the middle east, though political borders have changed, the everlasting religious fights have remained the same, at least in modern history, specifically.
Music has always been a key component of pretty much any culture or society. Various regions of the world have their own unique musical styles, genres, instruments, and sounds that they alone identify with. Of course, music has a broad impact that can come from more than just the notes and rhythms. Throughout history, the poetic and theatrical nature of vocal music has creatively highlighted the political and social landscape of the times. And, especially in younger generations, new ways of thinking, progressive ideals, and calls for change often shine through musical expression.
So among the various articles and analytical pieces on BBC News regarding current events of the Middle East, it was nice to see a feature on a particular Middle Eastern electronic music group that is quickly gaining popularity.
47SOUL, formed in 2013, plays with a style reminiscent of traditional Arabic street music. Search “dabke” on Google and you’ll find a multitude of examples of this traditional style of song and dance of the Levant. But rather than the flute, hand drum, and tambourine typical of this style, 47SOUL opts for electronic percussion, synthesizer, and guitar, clearly embracing the new age of musical creativity.
But perhaps more striking than the modern sound is the modern message the group conveys. Featured in this BBC video is a song that champions a message of acceptance and togetherness, regardless of race or nationality. This is something that lies in the hearts of these musicians because they all come from different backgrounds: Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian. But this group sees no reason to let those differences stand in the way of coming together to make great music, an ideal that stands in stark contrast to the extremely strong nationalist attitudes prevalent throughout the Middle East during the modern period.
Through these young musical talents, one can also find commentary on gender issues in the Middle East. In a similar feature, Yemeni rapper Amani Yahya champions female freedom and empowerment, ideals that certainly go against the grain in the conflict-ridden capital city Sanaa.
“Hopefully one day they will accept the idea that a woman can do something,” she remarks. “She’s not just at home cooking and raising kids. A woman can be whatever she wants, a musician, an artist, or whatever.”
She certainly has a difficult time pursuing musical performance in her home country, but Amani and many others hope that their musical passion and lyrical expression will inspire the new generation to think differently and rally against the gender-biased ideologies that seem to have a lock on much of Middle Eastern society.
The struggle is all too real for these women who seek to express themselves through modern styles of music. Egyptian producer and singer Bosania gave up the struggle to perform in Egypt after being “cursed at and chanted off stage” at a number of her performances, her electronic style and more wild theatrics “too bizarre and provocative for many in the audience.” Composer and singer Omnia Hegazy, an American of Egyptian descent, strives to maintain her independence in an industry where “people both in the US and in Egypt expect her to have a man to speak for her.”
Regarding her endeavors in filming and performing in the Middle East, Omnia comments, “I went to university for music business and I represent myself/book all my own gigs, so the assumption — that because I do not have representation— [is] that I either don’t know what I’m doing or am not established enough.”
It’s truly inspiring to see these young musicians advocating equality, acceptance, and progressive societal change in their struggles to pursue their musical passions and perform for the Middle East and for the world. It’s especially inspiring to see these women who, despite anticipating the resistance and the difficulty of it all, strive to follow their passions and inspire others to do the same. Personally I can’t say I would have the strength to put up as much of a fight if I was in such a position.
Of course, looking at history, it’s clear that the culture won’t change overnight. A few songs here and there won’t sweep through the minds of entire nations. But the push toward a more free society for everyone is certainly alive and well in the Middle East, and musical expression just adds that little bit of extra sparkle and passion to the movement. Only time will tell how today’s younger generations will respond going forward.
Ask most Americans what rugby is, and their general response is to say it’s a mix between soccer and football. Ask an English or South African native what rugby means to them, and they will most likely dive into the rules about tackles, rucks, scrums, and lineouts. Ask a woman on any Iranian women’s rugby team what rugby means to them, and the responses are sure to encompass the hardships, friendships, and empowerment the sport has brought to them. Women’s rugby in Iran has proven to be a shock to most nations around the globe. The balance between playing this contact sport versus adhering to Islamic law proves to be the main point of conflict between conservative Iranians and the women playing this physically demanding sport.
