Baghdad must ‘take actions’ after strikes on US interests, says Esper

Baghdad and other cities have been gripped by protests against corruption. (AFP)
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Updated 18 December 2019

Baghdad must ‘take actions’ after strikes on US interests, says Esper

  • US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters he had expressed “concern about the optics in attacks on bases in Iraq

BAGHDAD: The US has called on Baghdad to “take actions” to protect US interests in the country after a flurry of attacks that have been blamed on Iranian-backed groups.

Tehran wields growing influence in Iraq, particularly through armed factions.

Since Oct. 28, 10 rocket attacks have targeted areas where US soldiers and diplomats are stationed.

They have not been claimed, but the US has blamed Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary groups.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters he had expressed “concern about the optics in attacks on bases in Iraq where US troops and material might be,” in a call with outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The US has “a right of self defense, that we would ask our Iraqi partners to take proactive actions ... to get that under control, because it’s not good for anybody,” he told Abdul Mahdi.

Abdul Mahdi’s office released a statement earlier confirming the phone call and asking everyone “to spare no effort to prevent an escalation that will threaten all parties.”

He said: “Unilateral decisions will trigger negative reactions that will make it more difficult to control the situation and will threaten Iraq’s security, sovereignty and independence.”

Esper acknowledged Tehran’s involvement was difficult to prove.

“My suspicion would be that Iran is behind these attacks, much like they are behind a lot of malign behavior throughout the region,” he said. “But it’s hard to pin down.”

Abdul Mahdi is a close ally of Iran who also enjoyed cordial relations with the US. He resigned in early December after the two months of unprecedented demonstrations in the capital and Shiite-majority south that have left 460 people dead.

Negotiations are underway to name his successor.

“If the Iraqi government or state weakens, this will exacerbate escalation and chaos,” Abdul Mahdi told Esper, according to the statement.

Iran has gained overwhelming influence in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion brought down Saddam Huseein.

A US source said pro-Iran factions in Iraq were now considered a more significant threat to American soldiers than Daesh.

The attacks have killed one Iraqi soldier and left others wounded, as well as causing material damage in the vicinity of the US Embassy in Baghdad’s ultra-secure Green Zone.

The US has recently reinforced its security at the embassy, according to an Iraqi security source, who said “a convoy of 15 American vehicles each transporting armored trucks and weapons entered the Green Zone.”

Top US diplomat Mike Pompeo on Friday warned Iran’s leaders “that any attacks by them, or their proxies of any identity, that harm Americans, our allies or our interests will be answered with a decisive US response.”

US officials say they are considering sending 5,000 to 7,000 troops to the region to counter Iran, although Esper on Friday again denied a report that a 14,000-strong deployment was under discussion.


Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit reappointed

Updated 8 min 10 sec ago

Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit reappointed

  • The 78-year old, was first elected to lead the Cairo-based pan-regional body in 2016
  • Since its founding in 1945, the Cairo-based league has chosen an Egyptian diplomat as its chief, apart from 1979 to 1990

CAIRO: Egypt’s Ahmed Aboul Gheit was reappointed for a second term Wednesday as secretary general of the 22-member Arab League, a diplomatic source said.
The 78-year old, who served as Egyptian foreign minister between 2004 and 2011, was first elected to lead the Cairo-based pan-regional body in 2016.
“Arab foreign ministers unanimously decided to approve Egypt’s request to reappoint Arab League secretary general Ahmed Aboul Gheit for a new five-year term,” the source said.
Since its founding in 1945, the Cairo-based league has chosen an Egyptian diplomat as its chief, apart from 1979 to 1990, when a Tunisian was appointed and the headquarters moved to Tunis, after Egypt signed a peace deal with neighboring Israel.

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Egypt’s fostering campaign helps orphans find homes

Updated 31 min 6 sec ago

Egypt’s fostering campaign helps orphans find homes

  • In 2020, Egypt broadened the rules for who can foster a child to include single women over 30 and divorcees
  • A social media campaign encouraging both taking children home and financing them has also helped spark change

