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"These Cultures will Become Extinct"

Exodus of Iraq’s Ancient Minorities

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Iraq’s minorities, some of the oldest communities in the world, are being driven from the country by a wave of violence against them because they are identified with the occupation and easy targets for kidnappers and death squads. A "huge exodus" is now taking place, according to a report by Minority Rights Group International.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says 30 per cent of the 1.8 million Iraqis who have fled to Jordan, Syria and elsewhere come from the minorities.

The Christians, who have lived in Iraq for 2,000 years, survived the Muslim invasion in the 7th century and the Mongol onslaught in the 13th but are now being eradicated as their churches are bombed and members of their faith hunted down and killed along with other minority faiths.

The report, Assimilation, Exodus, Eradication: Iraq’s minority communities since 2003, written by Preti Taneja, says that half of the minority communities in Iraq, once 10 per cent of the total population, have fled.

They include Mandaeans, whose main prophet is John the Baptist and Yazidis whose religion is an offshoot of Zoroastrianism and may be 4,000 years old. Other minorities who were persecuted under Saddam Hussein are under attack again. The so-called Faili, or Shia Kurds, who were stripped of their belongings under the old regime and expelled to Iran are now being forced to run again – forced out of Shia areas such as Sadr City because they are Kurds and Sunni cities such as Baquba, because they are Shia.

The small Jewish community, whose members arrived in chains as slaves, has been all but destroyed by persecution and the pervasive suspicion that Jews have collaborated with the US-led invaders.

Christians were tolerated in Iraq under Saddam Hussein whose policies were generally secular, though they became more Islamic in his latter years.

"Because America and Britain are Christian countries, the [fundamentalists] blame us for the war," said Roger William, who father-in-law owned a casino and dance hall in Baghdad before 2003, according to the report. "We are terrified. We don’t know what the future will hold."

Christians are frequent targets of kidnappers because they are thought to be rich and to have no militia or tribe to protect them. Mandaeans are traditionally jewellers and goldsmiths and this again makes them attractive targets for abduction. They say that 504 members of their community were killed in six months, of whom 90 per cent were goldsmiths.

"For Mandaeans, the biggest threat is extinction," said Bashar al-Sabti, a spokesman for the Iraqi Minorities Council. "The killing is equal to three deaths for every one person left alive." Not everybody runs. Mr Sabti, speaking after his jewellery shop in the centre of Baghdad, had been bombed, said: "The body of Iraq is filled with pain and wounds. But we must not grieve this body before it is dead."

One of the worst affected minorities is the small, 35,000-strong Palestinian community, many of whom had been in Iraq since 1948. Seen as being under the special protection of Saddam Hussein, they have suffered severely since his fall. Umm Mohammed, a 56-year-old grandmother, said the militias "are monsters, they killed my two sons in front of my house and later shouted that we Palestinians are like pigs."

A suicide car bomb exploded yesterday near the College of Administration and Economics killing 40 and injuring more than 30, mostly students. The college is part of Mustansariyah University, which Sunni insurgents denounce as controlled by the Shia Mehdi Army.

The groups most at risk

* MANDAEANS
Before 2003: 30,000
Now: fewer than 13,000
The Mandaeans, one of the world’s oldest Gnostic religions, are concentrated in Baghdad and in the Nineveh plains.

* YAZIDI
Before 2003: not known
Now: about 550,000
Largest group of Yazidi, also known as the "Cult of Angels", lives near Mosul, practising a monotheistic religion that includes elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

* JEWS
2003: a few hundred
Now: 15
Brought to Iraq as slaves by the King Nebuchadnezzar 2,600 years ago, the Jewish community flourished and once numbered more than 150,000.

* PALESTINIANS
2003: 35,000
Now: 15,000
Arrived in Iraq as refugees since 1948. Resentment about their perceived special treatment is thought to be behind the violent attacks they now face.

* TURKOMANS
2003: 800,000 claimed
Now: as low as 200,000
The descendants of the Turkish-speaking tribes have long been involved in a battle against the Kurds for the city of Kirkuk. Since 2003, more than 1,350 have been killed.

‘These cultures will become extinct’: Layla Alroomi, 65, consultant paediatrician, London

People have always called us "dirty" or "unbelievers".Things have got much much worse since 2003.

I visited a slum in Damascus, Syria, where most of the Mandaean community who left Iraq now live. I met a boy of 10. His name was Selwan and when he was eight he was kidnapped. Half of his face was burnt away.

I also met a beautiful Mandaean woman of 33. Last year she was in a car with her husband when armed extremists took the woman out, put her in their car. Four of them raped her. She had been pregnant but that night she lost her baby.

The Mandaeans by their religion are pacifist. They don’t carry guns. Now most Mandaeans who have left Iraq live in the slum I visited in Damascus.If the international community does not do something to help, I think these ancient cultures will become extinct.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.