Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

The Hurt Locker (2008) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th June, 2020

The Hurt Locker 1Many war films — not least those made in Hollywood — have glorified military activity, while a few, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, have dwelt on how war can really screw one’s mind. But few modern cinema epics actually make you feel you are right there in the action, both from the point of view of the soldiers fighting and of the local population. Having covered several wars and conflict situations from the Vietnam War onward as a journalist, I guess that is why I found Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (available via BBC iPlayer for the next four weeks) so gripping. Although it was shot mainly in Jordan (and at studios in Vancouver, Canada), I really felt I was back in small town Iraq. As in Vietnam, the Americans — and in this case their British colleagues, who appear briefly but memorably — could never know who were good guys and who were the enemy out to kill them. Actually, in both Vietnam and Iraq, most local people just wanted to get on with their lives and tried their best to function normally while all the destruction and violence took place around them.

The Hurt Locker 2 Bigelow’s fictional tale focuses on a small company of specialist troops involved in locating and decommissioning IEDs. Right from the first, long sequence this introduces and reintroduces tension effectively. But there is also tension within the band of comrades, a bubbling mix of machismo, recklessness and fear, leavened by flashes of kindness. Though one does see Iraqi militia fighters in some of the direct exchanges with the troops, most of the Iraqis young and old are just spectators until they get directly caught up in things. Several are inevitably victims, of the situation, of the war and of fighters on both sides. But I loved the way the film does give one a sense of normal Arab town life, including courteous hospitality and the football playing boys who try to make a few bucks selling dodgy videos to the US forces. Streets are as likely to be strewn with litter as they are with the debris of war, and mangy feral cats wander among it all, as well as the occasional herd of goats. I suppose some might argue that that is the sensitive touch of a woman director, as is the ferocious middle aged professor’s wife who attacks an intruding armed US soldier with a tray. But this is a great film, irrespective of the gender of its director. It won an Oscar for Best Picture when it came out (and a fistful of other awards). I’m not sure why I missed it then; probably because I was based in Kuwait at the time. But one of the upsides of the otherwise tiresome obligation to stay at home during COVID19 has been to discover films such as this.

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Dangerous Escalation in the Gulf

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd January, 2020

49A0EB41-E8AC-4F7A-9DF1-5A1214C2A9E4The US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, reportedly on President Trump’s direct order, is a dangerous escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf that could all to easily develop into all-out war. Donald Trump has been itching to hit out against Iran ever since he came to power and last year a direct US strike was called off at almost the last moment. Meanwhile the Americans have been ratcheting up sanctions against Tehran, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, in which major European states including Britain were instrumental, has been seriously undermined by a US withdrawal. Not that all the blame rests on American shoulders, of course. Despite Iranian denials, a drone and missile attach on Saudi oil installations last September was almost certainly inspired by Tehran. And Iranian special forces — including General Suleimani’s Al Quds brigade — have been active in fighting in Iraq and Syria, sometimes in conjunction with regional allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But there is a real danger that tit-for-tat retaliatory acts will spiral out of control, while all affected parties claim they are the victims of aggression. Britain and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, potentially have an important role to play in defusing the situation, though President Macron is seriously weakened by ongoing domestic unrest and Boris Johnson may be too close to Donald Trump to be seen as a mediator. Significantly, Washington did not warn London about its planned assassination strike, despite the fact that there are UK troops and civilians in Iraq and surrounding countries. All could be potential targets for reprisals if the British government comes out in support of the US action. Instead, it should listen to the wise words of caution from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair made the wrong call over Iraq in 2003 and that lesson should not be forgotten.

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Kurdish Memory Programme

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 15th March, 2019

Kurds KMPLast night I was at BAFTA for the European launch of the Kurdish Memory Programme, a new national archive of modern Kurdish history. The Kurds often refer to themselves, with justification, as the largest nation without a country; although there are regional and cultural variations, including in the language they speak, they do have a great sense of collective identity, reinforced by generations of marginalisation and persecution. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I should have been the opportunity for a Kurdish state to be established, but this was prevented, with the vast majority of Kurds finding themselves living as a minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In varying ways, their cultural expression was suppressed. At the height of internal conflict in Turkey, many Kurdish villages were simply bulldozed away and survivors scattered.

