Hundreds of thousands gather for mass prayer in Baghdad

Residents of the impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr City pledge support to Al-Sadr, an influential cleric who called on thousands of his followers to storm Iraq's parliament. (AP)
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Updated 06 August 2022

Hundreds of thousands gather for mass prayer in Baghdad

  • Powerful cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr, had called on followers from across Iraq to pray inside Baghdad’s Green Zone
  • The mass-prayer call follows Al-Sadr’s demand for early elections

BAGHDAD: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis heeded the call of an influential Shiite cleric to gather in a show of strength for a mass prayer in the heart of Baghdad’s heavily fortified government zone on Friday. The gathering took place amid an escalating political crisis that has put the country’s capital on edge.
The powerful cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr, had called on his followers from across Iraq to come to pray inside Baghdad’s Green Zone — a heavily fortified area in the heart of the city that houses government buildings and foreign embassies. They arrived and stood outside in the scorching summer-time heat, with temperatures reaching 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit).
Friday’s mass prayer was the latest display of strength by the cleric, whose political power derives from his strong grassroots support base.
Al-Sadr has used his large grassroots following as a pressure tactic against his rivals, after his party was not able to form a government despite having won the largest number of seats in federal elections held last October. He exited the political process to form the next government in June.
His followers gathered facing the Victory Arch, a monument erected during Saddam Hussein’s regime to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war. It was built for the purpose of holding military parades.
Farid Jaafar, 16, arrived from Babylon province to show his support for Al-Sadr. His transport was paid by Al-Sadr’s party he said. “I love Muqtada,” he said.
Holding the prayer within the highly restrictive zone that is closed off to most Iraqis points to the cleric’s power and influence.
Last Saturday, thousands of his followers stormed parliament in a bid to derail attempts by Al-Sadr’s Shiite rivals to form a government. Around 125 people were injured in the violence, most of them protesters and 25 members of the security forces.
Al-Sadr’s followers camped out inside the parliament until he ordered them, after four days to withdraw from the assembly building, but maintain a sit-in outside. He’s calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.
His Shiite rivals in the Iran-backed Coordination Framework have said they would consider holding early elections in the event of a national consensus.


Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

Updated 4 min 52 sec ago

Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

  • Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July
  • Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday
BAGHDAD: Thousands of followers of Moqtada Al-Sadr held a mass prayer outside parliament in Baghdad on Friday in a show of support for the powerful Shiite cleric who has called for Iraq’s judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of next week.
Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July after a 10-month political stalemate that followed elections last October. Sadr was the biggest winner but failed to form a government free of Iranian-backed parties.
He withdrew his lawmakers from parliament and is now preventing the chamber from electing a new government and is demanding early elections.
On Wednesday he said the judiciary must dissolve parliament by the end of next week. If not “the revolutionaries will take another stand,” he said without elaborating.
Outside parliament on Friday thousands of Sadr supporters gathered for prayer. Most were dressed in black to mark the Muslim month of Muharram and some wore white capes symbolizing burial shrouds and their willingness to die.
“You will not break Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a big red stage set up outside parliament. “There is no going back from this revolution ... and the people will not give up their demands.”
In the intense summer heat, men picked their way through the worshippers and sprayed them with cold water. Some carried portraits of Sadr and his father, also a prominent cleric, as well as Iraqi flags.
“We have revolted and there is no going back,” said Mohammed Elwan, 40, carrying a portrait of Sadr.
Hamid Hussain, a father of five, said: “I am here to call for an early election and make sure that all the corrupt faces are excluded from the upcoming elections...I became unemployed because of the corrupt parties.”
Sadr’s opponents also accuse him of corruption. They say his loyalists have run some of Iraq’s most corrupt and dysfunctional government departments.
Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday, the latest in a series of protest and counter-protest in recent days which have led to fears of unrest.
Sadr counts millions of Iraqis among his followers and has shown he can still stir up gatherings by hundreds of thousands of supporters, mostly working-class Shiite Muslims, if he needs to exert political pressure.
His father Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr was killed more than 20 years ago for his outspoken opposition Saddam Hussein. When Saddam was topped in a US-led invasion in 2003 Sadr began an insurgency against US troops.
His new foes, however, are fellow Shiite leaders and parties mostly aligned with Iran, as Sadr has positioned himself as a nationalist who rejects foreign interference. Those groups, like Sadr, are backed by heavily armed militias, but do not hold the same sway as he does over masses of fanatical followers.

