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Thank you to Good Morning America, MSN, HuffingtonPost, The Daily Beast, Examiner, Business Insider, Today, BuzzFeed, Smithisonian, Glamour, Time, LA Times, BBC Radio, and many more for publishing this project. On the morning of Saturday, August 2nd, I got in a taxi in Erbil, the regional capital of Kurdish Iraq, and asked the driver to take me to the Khazir refugee camp. We pulled in, spent a bunch of time convincing the camp officials and ourselves that I was a journalist, and eventually I was allowed in.
I didn’t have a plan, exactly, so I started walking through the long lines of tents, noting that the 118°F (48°C) temperature I had been suffering through all week must be almost lethal here, where the only escape was in a tent.
After a few minutes, I met a man named Kamil who spoke some English, and he invited me into his family’s tent.
He told me that 12 people to a tent was common at the camp, and mentioned that his tent was actually about to move to 13, gesturing toward one of the women living there who was thoroughly pregnant. As soon as he learned that I was going to be writing about my time in Iraq, he led me out of the tent to join him on a special Oh Okay Then I Want to Show You Exactly How Upsetting Everything Here Is So You Can Write About It and Tell Everyone Tour.
He walked me past the communal tap for drinking water, and said people used that water to clean themselves too, having not seen a shower since they arrived. We popped into a bunch of different tents, one whose fan had been stolen (remember that it’s 118°), and another that had 15 people living in it. The goal of this post will be to understand why this sickening thing happened to this little boy—to really understand what’s going on in that country—better than you do now. And if we really want to wrap our head around things, we have to start way, way back—in 570 AD. After the death of his mother, Muhammad lived with his grandfather, and when he died two years later, Muhammad was transferred to his uncle, a merchant.
Three years after the first visit from Gabriel, in 613, Muhammad began preaching the messages to the public, in his hometown of Mecca. Muhammad and his followers would spend the next eight years fighting off attempts to destroy them from Mecca and other places, and often being ruthless themselves with those who posed a threat to Islam or refused to convert. Things came to a head in 625 when the Meccans, who were increasingly losing prestige and support as Muhammad’s following continued to grow, launched an attack on Medina and defeated the Muslims. The new Muslim world enjoyed 20 years of internal unity until Muhammad died, and then that was the end of that, forever. Group A thought that Muhammad wanted the elite members of the Muslim community to choose a fitting leader, or caliph, and whenever that caliph died, the elite would choose the next leader, and so on. So father-in-law Abu took over as Caliph, while son-in-law Ali watched from the sidelines and Group B seethed.
When Abu died of illness two years after taking over, another friend of Muhammad’s, Umar, took over, having been appointed by Abu before his death. But then, the elite decided the next and fourth caliph should be Ali—Group B’s original guy—and for two seconds, everyone was happy. Five years later, Ali was assassinated, and when his eldest son Hassan became the fifth caliph, he was quickly overpowered by an aggressive rebel force led by Muawiyah, who coerced Hassan out of power and became the sixth caliph—and Group A and Group B would never reconcile again. Today’s Sunni-Shia tensions are about a lot of things, but at their very core is what happened in the 7th century.
The land of Iraq has the coolest nickname of any land anywhere—The Cradle of Civilization—and for good reason. The nation of Iraq, on the other hand, was created by two dicks with a pencil and ruler, and its history is mostly unpleasant.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the land of Iraq had been part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years.8 There were several ethnic and religious groups on the land, left mostly free to keep to themselves and separate from the others. The thing about creating borders using a map, pencil, and ruler, is that it’s a terrible way to create borders. When borders are drawn this way, two bad things happen: 1) Single ethnic or religious groups are sliced apart into separate countries, and 2) Different and often unfriendly groups are shoved into a nation together and told to share resources, get along, and bond together over national pride for a just-made-up nation—which inevitably leads to one group taking power and oppressing the others, resulting in bloody rebellions, coups, and sectarian violence. But since it wasn’t really their problem, Sykes and George-Picot just went ahead with it, and over the next few years, precise new borders were drawn, giving birth to modern day Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait.
The new nation of Iraq combined Ingredient 1 (Sunni and Shia Arabs living in the same area) with Ingredient 2 (a border that forces them into a nation together, along with a large group of Kurds) to create a tense pressure cooker.
