Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports: The new Iraqi “border” is marked by a two-metre-high wall of earth. The berm, as it is known, cuts through farmland and orchards, separating the shrinking lands of the Iraqi state as it has existed for 95 years from the expanding territory of the new Islamic caliphate.
On the northern side, the black flags of Islamic State (Isis) shimmer in the afternoon haze. But on the Iraqi side it is not a national flag that flutters but a black Shia banner.
“This land is what separates good from evil,” says a Shia fighter, pointing at the no man’s land between the two forces. “Here you see the flag of Imam Hussein and there you see the black flags of Isis. This is the same history repeating itself,” he says, referring to ancient Sunni-Shia enmities that played out on these plains centuries ago.
When the Iraqi army capitulated in the face of the Isis onslaught earlier this summer, it was left to Shia militias to fill the void and check the Islamist progress towards Baghdad. Like the Kurds in the north, the Shias are emerging as a far more effective fighting unit to confront the Islamists, whose murderous recent activities have elevated them to global public enemy number one.
But relying on the Shias brings problems of its own. On Friday, Shia militiamen were blamed for killing 70 people at a Sunni mosque in Diyala. It is attacks like these that have persuaded large numbers of ordinary Sunnis who live in the vast spaces between Baghdad and Damascus to side with Isis. [Continue reading…]