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Famed Iraqi musician Ilham al-Madfai hosted a private concert in the Atlanta, Georgia, suburb of Duluth recently to mark 55 years of performing. Al-Madfai is a guitarist, singer and composer who combines Western guitar styling with traditional Iraqi music. His Western-inspired songwriting prompted his nickname, "The Baghdad Beatle."
His music is popular across the Arab world, as was reflected in the crowd of Algerians, Syrians, Egyptians and Iraqis at his Duluth show. "I fought so hard to be here," said Nura Khuffash, a Georgia resident at the invitation-only concert.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic and upheaval in the Middle East, the small concert provided an eagerly sought respite for many of the guests commemorating the 79-year-old al-Madfai's long-running career. The author of this story is a friend of the family of the performer. "I was listening to Ilham's music since I was a little girl," Khuffash, a native of Nablus, West Bank, told VOA.
"I really fought to be here because I had to find someone to watch my kids so I could come with my friends. I really went above and beyond, and I'm excited to be here," Kuffash said.
The songs of al-Madfai originate from compositions written at the beginning of the last century. They are often played as Maqam, a melodic style of music popular in the Middle East that incorporates stringed instruments, such as the qanun, and drums, such as the tabla. Al-Madfai, who was born in Baghdad, has popularized these traditional Arabic classics through an energetic vocal performance.
Throughout his recent celebratory performance, concertgoers sprang out of their chairs in the small but packed indoor venue and burst into dancing, a testament to al-Madfai's appeal.
attendees dancing to Al-Madfai's musicvoa
Although al-Madfai's music often sparks a contagious, joyful energy at his shows, his lyrics are poignant, injected with deep political connotations. Al-Madfai drew a major following in Iraq in the 1970s, but Saddam Hussein's rise to power in 1979 prompted him to leave the country. He returned to Iraq shortly before the Gulf War. In 1994, he emigrated to Jordan, where he currently resides.
"The songs are very special," said Ara Artanik, a drummer who performs with al-Madfai in the United States.
"They have political meanings, and the songs are written as an artistic expression and reflect the political situation in Iraq as well as the rest of the region, which many Arabs can relate to, not just Iraqis," Artanik said.
Another guest, Rania Layous, described al-Madfai's music as a connecting force that binds members of the Arab diaspora living in the U.S. "Every song has a story, and it's very much related to not just the Iraqi culture but all of the Middle East," Layous said. "It's really nice, you know, because we all have immigrated and we all have a story, so his music ties us together to the experience we share from the same region."
Layous, who is of Palestinian origin, emphasized how notable al-Madfai's voice is for an Arabic singer. But because of his strong Iraqi accent, not everything he sings is intelligible. "Some of the words when he's singing I don't understand, but because his voice is so unique, the songs become very melodic, which you just want to shake and dance to," Layous said.
Al-Madfai's son, Mohamad, who is also his manager, spoke with VOA about the shared partnership and sentimentality father and son feel. "It's very emotional," Mohamad said. "We started 25 years ago together, just the two of us, developed the basics of production, music production and putting on concerts and touring. And since then, we've performed in about 60-70 countries."
Al-Madfai often performs during short stays in the U.S. He is scheduled to perform a couple of shows in the U.S. before returning to the Middle East later this year. (VOA/RN)
Keywords: Baghdad, Music, Live Concert, Al-Madfai
In its search for a way to counter the radical core of the Taliban, which threatens to fill the power vacuum left by departing US and NATO troops, India may find that many of its interests coincide with that of the Fatemiyoun militia an Iran backed group that has operated in the badlands of Syria and Iraq.
Who are the Fatemiyoun militia and how can they be important to India?
The Fatemiyoun militia or the Fatemiyoun division is a rabidly anti-ISIS force, which has mainly cut its teeth in Syria. In turn, it has played an important role in preventing the Islamic State or Daesh from establishing their Caliphate in Syria, with Raqqa as its capital.
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The Afghan Hazara community in exile, who have been trained with cutting-edge precision by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran form the Fatemiyoun militia’s core.
An opinion piece in Tolo News, an Afghan media outlet, reveals that the Fatemiyoun Division, also known as Liwa-e-Fatemiyoun, has been active in Syria since 2013/14. Afghan refugees living in Iran are the feedstock of the force. At its peak, Fatemiyoun Division commanded around 20,000 troops. An estimated 50,000 fighters of the force were deployed during the nine-year conflict in Syria.
With the decline in fighting in Syria and Iraq or SyRaq, a large number of the fighters now find themselves positioned in Afghanistan, especially to protect the Shia Hazara community, which had been in the crosshairs of the Taliban when it overran the country in the mid-nineties.