Things were hot from the beginning, when the new Iraqis revolted against the British occupation in 1920. By 1979, Saddam’s influence had grown to the point where he was kind of running the show, and finally he went to al-Bakr and was like, “You know what two cool things are? This whole post was supposed to be about Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish region in northeastern Iraq.
Almost no ethnic group is a bigger victim of imperial ruler-pencil border drawing than the Kurds. Iraqi Kurds were granted semi-autonomy in 1970, and today, Kurdistan has its own government, army (the Peshmerga), and (highly disputed) borders.
Kurdistan is normally totally safe to visit (right now might be an exception), and its tourism industry was on the rise—in the first half of 2014 alone, they received over one million tourists—but the industry has seen a sharp decline of late, for obvious reasons. I talked to a lot of people there, and something that everyone badly wants is an independent Kurdistan. Anyway, back to Saddam, who barely had time to take a shit after the Iran-Iraq War before starting the Persian Gulf War by invading Kuwait for its delicious oil reserves.
Saddam was a brutal ruler, but for the most part, under his iron fist, Iraq was a stable country. Say what you want about the Bush Administration and their decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam, but one thing is for sure: They were very, very wrong when they thought it would be a quick and easy war. They knew they were removing a lid, but they seemed to think it was off a tupperware container of cookies, not a pressure cooker. The people I got to know the best during my time in Kurdistan were three brothers from Baghdad who were visiting Kurdistan.
So it makes sense that they told me everyone was happy when the US invaded and ousted the Husseins. They continued to be happy about the war until about 2006, the peak of the violent civil war, when they said it had been unbearably scary to live there. That said, outsiders imagine that living in Baghdad was a sea of constant death over the last ten years, while in fact, none of the three of them knew anyone who had died.
They’re required to carry around their ID card, which has a bunch of personal information on it, including the name of their religion and the name of their father and grandfather. One thing that’s gotten more extreme since the Saddam era is a prevailing conservative ideology. Oddly, given the above point, I noticed a lot of pairs of men holding hands or being cuddly together.
A lot of people they know have emigrated to Michigan, which apparently has a sizable Iraqi population. These three brothers, along with a few others, have started something called World Peace Day in Iraq with celebrations every September 21st. Anyway, as unfortunate as the bloody years of US occupation were for everyone involved, by being there, the US was acting as a lid of some kind.
Instability is the fertile soil that bad, scary things grow out of, and when the US left, Iraq had a new prime minister, a new government, a new and unfamiliar constitution, and an amateur, recently-trained army—not a stable situation. But when you look at the heart of the Middle East more closely, you can see why things are so complicated.
Suddenly, Shias are in charge of countries all the way from Iran to the Mediterranean, creating a kind of Shia Axis.
Yet another factor playing into the trouble is the simultaneous instability of adjacent Iraq and Syria—this creates an unstable border, as well as a situation where the terrorist-fighting front is disjointed and without a shared national narrative to fight for. Finally, western powers often provide a lid from afar when things erupt somewhere—but in this case, those powers have been gun shy since they just got out of a hideous war in the area and really really want to avoid getting involved.
The beginnings of ISIS23—a Sunni jihadist group—can be traced back to 1999, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist, started the group because he was pissed off about a lot of things.

In 2010, after ISIS’s second leader was assassinated, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—a former scholar of Islamic studies24 and a US war prisoner back in 200425—took over and got the group back on track. Up until early June 2014, only those who were carefully following the news knew about ISIS. On June 5th, just hours after I purchased my non-refundable flight to Iraq, ISIS stormed into the country, taking control of the border, and started systematically conquering towns in the western part of the nation. The area of Syria and Iraq they had conquered (and are still in control of) is the size of Belgium. A witness to one such mass killing in Solagh, a village south-east of Sinjar city, told Amnesty International that on the morning of 3 August, as he was trying to flee towards Mount Sinjar, he saw vehicles with IS fighters in them approaching, and managed to conceal himself. Women have about as many rights as a goldfish, barely allowed to leave the house and forbidden from showing their faces in public. No smoking ever, and also no tampering with or disabling the smoke detector in the airplane lavatory. If they’re not just rounded up and executed on the spot, Christians and other non-Muslims are forced to convert to Islam, pay a hefty non-Muslim tax, become a refugee, or die.
As for future goals, the short term goal is to establish an Islamic nation in the areas it currently controls, with some expansion of the boundaries. Some people have argued that this map wasn’t made by ISIS, but rather by their supporters.
