The news from Iraq grows more and more distressing, at least for those who favor old-liberalism virtues found in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations. Here is a typical mainstream-news update, care of The Los Angeles Times.
But let's back up for a moment and look at two key elements of one of the first major stories that shook the mainstream press into action. I refer to The New York Times piece that ran under the headline "Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul."
I concede, right up front, that I am concerned about two key issues: (1) the symbolic and practical importance of Mosul to Christians and members of other religious minorities in the Middle East and (2) the tactics and goals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militants behind this drive into Iraq. At the top of its report, the Times paints this horror story in very general terms.
BAGHDAD -- Sunni militants spilling over the border from Syria on Tuesday seized control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, in the most stunning success yet in a rapidly widening insurgency that threatens to drag the region into war.
Having consolidated control over Sunni-dominated Nineveh Province, armed gunmen were heading on the main road to Baghdad, Iraqi officials said, and had already taken over parts of Salahuddin Province. Thousands of civilians fled south toward Baghdad and east toward the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where security is maintained by a fiercely loyal army, the pesh merga.
The Iraqi Army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses. The militants freed thousands of prisoners and took over military bases, police stations, banks and provincial headquarters, before raising the black flag of the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over public buildings. The bodies of soldiers, police officers and civilians lay scattered in the streets.
OK, so we have thousands of generic civilians fleeing.
Is there anything else that can be said about that word "civilians"? Veteran human-rights activist Nina Shea -- yes, writing at the conservative National Review Online -- notes a few crucial details about the symbolic importance of Mosul. It helps to know that Iraq's second-largest city has been the final safe zone for believers in the nation's 2,000 year-old Christian community and for those in many other small religious minorities. Thus:
Mosul’s panic-stricken Christians, along with many others, are now fleeing en masse to the rural Nineveh Plain, according to the Vatican publication Fides. The border crossings into Kurdistan, too, are jammed with the cars of the estimated 150,000 desperate escapees.
The population, particularly its Christian community, has much to fear. The ruthlessness of ISIS, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, has been legendary. Its beheadings, crucifixions, and other atrocities against Christians and everyone else who fails to conform to its vision of a caliphate have been on full display earlier this year, in Syria. ...
(In) February, it was the militants of this rebel group that, in the northern Syrian state of Raqqa, compelled Christian leaders to sign a 7th-century dhimmi contract. The document sets forth specific terms denying the Christians the basic civil rights of equality and religious freedom and committing them to pay protection money in exchange for their lives and the ability to keep their Christian identity.
News consumers who have been paying close attention know that ISIS isn't just a group that is linked to al-Qaeda, it is a group that has been so ruthless and violent that it has been shunned by many jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda.
The bottom line that might interest American readers: One of the world's most ancient Christian communities is literally running for its life, trying to escape militants who are too violent to work with al-Qaeda.
Now, read the bland Times report and try to figure out that this is one of the key elements -- yes, I said ONE -- of the tragedy that is unfolding. Here is how these realities are reported by America's most powerful newsroom:
For more than six months, the militants have maintained control of Falluja, in Iraq’s Sunni-Arab Anbar province, a city where hundreds of Americans died trying to crush an insurgency. While Falluja carries symbolic importance to the United States, the seizure of Mosul, a city of 1.4 million with a mix of ethnicities, sects and religions, is more ominous for the stability of Iraq.
“It’s a shock,” said James Jeffrey, a former United States ambassador to Iraq. “It’s extremely serious. It’s far more serious than Falluja.”
Mosul is a transportation hub for goods coming from Turkey and elsewhere. An important oil pipeline is nearby, carrying nearly 15 percent of the country’s oil flow to a port on the Turkish coast.
In a follow-up report, the Times team maintained the same rather vague approach to these very complex and tragic issues:
That battle was one snapshot of the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a militant Sunni group whose thousands of fighters have occupied crucial swatches of Syria and have now surged into northern Iraq. The group has vowed to create a caliphate spanning the Sunni-dominated sections of neighboring countries.
In doing so, it is simultaneously battling the Syrian and Iraqi governments and Sunni rebels it considers insufficiently committed to Islam. Having seized vast areas of Iraqi territory and several large and strategic cities, including the country’s second-biggest, Mosul, it controls territory greater than many countries and now rivals, and perhaps overshadows, Al Qaeda as the world’s most powerful and active jihadist group. ...
The group is a magnet for militants from around the world. On videos, Twitter and other media, the group showcases fighters from Chechnya, Germany, Britain and the United States.
Far down in the report, there was this one new detail -- including misuse of the Godbeat f-word, of course -- about the ISIS militants:
They have attracted the most attention with their draconian enforcement of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, including the execution of Christians and Muslims deemed kufar, or infidels.
And that's that. Get the big picture? This Times template will, of course, shape the coverage at the major broadcast networks.
Meanwhile, progressives and conservatives who follow human-rights work in the region will know the reputation of a brave Anglican leader, Canon Andrew "the vicar of Baghdad" White. Here is his latest plea:
Iraq is now in its worst crisis since the 2003 war. ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Group), a group that does not even see Al Qaida as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, which is Nineveh. It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of the prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets. The army and police have fled, so many of the military resources have been captured. Tankers, armed vehicles and even helicopters are now in the hands of ISIS.
The area is the heartland of the Christian community. Most of our people come from Nineveh and still see that as their home. It is there that they return to regularly. Many Christian’s fled from back to Nineveh from Baghdad, as things got so bad there. Now the Christian centre of Iraq has been totally ransacked. The tanks are moving into the Christian villages destroying them and causing total carnage. ...
People have fled in their hundreds of thousands to Kurdistan still in Iraq for safety. The Kurds have even closed the border, preventing entry of the masses. The crisis is so huge it is almost impossible to consider what is really happening.
Dear editors of The New York Times: American readers might be interested in this element of the conflict.