In an interview with Tolo news Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif advocated that if the Afghan government wants, the Fatemiyoun militia fighters can be deployed to combat Daesh anywhere in the country. “They are the best forces with a military background in the fight against Daesh. The Afghan government, if willing, can regroup them for the fight against Daesh and for the fight against terrorism and for the protection of Afghanistan security,” he observed.
Apart from the Fatemiyoun militia, the Iranians appear to have activated their sleeper cells in the Hazara community, with the flatlands of the Bamian plateau as their stronghold. For instance, on April 13, Zulfiqar Omid, a Hazara activist, and politician, announced setting up a “resistance front” in the province of Daikundi, in central Afghanistan. Close to the Iranian border with Herat in Afghanistan, veteran warlord Ismael Khan is also parading his forces in anticipation of a confrontation with the Taliban following the pullout by western troops.
With Daesh as the common factor, key interests of India, the Afghan government, and the Iran-backed militia converge. Just like the Fatemiyoun division, India’s animosity towards the Pakistan-backed Daesh in Afghanistan runs deep and is intense.
India’s hostility towards the Islamic State in Afghanistan peaked after Daesh targeted a Sikh temple in Kabul in March last year. The Hindustan Times reported in the aftermath of the attack that the Afghan security forces had arrested 37 members of the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) terrorist module that had targeted a Kabul gurdwara. These arrests were made after Afghan forces caught Aslam Farooqui, the Pakistani national who led the terror group ISKP known to have strong links with Pakistan’s ISI that carries out off-the-shelf jihad at its instance.
ISKP chief Aslam Farooqui, also known as Abdullah Orakzai, had been the former commander of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba with direct links to the ISI.
Analysts point out that with a power vacuum likely to develop in Afghanistan, the time had arrived for India, Iran, and Russia — three countries firmly opposed to surrendering before the Taliban to start re-bonding as a trilateral grouping, as had been done in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. “In fact, Iran could revive the axis of Iran, Russia, and India to support a second national resistance against the Taliban if Afghanistan plunges into a civil war,” says Tamim Asey, a former Afghan deputy defense minister, as quoted by Radio Free Europe. (IANS/KB)
The Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands, areas that today are contained within southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and southwestern Armenia. Estimated at between 25 million and 35 million people, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East.
Here’s a brief look at their political history in the four countries where they largely live:
Iraqi Kurds estimated to make up 15 to 20 percent of Iraq’s population of 38 million people, populate a mountainous region in northern Iraq and enjoy more national rights than Kurds in the neighboring three countries. The Iraqi Kurds have gained substantial political recognition since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
In 2005, the Iraq constitution accepted Kurdish as an official language, along with Arabic, and recognized the predominantly Kurdish provinces of Irbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok as a federal entity known as the Kurdistan Region, which has its own military, known as the peshmerga. The relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, however, has a history of bloody confrontations and often brutal crackdowns by the central government, particularly during Hussein’s reign.
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Feeling pressured by the Kurdish resistance movement, Hussein’s forces in the late 1980s unleashed the Anfal campaign, which reportedly left 180,000 Kurds killed or missing, and about 4,500 villages destroyed. The Iraqi government campaign also used chemical weapons, particularly in the 1998 gas attack on the town of Halabja, which left nearly 5,000 residents dead.
Rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, said the Anfal campaign was a systematic ethnic cleansing program that amounted to genocide. Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and South Korea officially recognize the campaign as genocide. In March 1991, after their uprising was crushed by the Iraq government, about 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds fled into Iran and Turkey, leading to a refugee crisis. In response, an anti-Hussein international coalition established a partial no-fly zone in northern Iraq to allow the return of refugees and protect them from future aggression. For years afterward, the zone allowed the Kurds to establish their regional government and parliament.
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) terror group in 2014 weakened the Iraqi government. The Kurdish peshmerga moved into areas from which Iraqi forces retreated as IS took control. The Kurds announced they had no intention of withdrawing from these areas, which the Iraqi constitution labels as disputed territories between the Kurdistan Region and the Central Government, and requires a referendum vote on their status.
As IS started losing territory, and the Kurdish peshmergas gained international support for their role in defeating the militants, the Kurdistan Region said it intended to hold a referendum for independence. The vote in September 2017 received 93.25% support, but it was later crushed in an Iraqi government operation, allegedly backed by Iran. It was the most recent attempt by Kurds to establish a state of their own.