Over the past three months, as ISIS has marched through Iraq, 1.2 million Iraqis have become refugees. Five days after my visit to Khazir refugee camp, ISIS made an aggressive push forward into the scary-ish territory and captured the Khazir camp. A few days later, with the help of US airstrikes, the Kurds recaptured the Khazir camp and a number of other areas ISIS had taken from them.
Since my visit, two new developments offer some hope that things could possibly turn around. The second development happened on September 10th, when President Obama announced that the US would engage in a new campaign of airstrikes, both in Syria and Iraq, to try to defeat ISIS. If you’re into Wait But Why, sign up for the Wait But Why email list and we’ll send you the new posts right when they come out.
And the wrap-up video, where I asked people in all five countries what they’d wish for if they had a genie. I agree that she looks exactly like a barbie like she did in that movie with Lindsay Lohan called Life Size. Three non functional mechanical pencils: Orange and green, purple and green, and pink and orange.
After talking with him a bit, I learned that it was actually a few families’ tent, and that there were 12 people living in it—five adults and seven children. Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, only 30 miles west of the camp—and as of June 9th, an ISIS stronghold.
He showed me where the shared toilets drain out into a system that flows openly through the camp.
He brought me into another tent where he introduced me to a woman living there, explaining to her that I was his new writer friend. Their family’s house had been bombed in the middle of the night during the first days of the ISIS takeover and subsequent Iraqi government airstrikes. He had gotten into the habit of going up to a mountain every year for a couple weeks to be alone, meditate, and pray. The thing a lot of people don’t know is that in addition to being a spiritual leader, Muhammad was, in essence, the general of an army of followers and a tremendously effective strategist in growing and holding on to his leadership position in the face of lots of hostile competition. But five years later, Muhammad and a 10,000 man army marched into Mecca and conquered it for good. They thought Muhammad would have told them that only God can choose the successor to lead the Muslim world, and that could only happen by keeping things in the family. While Muawiyah was the first of a long dynasty of caliphs, Group B tells a different story.
Sunni Muslims believe in their line of caliphs, and don’t believe them to be chosen by God, and Shia Muslims reject the first three caliphs and instead believe in the line of divinely-chosen imams starting with Ali, revering in particular Ali4 and his son and the third imam, Husayn.
If you look at organically-created borders around the world—those that were formed over time by the local populations, based usually on ethnic and religious divisions, and often demarcated by mountains, rivers, or other natural barriers—they’re squiggly and messy. He started off in typical dictator fashion, calling together all the senior ranking members of government, and then reading out the names of those who were thought to be disloyal, 22 of whom were later taken out back and shot. The attempt failed, and toward the end of the war, Saddam embarked on the al-Anfal Campaign, a systematic genocide of the Kurdish north. One example: On no fewer than five occasions, I went up to a street stand or store to buy something small like a bottle of water, and the person working there would see I was a foreigner and ask me where I was from and how I liked Kurdistan.
They’ve wanted this for a century, and it seems like it could really happen sometime not that far away. This is mainly because the US in general has not been supportive of Kurdish independence—I’ve read about why, and it seems to be a combination of a few geopolitical reasons, one of which is that an Iraq without the Kurdish part is much more likely to become a Shia-dominated Iranian ally and pawn. This, as I learned from my third grade teacher, did not go well for Saddam, and again, Iraq’s oppressed groups, the Shia and the Kurds, tried to take advantage of the situation by attempting to overthrow Saddam. And their plan to replace the wrought iron lid with a fresh sheet of democracy cellophane would have worked fine if it were a tupperware container of cookies.
They were born and raised in Baghdad, had lived there through the whole war, and spoke near-perfect English. These days, things are almost as terrible, and when I asked them if they wished that Saddam had never been overthrown, they couldn’t really answer. It was a horrific decade to be there, but most people there have lived their lives unharmed.
They said the bombs are Sunni extremists bombing Shia people, or the other way around, and it’s a constant cycle of action and retaliation. Homosexuality is often punished by death by stoning, and police, they said, will turn their heads the other way when this happens.
They have smartphones, fast internet, cars, and they’re all in university or already graduated. They were the first in the country to have the guts to do this (their celebrations are a target), but it’s caught on, and now the annual gatherings, which include people of many faiths and ethnicities, happen in five Iraqi cities and involve hundreds of people.
