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What's eating Syria and Iraq

  • 17 June 2014

The capture of Iraq's second largest city Mosul by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS/ISIL) group is a major concern not just for Iraq but for the whole Middle East. ISIS, or ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyya fi'l-'Iraq wa'sh-Sham, is probably more extreme in its Sunni Islamic jurisprudence and theology than Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda reportedly cut off ties to ISIL in February after a power struggle between the two groups.

ISIL has been fighting the Asaad regime in Syria but has also been extending its territory for the establishment of their 'Caliphate' into western and northern Iraq. They claim to be setting up a Caliphate over Iraq and Syria.

ISIL has its origins in Islamist groups led by the Jordanian former gangster Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi was known for his kidnappings, torture and brutal beheading videos in Iraq. He was viewed as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was responsible for the bombing on 22 February 2006 at the Shia shrine of Samarra in the ancient Abbasid capital, near Baghdad, which sparked a brutal religious war in Iraq.

Although Zarqawi was killed by the US in 2007, AQI continued. In towns where it had control or influence, it demanded mafia-style protection payments which helped fund its operations in Iraq and more recently in Syria. An Iraqi from Mosul told me how his relative was shot in front of his house for refusing to pay the 'tax'.

Mosul is near a Christian enclave in Dohuk. It is also near the border of the Kurdish Regional area. It has a Sunni majority population, with Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Turkman and Kurdish populations as well. It is near the ancient Babylonian city of Nineveh. An Iraqi told me how a famous tomb of the 'Jewish saint' and Old Testament Prophet Jonah is still revered nearby.

The loss of Mosul to ISIL is a major concern as ISIL continue their drive south 'liberating' towns and villages, and causing a mass movement of around 500,000 people. ISIL especially targets Shia, whom they view as 'un-Islamic' and therefore legitimate targets. Christians have also been targeted.

Jesuit Fr Frans van der Lugt was reportedly executed on 7 April 2014 by someone from the al Nusra front in Syria, a group formerly linked to ISIL. Frans led a group in Homs encouraging better relations between Christians and Muslims and helping the disabled. He was widely respected in the Muslim community.