CAIRO: Yasmina Al-Habbal always wanted to take in an orphan but only did so last year after Egypt’s government eased regulations over who could do so and campaigned to change public attitudes, enabling her to take home baby Ghalya.
Formal adoption — where people permanently adopt a child, give them their surname and make them their legal heir, is not accepted in Islam due to the importance of respecting lineage, and not practiced in Egypt, although people are encouraged to sponsor children or foster them.
Complexities around Islam and adoption prevented some people from fostering and instead people chose to support children who remained in the full-time care of orphanages.
In January 2020 however, Egypt broadened the rules for who can foster a child to include single women over 30 and divorcees, and reduced the minimum level of education required, hoping that by increasing the pool of prospective foster parents it could make fostering more widespread and socially accepted.
A social media campaign “Yala Kafala” (Let’s sponsor a child) encouraging both taking children home and financing them, started by an Egyptian woman, has also helped spark change.
Habbal, 40 and unmarried, had always dreamt of having a daughter and said she faced social pressure when choosing to care for now seven-month-old Ghalya.
“My friends said to me: ‘how will you face society? What are you going to tell people? Are you going to tell Ghalya that she isn’t your child? Are you going to tell everyone else?’.”
Habbal assured her friends she would respond by telling people their prejudiced views were wrong, and she would tell Ghalya it didn’t matter where she came from.
“I’m going to tell Ghalya... ‘what is important is the positive change you’ve made to so many people’s lives’.”
She added she has a seen a change in attitudes to fostering, and her experience is encouraging others to apply.
“In this past year, the number of families who have applied to sponsor orphans shows just how much people have accepted it. People used to be afraid of it, but now, Egypt’s highest religious authority Al-Azhar, civil society organizations and the ministry of social solidarity are all trying to make the idea more widespread,” she said.
Reem Amin, a member of Egypt’s social solidarity ministry’s alternative families committee said its main goal was to remove the need for orphanages by 2025.
“An orphanage’s main goal is as a stopover point before the child moves to a foster home,” she said.
The ministry’s legal adviser Mohamed Omar said around 11,600 families have taken in orphans since January 2020 and another 11,000 orphans needed homes.
In the second half of 2020 as restrictions due to the pandemic began to ease, the ministry received 1000 requests from families wanting to sponsor orphans.
Cairo couple Mohamed Abdallah and his wife had initially failed to conceive a child of their own and decided to take in an orphan instead.
Months later, Abdallah’s wife Merna became pregnant and now they are raising their biological son Soliman and Dawood, their foster child. “I have a dream that they will be an example for a normal society — two brothers who love each other, even though they are not related by blood,” said Abdallah.


Yemen’s army launches offensive in Taiz to relieve pressure on Marib

Updated 03 March 2021

Yemen’s army launches offensive in Taiz to relieve pressure on Marib

  • During the early hours of the offensive, the army troops liberated a number of villages

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s Army has launched a new offensive in the southern city of Taiz to break a six-year-long siege by the Iran-backed Houthis and ease military pressure on government forces in the central province of Marib, a Yemeni army spokesperson in Taiz told Arab News on Wednesday. 

Abdul Basit Al-Baher said that hundreds of army troops on Tuesday night attacked Houthi-controlled locations on the western and eastern edges of the city, triggering clashes with the rebels. 

During the early hours of the offensive, the army troops liberated a number of villages and mountainous locations and killed at least 12 Houthis and destroyed military equipment. 

“The national army activated four battlefields in Taiz and managed to push Houthi militia from different locations,” Al-Baher said, adding that the army is pushing to break the Houthi siege on Taiz and open a strategic road that links Taiz with the Red Sea areas. If the government forces seize control of Al-Bareh, the epicenter of the fighting, government forces will be able to partially end the Houthi siege on Taiz and funnel fighters and military equipment from the western regions.

About the timing of the offensive, local Yemeni commanders say that the Houthis in Taiz have been weakened since they sent their elite forces and heavy equipment to participate in the movement’s offensive on the central city of Marib. 

“The Yemeni Army offensive partly aims to ease military pressure on Marib,” Al-Baher said. 

On Wednesday afternoon, artillery shells fired by the Houthis landed in areas close to Al-Thawra hospital in the eastern part of the city, residents said. No one was reportedly hurt in the shelling. 

The Houthis have imposed a siege on the city of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, since early 2015, after failing to seize control of the city due to strong resistance from army troops and resistance fighters. 

The Houthi siege has stifled the densely populated city, pushing tens of thousands of people to the brink of famine and triggering condemnation from local and international rights groups.

Houthis earlier this month renewed a major offensive to recapture the central city of Marib, the Yemeni government’s last stronghold in the northern half of Yemen. 