Germany suspends military operations in Mali

Updated 20 min 40 sec ago

Germany suspends military operations in Mali

  • The German move comes as Mali’s junta turned away from France and toward Russia in its fight against militancy

BERLIN: The German defense ministry said Friday it had suspended most of its operations in Mali after the local military-led government denied flyover rights to a UN peacekeeping mission.
“The Malian government has once again refused to give flyover rights to a flight planned today” for the rotation of personnel on the ground, a ministry spokesman said at a regular press conference.
In response, Germany had decided to “suspend until further notice the operations of our reconnaissance forces and CH-53 (helicopter) transport flights.”
“It is no longer possible to support the MINUSMA reconnaissance missions on an operational basis,” the spokesman said.
Without the new troops, who were set to “replace French forces” in the process of withdrawing, “security on site is not assured” as the “remaining forces must be kept ready for security operations.”
The flyover rights were refused despite assurances to the contrary from the Malian Defense Minister Sadio Camara in a call with his German counterpart Christine Lambrecht Thursday, the spokesman said.
“Camara’s actions tell a different story than his words,” Lambrecht said in a statement posted by her ministry on Twitter.
The German move comes as Mali’s junta turned away from France and toward Russia in its fight against militancy.
The long-running insurgency has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The relationship between Bamako and Paris, its former colonial power and traditional ally, has deteriorated in recent months.
The arrival of Russian paramilitaries in the country on the invitation of the government was a key factor in France’s decision to pull its military forces out.
The withdrawal is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.


US, Indonesia, Australia hold drills amid China concerns

Updated 12 August 2022

US, Indonesia, Australia hold drills amid China concerns

  • More than 5,000 personnel from the US, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Singapore are participating in this year’s exercises

BATURAJA, Indonesia: Soldiers from the US, Indonesia and Australia joined a live-fire drill on Friday, part of annual joint combat exercises on Sumatra island amid growing Chinese maritime activity in the Indo-Pacific region.
A total of more than 5,000 personnel from the US, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Singapore are participating in this year’s exercises, making them the largest since they began in 2009.
The expanded drills are seen by China as a threat. Chinese state media have accused the US of building an Indo-Pacific alliance similar to NATO to limit China’s growing military and diplomatic influence in the region.
The United Kingdom, Canada, France, India, Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and East Timor also sent observers to the exercises, which began early this month.
The US Indo-Pacific commander, Adm. John C. Aquilino Aquilino, said the 14 nations involved in the training are signaling their stronger ties as China grows increasingly assertive in claiming virtually the entire South China Sea and holds exercises threatening self-ruled Taiwan.
“The destabilizing actions by the People’s Republic of China as it applied to the threatening activities and actions against Taiwan is exactly what we are trying to avoid,” he said at a joint news conference with Indonesian military chief Gen. Andika Perkasa in Baturaja, a coastal town in South Sumatra province.
“We’ll continue to help deliver a free and open Indo-Pacific and be ready when we need to respond to any contingency,” Aquilino said.
Indonesia and China enjoy generally positive ties, but Jakarta has expressed concern about what it sees as Chinese encroachment in its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Despite its official position as a non-claimant state in the contested South China Sea, Indonesia has been “dragged along” in the territorial dispute since 2010 after China claimed part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the northern region of the Natuna Islands, said Connie Rahakundini Bakrie, a security analyst at the University of Indonesia.
The edge of the exclusive economic zone overlaps with Beijing’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” demarking its claims in the South China Sea.
Increased activities by Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats in the area have unnerved Jakarta, prompting Indonesia’s navy to conduct a large drill in July 2020 in waters around Natuna at the southern portion of the South China Sea.
Indonesia sees the current exercises with the US as a deterrent in defense of the Natuna Islands, while for Washington, the drills are part of efforts to forge a united front against China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, Bakrie said.
“Indonesia wants to send the message that it is fully prepared for any high-intensity conflict in the South China Sea area,” she said.
The joint combat exercises end Sunday.


