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.



Egypt continues to push for political solution in Libya

Updated 16 April 2021

Egypt continues to push for political solution in Libya

  • Egypt’s foreign affairs minister Sameh Shoukry reiterates support for UN special envoy’s efforts

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry reiterated his country’s support in reaching a comprehensive political settlement to the Libyan crisis in a meeting with UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Libya Jan Kubis.

Shoukry said such a settlement should preserve the unity of Libya, ensure the exit of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from it, and preserve the capabilities of its people and its national institutions.

Egypt’s foreign minister stressed the importance of the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which seeks to pave the way for legislative and presidential elections in Libya scheduled for December.

Shoukry also reaffirmed his country’s support for the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, which includes five representatives from each of the rival sides in the conflict. He is optimistic the commission can unify security and military institutions within Libya.

Ahmed Hafez, a spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Shoukry is also backing the continuous efforts made by Kubis in his mission to reach a political solution that would serve the Libyan people and achieve their aspirations for a stable and prosperous nation.

The UN envoy briefed Shoukry on the results of his recent contacts with the parties involved in the Libyan crisis. The envoy expressed his appreciation for Egypt's efforts aimed at supporting its national neighbors and his aspiration for continued coordination with Cairo.

US official fires warning shot at Lebanese reform blockers

Updated 16 April 2021

US official fires warning shot at Lebanese reform blockers

  • David Hale: “Those who facilitate progress can be assured of our strong support.”

BEIRUT: The US undersecretary of state for political affairs, David Hale, has issued a warning against “those who continue to obstruct progress on the reform agenda.”

He said that they “jeopardize their relationship with the US and our partners and open themselves up to punitive actions,” adding: “Those who facilitate progress can be assured of our strong support.”

Hale’s statement came after his meeting on Thursday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

The political disagreements resulted in the failure of the designated prime minister, Saad Hariri, to form a rescue government of non-partisan specialists to implement reforms demanded by the international community.

President Aoun’s team and his supporters object to the government lineup presented by Hariri last December. Aoun and his political team, represented by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), are demanding that they have the power to name Christian ministers in the government and to have the blocking vote. Hezbollah, which supports a techno-political government, champions some of these demands.

The US administration had previously imposed sanctions on FPM leader Gebran Bassil on charges related to corruption.

Hale stressed that he came to Lebanon “at the request of Secretary Blinken to underscore the Biden administration’s continued commitment to the Lebanese people and our shared desire for stability and prosperity in Lebanon.”

Hale reiterated his condemnation of the performance of the ruling authority.

“The Lebanese people are clearly suffering.  They are suffering because Lebanese leaders have failed to meet their responsibility to put the country’s interests first and to address the mounting socio-economic problems,” he said.

Hale referred to his two previous visits to Lebanon, which were in December 2019 and August 2020. He said: “I heard then an unmistakable call for change from Lebanese from all backgrounds. These demands are universal: For transparency, accountability, and an end to the endemic corruption and mismanagement that have caused such hardship.

“If these demands had been met, Lebanon would be on the road to fulfilling its tremendous potential. Yet today, there has been very little progress. But it’s not too late.”

Hale renewed his call on Lebanon’s leaders “to show sufficient flexibility to form a government that is willing and capable of reversing the collapse underway.”

He said: “The time to build a government, not block it, is now. The time to build a government is now. The time for comprehensive reform is now. And America and the international community are ready to help.  But we cannot help, as I said yesterday, without a Lebanese partner.”

Hale specifically criticized Hezbollah: “Hezbollah’s accumulation of dangerous weapons, smuggling, and other illicit and corrupt activities undermine legitimate state institutions.”

He added: “They rob the Lebanese of the ability to build a peaceful and prosperous country. And it is Iran that is fueling and financing this challenge to the state and this distortion of Lebanese political life.

“This brings me to America’s renewed negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. A mutual return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal is in our interest and in the interest of regional stability, but it would only be the beginning of our work. As we address the other elements of Iran’s destabilizing behavior, America will not abandon our interests and our friends here in Lebanon.”

Hale, who is described in Lebanon as the godfather of the framework agreement for negotiations on demarcating Lebanon’s southern borders with Israel, stressed that “America stands ready to facilitate negotiations on the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel on the basis on which we initiated these discussions.”

Hale’s insistence on facilitating negotiations with Israel “on the basis on which we initiated” came as a response to Lebanon’s demand during the 2020 Lebanese-Israeli technical negotiations to amend the area it expects to reclaim due to a calculating error. This amendment will include 2,290 sq. km instead of an area of ​​860 sq. km. This expansion depended on an effort by the Lebanese Army in 2019 to demarcate the maritime borders.

Lebanon drew up a decree to amend this area to submit it to the UN.

This decree has yet to be signed by Aoun, pending the approval of the cabinet. Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab is refusing to hold a cabinet session due to its illegality.

Following Hale’s statement, Aoun stressed “the importance of continuing negotiations on demarcating the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel and fulfilling America’s role as an honest and just mediator.”

He said: “Lebanon has the right to develop its position according to its interest, in line with the international law, and in accordance with constitutional principles.”