The sport of rugby has been around since the 1860’s. It emerged from running a ball around at a school named Rugby School, and it was only played by men. In 1891 the first women’s rugby team emerged from New Zealand. Since then, more and more nations have been accepting women’s rugby as a national sport (The U.S. declared its women’s national team in 1990). Iran is one of the most recent nations to have an official team of women. In 2000, the Iran Women’s Rugby Team formed from a group of women who wanted to relieve stress, have fun, and prove themselves to their colleagues.
The path to success has not been simple for the Iranian women. After being formed the team was revoked in 2011 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the 2006-2013 president of Iran, because he felt that women playing rugby showed “loose morals”. Since then the team was reestablished, but they haven’t been able to play in certain tournaments because of the dress code or “kit” that they have to wear in order to follow the Islamic law. The balance between staying true to Islam’s rules and playing the sport they love has been the focal point of problems for this team.
According to Islamic law a woman must be covered when outside of the house. This means that instead of wearing shorts and a jersey on the “pitch” (field), these women must wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and their veils while playing. Also, according to Islamic law, a man cannot touch a woman if he is not married to her, or unless he is family. This led to a problem when the national team hired a male coach from New Zealand, along with other coaches hired from within the country.
Anyone who has played soccer, football, ran track, or played any other outdoor sport on a normal day can attest to the need for cool clothes. The Iran Women’s Rugby Team not only has to be in full-coverage garments in the heat of the Middle East, but they have to wear their veils while they play. Not only does this create a problem with being overheated, but it also raises safety concerns when tackling and rucking come into play. According to rugby rules, you are not allowed to tackle anyone above the neck, but opponents can still grab onto the players’ loose clothes and yank the players to the ground. Another safety issue involves rucks. Rucks occur on the ground when the ball carrier has been tackled and the offensive teammates create a barrier to protect the ball (and ball carrier). Rucks are messy, especially if you have a headpiece on (e.g. a veil). Players in the ruck are constantly moving their footing, stepping/kicking the ball carrier often times. The veil is likely to get stuck under a “boot” (cleat), which can potentially choke the player. The Iranian women’s team has not been able to participate in certain competitions due to the veil, as well as the full-coverage uniform.
Hiring male coaches have also raised concerns to conservative Iranians, as men aren’t allowed to touch women if they aren’t direct family, or unless they are married to them. When male coach Alireza Iraj from New Zealand was hired to the team, certain measures had to be taken in order to appease the Islamic law. When describing to the women how to tackle, he had to describe it to a player as she reenacted it out on another teammate. Another problem occurred when a women’s team in Iran had a male coach that was removed after he was threatened with potential charges of prostitution if he were to go within 10 meters of any of his players.
Although the struggle between following Islamic law and playing the sport has not subsided, the national team has made many strides. In 2013 they placed 11th out of 15 in the Women’s Asian Seven Series. Another stride was made last year when the national team started Project Talent Toddlers in Tehran, where athletes on the team started coaching boys and girls aged 3-7 to play tag rugby. These accomplishments are helping to inform Iran about the positives of the sport, such as teamwork, communication, and physical well being.
In addition to appeasing Islamic law with how they play rugby, the accomplishments made by the national team and other women’s teams in the area are helping to put a positive connotation on the words, “women’s rugby” throughout Iran.
It is possible that if you use the internet in Iran you will be less likely to see this page. At the beginning of this month, Iran stated that it is willing to negotiate with big internet firms. Stating that they would like to include firms such as Google and Twitter to operate in Iran as long as those firms respect their cultural values and rules they have set in place. This has been long awaited news for the people of Iran. They have been dealing with government censorship for a very long time and they are ready for some of this censorship to be relaxed. Even President Rouhani has a Twitter account.