In Pakistan’s southwest, Royal Palace of Kalat where Jinnah was weighed in gems

Updated 54 min 51 sec ago

In Pakistan’s southwest, Royal Palace of Kalat where Jinnah was weighed in gems

  • Jinnah visited the Khan of Kalat for the first time in 1945 while the independence movement was at its peak
  • Second visit was after partition to collect donations so Bank of England could print currency for the new nation

QUETTA: A sprawling palace in Pakistan’s southwest, hemmed in by scenic mountains and apple orchards, has a special connection to the country’s founding father, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

The princely state of Kalat is in Pakistan’s largest but most impoverished province of Balochistan, and acceded to the dominion of Pakistan on March 27, 1948, after having declared independence earlier on August 15, 1947. The accession was a stormy affair, and insurgencies continue in Balochistan to this day against the state of Pakistan.

But before partition, Jinnah twice visited the Royal Palace of Kalat, built over 8,000 square feet of land, and home to the ruler of the princely state, the Khan of Kalat. The building’s design is inspired by the upper deck of a ship on which the Khan went for the first time on a Hajj pilgrimage. Before the royal residence was built, the rulers of the area had lived in the ancient Mirri Fort which was flattened in a devastating earthquake that shook the region in 1935.

“Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah visited the Royal Palace of Kalat in 1945 and 1948,” Prince Agha Umar Jan Ahmedzai, the Khan’s grandson, told Arab News in Kalat. “During Mr. Jinnah’s two visits, he was welcomed by the people of Balochistan because we knew he was leading a sacred cause for the Muslims of the British-ruled Subcontinent.”

The image shows the exterior view of the Royal Palace of Kalat in Pakistan's Balochistan province on August 5, 2022 (AN Photo)

Ahmedzai said Kalat had played a major role in strengthening the country and was instrumental in getting Pakistan over 40 percent of its land in the shape of the resource-rich province of Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by area.

According to the prince, Jinnah spent two days in the newly constructed palace during his first visit, and returned three years later for an entire week.

The Khan of Kalat had designated two of the most luxurious rooms on the top floor of the palace for Jinnah and his sister, Fatima Jinnah, and offered them expensive gifts of gold and gemstones when they visited.

“Mr. Jinnah came with his sister Fatima Jinnah to the Royal Palace of Kalat [in 1945] where my grandfather weighed [him] and donated him gems according to his weight,” Ahmedzai said. To Fatima, the Khan gave an expensive necklace. 

He added that the founder of Pakistan also sought donations during his second visit to the palace in 1948 since the Bank of England had inquired about gold reserves before printing currency notes for the new nation.

“There was a currency problem when Pakistan came into existence and Quaid-e-Azam came here in distress, saying he had gone to businessmen of Karachi but could not gather the gold which was required for currency deposits [with the British],” Jan said.

“So, almost 1,360 kilograms of gold was given by Khan Ahmed Yar Khan [the Khan] for the printing of currency.”

“This house has overall a lot of importance. In Pakistan’s existence … definitely there is a big role of the Baloch people and this house.”

In Jinnah’s memory, the royal family has preserved all the items Jinnah used during his stay in the palace.

Saeed Ahmed Naichari, whose family has served the palace for four generations, said his job was to brief tourists about the history of the place.

“Even the overcoats worn by Muhammad Ali Jinnah still hang in the wardrobe,” he said as he gave Arab News a tour of the palace.

The picture taken on August 5, 2022 shows an overcoat worn by the founder of Pakistan, Muhmmad Ali Jinnah, during his visit to the Royal Palace in 1948, in Kalat, Pakistan, on August 5, 2022 (AN Photo)

“Our family looks after this house,” Ahmedzai added. “This is not just our house but this is a house of the Baloch nation. When you go to someone’s house, you cannot enter the gate but this house is open for everyone. And it is open for all Balochis, Pakistanis and for everyone who wants to visit it.”