Aoun called for “the appointment of international experts to demarcate the line and the commitment to refraining from any exploration work in the Karish field and in the adjacent waters.”

He stressed that he would not abandon “the sovereignty, rights, and interests of Lebanon” and would “make every effort to ensure that the demarcation of the borders is a subject of consensus among the Lebanese and not a subject of division, with the aim of strengthening Lebanon’s position in the negotiations.”

Hale’s meeting with Lebanese Army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun focused on “the extent to which the army was affected by the approved spending rationalization decision and its impact on the army’s performance of the great tasks entrusted to it.”

Hale’s meetings in Beirut coincided with the visit of Hariri to Moscow. The Kremlin announced on Thursday that a phone call took place between President Vladimir Putin and Hariri, who was present at the Russian Foreign Ministry. The call lasted 50 minutes.

The Kremlin’s statement said that Hariri briefed Putin on internal developments and the initial measures to form a government and overcome the economic crisis. Russia affirmed its position in support of Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.

A source among the Lebanese delegation to Moscow told Arab News that the call between Putin and Hariri was “excellent with regard to the government crisis, and it stressed that the government should be formed as soon as possible.”

Ramadan lanterns trade in Gaza: Source of strength for family of five

Updated 16 April 2021

Ramadan lanterns trade in Gaza: Source of strength for family of five

  • Couple dream of opening a handicrafts store bearing their name, for exports

GAZA CITY: Using simple materials like cloth, wood, and electric lighting, Ghadeer, 41, runs a Ramadan business producing lanterns in Gaza, which became the main source of income to her family.

The month of Ramadan is a good source of income for Ghadeer, who lives in Khan Younis in the south of Gaza, and for other women who manufacture lanterns, enabling them to provide for the basic needs of their families in light of their deteriorating economic reality.

Ghadeer started her small home project five years ago, and thinks that her talent for manufacturing handicrafts opened the door for her to start making Ramadan lanterns, with the help of her unemployed husband Khaled Sweidan, 44.

The manufacture of lanterns and other handicrafts related to religious and community occasions such as the Hajj and Umrah seasons, weddings and holidays, is the only source of income for the family.

“The financial return is limited and barely sufficient to meet the family’s requirements,” Ghadeer said.

“We used cardboard at the beginning, but today we use more quality raw materials, and I dream of further development in the future.”

Ghadeer has no place to show her work but she uses social media platforms to promote the products. She is proud of the admiration they receive from customers and shopkeepers, even receiving messages from the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and Jordan enquiring about purchases.

Khaled monitors the market, studies its needs and keeps pace with the customers’ requirements to make improvements to the lanterns in terms of shape, size, colors and quality of fabric used.

“Buying lanterns is not important for many in Gaza because of the poor economic conditions, and we are keen to produce quantities commensurate with the needs of the market so that (unsold stock) does not accumulate,” he said

The couple dream of opening a store bearing their name to display their creations, and long for the opportunity to export them abroad.

Local statistics indicate that the percentage of women who are the main breadwinners for their families in Gaza rose from 7 percent in 2007 to 25 percent until the first quarter of 2020.

Hanan Al-Madhoun, 36, had also been waiting for Ramadan to sell her products. Six years ago, Hanan turned a corner of her modest home in the Shati refugee camp, west of Gaza City, into a workshop, where she works about 12 hours a day to help support her husband and three children.

Since the beginning of last year, after her husband lost his job due to the coronavirus pandemic, her work has become the only source of providing for the family.

Fortunately, Hanan has friends in Egypt, a significant market for Ramadan decorations, and Gaza’s artisans follow the Egyptian market more than other Arab markets, influenced by Egyptian rituals and customs. The prices of her popular Ramadan decorations range from four shekels ($1) to 120 shekels.

“I am satisfied with a small profit margin in order to encourage those who want to buy and bring joy to their families,” she said.


Turkish journalist Altan released after more than four years in jail

Updated 16 April 2021

Turkish journalist Altan released after more than four years in jail

  • European top court’s ruling obliged Ankara to set dissident author free and pay $19,000 in non-pecuniary damages

ANKARA: A prominent Turkish journalist was released from jail on Wednesday after being held behind bars for more than four years over charges related to a failed 2016 government coup attempt.

Ahmet Altan, 71, was freed after Turkey's Court of Cassation, the country’s top appeals court, overturned the conviction against him a day earlier and ordered his release. 

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that Turkey violated Altan's rights to liberty and security, and ordered the country to pay him 16,000 euros ($19,000) in non-pecuniary damages. The top European court also claimed that there was no indication to prove that Altan was involved in a deliberate plan to overthrow the government. 

“Deprivation of liberty, in particular continued detention, must be based on reasonable suspicion,” the ECHR ruling said.

Altan, who had been incarcerated since September 2016, was previously sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment for trying to “overthrow the constitutional order.” He was also accused of “disseminating subliminal messages announcing the military coup” with his televised speeches and writings — charges he always denied. 

