Protesters regain control of third bridge in Baghdad

Iraqi anti-government protesters gather at a sit-in near barricades over Sinak bridge. (AFP)
Updated 18 November 2019

Protesters regain control of third bridge in Baghdad

  • Security forces used tear gas and stun bombs to prevent protesters from getting right across Ahrar Bridge in central Baghdad
  • More than 300 people have been killed since the start of mass unrest in Baghdad

BAGHDAD: Iraqi protesters regained control of a third bridge leading to Baghdad’s Green Zone on Sunday, taking further ground in the biggest wave of anti-government demonstrations in decades.
Security forces used tear gas and stun bombs to prevent protesters from getting right across Ahrar Bridge in central Baghdad, part of a weeks-long attempt to disrupt traffic and reach the Green Zone housing government ministry and embassies.
Protesters made a barricade of old cabinets, trash cans and metal sheeting on the bridge while security forces took positions behind blast walls installed to prevent protesters from crossing to the other side. Protesters who choked on the tear gas were evacuated by tuk-tuk, a Reuters cameraman said.
On Saturday, Iraqi demonstrators reoccupied part of adjacent Sinak Bridge and a nearby tall building in Baghdad that security forces had pushed them away from a week before. They have held a third bridge, Jamhuriya, since October 25.
More than 300 people have been killed since the start of mass unrest in Baghdad and southern Iraq in early October, the largest demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Protesters are demanding the overthrow of a political class seen as corrupt and beholden to foreign interests.
In Basra in the south, dozens of protesters burned tires and briefly blocked some roads on Sunday, before police managed to restore control and reopen them, police said.
The unrest has shattered the relative calm that followed the defeat of Islamic State in 2017.

Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh

Updated 07 March 2021

Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh

  • Under tight security, he will lead a prayer “for the victims of the war” in Mosul
  • He will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, which is one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns

BAGHDAD: Pope Francis, on his historic Iraq tour, visits on Sunday Christian communities that endured the brutality of the Daesh group until the jihadists’ “caliphate” was defeated three years ago.
The 84-year-old, traveling under tight security, will lead a prayer “for the victims of the war” in Mosul, an ancient crossroads whose center was reduced to rubble by fierce fighting to oust the Daesh, or also known as ISIL.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Francis said at an interfaith service Saturday, one of the many stops on the first-ever papal visit to the war-scarred country.
Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace” aims to reassure the country’s ancient, but dwindling, Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.
The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics on Saturday met Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should be able to live in “peace.”
“We all hope that this visit will be a good omen for the Iraqi people,” Adnane Youssef, a Christian from northern Iraq, told AFP. “We hope that it will lead to better days.”
The Christian community of Iraq, a Muslim-majority country of 40 million, has shrunk from 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein to only 400,000 now, about one percent of the population.
“This very important visit will boost our morale after years of difficulties, problems and wars,” said an Iraqi Christian leader, Father George Jahoula.
Back in 2014, when IS militants swept across one third of Iraq, Pope Francis had said he was ready to come to meet the displaced and other victims of war.
Seven years later, after a stop early Sunday in the Kurdish north of Iraq, he will see for himself the devastated Old City of Mosul and efforts to rebuild it.
Pope Francis will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, which is one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns.
It was largely destroyed in 2014 when IS rampaged through the area, but its residents have trickled back since 2017 and slowly worked at rebuilding their hometown.
To honor the pope, local artisans have woven a two-meter (6.5-foot) prayer shawl, or stole, with the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” prayers carefully hand-stitched in golden thread in Syriac, a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus Christ that is still used in Qaraqosh.
Security will be extra-tight in the north of Iraq, where state forces are still hunting IS remnants and sleeper cells.
Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has criss-crossed the country, taking planes, helicopters and armored convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) in-country.
The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, as Iraq has recently been in the grip of a second wave, with a record of more than 5,000 cases in a day.
Iraqi authorities have imposed lockdown measures to control crowds, but thousands of faithful are expected to flock to a stadium later Sunday in the northern city of Irbil to hear the pope.
Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s oil-rich northern Kurdish region, has been a relative haven of stability and a place of refuge for many Christians who fled IS.
Several thousand seats in the Franso Hariri stadium will be left empty to avoid creating a super-spreader event when Iraqis come to hear the Catholic leader, known here as “Baba Al-Vatican,” deliver the holy mass.


Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Diab threatens to ‘refrain’ from exercising his duties

A Lebanese protester sets up a burning barricade to block a road in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon on Wednesday over a deepening economic crisis. (File/AFP)
Updated 07 March 2021

Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Diab threatens to ‘refrain’ from exercising his duties

  • Black market dollar exchange rate hits LBP10,450 as protesters take to the streets  
  • He spoke in a terse address to the nation as the currency continued its rapid collapse against the dollar

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Saturday threatened “to refrain” from exercising his duties in protest at politicians’ failure to form a new government.

The country’s lawmakers have failed to agree on a new administration since the last one resigned after the devastating Aug. 4 port explosion in Beirut.
There has also been a sharp increase in tension between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, as well as a currency collapse to contend with.
Angry protesters took to the streets in various regions after the dollar exchange rate on the black market jumped to LBP10,450, directing their anger at banks and supermarkets.
Diab, addressing the Lebanese in a televised speech, asked why people should “pay the price for political ambitions and maneuvers,” and warned that the country had “reached the brink of explosion” after the currency’s collapse.
“Is it required to dissolve the state after it has become the weakest link?” he asked. “The current crisis is likely to worsen, and the scene of the race for milk in the supermarket should be an incentive for transcendence and forming a government. The situation may force me to refrain (from exercising caretaker duties) and I may resort to it, although it contradicts my convictions. Who can deal with the next dangerous repercussions and more suffering of people?”
Analysts feared that Diab’s retreat may lead to a further collapse of the Lebanese pound, with lawyer and former minister Rachid Derbas explaining what could happen. next.


Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, addressing the Lebanese in a televised speech, warned that the country had ‘reached the brink of explosion’ after the currency’s collapse. 

“Refraining means (the) complete paralysis of the caretaker government’s work,” he told Arab News. “The late Prime Minister Rashid Karami had previously refrained. But I think that Diab’s move is in response to the pressures exerted on him by the ruling authority to hold Cabinet sessions in violation of the constitution because they do not want to form a new government now.”
He added that if Diab decided to refrain there would be more pressure on Aoun and the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Gebran Bassil, who were “obstructing” the formation of the government.
“But I believe that Aoun and Bassil will not back down from imposing their conditions for the formation. Portraying the dispute as between Hariri and Aoun is absurd. Hariri will not give the ‘blocking third’ to Aoun or the FPM, as he is not ready to be another Hassan Diab.”
He also forecast the trouble that lay ahead if Hariri walked away from forming a government.
“This means that the exchange rate of the dollar will reach LBP20,000.”
Another former minister, Ziyad Baroud, said that Diab was simply raising the alarm because there was “no such thing” in the Lebanese constitution about the caretaker prime minister refraining.
“The government is resigned and business is running in a narrow sense,” he told Arab News. “If Diab decides to refrain, this will effectively paralyze the wheel of public administration completely. His position is political and not constitutional, as he says that he cannot be a caretaker indefinitely. He is raising the alarm and making a point for history.”
He also said that those who were blocking the government’s formation would not budge from their positions. “They are not affected by the people taking to the streets and their cries that they are hungry.”

Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: government military source

Updated 06 March 2021

Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: government military source

DUBAI: Fierce fighting between Yemeni pro-government forces and Iran-backed Houthi rebels has killed at least 90 combatants on both sides in the past 24 hours, government military sources said Saturday.
The Shiite rebels launched an offensive last month to seize Marib, the last stronghold in northern Yemen of pro-government forces who are backed by a Arab-led military coalition.
The clashes in the oil-rich province left 32 dead among government forces and loyalist tribes, while 58 Houthi rebels were killed in coalition air strikes, the sources told AFP.
They said heavy clashes broke out on six fronts as government forces were able to counter attacks by the Houthis who managed to advance only on the Kassara front northwest of Marib city.
The fighting also left dozens of people wounded, the sources added.
The loss of Marib would be a huge blow for the Yemeni government, but would also threaten catastrophe for civilians, including hundreds of thousands of displaced people sheltering in desolate camps in the surrounding desert.
It would also be a major setback for Saudi Arabia, which has been the target of increasingly frequent Houthi missile attacks in recent weeks.
Shrapnel from Houthi drones intercepted by the Saudis on Friday wounded two civilians, including a 10-year-old, in the southwest of the kingdom, the official SPA news agency reported.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday urged the Houthis to halt their offensive in Marib, as he announced $191 million in aid at a donors' conference.
"Aid alone will not end the conflict. We can only end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by ending the war... so the United States is reinvigorating our diplomatic efforts to end the war," he said.
The United Nations had sought to raise $3.85 billion from more than 100 governments and donors, but only $1.7 billion was offered.


Top Shiite cleric Al-Sistani: Christians in Iraq should live in ‘peace, security’

Shiite cleric, Ali Al-Sistani, met the Pope at his home in Najaf, the seat of the Iraqi Shiite clergy, on the second day of the pontiff’s historic tour of Iraq. (Office of Shiite cleric, Ali Al-Sistani)
Updated 06 March 2021

Top Shiite cleric Al-Sistani: Christians in Iraq should live in ‘peace, security’

  • Pope met with top Shiite cleric in latter’s home in Najaf for 50 minutes
  • Francis: ‘Hostility, extremism, violence have nothing to do with faith — they are betrayals of religion’

ROME: Christians in Iraq should live in “peace and security,” Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s top clerics, told Pope Francis in a historic meeting on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to the country.

The 84-year-old pope and 90-year-old Al-Sistani spoke for 50 minutes at the latter’s home in Najaf, the third-holiest city for Shiite Muslims after Makkah and Madinah — a landmark moment in modern religious history, and a milestone in the pope’s efforts to deepen interfaith dialogue, Vatican sources told Arab News while expressing satisfaction with the meeting.

Al-Sistani, according to a statement issued by his office, was grateful to the pope for his visit, and “affirmed … that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.”

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the pope “stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities in contributing, through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue, to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family.”

Bruni added that the meeting was an occasion for the pope to thank Al-Sistani “for speaking up, together with the Shiite community, in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.”

The pope, said Bruni, “stated that he continues to pray that God, the Creator of all, will grant a future of peace and fraternity for the beloved land of Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world.”

After the meeting, the pope flew to the city of Nassiriya. He then traveled by car to the Plain of Ur, where Abraham is believed to have been born, for a meeting with representatives of Iraq’s religious communities, including Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Yazidis, Mandeans, Kakais, Bahais and Zoroastrians, each wearing their traditional religious garb.

Freedom of conscience and religion are “fundamental rights” that should be respected everywhere, said the pope.

“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion and sows hatred,” he added, in a message of solidarity with minorities persecuted by Daesh.

He also called for “unity,” adding: “Let us ask for this in praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighboring war-torn Syria.”

He said: “The most blasphemous offense is to profane God’s name by hating our brothers. Hostility, extremism and violence have nothing to do with faith — they are betrayals of religion.”

The pope then celebrated his first Mass in Iraq in the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph in central Baghdad.

Only a small crowd was allowed in the church in order to guarantee social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, the pope will celebrate Mass in Erbil, capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where 10,000 faithful will be allowed.