In Syria, Kurds make up nearly 15 percent of Syria’s 22 million prewar population. They primarily live in the north and northeastern parts of Syria, with significant Kurdish communities in major Syrian cities, such as Damascus and Aleppo. Since the establishment of a modern state in Syria in the 1920s, Syrian Kurds have been deprived of political and linguistic rights.
The first Kurdish political party in Syria was founded in 1957, influenced by Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria called for political and cultural rights for the Kurdish minority in the Arab-majority country, but its leading members were faced with imprisonment and persecution.
With the eruption of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Syrian Kurds were able to be in charge of their regions for the first time. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area after Syrian government troops withdrew to focus on fighting rebel groups elsewhere in the war-ravaged country. With the rise of IS in Syria, the YPG proved to be an effective force in the fight against IS. Consequently, the U.S.-led coalition provided assistance to the Kurdish group to remove IS from other territories in Syria.
In 2015, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was established to include non-Kurdish fighters as well. With U.S. support, the SDF captured most areas from IS control, including Raqqa, the capital of its so-called caliphate. In March 2019, the SDF declared the territorial defeat of IS after pushing out the terror group from its last pocket of control in eastern Syria. The Kurdish-led SDF now controls nearly one-third of Syria’s territory, which has effectively become a semiautonomous region.
But Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group designated as terrorists by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. This month, U.S. President Donald Trump announced American forces would withdraw from northeast Syria, allowing the Turkish military to launch its long-planned offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Days after the U.S. announcement, Turkey began its operation on two Kurdish-held cities along the Syria-Turkey border. Rights groups, including Amnesty International, said the Turkish-led campaign has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced thousands of others. Despite a cease-fire that was brokered by the U.S. last week and Turkey’s assurances that it would not resume its military offensive, fighting could resume as both Kurdish forces have not agreed to all the terms of the deal.
The Kurds are the largest non-Turkish ethnic group in Turkey. They constitute up to 20 percent of Turkey’s population. For decades, the Kurds were subjected to the so-called “Turkification policies” of the state, and their ethnic identity was denied. Their language was restricted, and naming their children in Kurdish was banned. For decades, they were referred to as “mountain Turks.”
The question of an independent Kurdistan has a long history that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, the Western allies promised an autonomous Kurdistan. However, that was never fulfilled because the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 following the Treaty of Lausanne. As a unitary nation-state, Turkey considered the Kurds a threat to its national unity and pushed back on demands for equal citizenship rights.
In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with the aim of establishing a united, independent Kurdistan within Turkey, but also including parts of Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The group started its armed insurgency inside Turkey in 1984, and since then, tens of thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced as a result of the conflict between the Turkish government and PKK.
In 1999, Ocalan was arrested in Kenya by Turkish intelligence forces. He is serving a life sentence at an island prison near Istanbul. In March 2013, during the Kurdish “Nowruz,” or new year, celebrations, Ocalan sent a letter to supporters. He called for a cease-fire, as well as steps to disarm and withdraw from Turkey, and an end to armed struggle. The Turkish government praised the letter. In July 2015, a two-and-a-half-year cease-fire broke down, and the conflict resumed. According to the International Crisis Group, more than 4,500 people have been killed in clashes or terror attacks since 2015.
ALSO READ: Know Who Are The Kurds?
Ethnic Kurds make up nearly 9% of Iran’s 80 million population. They are largely Sunni Muslims, but there are some Shiite and Zoroastrian Kurds as well. The Kurdish political movement in Iran started with the establishment of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1946. Under the leadership of Qazi Mohammad, the group declared a Kurdish republic in the city of Mahabad that same year. Nearly 11 months later, however, Iranian government forces entered Mahabad to crush the new Kurdish entity. Mohammad was executed immediately.
In 1979, after the Islamic revolution toppled the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the new Islamist government carried on the subjugation of the Kurds. The powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) began targeting Kurdish activists at home and abroad. In 1989, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, an influential Iranian Kurdish leader, was assassinated in Vienna, Austria. The operation was reportedly carried out by the IRGC Influenced by the Turkish-based PKK, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) was founded in 2003 in Iran. Ever since the group has been engaged in occasional clashes with Iranian security forces. (VOA/SP)
(The article originally belongs to Voice of America and is written by Ezel Sahinkaya, Sirwan Kajjo, Rikar Hussein, Mehdi Jedinia.)
The Kurds’ involvement in the conflict in Syria is complicated, because of the group’s troubled history that spreads across several regional borders. Here is a look at the current Kurdish crisis and how it came to be.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands, areas that today are contained within southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and southwestern Armenia.
Estimated at between 25 million and 35 million people, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East. They form a distinctive community, united through race, culture, and language, and while most of them are Sunni Muslims, they also adhere to a number of different religions and creeds, including Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and Zoroastrians.
