Sailing Baghdad’s river bends, young Iraqis rock the boat

Members of the Iraqi Water Sports Federation place a sail boat on the banks of the river Tigris, in the Adhamiya district of Iraq’s capital Baghdad, on Oct. 15, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 25 November 2020

Sailing Baghdad’s river bends, young Iraqis rock the boat

  • The water sports are also revolutionizing how Iraqis interact with the historic Tigris and Euphrates

BAGHDAD: Mariam Khaled squinted her eyes, drew in her sail against the wind and set her white dinghy toward a point on the riverbank: Adhamiya, to be precise, in central Baghdad.
With the orange sunset saturating the sky, a cluster of mostly teenage sailors, windsurfers and jet-skiers were making waves along the river Tigris.
“It’s a difficult sport that requires a lot of effort, and plenty of patience and perseverance,” 16-year-old Khaled, a former junior swimming champion, told AFP.
“But I want to show everyone that we, Iraqi women, can succeed,” she added, after pulling her dinghy up the muddy bank.
The water sports are also revolutionizing how Iraqis interact with the historic Tigris and Euphrates, which gave the country its byname of the “land between the two rivers” millennia ago.
Water levels in the twin rivers have dropped by half because of dams upstream in neighboring Turkey and Iran.
One year in Baghdad, the levels drew so low that residents could squelch between the banks of the Tigris on foot.
Following the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Adhamiya became the heart of a Sunni insurrection and one of the most dangerous places in Baghdad.
The dark years of Iraq’s sectarian fighting from 2006 until 2008 pitted it against the Shiite district of Kadhimiya, just across the Tigris.
The remains of victims who were thrown into the river back then still sometimes wash ashore — but today, Baghdad’s river bends see much more life than death.
Along the waterfront, restaurants and small funfairs are teeming with families who gaze out at the young athletes.
“It’s now a place of leisure and relaxation,” said Ghazi Al-Shayaa, a sports journalist.
“It’s a joy to see Baghdadis gathering here nearly every day to watch the swimmers or the boats go by,” he said.
The latest major round of violence in Iraq ended in 2017, when the government declared victory in its years-long fight against the Islamic State jihadist group.
The next year, Ahmad Mazlum came up with a crazy idea: setting up Iraq’s first water sports federation.
Its riverside headquarters in Adhamiya is identifiable by the rows of white dinghies and bright windsurfing sails.
Half of the 10 dinghies are Iraqi-made, at around $600 each.
“An (imported) sailboat can cost $10,000. So we had to build our own in a workshop we set up with the club members,” said Mazlum, the federation’s deputy head.
The around 100 mostly teenage members — eight of them girls — wear matching fluorescent athletics clothes, as bathing suits would likely contravene Iraq’s widely conservative norms.
Boys and girls train together under Anmar Salman, a regional rowing champion who recruited from fellow rowers and Iraqi swimmers to launch the sailing club.
Aboard a motorized boat one late afternoon, he advised the young sailors on how to tack and deal with wind conditions.
“Turn now!” called out the instructor with the neatly-trimmed beard.
The stretch of river where they practice has surprisingly robust winds of up to 15 knots, likely because the buildings on either side create a tunnel.
Salman is planning to take his young trainees to qualifiers next year in Abu Dhabi for the Tokyo Olympics.
But since they can only train up and down the river, they may not have the same versatility as sea sailors.
The team also suffers from a lack of funding, Salman said.
“The problem is that athletic institutions in the country aren’t interested in sailing — but the Olympic Committee has backed us with some meagre means,” he told AFP.
Still, the federation is proud to nurture a culture of sailing in Iraq, where navigating the Tigris and Euphrates has been done for several millennia — but usually on circular “quffa” rowboats.
For the youth in Adhamiya, the spirit of camaraderie and discovery seems to be enough, Salman said.
“Luckily, our athletes adore the sport and like to train for the joy of doing it, without demanding much else.”


B-52s again fly over Middle East in US military warning to Iran

Updated 07 March 2021

B-52s again fly over Middle East in US military warning to Iran

DUBAI: A pair of B-52 bombers flew over the Middle East on Sunday, the latest such mission in the region aimed at warning Iran amid tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The US military’s Central Command said the two B-52s flew over the region accompanied by military aircraft from nations including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It marked the fourth-such bomber deployment into the Middke East this year and the second under President Joe Biden.
Flight-tracking data showed the two B-52s flew out of Minot Air Base in North Dakota, something Central Command did not mention in its statement on the flights though authorities later published images of the flight crew preparing its departure there.
The military did not directly mention Iran in its statement, saying the flight was to “deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the US military’s commitment to security in the region.”
However, such flights had become common in the last months of former President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers sparked a series of escalating incidents in the region.
Biden has expressed a desire to return to the deal if Iran honors the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. However, tensions remain high after militias in Iraq — likely backed by Iran — continue to target American interests.
Biden last month launched an airstrike just over the border into Syria in retaliation, joining every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.