But how does the Iranian government decide what will get censored? The blanket statement is anything that deviates from the country’s principles. Since Iran is a theocratic republic this includes anything that could go against Islamic standards and also anything that could cause instability in the country. Some examples of inappropriate topics include discontent among the citizens, Iran’s economic issues and any talk of reformation of the government. Everything is subject to being censored including television, the media, books, the internet, films, the radio and video games.
The internet in Iran is highly restricted by the government. There is a lot of site blocking and restricted access. The government keeps the internet speed at 128 kbps for average users. This is about two times faster than dial-up from the 90’s. If you require a faster internet speed you need special permission from the government. Usually you have to be a scientist or an important government employee to get a faster internet speed. The sites that are blocked are primarily adult sites, but about half of the top 500 websites are blocked. The list of blocked websites changes often usually to do with what is going on politically at the time. During the election between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, Facebook was blocked because it was providing a platform for Mousavi supporters to spread their ideas and become more organized. Other sites such as Twitter and Youtube get intermittently blocked. Since Ahmadinejad left office the government has started taking a more filtered approach to censorship than just banning every website that has something they don’t agree with. They started testing with Instagram. Instead of just blocking the whole site they blocked all images that could be a threat to their societal ideal. This method has spread to several other sites. They are also implementing a strategy that they are calling tailored censorship where they allow people above certain ages to access sites like Facebook. This method has gotten some backlash. In order to get to sites you have to pay the government for a proxy which has people questioning if their primary aim is censorship or having another way to make money.
The media in Iran is structured very differently than ours. There are a few different channels all of which are owned by the government and all are heavily censored. It is stated in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, “The freedom of expression and dissemination of thoughts in the Radio and Television of the Islamic Republic of Iran must be guaranteed in keeping with the Islamic criteria and the best interests of the country.” The Leader of Iran also has the power to appoint the head of the radio and television. The Iranians get the vast majority of their news from government owned news stations. Even though there are strict censoring standards in television in Iran, the government has a hard time stopping the citizens from using satellite dishes. They are illegal, but even after several government crackdowns, the government estimates about 40% of the population has a satellite dish while other sources say the number is closer to 70%. With satellite dishes they can access channels from all over the Middle East and even Europe and Asia.
As far as print media goes this is a pretty common sight. These images were either edited by the government or by the people selling them so that they would not get in trouble with the government.
Things are looking hopeful for literature. After Ahmadinejad left office, the system of reviewing books has become more relaxed. There have been time frames put in place on how low in can take to review a book and fewer books are being completely banned. While the books are not being banned, the people who review the books still make changes. They still will not allow anything to be published that does not conform to the ideals of the country or to Islam. This could be whole themes that get removed from a book or in smaller cases it may involve just swapping words out. There are several words that the reviewers look for; some of them include pork, dog, kiss, wine, drunk, dance and meditation. These words will be replaced with more appropriate terms. There are still many books that are outright banned. Iran does not have a specified list of every book it does not allow in the country, but here are a few titles that are currently not suitable to be read in Iran. Plato’s Symposium, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Marjane Sarpi’s Persepolis. Most of these books were banned because of their inconsistency with Islam. Persepolis, both the book and the film, were banned because it criticizes the regime and even talks about censorship and the banning that occurs in Iran.
The films banned in Iran follow the same strategies as the books. Films that cast any type of negative light on Islam, Iran or the current government will be banned. Some of these include 300, Argo and Saturday Night Fever. Other movies get heavily censored. They often change translations, add modesty and remove any behavior such as kissing between two people of the opposite sex.
The censorship in Iran is strict, but a lot of it goes unenforced. The government often only punishes for some of these laws, such as owning a banned book or having a satellite dish as an excuse when they want to arrest someone for other reasons such as demonstrating or spreading reformist ideas. It seems that whatever the government bans becomes even more popular among the citizens. For example, a few years ago the government banned dogs from private apartments and from being walked on public streets, but to this day, dogs are more popular than they ever were before the ban. These actions give the government a weak appearance and show how you can have all of these strict laws, but without enforcement, they mean only what the people want them to mean.
