In heart of Baghdad, Daesh war museum honors fallen militiamen

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The militiamen died fighting the Daesh group over the past four years. (AP)
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The militias’ political and military might soared after they helped the government defeat Daesh and they’re now accused of building a parallel state within Iraq. (AP)
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The museum is meant to honor the fallen but it also underscores the Iran-backed Shiite militias’ growing clout in the country. (AP)
Updated 14 February 2019

In heart of Baghdad, Daesh war museum honors fallen militiamen

  • The museum displays rocket launchers, drones and cannons from the four-year fight with Daesh
  • Visitors can browse through the war booty and other memorabilia from the front lines, as well as personal belongings fighters left behind on battlefields

BAGHDAD: A few steps from Baghdad’s cultural heart and its famous book market on Al-Mutanabi Street lies the Iraqi capital’s latest tourist attraction: a war museum glorifying the sacrifices of thousands of mainly Shiite militiamen who died fighting the Daesh group.
The museum is meant to honor the fallen but it also underscores the Iran-backed militias’ growing clout in the country. Their political and military might soared after they helped the government defeat Daesh — so much so that they are now accused by some of seeking to build a parallel state within Iraq.
Housed inside Baghdad’s historic, Ottoman-era Al-Qishla building, the museum displays rocket launchers, drones and cannons from the four-year fight with Daesh. Visitors can browse through the war booty and other memorabilia from the front lines, as well as personal belongings fighters left behind on battlefields across the country.
“I feel the spirits of the martyrs floating around this space. I feel that Iraq exists because of them. ... They are the pulse of Iraq,” said 55-year-old teacher Umm Hassanin Al-Oukeily on a visit to the museum this week.
The mainly Shiite militias — known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or “Hashed Al-Shaabi” in Arabic — emerged following a call in June 2014 by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, for volunteers to fight against Daesh.




(AFP)


At the time, Daesh militants had overrun the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest, and much of northern and western Iraq, coming dangerously close to Baghdad and Shiite shrines farther south as Iraq’s military and security forces collapsed in the face of the onslaught.
Tens of thousands heeded the cleric’s call, enlisting in multiple militia factions, many of which had existed for years and even fought American forces in Iraq. Sanctioned by the Iraqi government, the militias played a key role in the war against Daesh.
That made the Iran-backed militiamen an indirect ally to the American forces, who returned to Iraq in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle Daesh. A US-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove Daesh out in a costly campaign.
The militias lost about 7,000 fighters in the war. They included some Christian, Yazidi, and Sunni militias but were dominated by Shiite groups with close ties to Iran. They came out of the war with the image of an almost holy force protecting Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority.
That kind of popular aura has helped enshrine the militias as a major political and paramilitary player in post-Daesh Iraq. Militia factions are present in almost every Iraqi province, in many cases deeply embedded in local governance and rivaling state institutions. Posters of dead fighters adorn shop windows in Baghdad and elsewhere.
“There are no words to describe my feelings right now,” said Al-Oukeily, the teacher, tears in her eyes as she made her way around the museum with her daughter.
Outside, in the Al-Qishla garden, families were gathered to enjoy the sun as music played in the background. Inside the building, somber military music accompanied the exhibits.
In 2018 parliamentary elections — the first after the victory over Daesh — the militias’ coalition won 48 seats, making it the second-largest bloc in Parliament and guaranteeing the militias a say in formal politics. Under the new budget, militiamen are for the first time being paid the same salaries as soldiers.
The mix of arms and political power is a dangerous dynamic for Iraq, a country with a history of bloody sectarian strife. Iraq’s Sunni minority and also some in the military and the government fear the Shiite militias will dominate Iraq the way the powerful Revolutionary Guard does in Iran or the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon.
The Shiite militias “are building economic empires, taking control of state reconstruction companies and projects, and developing into economic organizations,” said a Western diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Iraqi politics.
The more than 50 militias in Iraq have up to 140,000 fighters, according to some estimates and the Popular Mobilization Forces itself. They are backed by tanks and weapons, and have their own intelligence agency, operations rooms and court of law.
In an interview with The Associated Press last month, the leader of one of the most powerful of the militias, Qais Al-Khazali, said their existence compliments that of the Iraqi military and suggested that disbanding them was not in the cards as long as there’s an ongoing military threat to Iraq.
At the museum, images of the fallen militiamen hang down from the ceiling, printed on light bulbs. Boots, watches and eyeglasses are displayed next to flowers that honor the martyrs.
Visitors walk around life-size replicas of militia outposts, complete with real sniper rifles, sandbags and camouflage nets from the field.
They pose for photos next to two mannequins, one depicting a bearded militant in Daesh black uniform, a knife protruding from his abdomen, lying on the ground. The other, a militiaman towering over the body, has his boot pressed against the militant’s head.
“This is the fate of every Daesh traitor in the land of the prophets in the great Iraq,” reads the sign next to the exhibit, referring to Daesh by the group’s Arabic acronym.
Museum manager Ali Al Shawky, who was a volunteer doctor with the militias during the war against Daesh, said the idea behind the museum was to preserve the memory of the fallen and “personify their heroic deeds.”
The Ministry of Culture, he said, was at first hesitant to give up the landmark Al-Qishla building and its gardens on the banks of the Tigris River — long a hub where Baghdad’s intellectual and artists gathered — to the museum, but later relented and gave them the top floor.
“We wanted to say something to the martyrs with this museum,” Al Shawky said. “We will never forget you.”