Iraq’s population is 55% Arab Shia, 18% Arab Sunni, and 21% Kurd (with others making up 6%). Up until Obama’s Mid-September speech, the US has done everything possible to avoid getting involved. ISIS functions like a well-run company—it knows how to recruit (ISIS forces are supposedly up to 50,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq), it knows how to fundraise, and it’s incredibly organized.
According to Iraqi intelligence, ISIS has assets worth $2 billion, making it by far the richest terrorist group in the world. The doors of Christian houses are marked with a ?, a symbol that signifies that they’re Christian.
The Peshmerga army retreated, instantly converting the area into scary-in-italics territory.
Airstrikes are sure to slow ISIS down, but to take down and dismantle a group as shadowy, relentless, and fearless as ISIS, I doubt airstrikes will suffice. When I research, I come across a ton of facts, most of which don’t make the cut for the post. I think it would look cute if only the section of hair that is pulled off her face was crimped and the rest was straight. There was electricity enough for a TV and a fan, and most of the mattresses were stacked on the side. After taking over, one of the first orders of business for ISIS was rounding up government workers for execution.

He told me that a lot of the families didn’t have enough food and that people were getting sick more and more often and remaining untreated.
He pointed across the tent to a little boy and explained that I was holding part of his skull. It was on one of these solo retreats in 610 AD that Muhammad was for the first time visited by the angel Gabriel.3 As the story goes, Gabriel recited messages to Muhammad that were directly from God, which Muhammad memorized. At the time, Mecca was largely made up of polytheistic tribes who worshipped nature-related gods and goddesses, and one of Muhammad’s main messages was that there was one god and any idols to other gods should be destroyed, which was awkward for everybody. To them, all signs pointed to Muhammad’s cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatimah, Ali ibn Abi Talib (Ali). Abu had also appointed Umar’s successor, Uthman, who ruled for 12 years before he was assassinated.
To them, the leaders are more special than merely elected caliphs—they’re divinely chosen imams, and the way they see it, after an annoying three-caliph delay, their first imam was finally in power when Ali got the job. Both sects agree that Muhammad is the final prophet, both follow the Five Pillars of Islam, and both view the Quran as the holy book—but Shia are less unquestionably accepting of the Quran in its entirety, because they believe certain parts were recounted by people other than the imams.
In particular, the fertile strip of Iraq in between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers known as Mesopotamia is often credited with the birth of writing (cuneiform), the invention of the wheel, some of the earliest sailboats, calendars, maps, schools, and the origin of the 60-minute hour and 60-second minute.7 3,000 years later, when Alexander the Great conquered half the world, he chose that land to be his capital, selecting Babylon in particular for its treasures and its critical location between Europe and Asia.
What’s a clear and satisfying straight-line-on-a-map border for imperial powers trying to keep things clean and simple for themselves is a complete disaster on the ground across the world where the actual place is. After Iraq achieved independence and the British lid left, a series of military commanders took over the lid duties, stomping a number of revolts and killing each other in coups from time to time.
One of the worst moments came in 1988, just as the war was winding down, when residents of the city Halabja were overcome by the smell of sweet apples after war planes flew by overhead, and then people and animals started dropping dead all over the city from gas poisoning. After we talked, I’d take my money out to buy the thing I came for, and they would adamantly refuse to accept it and tell me it was their gift, even after protests from me. I was ecstatic to find them, and spent two consecutive nights talking to them and asking them questions. You were careful who you crossed—if you insulted a kid in class who turned out to have parents in the Ba’ath party, your parents could end up in jail, or worse. And what’s been happening is Saudi Arabia and Iran engaging in what is essentially a Cold War, vying for broader power, with conflicts like the Syrian Civil War and the current mess in Iraq serving as proxy wars that can tip the balance in the larger struggle.
When insurgent activity died down after the US troop surge in 2007, ISIS seemed on the decline and disappeared from relevance for a bit.
Then in 2011, when the Syrian Civil War broke out, ISIS joined in as a rebel force26—which helped to train and battle-harden the group. This Amnesty International report details real accounts of ISIS brutality so scary it doesn’t seem real.
The below screenshot of the tool shows terrorist groups ranked from most total killings (on the top left) to least (on the bottom right). ISIS produces a thorough and professional annual report that details its killings and conquests in the same way a company would report on its revenue and gross margin.