Iraqi military forces recently entered into a battle with ISIL on its own turf this past Tuesday. ISIL is currently in control of the city of Tikrit as well as the surrounding villages. This Iraqi offensive is the first of many to fight ISIL and to ultimately regain control of Mosul, which is Iraq’s second largest city and is currently controlled by ISIL forces. Control of Tikrit is crucial for the Iraqi military to advance to Mosul because Tikrit lies on a major highway that leads from Baghdad to Mosul, thus, control of Tikrit is the first step to gaining access to Mosul and taking away an ISIL stronghold.
According to Iraq’s defense ministry, Iraqi forces have already gained control of areas surrounding the city of Tikrit that are along the Tigris River. Some Iraqi government troops are already stationed in some of the main streets of Tikrit along with some Shia volunteers from Popular Mobilisation Forces. These Shia volunteers are helping with the Iraqi government’s push to rid ISIL from Iraq.
ISIL Fighters are putting up a stiff fight. ISIL has reportedly blown up a bridge that leads to Tikrit making the Iraqi military’s advance a little more difficult. Several roads going into the city are also believed to be rigged with explosives, which further slows down the Iraqi advance. The Iraqi military, however, is slowly progressing towards the center of the city. According to the Iraqi defense ministry, Iraqi forces have destroyed 20 heavy machine guns and 20 vehicles during its advance towards Tikrit. The Iraqis have also dismantled approximately 382 improvised explosive devices along its way into the city. As of now, the Iraqi government claims to have killed 350 suspected ISIL fighters within a four day period.
In the last couple of days, the Iraqi military along with the Shia militia have captured a few towns surrounding Tikrit including al-Alam and al-Dour. The military has also gained control over the oil fields in al-Ojail. The Iraqi military is set up to capture a few more small villages surrounding Tikrit within the next few days. The Iraqi government is looking at the battle for Tikrit to gauge how bad future conflicts between the Iraqi military and ISIL could end up. If ISIL puts up a huge fight at Tikrit, the Iraqi government can expect a very bloody fight all the way up to Mosul. The hope of the Iraqi government is that the capture of Tikrit will encourage Sunni’s across the country to rise up against ISIL and take back their villages.
There are some inherent sectarian issues that arise with this Iraqi military offensive towards Tikrit. Tikrit is a Sunni stronghold, and the Iraqi government is working with Shia militias to try and fight ISIL. Therefore there is Shia militia that are killing Sunni’s in Tikrit. Shia militia groups, including the League of the Righteous (a Shia group), have reportedly ransacked and burned the houses of Sunni residents in the city of Tikrit. This is causing great tension between the Sunni’s and the Shia’s. The Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has issued a statement regarding these recent attacks by the Shia groups. His statement encourages the Iraqi government to investigate and punish any Shia group that is using excessive violence against any Sunni resident of Tikrit. There is some confusion as to who to blame for the Shia militia attacks on the Sunni’s. The Leader of the League of the Righteous claims that he was operating under orders given by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who is the commander of the elite Quds Brigade. General Soleimani has been seen directing operations on the eastern flank of Tikrit.
I think this offensive displayed by the Iraqi government is a huge step in the right direction. It shows that the government recognizes the problem and is willing to do what it takes to gain control of its cities again. The Iraqi government is surely expecting a bloody war with ISIL, but it is a risk they are willing to take to win back their homeland. The biggest issue I see is the sectarian conflicts that may arise from this fight against ISIL. With Shia militia fighting in Sunni cities, it could cause for more incidents like what was seen with the League of the Righteous. This could provoke a civil war type of conflict in Iraq. The last thing Iraq needs is a Sunni population fighting a Shia population while both sides fight with ISIL.