Doubts over Turkey’s tactical move to extend olive branch to Egypt

Updated 05 March 2021

Doubts over Turkey’s tactical move to extend olive branch to Egypt

  • Bilateral relations strained in recent years by Muslim Brotherhood, Libya conflict and other matters

ANKARA: With Turkey hinting at a potential deal with Egypt on exclusive maritime zones in the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean, the impact of such an agreement on energy transit routes and the political concessions that Turkey might be obliged to make have come under the spotlight.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday said that the country wanted to sign a deal over maritime boundaries.

But this willingness is currently limited to declarations from the Turkish side, with no tangible reaction from the Egyptians.

Turkey’s tactical move indicates a willingness to reduce escalatory policies in the region in order to bypass any criticism from Brussels and US President Joe Biden’s administration.

Potential sanctions against Turkey’s controversial exploratory activities in the Eastern Mediterranean would be discussed at the European Summit on March 25-26, pushing it to not make aggressive moves ahead of that meeting.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

But experts regard such a deal to still be far-fetched, at least in the short-term, because Egypt has had an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreement with Greece since last year. This pact angered Turkey because it has had longstanding disagreements with Greece over the extent of their mutual continental shelves.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had a phone call on Wednesday evening, after Cavusoglu’s statement, on regional issues of common interest, with a special emphasis on energy and Eastern Mediterranean issues, another strong signal that Greece would do its best to not let a Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement happen.

Turkey said the deal between Greece and Egypt did not include a disputed zone to the south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo which Turkey claims under its own EEZ.

Relations with Egypt have been strained after the Turkish-backed Mohammed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted by El-Sisi in 2013.

Last year, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece released a joint declaration accusing Turkey of carrying out “provocations” in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt has been involved in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum since 2019 without involving Turkey.

Turkey and Egypt have also backed opposing sides in Libya’s civil war.

“Turkey has tried to lure Egypt into signing an EEZ agreement with it by claiming it will receive a bigger share than it will from a bilateral agreement between Athens and Cairo,” Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, told Arab News. “In a similar manner, it has presented the claim that the EEZ agreement between Israel and Cyprus gives Israel less than what it would receive had it signed an agreement with Turkey.”

While a relaxation in tensions between Turkey and Egypt was plausible, Lindenstrauss did not expect a serious rapprochement happening soon, so an EEZ agreement between the sides was not likely to materialize.

In late February, Egypt and Israel agreed on linking an Israeli offshore natural gas field to liquefied natural gas facilities in northern Egypt through an underwater pipeline to meet the increased demand for natural gas in Europe.

The pipeline will begin from Israel’s Leviathan gas field and then head to Egypt by land before going to Crete through the Greek-Egyptian EEZ.

This route sidesteps Cyprus. In other words, the gas is not likely to be exported through disputed areas that might draw Turkish objections.

Emre Caliskan, a research fellow at the UK's Foreign Policy Centre, thought  that Turkey’s recent efforts to improve its relations with Israel and Egypt was motivated by a need to break the alliance between Greece, Israel, Cyprus and Egypt.

“These countries have been united against Turkey’s increasing influence and gas searches in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he told Arab News. “From the Turkish policymakers’ strategic view, Greece and Cyprus interests are in contradiction with Turkey’s ambitions in the region. Therefore, Turkey will try to distance Greece and Cyprus from Egypt and Israel.”

These moves require a change in Turkey’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology that inspires Hamas in order to bring Egypt onside and end the bilateral dispute. Turkey hosts several of the organization’s members and supporters since the group’s activities were banned in Egypt.

Last month, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced seizing goods worth $121,000 sent by Turkey-based Hamas members to individuals in the West Bank through two Turkish companies.

“We have recently heard claims that Turkey has been reassessing its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It is too early to assess any policy change in relation to this. Any substantial reconciliation with Israel and Egypt will require Turkey to distance its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Caliskan said.

For Caliskan, Turkey’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood was based on ideology and also on a strategic partnership.

“Distancing Turkey’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood would impact Turkey’s influence in Libya for example. Turkey is likely to compartmentalize its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, reducing its support to their presence in Egypt and Palestine, but will continue supporting them in North Africa, especially in Libya and Tunisia.”