Most of this money was seized after the capture of Mosul, including hundreds of millions of US dollars from Mosul’s central bank.
One of those 700,000 refugees is eight-year-old and now badly-damaged Mohammad, who was living a normal life in Mosul when ISIS attacked. These notes will give me a place to sprinkle in fun extras I learned about, and sometimes just to expound on a point in the post without breaking up the flow.
And these were all people who two months earlier were living their normal lives in their normal homes.
They would go on to have four daughters and two sons, only one of whom survived into full adulthood—his daughter Fatimah. Over the years, Gabriel would continue to visit Muhammad with messages, Muhammad continued to commit them to memory, and later, he would recite the memories to his followers, who would then write them down, and that became the Quran. People started reacting violently to Muhammad’s growing influence, killing some of his followers, and they may have killed Muhammad too had he not belonged to a fancy family. His eldest son Hassan was their second imam, and when Muawiyah kicked him out, Group B threw their support behind Ali’s younger son, Husayn—their third imam.
1,000 years after that, the head of the great Abbasid Muslim dynasty built Baghdad on the same land to be the capital of the vast Muslim world, and for the next 500 years (until the Mongols stomped on it), Baghdad reigned as a world hub of learning and commerce and for a time, was the world’s largest city. In 1968, the Sunni Ba’ath Party took over, under the leadership of new president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and his ambitious vice president and general, Saddam Hussein. This wasn’t as bad during the Saddam era, they said, and is now a result of the empowerment of ultra-conservative Shia militia. This is why Iran wants ISIS (a Sunni group) to disappear and why you keep hearing that the US and Iran might actually agree on something (though for different reasons).
ISIS’s behavior in Syria was so brutal and severe that they even started creeping out the other bad guy groups, including al-Qaeda, who finally had a tantrum in early 2014 and cut all ties with ISIS.
This was partially because they were horrified of ISIS and partially because, as mentioned above, the Sunni members of the army weren’t that into fighting against a Sunni group to defend a government they hated. On top of that, they’ve taken oil fields and are reportedly making $3 million per day selling oil on the black market, with even more money coming in through donations, extortions, and ransom. Luckily, this happened after a few days of ISIS-Peshmerga fighting, and the refugees had time to run before ISIS arrived.
And since the posts are long, those who don’t want to spend that long here can skip the notes, while those who want to dig in should check them out. Try watching her show - you can play a drinking game with the number of times she talks about herself and not about her guests.
But in 622, when Muhammad learned of an assassination plot against him, he and his followers decided to bail on Mecca and head to the nearby city of Medina. And you could choose?” and al-Bakr stepped down, bringing Saddam Hussein, the tightest lid of them all, to power.
So western Iraq was folding quickly to ISIS, and by June 9th, they had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city. ISIS has also gotten ahold of an upsetting amount of high-caliber, US-made weapons and tanks that were for the use of the Iraqi army but left behind when the army fled. This journey is called the Hijra in Muslim tradition and it’s celebrated on the first day of the Muslim year. A logical observer of history would probably suggest that it would be a wise move for al-Maliki to be inclusive of Sunnis, regardless of the past, since, as noted above, the country was not in a stable situation.
They’ve even gotten their hands on nuclear material that they found at Mosul University.
People like Kamil, a police officer, cannot go back to Mosul—his name was on the government payroll, and he would be executed upon arrival. My main source for this post are three books written by widely respected Islam scholar, William Montgomery Watt, with some additional information taken from the writings of Bernard Lewis, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Martin Lings, Majid Ali Khan, and Richard C. Al-Maliki did just the opposite, arresting Sunni leaders, discriminating against Sunni civilians, and targeting Sunnis disproportionately for torture and violence. All of this exacerbated the instability by making the government less unified and competent, creating rage in the Sunni populous,20 and weakening the loyalty of a military, part of which hates its own government.
The anti-al-Maliki feelings are so strong that many normally-peaceful Sunnis find themselves sympathizing or even supporting violent anti-government terrorists. It represents the percentage of professional critic reviews that are positive for a given film or television show. In addition to his interest in acting, drawing, painting, and dance, Meraz pursued a love of martial arts, competing in karate and capoeira. Critic Submission Licensing Advertise Careers   JOIN THE NEWSLETTER Get the freshest reviews, news, and more delivered right to your inbox!

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