The Iraq War; Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble

The last episode of The Iraq War covered the time period from after immediately after power was handed over to an elected Iraqi government through to earlier this year. Unlike the previous two episodes there isn’t a familiar well worn storyline for the whole of this episode – partly because the later bits are too recent to have a narrative yet, and partly because once the US & UK etc troops had gone then Iraq stopped being headline news so often. The story this episode told was one of a country that had descended into all out sectarian violence, then looked to be pulling out of it only to start slipping back.

In the time immediately after the Iraqi government was elected the country was divided by fighting between Sunni & Shia Muslims – the Sunni fighters were dominated by Al Qaeda, the Shia fighters were various militias plus the Mahdi army. And the ordinary civilians on both sides were caught & killed in the middle. Some (all?) of the Shia militias were state sponsored – they got weapons, transport, ammo, logisitics from state officials & departments – which only served to make the Sunnis fighting against them more determined.

Given it didn’t seem like the elected Prime Minister was able to do anything about this violence the US & UK governments replaced him. While it was dressed up as “suggesting” that he step aside for someone else, it really was the replacement of an elected leader of a country with a hand-picked alternative who was more “suitable” to the US & UK. Nouri Maliki, the replacement, was then to be propped up, sorry “supported”, by the US. And for all my scare quotes in the last few sentences it was a stratagem that initially seemed effective. Due to the US succesfully managing to get non-al-Qaeda Sunnis to work with the government, and Maliki himself suppressing the worst of the Shia militias (and pacifying Basra) some degree of unity and stability returned to Iraq … and the US & UK managed to get their troops home & to leave Iraq to look after itself.

But it hasn’t been a long term success, and violence is getting worse again. Maliki’s regime are arresting people who were involved in the sectarian violence, but it seems that it’s Sunni leaders & opposition politicians in general who are being targeted while Shia politicians remain free. In the last election several of the opposition politicians were disqualified from standing for election – again for reasons that didn’t seem to be a problem for Maliki’s own party’s candidates. The opposition gained a lot of seats in the election, to an extent where to form a government Maliki had to negotiate with them & set up a power-sharing deal. That hasn’t been honoured, say the opposition politicians, it’s still the Prime Minister Maliki show. So the feeling is that Iraq is slipping into a dictatorship with a figleaf of elections, and violence is rising.

An interesting series, particularly because it was primarily told through interviews with the people who were making the decisions (or their aides). Although obviously they’ll’ve been edited to fit the story the series was telling (worth reminding myself of because the message plays to my pre-existing bias on the subject).

I think I was right about Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble following the past, present, future theme for its episodes – this last episode was about sheep farming in Australia which is the future in two or three different ways. The first half of the programme focussed on what you could think of as the globalisation of sheep farming (I suppose this could count as “present” rather than “future” but for most of the world this sort of sheep farming is still the future). Humble visited a sheep station called Meka which is in Western Australia and is about the size of the county of Kent. There are several thousand sheep on this land, which mostly roam free, and five people. Handling this many sheep with this few people is pretty hard work & involves a lot of modern tech – to keep them watered there are windmills pumping up water to automatically fill troughs in each paddock (which might be 10km by 4km in size). And to muster the sheep in each paddock, which they only do a couple of times a year, requires planes & motorbikes.

Most of these sheep are bred to be sent to the Middle East, which has a growing & more affluent population but not the land to raise enough extra sheep to meet the growing demand for meat. For another market (like the UK) the sheep would be killed locally and then the meat exported, but the Middle Eastern market buys live sheep to slaughter themselves (i.e. the family who will eat the sheep kill it). This is a controversial practice, and the farmers Humble spoke to were open about the fact that in the past poor regulation of the shipping meant that losses of sheep on the voyage could be 3-10% of the cargo. However regulation has been tightened up, and Humble visited the holding pens for sheep before they were shipped and they were kept in good conditions & seemed relaxed. Losses these days are significantly lower (I can’t remember if they said 0.1% or 0.01%). But there is still the problem that the slaughtering once they reach their destination may not be humane (if nothing else because it may well be untrained people doing the slaughtering).

So that was the future of sheep farming as a large scale enterprise with the consumers on a different continent to the producers. Humble next visited farms where the breeding of sheep is done using modern genetic technology. The technique used is embryo transfer – they induce a ewe to release several eggs, then artificially inseminate her. The embryos are then removed, and viable ones are transplanted into other ewes as surrogate mothers. This speeds up the process of selective breeding because it allows you to get several more offspring from your best breeding ewes than you otherwise would. J noted while we were watching that it would also narrow the gene pool & wouldn’t that be a problem – but the programme didn’t mention that. I’m not sure if the various breeds of sheep might already be fairly inbred (because many of the breeding ewes would have the same father already).

And a third sort of future was a farm where the farmers are what Humble called “very hippy-dippy”. The sheep lead very stress free lives, with a lot of interaction with people & many lambs hand-reared. So they’re happy sheep, and the farm wins awards for the quality of the meat. A future for the elite – where quality over quantity counts.

It was a fun series to watch, with lots of interesting stuff about how different people live as well as about the sheep (or alpacas).