Iraqis in Australia heed calls to stay put

Australian Muslims desperate to fly to Iraq and defend their people against militants will stay put to respect the wishes of Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric.


Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani last Friday called for Iraqi citizens to bear arms and sign up for the military to help battle Sunni insurgents, which have been rampaging through the country.

Led by the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), they’ve already executed civilians in Mosul, and claim to have killed 1700 Iraqis, posting photos of the purported mass shootings on jihadist forums and Twitter.

They’ve declared they’ll push towards Baghdad and the south to massacre Shias and destroy their holy shrines.

The volatile situation has paralysed the Iraqi community in Australia, as many in the 50,000-odd population wait and worry for their families.

But just as some of the men declared they would take up Sistani’s call, an English-speaking imam in London clarified the cleric’s message.

In a video appeal uploaded to YouTube later on Friday, Fadhil al-Milani said Sistani was calling only on Iraqi citizens living in Iraq to fight, and only by joining the official security forces.

It was hard for them to hear, says Shia woman Hala al-Duleimi, who lives in Bankstown in Sydney with her husband and two-month-old daughter.

“I heard a lot of guys here, they want to go to Iraq to fight there and to protect these holy places,” she tells AAP.

“But the religious leader said `no, you’re not allowed to come’.

“And they all follow Sistani – he’s like the Pope of the Muslim world.”

Mrs Duleimi says life has stopped for Iraqi people in the west.

Her husband’s family and her uncles live in Baghdad, and her cousin lives 100km southwest in Karbala.

“They’re overwhelmed, and confused about what’s going on.

“(ISIS) are not related to us in Iraq. They’re not related to any part of a human being,” she said of the group that’s so hardline it was disowned by al-Qaeda.

“I feel like I’m living here, but my soul and my mind are over there.”

The 32-year-old managed to speak to relatives on Sunday morning, but the internet has been disconnected since as Baghdad goes into lockdown.

“And they cut the phone lines,” says Bushra Obeidi, a retired Shia doctor living in Sydney.

“You can’t call anybody, especially in the north.”

Dr Obeidi, 68, practised gynaecology for 30 years in Baghdad but fled in 1998 with her husband and three children.

“It’s really confusing now, because we don’t know what’s going on.

“We are sure Mosul is now in the hands of the extremists, but nobody knows – there is nothing, no photos, we can’t access that place.”

A spokesperson for Arab Council Australia, Firas Naja, said people are just trying to come to terms with what happens next.

“It’s very serious, Iraq can’t go back to a week or two weeks ago,” said Mr Naja, whose wife’s family lives in Baghdad.

Mr Naja said the Iraqi government, or what’s left of it, has resorted to using the Shia banner as a way to consolidate the areas they still hold.

“It’s all religious now. The whole political system has collapsed, the whole government has failed.”