Kurdistan a Nation EmergesIn Iraq under Saddam Hussein, genocide was perpetrated against the Kurds, most notoriously in the chemical attack on Halabja. But post-Saddam, it has been in Iraq that Kurds have built themselves a largely autonomous homeland. A few years ago, I wrote a book about this, Kurdistan: A Nation Emerges, with several colleagues. And it is under the shadow of Erbil’s impressive citadel that a magnifient museum to Kurdish identity, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, is taking shape. At the BAFTA event there was an interesting short filmed interview with the architect. However, the main film was a heart-wrenching documentary by about one Yazidi family and their fate at the hands of ISIS. Several perished, one girl was moved by ISIS fighters to a military camp in Syria before escaping, and the eldest son only managed to rejoin his relatives in Germany by fleeing through Turkey and joining a group of refugees who took the risk of going in a little dinghy to Greece. The Kurdish Memory Programme, involving an international team including the director Gwynne Roberts, is collecting many such stories. More than 1,000 interviews have been filmed, the testimonies featuring alongside 75 years of historical footage in an archive that is now available online.

Link:  https://kurdistanmemoryprogramme.com/

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Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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Not a Happy Anniversary

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd June, 2017

Today is the first anniversary of Britain’s EU Referendum. Doubtless some arch-Brexiteers, such as Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Maggie, have been celebrating what they consider to be the UK’s first anniversary of independence. This is of course tosh, on almost every level. We are still members of the EU until at least 29 March 2019, but more importantly, being an EU member state does not undermine a country’s independence, but rather member states voluntarily share aspects of sovereignty for the common good. Britain has done very well as an EU member state, though not a single UK Prime Minister since we joined in 1973 took full advantage of the opportunities offered. Theresa May, or whoever will replace her, can only look on impotently over the coming months as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron help fashion a reformed and confident EU, in which the UK will have no formal role, unless Brexit is reversed, which at present seems unlikely. Last year I came to Lisbon  immediately after the Referendum, to salve my wounds with some continental culture and joie de vivre. By coincidence, I am in Lisbon again now, but this evening I did not raise my glass to celebrate the Brexit vote but rather to savour being a full European citizen while I still can.

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Letters from Baghdad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th April, 2017

Gertrude Bell 1A century ago, the shape of the modern Middle East was formed out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The behind-the-scenes power play by Britain and France that resulted in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the boundaries of their respective zones of influence. But also significant was the work done by the British explorer, archaeologist and spy, Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of the modern state of Iraq. A contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, with whom she had a friendship spiced by intense personal rivalry, Bell left her mark in more ways than one, including founding the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and chivying, not always successfully, the British government to, run its Middle Eastern League of Nations mandates according to her priorities. There have been several books about Gertrude Bell, but none gives such a vivid picture of her as the new documentary film by Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, Letters from Baghdad. Their approach is quite daring, reflecting its subject’s forthright personality, as it largely comprises archive footage that the film-makers found in 25 separate locations, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Bell herself. The streets of Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo and other places 100 years ago are so successfully brought alive that one is transported back in time, as well as place.

Letters from Baghdad still

The commentary is drawn from the subject’s letters and diaries, supplemented by those of some of the people who encountered her. The actor Tilda Swinton provides Bell’s voice, while other actors impersonate key characters, filmed as if giving live interviews. This is truly history reincarnated before our eyes. The film does not hide the complexities, even difficulties, in Gertrude Bell’s character. She was driven by what she believed to be right, and she could be both churlish and offensive towards those who disagreed with her, or struck her as superficial. She was as brave as any man, and the Arabs treated her respectfully as if she were one, yet she also had a colossal wardrobe of clothes, one reason for T. E. Lawrence’s sneering disapproval. She would not have been an easy woman to have as a friend, but one would have had to admire her energy, even if she herself became increasingly disillusioned with life by the end, dying from an overdose (accidental or otherwise) of sleeping pills. This film does her an immense service, as well as underlining Britain’s role in shaping, for better or for worse, the modern, conflict-riven Middle East. It’s a “must see” for anyone with even the slightest interest in the region, but it should appeal also to anyone who relishes accounts of extraordinary individuals.

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Grilling Frederick Forsyth

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 14th September, 2016

frederick-forsyth-1“I have no respect of admiration for the Establishment,” novelist and occasional MI6 collaborator Frederick Forsyth declared yesterday at a gathering of the London Grill Club, an informal lunch club for journalists and other professionals who give a prominent public figure a grilling once a month. Forsyth campaigned for Brexit long before this summer’s EU Referendum campaign, but he was as scathing about British politicians as he was about Brussels bureaucrats. David Cameron’s resignation from Parliament obviously figured large in the conversation, but the novelist felt the now departed Prime Minister only had himself to blame: he should have been neutral in the referendum debate, as Harold Wilson was in 1975, rather than being the “chief prosecutor” for Remain. Tony Blair also came in for criticism; although Freddie supported the Iraq War, he was appalled by what he saw as Blair’s lying to Parliament, and he backed Reg Keys, father of one of the Iraq casualties, when Mr Keys stood against Blair in Sedgfield at the 2005 general election. Forsyth at 78 is a more mellow personality than even five years ago, but he still has some robust opinions. “Political correctness has replaced Christianity as a religion in Britain,” he pronounced at one point. He does not intend to write any more books; his autobiography The Outsider “is my swan song”. But that does not mean that he will abandon campaigning when there is an issue he feels strongly about, his current hobby-horse being to expose what he sees as “a stitch-up” involving a Royal Marine convicted of shooting a wounded Taliban fighter in Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2011.

