Opinion

For Iraqis, no easy escape from Iran’s domination

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An anti- government protester waves a national flag during a demonstration in the central Iraqi holy shrine city of Najaf in January. (AFP)
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Clashes between protesters and police, like those below in Baghdad’s Al- Khilani Square, have left as many as 600 people dead. (AFP)
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Updated 03 March 2020

For Iraqis, no easy escape from Iran’s domination

  • Until the coronavirus threat emptied out Baghdad's streets, protests were a daily fixture of life
  • The protesters were demanding an end to Iranian interference in elections and policy-making

LONDON: More than two months after nonstop anti-government protests prompted Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish president to offer a public letter of resignation, the fate of one of the Middle East’s most fragile states hangs in the balance.

If President Barham Salih eventually steps down, his replacement will have to contend with two destabilizing and diametrically opposed forces: A grassroots political movement that shows no sign of abating and the deeply entrenched influence of Iran’s discredited Shiite revolutionary regime.

The human cost kept rising every month until the protest sites of Baghdad emptied out amid fears over the coronavirus. According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, more than 600 people have died and more than 20,000 people have been injured since the protests began in earnest on Oct. 1, 2019.

Rights activists and organizations on the ground say that Iraqi security forces have become increasingly prone to using lethal force to disperse protesters, evident in the widespread use of deadly, military-grade tear-gas grenades and live ammunition.

While they may be brutalized, Iraq’s protesters are not cynical. The demographic makeup of the average protest group testifies to the shared spirit of activism sweeping the country, with the typical protest group made up of the young and the old, men and women, Sunni and Shiite.

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This unlikely coalition of protesters has come up with an array of demands, including the resignation of the current legislative representative body, the transparent prosecution of corrupt political representatives and the establishment of fairer electoral laws.

Additionally, the protesters want an end to Iranian interference in Iraqi elections and policymaking, and the replacement of the current political set-up with a government better aligned with the needs and aspirations of the people of Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, one of the key objectives of Sunni protesters is the disbanding of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a politically influential paramilitary organization that is dominated by state-sponsored Shiite militias and strongly resembles Iran’s IRGC.

Of late, another vulnerability has emerged in the form of Iraq’s cultural and religious ties with Iran, which is one of the countries worst hit by coronavirus infections outside of China.

All 13 cases detected so far are linked to Iran, according to Iraq’s health ministry. After decades of war and sanctions, Iraq is believed to have fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants.

On the bright side, there is no dearth of political groups that champion Iraq’s sovereignty and disapprove of the spread of Iran’s tentacles into every area of Iraqi life. 

From the anti-sectarian National Independent Iraqi Front, which consists of both Sunni and Shiite leaders, and the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq (SAI) to the National Wisdom Movement led by Ammar Al-Hakim, Iraqi political entities are increasingly asserting a pro-nationalist identity.

 

Dr. Herman Schmidt, of the London-based Global Distribution Network, says that Sunni-Shiite groups are beginning to emerge as a counterweight to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

“What we are seeing is the emergence of Iraq-first organizations, comprising Iraqi nationals and expats who’ve awoken to the dangers of foreign, specifically Iranian, interests, that seriously hamper Iraq’s ability to maintain control over its borders,” he told Arab News.

“The emergence of groups such as Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq and National Independent Iraqi Front is showing the world that Iraq wants to be a country for all its people, not merely a battleground for global Sunni-Shiite rivalry or a pawn in Iran’s game to control the Middle East.

“Establishing a unified Iraq with law and order is also indicative of a willingness to attract foreign capital into Iraq in order to rebuild its infrastructure after decades of conflict.”

For anyone following Iraq’s political trajectory over the past three years, the upsurge in tensions probably came as no surprise.

The anti-government chants that have reverberated across Iraq are prompted broadly by three sources of discontent: An unending cycle of hostilities; Iran’s perceived malign influence and economic dominance; and Iraqi politicians’ reputation as a corrupt elite out of touch with reality.

Despite the withdrawal of the bulk of US military forces and the defeat of Daesh as an organized terrorist group, Iraq continues to be wracked by terrorist insurgency, political unrest, extrajudicial abuses and killings, sectarian disputes and transnational criminal activity.

Notwithstanding Iran’s success in playing off one sect against another, Iraqi protesters are in no mood to let provincial or national government officials off the hook for the inadequate provision of basic public services, endemic government corruption and lack of employment opportunities.

During the war against Daesh, the Iraqi government managed to evade responsibility for the dismal state of administration and public finances. But now, after years of broken reform promises and declining living standards, it has become impossible for the authorities to contain the pent-up frustration and anger across the country.

Iraqis have no reason to be upbeat about the political outlook.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 by a US-led invasion, they have helplessly watched Iran grow its political, intelligence and military footprint across their country.

