Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Mafraq Cemetery: Commemoration of Iraqi Military History and its Implications

The entrance to the Iraqi Army's Martyrs Cemetery in Mafraq

Guest contributor, Brian Humphreys, a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, and Boren Fellow, is conducting research in Jordan on the reconstitution of the post-2003 Iraqi army.

Mafraq, a small city in the north of Jordan, has gained a certain notoriety recently among Jordanians and foreign NGO activists as the site of a major refugee camp, which houses thousands of Syrians displaced by the civil war unfolding just to the north.   The war is close enough that some residents of the area can occasionally feel the concussions from the Asad regime’s airstrikes impacting rebel positions on the other side of the border. 

To reach Mafraq from Amman, motorists drive northeast along a four lane highway through Zarqa, which seems to have grown into the outer suburbs of the Jordanian capital to the point where it is difficult to distinguish the boundary between the two cities.  The more distant boundary of Zarqa is still relatively well defined, with the characteristic concrete and cinderblock neighborhoods of the heavily Palestinian, blue collar city abruptly ceasing as the highway leads out into the Jordanian desert.

There is little to mark the stretch of desert between Zarqa and Mafraq except ramshackle shops selling soda and candy bars with unfamiliar names, clusters of austere military barracks, and large blue freeway signs in English and Arabic marking the interchanges for Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.  The otherwise unremarkable signs are a reminder that the austere landscape is in fact a major geo-strategic crossroads.  Wars, refugees, and armies have written the history of the modern Middle East on the march to or from nearby Damascus and Jerusalem.  More distant powers have also sent their armies across this bleak expanse in attempts to affect the outcomes of wars and causes.  A small military cemetery located in the side streets of Mafraq is a reminder of an obscure (to Western audiences), yet illustrative chapter of this history that continues to resonate in the present in important ways.

I visited this cemetery in early February, accompanied by two former Iraqi generals who had been teacher and mentor together in the old Iraqi Army, and were both veterans of the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Iraqi forces passed through Mafraq twice in the twentieth century, once during the 1948 war for Palestine (as it is known here), and again in 1967, when the 3rd Armored Division of the Iraqi Army crossed the desert to confront the Israeli Defense Forces during the Six-Day War, and remained in the north of Jordan for several years afterwards.  When the Iraqis left, they left behind a modest military cemetery in Mafraq containing the graves of Iraqi soldiers from the 1967 war and its precursor in 1948.

In the intervening years, the cemetery assumed greater prominence in official Iraqi mythology as a symbol of national martyrdom on behalf of the Arab cause, particularly as Iraq became involved in a massive war of attrition hundreds of miles to the east against Iran, which dwarfed the Arab-Israeli wars in scale and human sacrifice.  As the Iraqi regime fought for its very existence, it converted the cemetery into a more elaborate monument that might underline Iraqi claims to leadership of the shared Pan-Arab cause, and the connection between sacrifices in Mafraq and the Persian Gulf.

Today, visits to the cemetery must be approved by the Iraqi military attaché in Amman in advance, as the cemetery is still administered by the government of Iraq. Entering Mafraq, we asked where the Iraqi martyrs’ cemetery was and were pointed along residential side-streets by a succession of passers-by to a small plot of land enclosed by an eight foot high wall of quarried limestone.  A careful inscription above the arched entryway read: Cemetery of the Martyrs of the Iraqi Army. 

The cemetery custodian’s son, Ahmad, a local fourth grader, came across the street from his family’s home with the key to the gate and opened it for us, revealing a view of an obelisk with a Qur'anic inscription at the base and, at the top, a small replica of the distinctive Martyrs’ Monument in Baghdad built by Saddam Husayn’s order during the first years of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. 

The cemetery was mostly free of the ubiquitous litter that blights most urban spaces in Jordan, including the residential sprawl outside the cemetery walls.  The small cemetery contained perhaps fifty well-kept graves amid rows of olive trees and benches. Ahmad appeared a short time later with a tray of tea and sugar, the universal currency of hospitality in the Middle East, while we discussed the military and cultural history that had produced the cemetery at Mafraq.

Amid the modest soldiers’ graves there were two much more recent and elaborate graves belonging to prominent Iraqi exiles who died long after the destruction of the Ba’thist regime in 2003.  (One a prominent general in the old army, and the other 'Abd al-Rahman 'Arif, briefly president of Iraq in the turbulent era leading up to the Ba’thist coup of 1967 that paved the way for Saddam Husayn’s ascent to absolute power in Iraq.)  The graves were an indication that, far from being a forgotten relic of Saddam’s claims to Pan-Arab leadership, the cemetery has acquired a second life in the post-Saddam era as an enclave for an Iraqi nationalism that has largely been excluded from the public sphere inside Iraq. 

