Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Al-Sistani calls for formation of new government as protesters killed

Iraqi demonstrators burn tires as they block a road during ongoing anti-government protests, in Baghdad, Iraq January 23, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 25 January 2020

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Al-Sistani calls for formation of new government as protesters killed

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, urged Iraq’s political parties on Friday to form a new government as soon as possible, and urged authorities to respect protesters’ right to express themselves.

Al-Sistani, who delivered his message through a representative at Friday prayer in Karbala, reiterated calls to foreign powers to respect Iraq’s sovereignty. 

“The formation of the new government is constitutionally long overdue, it is necessary for the various parties concerned to cooperate,” Al-Sistani said.

He admonished authorities for “procrastinating” on reform promises and parties for being “very late” in naming a successor to Premier Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has acted as caretaker since resigning in December.

Two anti-government protesters were killed in clashes with security forces in Baghdad, hours after thousands of supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr rallied separately to demand the ouster of US troops.

A vowed enemy of US troops, Al-Sadr had called for “a million-strong” rally but did not attend himself. “Get out, get out, occupier!” they chanted.

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A statement read out at Al-Sadr’s rally demanded all foreign forces leave Iraq, Iraqi-American security agreements be cancelled, Iraqi airspace be closed to US military aircraft and for Trump not to act ‘arrogant.’

A statement read by his representative at the rally demanded all foreign forces leave Iraq, Iraqi-American security agreements be cancelled, Iraqi airspace be closed to US military aircraft and for President Donald Trump not to act “arrogant” when addressing Iraqi officials.

“If all this is implemented, we will deal with it as a non-occupying country — otherwise it will be considered a country hostile to Iraq,” the statement read.

Four NGO workers, three of them French nationals, were also reported missing in Baghdad, rocked since October by a youth-dominated protest movement demanding a government overhaul, early elections and more accountability.

The NGO’s director described the men as “experienced staff members who have been working with us for years” and who had “perfect knowledge of conflict zones.”

More than 470 people have died in protest-related violence since October, most of them demonstrators, and violence has spiked this week.

The Pentagon said that 34 US troops were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries suffered in this month’s Iranian missile strike on an Iraqi air base, and that half of the troops have returned to their military duties.

Seventeen of the 34 are still under medical observation, according to Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman.

Trump had initially said he was told that no troops had been injured in the Jan. 8 strike. The military said symptoms were not immediately reported after the strike and in some cases became known days later.


Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

Updated 27 February 2020

Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

  • Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways
  • Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting

AMMAN: Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb, the first significant reverse for the Syrian army in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains, the rebels said on Thursday.
Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways, following advances by the Syrian army in its bid to retake the last large rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting.
“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front, said in a statement, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported on Thursday that Russian-backed government forces had seized full control of southern Idlib province after fresh advances against the rebels.
Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in the southern Idlib area and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Observatory said.
The opposition advance on Saraqeb comes ahead of an end-February deadline set by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Turkey says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.
Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back.
Turkish and Russian officials were expected to hold a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday on the conflict.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into Syria’s northwest corner bordering Turkey to back the rebels and set up new outposts that rebels say was in preparation for a Turkish operation to push back Assad’s forces.
Ibrahim Al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said the seizure of the town eases pressure on rebels who in recent days lost a string of significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.
“The rebels this morning completed their control of Saraqeb after having advanced from several fronts. This eases the pressure after the Syrian army’s recent gains,” Idlibi said.
Saraqeb is at the juncture of two main roads linking the capital of Damascus and its second largest city of Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.
Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, from the insurgents had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.
Opening major highways in rebel hands to revive a shattered war economy has been a key goal of the Russian-led campaign.
“The opposition have now cut the highways and brought the regime to square one,” said Syrian opposition defector general Ahmad Rahhal.