Over the past three years especially, Iran’s intelligence apparatus has exploited Iraq’s endless cycle of war and violence to amass unprecedented levels of influence over its political and financial institutions.

Rather than leverage its newfound influence to tamp down violence and heal Iraqi wounds, Tehran has chosen to aggressively tighten its grip over Baghdad and sow discord and chaos.

Iran’s agents have bought out parts of Iraq’s civil bureaucracy and established what amounts to a foreign intelligence network — stacked with personnel from both the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — inside the country’s most populous provinces.

Leaked reports indicate that the objective of many of these operations is the perpetuation of Iraq’s role as a client state of Iran. So far, this has been achieved by carefully stoking ethnic and sectarian tensions and fostering a culture of corruption and incompetence.

Analysts say that unless Iraq succeeds in distancing itself from Iran’s geopolitical orbit, stronger economic relations between the country on the one hand and, on the other hand, the US and the wealthy GCC bloc will remain a pipe dream.

These potential allies are reluctant to pour investments into Iraq’s funds-starved economy mainly because of the entrenched presence of Iran and the attendant geopolitical risks.

“Iran’s penetration of the Iraqi security services has scared away foreign investment,” said Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

“An end to Iran’s influence would remove the greatest obstacle to developing the country for the benefit of its own people. Washington has not fully woken up to the benefits that the sovereignty movement can provide to US interests and regional peace and stability.”

With the level of discontent likely to rise in the future due to falling prices of the commodity (oil) on which the state heavily depends for revenue, the Iraqi government does not have the luxury of time.

Independent observers say that Baghdad has two options: To remain a puppet of Iran and employ state security forces in a doomed attempt to repress the protests; or to adopt a pro-sovereignty doctrine that takes the demands of the Iraqi people seriously.

If they wish to preserve their country’s status as a sovereign nation, the Iraqi ruling elite must choose the second option or surrender power.

 

 


Fatah committee member sets up separate electoral list, defies leaders’ orders

Updated 32 min 35 sec ago

Fatah committee member sets up separate electoral list, defies leaders’ orders

  • Nasser Al-Qudwa launched the Palestinian Democratic Forum, with 230 prominent Palestinians attending
  • Al-Qudwa is a nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and runs the Yasser Arafat Foundation
AMMAN: Nasser Al-Qudwa, a member of the Fatah Central Committee announced on Tuesday that he has set up a separate electoral list for the upcoming legislative elections, in defiance of orders from the party’s leaders. Al-Qudwa could still support a Fatah-nominated government, however. Al Qudwa held an online meeting on Tuesday to announce the launch of the Palestinian Democratic Forum, with a number of key figures in attendance. The forum attendees included 230 prominent Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, and the diaspora. Participants called on imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti to join them too. Committees dealing with media, legal affairs, management, and candidacies were formed and it was agreed that members of these committees should not be on the electoral list. It was also agreed that there would be strict guidelines regarding candidates’ donations. Hani Al-Masri director-general of Ramallah’s Masarat think-tank, told Arab News that Al-Qudwa’s move could be a game-changer. “Al-Qudwa combines clean hands, respected national presence, and popular support, it will be a game-changer if Barghouti supports the list,” he said. Al-Qudwa is a nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and runs the Yasser Arafat Foundation. He resigned from the Fatah Central Committee in May 2018, but his colleagues in the committee soon convinced him to withdraw his resignation. He has never served time in an Israeli jail. The backing of Barghouti would strengthen his credentials in the eyes of many Palestinians. In a poll conducted in September by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research, Barghouti received 61 percent of the vote versus 32 percent for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, although Haniyeh still defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by three points in that poll. In a subsequent December poll, Barghouti again beat the Hamas leader convincingly. Hamas is unlikely to challenge in the presidential race scheduled for July 30. Al-Qudwa stated in the meeting that he has no issue with rank members of the reform faction loyal to former Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan being involved in the Palestinian Democratic Forum, even though he has been critical of Dahlan. “The new group is intended only to be a forum and not a vehicle to solve Fatah’s many problems,” he said. “We are creating a list and our aim is not to cause a crisis.” Al-Qudwa provided a 22-point initial program for the forum and said that the new body “is open for engagement and discussion in the coming meeting scheduled for March 4.” In addition to laying out ideas about how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the program calls for unity between Gaza and the Wes Bank, the rebuilding of the PLO, and government efficiency, as well as addressing issues including democracy, the rule of law, fighting corruption, and gaining national independence for the Palestinian state using the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital. The wide-ranging meeting also discussed negotiations, the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlements, how to protect and reclaim Palestinian land, women’s and children’s rights, and Palestinian martyrs and prisoners.

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Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit reappointed

Updated 43 min 6 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 03 March 2021

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.