Opinion

Preparations in full swing for pope’s meeting with Ali Al-Sistani

A poster of Pope Francis and Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, is seen along a street ahead of the Pope's planned visit to Iraq, in Najaf, Iraq, March 3, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 04 March 2021

Preparations in full swing for pope’s meeting with Ali Al-Sistani

  • The Vatican’s hope was that Francis would sign a document with Al-Sistani pledging human fraternity

BAGHDAD: Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, a preeminent Shiite figure, are to meet on Saturday for at most 40 minutes, part of the time alone except for interpreters, in the cleric’s modest home in Najaf. 

Al-Sistani is notoriously reclusive and has not left his Najaf home in years. He does not make public appearances and his sermons are delivered by representatives. He rarely receives foreign dignitaries.

The Vatican’s hope was that Francis would sign a document with Al-Sistani pledging human fraternity, just as he did with Sunni Islam’s influential grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, based in Egypt.

The signature was among many elements the two sides negotiated over extensively. In the end, Shiite religious officials in Najaf told the AP a signing was not on the agenda, and Al-Sistani will issue a verbal statement instead.

The 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy will pull up along Najaf’s busy column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in the world for Shiites.

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To the side is an alleyway too narrow for cars. Here, Francis will walk the 30 meters to Al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades. Waiting to greet him at the entrance will be Al-Sistani’s influential son, Mohammed Ridha.

Inside, and some steps to the right, the pontiff will come face to face with the ayatollah.

Each will make a simple gesture of mutual respect.

Francis will remove his shoes before entering Al-Sistani’s room.

Al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, will stand to greet Francis at the door and walk him to an L-shaped blue sofa, inviting him to take a seat.

The pope will be offered tea. Gifts will be exchanged.

Francis will almost certainly present Al-Sistani with bound copies of his most important writings, top among them his latest encyclical “Brothers All.”

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Twenty killed in road accident in Egypt

Updated 14 April 2021

Twenty killed in road accident in Egypt

  • The bus from Cairo collided with a truck loaded with cement in the province of Assiut
  • Reckless driving and the poor condition of roads are responsible for many crashes in Egypt

CAIRO: Twenty people were killed and three injured in an accident involving a bus and a truck on a desert highway in Upper Egypt late on Tuesday, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

The bus from Cairo collided with a truck loaded with cement, which was stopping due to a malfunction, in the province of Assiut, about 370 km south of the capital, the provincial governor's office said in a statement.

The bus was burned out within minutes, and the bodies and the injured were removed from it with difficulty, it added.

Thirty-six ambulances rushed to the scene, the health ministry said.

Reckless driving and the poor condition of roads are responsible for many crashes in Egypt. Dozens have been killed in a recent spate of rail and road crashes.

Eighteen people were killed in March when a truck collided with a minibus in Giza province, about 80 km south of Cairo. At least 20 people were killed and nearly 200 people wounded injured when two trains collided near Tahta, about 440 km south of Cairo.


Biden administration proceeding with $23 billion weapon sales to UAE

Updated 14 April 2021

Biden administration proceeding with $23 billion weapon sales to UAE

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden’s administration has told Congress it is proceeding with more than $23 billion in weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including advanced F-35 aircraft, armed drones and other equipment, congressional aides said on Tuesday.
A State Department spokesperson said the administration would move forward with the proposed sales to the UAE, “even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials” related to the use of the weapons.
The Democratic president’s administration had paused the deals agreed to by former Republican President Donald Trump in order to review them.


Biden administration proceeding with $23 billion weapon sales to UAE

Updated 14 April 2021

Biden administration proceeding with $23 billion weapon sales to UAE

  • A legislative effort to stop the sales failed in December

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden’s administration has told Congress it is proceeding with more than $23 billion in weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including advanced F-35 aircraft, armed drones and other equipment, congressional aides said on Tuesday.

A State Department spokesperson said the administration would move forward with the proposed sales to the UAE, “even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials” related to the use of the weapons.

The Democratic president’s administration had paused the deals agreed to by former Republican President Donald Trump in order to review them. The sales to the Gulf nation were finalized right before Trump left office.

The Trump administration told Congress in November it had approved the US sale to the UAE as a side deal to the Abraham Accords, a US-brokered agreement in September in which the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

In the last months of the Trump administration, Israel reached deals with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco as part of the accords.

The $23.37 billion package contained products from General Atomics, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Technologies Corp, including 50 F-35 Lighting II aircraft, up to 18 MQ-9B Unmanned Aerial Systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.

A legislative effort to stop the sales failed in December, as Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress backed his plans.

The Trump administration then finalized the massive sale to the UAE on Jan. 20, about an hour before Biden was sworn in as president.

The Biden administration announced the review in late January and the UAE said then it had anticipated the review and welcomed joint efforts to de-escalate tensions and for renewed regional dialogue.

The State Department spokesperson said on Tuesday the estimated delivery dates on the UAE sales, if implemented, were for after 2025 or later.

The government anticipated “a robust and sustained dialogue with the UAE” to ensure a stronger security partnership, the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

“We will also continue to reinforce with the UAE and all recipients of US defense articles and services that US-origin defense equipment must be adequately secured and used in a manner that respects human rights and fully complies with the laws of armed conflict,” the statement said.

The Biden administration is also reviewing its policy for military sales to Saudi Arabia, including some Trump-era weapons deals, in light of the Saudi involvement in Yemen and other human rights concerns.

It has not released the results of that review. In February, US officials said the administration was considering canceling past deals that posed human rights concerns and limiting future sales to “defensive” weapons.


Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval

Updated 13 April 2021

Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval

  • Aoun's decision could significantly delay the process
  • Israeli Energy Minister said Monday Lebanon's expanded claim would derail talks

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president said on Tuesday a draft decree expanding its maritime claims in a dispute with Israel must be approved by the caretaker government, rejecting a request to grant it swift presidential approval.
The dispute with Israel over the maritime boundary has held up hydrocarbon exploration in a potentially gas-rich area of the eastern Mediterranean.
The decree, approved by Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, defense minister and minister of public work on Monday, would add around 1,400 square km (540 square miles) to an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean claimed by Lebanon.
Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s office said the decree should be approved by President Michel Aoun so that the new maritime coordinates setting out Lebanon’s claim could be submitted to the United Nations.
But the presidency said it should be approved by Diab’s full cabinet, even though the government resigned eight months ago following a devastating explosion in Beirut, because of the gravity of the issue.
The draft decree “needs a collective decision from the council of ministers..., even under a caretaker government, due to its importance and the consequences,” a statement from Aoun’s office said.
Aoun’s decision could significantly delay the process. Since the government resigned in August it has referred all issues for exceptional approval by the president, leaving them to get formal endorsement when a new government is finally agreed.
Negotiations were launched in October to try to resolve the dispute with Israel yet the talks, a culmination of three years of diplomacy by the United States, have since stalled.
Israel already pumps gas from offshore fields but Lebanon has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday Lebanon’s expanded claim would derail the talks rather than help work toward a common solution, warning that Israel would implement “parallel measures.”
Lebanon, in the throes of a deep financial meltdown that is threatening its stability, is desperate for cash as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. But political leaders have failed to bridge their differences and form a new government.


Iran says 60% uranium enrichment response to Israel’s ‘nuclear terrorism’

Updated 14 April 2021

Iran says 60% uranium enrichment response to Israel’s ‘nuclear terrorism’

  • New move casts a cloud over talks in Vienna aimed at reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major power
  • Western intelligence services believe Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program that was suspended in 2003

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday Tehran’s decision to boost uranium enrichment to 60 percent was a response to Israel’s “nuclear terrorism,” three days after an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility.

“Enabling IR-6 (centrifuges) at Natanz today, or bringing enrichment to 60 percent: this is the response to your malice,” Rouhani said in televised remarks. “What you did was nuclear terrorism. What we do is legal.”

The new move casts a cloud over talks in Vienna aimed at reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, after former US President Donald Trump abandoned it three years ago.

Enriching uranium to 60 percent from Iran’s current 20 percent would take the fissile material closer to the 90 percent required to make a nuclear bomb. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi also said it would activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines at Natanz, which was crippled on Sunday by an explosion that knocked out its power supply. Israel’s Mossad spy agency is thought to have been behind the attack.

The blast at the underground Natanz plant was a “very bad gamble” that would boost Tehran’s leverage in the talks to salvage the nuclear deal, which resume on Thursday in Vienna, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.

“I assure you that in the near future more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges will be placed in the Natanz facility,” he said.

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The Vienna talks began last week, when Iran and other signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) held what they described as “constructive” discussions about salvaging the deal, which collapsed when Trump reimposed economic sanctions on Tehran and Iran began breaching its limits on uranium enrichment.

Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has said he will ease sanctions when Iran returns to compliance with the deal. Iran insists sanctions must be lifted first. In addition, Israel and US allies in the Gulf oppose any revived agreement that does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional meddling through proxy militias in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

The JCPOA had capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges, at 3.6 percent, far below the 90 percent needed for bomb-grade material.

Iran in recent months has raised enrichment to 20 percent purity, a level at which uranium is considered to be highly enriched and is a significant step toward weapons grade. Civilian nuclear power plants, which Iran claims are its only objective, only require enrichment to between 3 percent and 5 percent.

The biggest obstacle to producing nuclear weapons is accumulating sufficient quantities of fissile material, either 90 percent enriched uranium or plutonium, for the core of a bomb. Western intelligence services believe Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program that was suspended in 2003.