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They are considered the largest ethnic group in the world to be stateless.
Why don’t they have a country?
After World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres for the formation of a Kurdish state, to be known as Kurdistan. But their hopes were dashed three years later when the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in four countries — Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was quashed.
After the first Gulf War, followed by a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq and the establishment of a no-fly zone, the Kurds managed to establish a semiautonomous region. The second Gulf War, which ousted Saddam Hussein, enabled them to consolidate those gains in a largely autonomous region across northern Iraq. In recent years, the fight against the Islamic State terror group has presented an opportunity for the Kurds to further project legitimacy on the international stage.
What is their role in the war against Islamic State?
Kurds in both Iraq and Syria were involved in the fight against IS. Thousands of Kurds were killed in battles. Their role in helping to eliminate the IS caliphate earned them a global reputation as one of the most effective ground forces against the terror group.
In September 2014, IS launched an assault on the enclave around the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee across the nearby Turkish border. In January 2015, after a battle that left at least 1,600 people dead, Kurdish forces regained control of Kobani.
The Kurds — fighting under the name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alongside several local Arab militias, and helped by U.S.-led coalition airpower — drove IS out of a large swath of territory in Syria and established control over a large area along the border with Turkey.
What has been happening with the Kurds since the U.S. policy change in Syria?
U.S. President Donald Trump followed through on his desire to withdraw American troops from northeastern Syria on Oct. 6, 2019, after first ordering a withdrawal in December 2018. The pullout allowed Turkish troops and their proxies to launch a military offensive in the region on Oct. 9 against a Kurdish-led militia that had helped the U.S. fight the Islamic State.
Trump’s decision has fueled concerns that the Turkish offensive would result in the annihilation of the Kurds and the release of some 11,000 Islamic State militants imprisoned in the area. A week after the Trump announcement, Turkey and its proxies had seized more than 194 square kilometers of previously Kurdish-led territory. Amnesty International has charged that the Turkish army and its proxies have committed war crimes during the operation; Turkey denies it.
Instability in the region could benefit Islamic State. Although Kurdish-led rebels fought back, especially in border towns, they are no longer capable of neutralizing holdover militant cells. Kurdish authorities, however, have permitted Syrian troops to return to large areas of northern Syria for the first time in more than five years. It is not clear that the Syrian army will defend the area or that the Kurds will have civilian authority.
The U.S. withdrawal also allows Russia and Iran to increase their influence in the region. Russia has become the primary power broker in talks between the Kurds, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Turkish government. The Kurds run more than a dozen camps that hold tens of thousands of displaced people. The offensive may displace tens of thousands of others who are fleeing southward to escape the violence.
There are about 6.7 million Syrian refugees and another 6.2 million people within the country who have been displaced, according to the global anti-poverty group World Vision.
1923 — Turkey is recognized as an independent nation. Under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey is no longer required to grant Kurdish autonomy. The Kurdish population is divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
1978 — Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is founded to fight for Kurdish independence in Turkey.
1991 — Encouraged by the U.S. after the Gulf War, Iraq’s Kurds rebel against then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. During Saddam’s rule, hundreds of thousands of Kurds had been killed or disappeared.
1993 — Turkey does not recognize Kurdish rights, and Kurdish political parties remained banned. Martial law is imposed to subdue uprisings.
2007 — Turkey launches ground and aerial attacks against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, while Iran attacks Kurdish rebel bases.
2011 & 2012 — Turkish attacks against the PKK continue.
2015 — In March, PKK co-founder Abdullah Ocalan declares a cease-fire and orders the removal of Kurdish fighters from Turkey. Six months later, the cease-fire collapses.
2015 — U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), strongly supported by Kurdish fighters, are formed as part of a campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Syria.
2016-2017 — The SDF secures decisive victories in key Islamic State strongholds, including the Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.
2019 — The SDF seizes the town of Baghouz on March 19, a victory the U.S. said marked the end of the Islamic State’s rule in the region.
2019 — U.S. President Donald Trump announces on Oct. 6 the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, allowing Turkey to conduct its own military operations in the territory.
2019 — On Oct. 9, Turkish troops and their proxies launch a military offensive in the region against the SDF.
2019 — On Oct. 17, Turkey agrees to a U.S.-brokered cease-fire deal, whereby Ankara agrees to temporarily suspend its military operation in Syria to allow Kurdish forces to retreat from a designated safe zone.
Note — Before 2011, Kurds in Syria had no rights and were considered second-class citizens. Most of them were denied citizenship. (VOA/SP)