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RIP Zaha Hadid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st March, 2016

Zaha HadidZaha Hadid building 1I was appalled today to hear of the death from a heart attack of the architect Zaha Hadid, who has been responsible for some of the most remarkable and mellifluous buildings of our age. An exact contemporary of mine, she was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and like many talented young Arabs went to study at the American University in Beirut — mathematics in her case. But it was when she moved to London to study at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture that her creativity really took root. Though in some ways influenced by the modernism of Le Corbusier, she developed her own flamboyant and visionary style, deeply feminine in many aspects yet anything but ‘gentle’. A woman with a dramatic sense of personal presence as well as of attire, she succeeded despite being both a woman and an Arab — both of which were to a certain extent handicaps at the start of her career — to become one of the most significant architects of our times. She founded her own practice in Britain, became a naturalised British citizen and was recognised with a Damehood by the Queen for her services to architecture, as well as winning numerous prizes. Not all of her completed designs have actually been built, so perhaps the greatest tribute to her would be to ensure that some more are. As it is, there are specactular buildings to enjoy in several parts of the old. She was a genuinely global figure and loved to travel, but while in Miami, Florida, being treated for bronchitis, died of a heart attach today. RIP.

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2016: Doomsday for ISIS?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th December, 2015

AmadiYesterday Iraqi government forces retook control of the city of Ramadi from ISIS/Daesh, though much of its infrastructure was trashed in the process. This was a welcome development which prompted the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to declare that self-styled Islamic State will be crushed during 2016. Brave words, but I fear that he is being over-optimistic. The next target for the Iraqi army — with back-up from the United States and others in the anti-ISIS coalition — is the city of Mosul. That really would be a huge setback for Islamic State if it were to fall, not only because of its large size but also because of its key location in a region rich with oil. But retaking Mosul is unlikely to be easy.

ISISMoreover, there is another reason why Mr al-Abadi’s prediction is perhaps premature. Even if ISIS is eliminated in Iraq during the course of next year — and that is a big “if” — it is still well dug-in in Syria, where the HQ of its “caliphate”, Raqqa is located, and it is making progress elsewhere, notably in Libya and Pakistan. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS is a sort of franchise, though one with a clearer project in mind for the type of (to Western eyes dystopian) world it wants to see. Groups in other parts of Asia and Africa, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, which started independently have pledged a degree of allegiance or affiliation to IS. Furthermore, though some of the first wave of young jihadis have returned to their homelands, or been killed, fresh waves are being recruited, mainly through networks of friendship. That is why I believe that ISIS’s Doomsday will only come when its message has been successfully branded as toxic and un-Islamic and its perverse appeal is overwhelmed by something stronger and more positive.

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The Syria Dilemma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th November, 2015

ISIS 5In the wake of last weekend’s appalling terrorist attacks in Paris the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, last night stated his determination to get tougher with ISIS, including the possibility of getting parliamentary support for air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria. The UK already takes part in anti-ISIS military action in Iraq, at the request of the government in Baghdad, but so far has not joined the Americans, French and most recently the Russians in taking the fight to Syria. Indeed, when the prospect of air strikes in Syria was raised in August 2013, the House of Commons voted against. Would the result be any different this time, given the heightened outrage over the Paris attacks? Quite possibly. However, I believe that Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, was right last night to express reservations following Mr Cameron’s statement to the House on ISIS. Bombs are rarely the answer to conflict situations, usually just making matter worse.

Syria destructionMoreover, Britain has not been invited into Syria by the (ghastly) government in Damascus; indeed, Mr Cameron has made quite clear that he wants the Assad regime removed from power. But there are at least two other important considerations to be thought through carefully before rushing into military action. The first is that Britain is meant to be a champion of the rule of law as well as being a pillar of the United Nations system. So the first uncomfortable question is: where is the UN authority for all this? There have been talks in Vienna involving a wide range of countries that in principle are aiming at a political settlement to the Syria crisis and although they have not as yet progressed very these talks should, I believe, be the top priority. The second consideration is more controversial, namely that if Britain joins the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria then it will almost certainly become a higher priority target for ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks. Doubtless Mr Cameron would say that that is a risk one takes in a war situation, but that it should not deflect us from the goal of wiping out the ISIS threat. That of course assumes that ISIS can be bombed out of existence, which I find difficult to believe, not least because each attack on the self-styled Islamic State acts a rallying call to radicalised young Islamist extremists.

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