In the western province of Hodeidah, a civilian was killed and his brother was wounded when an artillery shell fired by the Houthis exploded inside their house on Tuesday night in the town of Hays, south of Hodeidah city, local media said. 

The Joint Forces, an umbrella term for three major military units in the country’s western coast, said that Houthi sporadically shelled civilian areas in Hays, causing panic among residents. 

A truce imposed under the Stockholm Agreement in 2018 has largely failed to bring peace to contested areas in Hodeidah as local rights organizations say that hundreds of civilians have been killed in shelling and by land mines planted by the Houthis during the last three years.

Yemen’s government has hailed US sanctions on two Houthi military leaders for orchestrating terrorist strikes inside and outside Yemen. 

Yemeni Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani described the US decision as a “right step” on the path to punishing the Houthi group for rejecting peace ideas and launching deadly attacks on civilians across Yemen and in Saudi Arabia.


Lebanon’s president wants investigation into currency crash

Updated 03 March 2021

Lebanon’s president wants investigation into currency crash

  • While officially, the US dollar costs only 1,520 Lebanese pounds, the black market price was around 9,900 pounds on Wednesday
  • Just a few months earlier dollars could be bought at a rate of some 7,000 pounds

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president ordered the central bank governor on Wednesday to open an investigation into currency speculation, after the Lebanese pound plunged to record lows on the black market this week, leading to protests in the stricken country.
The request by President Michel Aoun came after the country’s banks were required to raise their capital holdings by Feb. 28, and local media reported that some had to scramble to get hard currency from the black market, sending demand for it — and its prices — surging.
While officially, the US dollar costs only 1,520 Lebanese pounds, the black market price was around 9,900 pounds on Wednesday — a day after briefly hitting a record high of 10,000. Just a few months earlier dollars could be bought at a rate of some 7,000 pounds.
In a statement released by his office after meeeting central bank governor Riad Salameh, Aoun said if it turns out that the crash was because of speculators, they should face justice. Enraged protesters, angry over the higher costs of dollar denominated goods, have blocked roads and highways with burning tires across the country.
Lebanon’s banking association denied it was responsible for the situation, blaming instead a lingering political implasse, pileups of unpaid state contracts, and houshold dollar hoarding.
Bickering between Lebanon’s political rivals has left the country in a stalemate for months, only worsening the economic disaster sparked by a debt crisis and soverign default last year. Disagreements between Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri have delayed the formation of the government for more than four months.
Lebanon has been hit by one crisis after another, with widespread protests against the country’s corrupt political class breaking out in October 2019. That has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and a massive blast in Beirut’s port last August that decimated the facility.
The country desparately needs foreign currency, but international donors want major anti-corruption reforms first, lest the funds disappear into a notorious state sector sinkhole that has brought the nation to the brink of bankruptcy.
The crisis has driven nearly half the population of the small country of 6 million into poverty. Over 1 million refugees from Syria live in Lebanon.


New Maronite archbishop elected

Updated 03 March 2021

New Maronite archbishop elected

  • Antoine Farès Bounajem elected new archbishop of Antélias of the Maronites
  • Lebanese Maronite Christians constitute about 22% of the population of Lebanon

ROME: The Synod of Bishops of the Patriarchal Church of Antioch of the Maronites has elected Antoine Farès Bounajem as new archbishop of Antélias of the Maronites, Lebanon.

Pope Francis has given his assent to his election, according to a statement of the Vatican Press office.

Bounajem, 53, was born in Harharaya-Kattine. After his schooling at the Saint George College of Zalka and in the minor seminary of Ghazir, he studied philosophy and theology at the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik, graduated in 1992.

He was awarded a licentiate in theology, with a catechetical-pastoral focus, at the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1999.

He was ordained a priest on July 10 1994 for the archeparchy of Antélias. Since ordination he has held various pastoral roles.

He has served as parish priest and chaplain of the Scouts and various prayer and formation groups.

Pope John Paul II established the archdiocese of Antélias of the Maronites in 1988. It depends immediately on the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch.

Its cathedral is the Resurrection Cathedral, five km north of Beirut, in the Matn District, Lebanon. In 2012, its 93 parishes counted 249,971 Lebanese Maronite Catholic members.

The Maronite Church is the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon. It is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church.

The Lebanese Maronite Christians are believed to constitute about 22 percent of the total population of Lebanon.