Afghan girls face uncertain future one year after Taliban school ban

Updated 12 August 2022

Afghan girls face uncertain future one year after Taliban school ban

  • Some are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women
  • Underground schools present an alternative, though with limitations

KABUL: For most teenage girls in Afghanistan, it’s been a year since they set foot in a classroom. With no sign the ruling Taliban will allow them back to school, some are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women.
At a house in Kabul, dozens gathered on a recent day for classes in an informal school set up by Sodaba Nazhand. She and her sister teach English, science and math to girls who should be in secondary school.
“When the Taliban wanted to take away the rights of education and the rights of work from women, I wanted to stand against their decision by teaching these girls,” Nazhand said.
Hers is one of a number of underground schools in operation since the Taliban took over the country a year ago and banned girls from continuing their education past the sixth grade. While the Taliban have permitted women to continue attending universities, this exception will become irrelevant when there are no more girls graduating from high schools.
“There is no way to fill this gap, and this situation is very sad and concerning,” Nazhand said.
The relief agency Save the Children interviewed nearly 1,700 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17 in seven provinces to assess the impact of the education restrictions.
The survey, conducted in May and June and released Wednesday, found that more than 45 percent of girls are not going to school, compared with 20 percent of boys. It also found that 26 percent of girls are showing signs of depression, compared with 16 percent of boys.
Nearly the entire population of Afghanistan was thrown into poverty and millions were left unable to feed their families when the world cut off financing in response to the Taliban takeover.
Teachers, parents and experts all warn that the country’s multiple crises, including the devastating collapse of the economy, are proving especially damaging to girls. The Taliban have restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay at home and issued dress codes requiring them to cover their faces, except for their eyes, though the codes are not always enforced.
The international community is demanding that the Taliban open schools for all girls, and the US and EU have created plans to pay salaries directly to Afghanistan’s teachers, keeping the sector going without putting the funds through the Taliban.
But the question of girls’ education appears to have been tangled in behind-the-scenes differences among the Taliban. Some in the movement support returning girls to school — whether because they see no religious objection to it or because they want to improve ties with the world. Others, especially rural, tribal elders who make up the backbone of the movement, staunchly oppose it.
During their first time ruling Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban imposed much stricter restrictions on women, banning school for all girls, barring women from work and requiring them to wear an all-encompassing burka if they went outside.
In the 20 years after the Taliban were driven from power in 2001, an entire generation of women returned to school and work, particularly in urban areas. Seemingly acknowledging those changes, the Taliban reassured Afghans when they seized control again last year that they would not return to the heavy hand of the past.
Officials have publicly insisted that they will allow teen girls back into school, but say time is needed to set up logistics for strict gender segregation to ensure an “Islamic framework.”
Hopes were raised in March: Just before the new school year was to begin, the Taliban Education Ministry proclaimed everyone would be allowed back. But on March 23, the day of the reopening, the decision was suddenly reversed, surprising even ministry officials. It appeared that at the last minute, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, bowed to the opposition.
Underground schools present an alternative, though with limitations.
A month after the Taliban takeover, Nazhand started teaching street children to read with informal outdoor classes in a park in her neighborhood. Women who couldn’t read or write joined them, she said.
Some time later, a benefactor who saw her in the park rented a house for her to hold classes in, and bought tables and chairs. Once she was operating inside, Nazhand included teen girls who were no longer allowed to go to public school.
Now there are about 250 students, including 50 or 60 schoolgirls above sixth grade.
“I am not only teaching them school subjects, but also trying to teach them how to fight and stand for their rights,” Nazhand said.
The Taliban haven’t changed from their first time in power in the late 1990s, she said. “These are the same Taliban, but we shouldn’t be the same women of those years. We must struggle: by writing, by raising our voice, by any way possible.”
Nazhand’s school, and others like it, are technically illegal under the Taliban’s current restrictions, but so far they haven’t shut hers down. At least one other person operating a school declined to speak to reporters, however, fearing possible repercussions.
Despite her unwavering commitment, Nazhand worries about her school’s future. Her benefactor paid for six months’ rent on the house, but he died recently, and she doesn’t have any way to keep paying for rent or supplies.
For students, the underground schools are a lifeline.
“It is so hard when you can’t go to school,” said one of them, Dunya Arbabzada. “Whenever I pass by my school and see the closed door ... it’s so upsetting for me.”

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