Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
March 31, 2015

The Anti-ISIS "Coalition" and the Fiction of One Iraq: The Flags Tell You All You Need To Know

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You can read any number of articles right now (1, 2, 3) describing how Iraq and its military are a fiction. Or, you can simply observe how American forces have aligned themselves — against the temporarily uniting presence of ISIS — with the real nucleus of the Iraqi military: the Iranian Republican Guard, a patchwork quilt of competing Shia militias as well as Hezbollah. Sadly, there’s more than a little denial in maintaining the fantasy that Iraq, after two U.S. wars, somehow remains an amalgamation, and a secular one at that. And how ironic is it that today’s key battle is to reclaim Tikrit, part of the Sunni heartland and the former turf of Saddam Hussein.

Given the complication, it’s no wonder the administration and the American media would prefer to keep it simple. That means either placing the focus on “us versus them,” meaning the U.S. and whoever-else against ISIS, or sustaining the fiction that the Iraq we broke is somehow something more than an Iranian client-state and/or a Kurdish-Muslim-Christian Frankenstein.

But don’t take my word for it when the fragmented state of the state is fluttering right there in the wind.

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I’m not talking about the more disingenuous images, though, where Iraq is represented in a unitary way, as if Babel flew one flag. No, I’m talking about instance after instance where this militia or that one flew the country colors (or wore the country patches, or even the country uniforms), but only as a companion to their own. Or else,  the red, white and black has been dispensed altogether. Here’s just a sampling with captions:

Cleric Tikrit

Shiite clerics from the Popular Mobilisation units watch clashes, from over a blast wall, outside the western entrance of the city of Tikrit on March 28, 2015 during a military operation to retake the northern Iraqi city from Islamic State group jihadists. Retaking Tikrit, where jihadists have rigged streets and buildings with explosives, will require ‘major sacrifices’ on the part of Iraqi forces, a senior intelligence officer said. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images.

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March 2, 2015 Shiite fighters clash with militants at Udhaim dam, north of Baghdad. Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Flag Tikrit green

Shiite fighters known as Hashid Shaabi clash with ISIS militants, as one tries to put a Shiite flag in the ground, in northern Tikrit, on March 12, 2015. Stringer/Reuters

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Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite militiamen gather at the frontline in Tikrit. Khalid Mohammed/AP

Al Alam flag

Iraqi pro-government forces hold a position in Al-Alam village, northeast of the multi-ethnic city of Tikrit, on March 8, 2015. Younis Al-Bayati/AFP/Getty Images.

Shiite Hezbollah Tikrit
A flag of the Shiite Hezbollah militant group flutters over a mural depicting the emblem of the Islamic State (IS) group in Al-Alam village, northeast of the multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Tikrit in northern Iraq, on March 9, 2015. Younis al-Bayati (AFP/File)

By the way, if you’re interested in good visual coverage of the Iraq campaign and the current battle for Tikrit (and the sight of even more militia flags), follow photographer Alex Wroblewski on Instagram.

(photo 1: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images. caption: Iraqi policemen secure a checkpoint at the entrance of al-Alam. photo 2: Khalid Mohammed/AP. caption: March 30, 2015 A man runs to plant the national flag as members of Iraqi security forces surround Tikrit during clashes to retake the city from Islamic State militants.)

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