Iran releases British-Iranian aid worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest but court summons looms

Updated 07 March 2021

Iran releases British-Iranian aid worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest but court summons looms

  • Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent the last year of her term under house arrest with electronic shackles tied to her feet
  • Kermani said a hearing for Zaghari-Ratcliffe's second case has been scheduled on March 14

DUBAI: Iran has released British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest at the end of her five-year prison sentence, but she has been summoned to court again on another charge, her lawyer said on Sunday.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested at a Tehran airport in April 2016 and later convicted of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who served out most of her sentence in Tehran's Evin prison, was released last March during the coronavirus pandemic and kept under house arrest, but her movements were restricted and she was barred from leaving the country.
On Sunday the authorities removed her ankle tag.
"She was pardoned by Iran's supreme leader last year, but spent the last year of her term under house arrest with electronic shackles tied to her feet. Now they're cast off," her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told an Iranian website. "She has been freed."
Iran's judiciary was not immediately available to comment about the release. Her family and the foundation, a charity that operates independently of media firm Thomson Reuters and its news subsidiary Reuters, deny the charge.
Kermani said a hearing for Zaghari-Ratcliffe's second case has been scheduled on March 14.
"In this case, she is accused of propaganda against the Islamic Republic's system for participating in a rally in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009 and giving interview to the BBC Persian TV channel at the same time," Kermani said.
He said he hoped that "this case will be closed at this stage, considering the previous investigation".
Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband told Sky News on Sunday she was "pleased" her ankle tag had been removed but said the news was "mixed" from Iran due to the court summons.
"Richard Ratcliffe says Nazanin is ‘pleased’ the ankle tag is off #nazanin," Sky News reporter Lisa Holland said on Twitter. "Richard Ratcliffe has told me the news today is ‘mixed’. The ankle tag is off but Nazanin has to appear in court again next Sunday in a second case."
Ratcliffe did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
British foreign minister Dominic Raab welcomed the removal of Zaghari-Ratcliffe's ankle tag but said Iran continued to put her and her family through a "cruel and an intolerable ordeal".
"She must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the UK. We have relayed to the Iranian authorities in the strongest possible terms that her continued confinement is unacceptable," Raab said in a statement.
Her lawyer told Iranian state TV he had no news on the status of her travel ban.
British lawmaker Tulip Siddiq said she had spoken to Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family and that her first trip would be to see her grandmother.
The detentions of dozens of dual nationals and foreigners have complicated ties between Tehran and several European countries including Germany, France and Britain, all parties to Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with six powers.
The release come as Iran and the United States are trying to revive the deal, which former US president abandoned in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by scaling down its compliance.


Rouhani: Iran ready to take steps when US lifts sanctions

Updated 07 March 2021

Rouhani: Iran ready to take steps when US lifts sanctions

  • ‘Iran is ready to immediately take compensatory measures based on the nuclear deal and fulfill its commitments’
  • Hassan Rouhani: Iran is the only country that kept its side of the bargain

TEHRAN: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday his country was prepared to take steps to live up to measures in the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as soon as the United States lifts economic sanctions on Iran.
In a meeting with Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, Rouhani said: “Iran is ready to immediately take compensatory measures based on the nuclear deal and fulfill its commitments just after the US illegal sanctions are lifted and it abandons its policy of threats and pressure.”
Rouhani criticized the European signatories of the historic nuclear deal for what he said was their inaction on their commitments to the agreement. He said Iran is the only country that kept its side of the bargain.
Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iranian nuclear accord, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. When the US then reimposed some sanctions and added others, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits on its nuclear development.
The Republic of Ireland has the role of facilitator in the implementation of the nuclear deal.
Coveney said the withdrawal of former President Donald Trump was a mistake and noted that the new US administration is determined to return to the deal.
In December, Iran’s parliament approved a bill that calls for the suspension of part of UN inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal do not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions.

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Jordan’s PM to reshuffle cabinet to hasten IMF-guided reforms

Updated 07 March 2021

Jordan’s PM to reshuffle cabinet to hasten IMF-guided reforms

  • Six new ministers will be named including the interior and justice portfolios
  • Expected reshuffle comes after parliament last week passed a $14 billion budget

AMMAN: Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh was expected to reshuffle his cabinet on Sunday to help accelerate IMF-guided reforms seen as crucial to economic recovery in Jordan from the blow of the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
Six new ministers will be named including interior and justice after Khasawneh fired both incumbents last week for attending a restaurant dinner party that violated coronavirus restrictions they were supposed to enforce.
The British-educated Khasawneh, a veteran former diplomat and palace aide, was appointed last October by King Abdullah to restore public trust over the handling of the coronavirus health crisis and defuse anger over successive governments’ failure to deliver on pledges of prosperity and curbing corruption.
Jordan is witnessing a nearly two-month-old surge of infections driven by a more contagious variant of the virus amid rising discontent over worsening economic conditions and curbs on public freedoms under emergency laws.
Aides say Khasawneh was expected to retain Harvard-educated Mohammad Al Ississ as finance minister. He has won International Monetary Fund praise for his handling of the economy during the pandemic, and has negotiated a four-year IMF program worth $1.3 billion, signalling confidence in Jordan’s reform agenda.
The expected reshuffle comes after parliament last week passed a 9.9-billion-dinar ($14 billion) budget which Al Ississ said aimed to maintain fiscal prudence to help ensure financial stability and rein in a record $45 billion public debt.
The economy saw its worst contraction — 3 percent — in decades last year, hit by lockdowns, border closures and a sharp fall in tourism during the pandemic, but the government and the IMF both predict a bounce of similar magnitude this year.
Officials say Jordan’s commitment to IMF reforms and investor confidence in the improved outlook helped the country maintain stable sovereign ratings at a time when other emerging markets were being downgraded.


Explosion on Gaza fishing boat kills 3 Palestinian anglers

Updated 07 March 2021

Explosion on Gaza fishing boat kills 3 Palestinian anglers

  • The cause of the blast was not immediately clear

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip: Three Palestinian fishermen were killed Sunday after a blast ripped through their boat off the Gaza shore, officials said.
Nezar Ayyash, of the association that represents fishermen, said the anglers – two brothers and a cousin – were plying their trade off the coast of the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza Strip when the explosion happened.
The cause of the blast was not immediately clear.
Palestinian media reports blamed Israeli navy fire, but the Israeli military said it was not involved in this incident. The Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza said it opened an investigation.
Minutes before the explosion, local media reported that Hamas, the militant group ruling the Gaza Strip, was test-firing rockets toward the sea.