In recent years, official commemorations have been held at the cemetery on January 6th, which marks the founding of the Iraqi Army in 1921.  These have been attended by Iraqi embassy officials in Amman and retired officers, and received media coverage. This year, the embassy also held an invitation-only gala celebration in Amman to mark the date, which was attended by many former officers as well as military attaches from other nations.  This suggests that Iraqi nationalism and its military foundations, which predate Ba’thist rule by decades, remain a significant part of Iraqi public discourse.  This holds true both within Iraqi government represented by its diplomats abroad, and the former officers who attended the events in Amman and Mafraq.

My hosts at the Mafraq cemetery, who attended the embassy event, said that the Iraqi ambassador delivered relatively uncontroversial remarks about the unity of Iraq and the historical role of the army in preserving this unity.  Such comments affirming national unity and the heroism of the national army are, in fact, a nearly obligatory part of public discourse among Iraqis, even among warring factions bitterly contesting operational and cultural control of the army. 

However, even in ceremonial contexts, cracks in the facade of unity are often visible.  It is no small irony that many of the retired Iraqi officers in attendance were exiles and would likely not be able to attend similar events inside Iraq. This fact hints at the significant ambiguities that characterize the boundaries between shared belonging and division, which persist in the post-2003 era.

A more subtle marker of these ambiguities was the absence of medals on the dress uniforms of the serving Iraqi officers present at the Amman embassy event, something the retired Iraqi officers noted.  Such medals typically signify participation in a military campaign, individual merit, or the personal sacrifice of those wounded in combat. 

American advisers made several desultory attempts to institute a new awards system or, on occasion, to confer U.S. decorations on Iraqis after 2003, but such efforts typically lacked legitimacy in Iraqi eyes and never gained institutional traction.  The Iraqis themselves remain divided on the meaning and interpretation of the battles of the post-2003 period to the extent that no significant complex of commemorative practices and visual symbols relating to them has appeared within the Iraqi civil-military sphere to date. 

Such ambiguity also prevails when Iraqis are confronted with the symbolic universe of the pre-2003 period.  Iraqi regulations state that awards and decorations of the previous army may be worn by military personnel who served in it.  The only exception is the bravery medal issued during the Iran-Iraq war.  This is a seemingly odd omission when one considers the relatively broad-based and intense patriotism that characterized this era of war in Iraq.

However, it nonetheless accurately reflects the political sensibilities and geo-strategic alignments of the current Iraqi government, which is perceived by many as favoring close ties with Iran.  In terms of the actual social practice of the contemporary Iraqi army, the Iraqi military attaché in Jordan himself informed me that decorations from the pre-2003 era are never worn because they identify the wearer as a Ba’thist sympathizer, even when such medals denote service in relatively uncontroversial campaigns. 

This discourse of ambiguity, selective recall, and exclusion applies to other relics of the pre-2003 military-symbolic complex of Iraq, which survive and are in continuing use, such as the Martyrs’ Monument and other major monumental complexes built during the Iran-Iraq war.  The Mafraq cemetery is merely one small but intriguing example of this phenomenon. 

The wars of 1948 and 1967 commemorated in Mafraq are part of an Iraqi nationalist narrative that is broadly accepted in Iraq, but has particular resonance among the class of former elites now largely excluded from participation in domestic Iraqi politics and society.  At the same time, Iraqi commitment to the Pan-Arab cause of neighboring, predominantly Sunni states, has traditionally elicited misgivings from many Iraqi Kurds, religious Shi'a Arabs, and others wary of Arab Sunni political dominance within Iraq who now occupy the highest positions of power in the state.  

Interpreted in this context, the Mafraq cemetery allows the current government a space where the rituals of Iraqi unity may be performed according to its preferred script with a constituency that, even in exile, has the capacity to influence events in Iraq. Conversely, for exiled elites, the cemetery may serve as a focal point for commemoration and valorization of a nationalist narrative integral to their identity -- and thus political cohesiveness.  As such, Mafraq is one of the many symbolically meaningful sites where Iraqis are attempting to frame and institutionalize views of the past through use of symbols and performance of commemorative rituals, which will serve to influence how they identify themselves and conceptualize their place within the broader national community.

Oftentimes, we are encouraged to view Iraqi nationalism as either insignificant window-dressing of an artificial state, or else to accept its claims of unbreakable unity at face value.  Places like Mafraq suggest that we would instead do well to consider how different groups of Iraqis attempt to define the meaning of Iraqi unity and the rules of belonging in a given context.  A glimpse of these processes in action at Mafraq suggests that symbolism and ceremony represent in fact consequential acts of power.  They show us which narratives of national identity and belonging are being institutionalized within the Iraqi civil-military sphere today.

1 comment:

umzug said...

Thanks to topic