Tel Aviv beaches fall foul in Israel’s passion for plastic

Updated 45 min ago

Tel Aviv beaches fall foul in Israel’s passion for plastic

  • Despite the activities of environmental groups, Israel remains hooked on plastic

TEL AVIV: In the early morning, when the only sound on Tel Aviv beach is the waves, Yosef Salman and his team pick up plastic debris left by bathers or cast up by the sea.
Working in heat and humidity with large rakes, they scoop plastic cups, cigarette ends, empty sunscreen tubes and soiled babies’ nappies.
Also present, but impossible to separate from the sand, are microplastics, tiny particles of plastic debris that have been broken down by sun and salt.
“When it rains... you can see tons of plastic in the sand,” says Ariel Shay, of the Plastic Free Israel movement, which organizes volunteer beach cleanups.
Despite the activities of environmental groups, Israel remains hooked on plastic.
A June report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) ranked Tel Aviv’s coastline as the third most polluted by plastic waste in the Mediterranean, behind Barcelona and southern Turkey.
Valencia, Alexandria, Algiers and Marseille were listed in fourth to seventh places.
With around four million inhabitants, Tel Aviv is Israel’s most populous metropolitan area.
“Every time I go to the beach now, I spend my time cleaning — it’s horrible!” complains Shani Zylbersztejn, with an eye on her nine-month-old daughter, who plays with a plastic fork freshly dug from the sand.
In the upper-crust town of Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, Limor Gorelik, of the environmental protection NGO Zalul, patrols the sands, offering beachgoers bamboo cups and reusable bags in a bid to wean them from single-use plastics.
Gorelik blames Israel’s passion for plastic on a lack of education and on deeply ingrained habits, such as using disposable tableware for family picnics.
Observant Jews who want a beachfront lunch on Saturdays are forbidden from washing the dishes afterwards, because their faith bans them from working on the Sabbath.
“They’re not permitted to wash dishes so they use disposable plastic,” Gorelik says.
Even plastic waste dumped in the bins that dot the beaches can end up in the sea, carried by the wind or by birds which rip open garbage bags in search of food.
Independent researcher Galia Pasternak has analyzed coastal plastic pollution in Israel.
According to her data, 60 percent of the waste on the beach comes from the bathers themselves.
Some is also borne by currents from Gaza and Egypt in the south or from Lebanon further north.
In 2005, Israel’s environmental protection ministry launched a program offering local councils incentives for proven results in cleaning their beaches.
Subject to regular inspection, councils that meet requirements get funding, while failing authorities face cuts or even court, says Ran Amir, head of the environment ministry’s marine division.

Amir cites the case of the popular Palmahim beach, south of Tel Aviv.
Palmahim municipal council was taken to court and fined over the state of the beach — which has since become “one of the cleanest beaches in Israel today,” he says.
The ministry’s strategy in recent years has also included public service messages on radio and online, along with fines, recycling facilities and education, according to Amir.
“It think it has partially worked,” says Pasternak, who helped set up some of those programs.
Zalul’s Gorelik, however, says Israel is still trailing behind other countries.
She says charges introduced in supermarkets in 2017 for plastic bags — previously given away free — are too low, at just 0.10 Israeli shekels (0.02 euros/ $0.03) each.
“It’s not enough,” Gorelik says, adding that even this modest measure does not apply to small grocery stores.
She points to new European Union restrictions on single-use plastics.
“Europeans are the leaders on the subject,” she says.
“Here, we are very far away.”