Altan, an award-winning novelist, is also a former editor-in-chief of the dissident Taraf newspaper and wrote politically-sensitive articles and columns critical of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supporting Kurdish rights.

Following his appeal, the Court of Cassation had overruled in July 2019 the aggravated prison term and ruled that the novelist should be sentenced for “knowingly aiding an armed terrorist organization” behind the coup attempt. 

Altan was then sentenced to 10 years and six months in jail and the court ruled for his release on condition of judicial control, although he was re-arrested soon after as the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office appealed the ruling that set him free. 

The case was brought to the Constitutional Court on Nov. 21, 2019 as his lawyer cited lack of the necessary conditions for imprisonment, but the application was dismissed a year after. 

“The release of Ahmet Altan is the best news for freedom of expression coming from Turkey in a long time. However, charges against him continue and his freedom cannot be taken for granted,” Laura Batalla Adam, secretary-general of the European Union Turkey Forum, told Arab News. 

Batalla-Adam said Altan’s case is only one of many. 

After last year’s amnesty law in Turkey, tens of thousands of prisoners were released to ease the overcrowding, but the law exempted political prisoners and dissident journalists. 

The politically motivated detention of the Turkish novelist has been at the top of the international community’s agenda for a long time. 

Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano recently penned an open letter to Altan, saying his incarceration “must concern us all.” 

“They took away your freedom. To freeze your words, they locked you up in a cell,” he wrote. 

A group of 17 Swedish journalists also urged Ankara in February to immediately release Altan. “You can put opponents in jail with Kafkaesque reasons but you can never imprison freedom of expression,” they wrote in a joint declaration. 

During last week’s summit in Ankara, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel slammed Turkey for its deteriorating record on human rights and urged Ankara to respect human rights norms if it wants to have stronger ties with the EU. 

Tarik Beyhan, campaigns and communications director of Amnesty International Turkey, said: “Ahmet Altan’s release is great but he should never have been arrested.”

He told Arab News: “Better late than never, but his arrest and detention had been politically motivated. He had been put behind bars arbitrarily, was deprived of his liberty for more than four and a half years solely because he has been perceived as a government critic.”  

Now attention is shifting toward other politically motivated cases in Turkey, especially the notable incarcerations of Turkish philanthropist and businessperson Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas. 

The European top court also ruled for the immediate release of both, although these legally binding decisions have not yet been implemented by the Turkish judiciary that is criticized for being insufficiently independent of the political sphere.  

“Turkey’s implementation of European Court of Human Rights’ judgment is good for Altan, but he is just one among many real or perceived government opponents unjustly jailed or imprisoned under trumped-up charges for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly or association, and must be released immediately,” Beyhan said. 

“The judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are legally binding and Turkey cannot keep choosing whether to implement them or not.”

Experts also note that Altan’s release might be the result of Erdogan’s latest attempts to mend ties with the west, especially the EU and US President Joe Biden. 

The Biden administration has already prioritized democratization and human rights before putting bilateral relations with Turkey back on track. 

“As part of the recent charm offensive, the government should prove its real commitment to human rights and start to apply all the pending rulings from the ECHR, namely in the case of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas,” Batalla-Adam said. 

“Making progress in the elements contained in the positive agenda requires genuine democratic improvements.”

Judge orders release of 6 detained over Lebanon port blast

Updated 15 April 2021

Judge orders release of 6 detained over Lebanon port blast

  • Investigating judge ordered the release of 6 men including an officer, who had warned top officials of dangers of material stored at port
  • The six will be banned from traveling outside Lebanon, according to a judicial official

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge investigating 2020’s massive blast at Beirut’s port on Thursday ordered the release of six people, including security officers, who had been detained for months, state news agency reported.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the release of the men, who include an officer who had written a detailed warning to top officials prior to the explosion about the dangers of the material stored at the port.
Judge Tarek Bitar was named to lead the investigation in February after his predecessor was removed following legal challenges by two former Cabinet ministers he had accused of negligence.
State-run National News Agency said Bitar ordered the release of the six including Maj. Joseph Naddaf of the State Security department and Maj. Charbel Fawaz of the General Security Directorate. The four others are customs and port employees.
Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, exploded on Aug. 4, killing 211 people, wounding more than 6,000 and damaging nearby neighborhoods.
The six will be banned from traveling outside Lebanon, according to a judicial official, speaking on condition of anonymity to follow regulations. The official added that 19 people are still being held in the case. Among those who are still held are the head of the customs department and his predecessor as well as the port’s director general.
In a July 20 report, State Security warned that one of the doors of the warehouse where the material had been stored was separated from the wall enough to allow anyone to enter and steal the ammonium nitrate.
The report that was sent to President Michel Aoun and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned that thieves could steal the material to make explosives. Or, it said, the mass of material could cause an explosion “that would practically destroy the port.”
Holding Naddaf for months had angered some in Lebanon especially that his report two weeks before the blast was a clear warning of the dangers.
The Beirut port explosion has been one of the most traumatic national experiences the Lebanese have faced and families of those killed are skeptical that any investigation into the explosion can be transparent and independent in a country where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades.