BAGHDAD: Tens of thousands attended mass prayers Friday in Baghdad’s Green Zone in a new power play by Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr after his adversaries conditionally backed his call for early elections.
Sadr, a longtime political and religious force in the oil-rich but war-scarred country, has for months been in a political standoff with a rival Shiite alliance backed by Iran.
Worshippers converged on a vast square inside the normally secure Green Zone, home to government and diplomatic buildings, including the parliament which his followers began occupying on July 30.
“Yes, yes to reform! Sadr’s followers chanted during the prayers.
“No, no to corruption.”
After the prayers, hundreds returned to parliament’s vicinity, where tents were still erected and food served to protesters pursuing their sit-in among the gardens of the complex.
Sadr’s mass prayer rally follows his demand for early elections — a possibility that the rival bloc says it is conditionally open to, despite the last national polls only taking place about 10 months ago.
Months of post-election negotiations between Sadr’s bloc — the largest in parliament — and other factions failed to produce a new government, prime minister and president.
The political tensions come as Iraq remains beset by rampant corruption, crumbling infrastructure and unemployment.
As a result of past deals, the Sadrists also have representatives at the highest levels of government ministries and have been accused by opponents of being as corrupt as other political forces.
Supporters of Sadr, however, are ready to follow him almost blindly and view him as a champion of the anti-corruption fight.
Speaking from a dais, the imam who led the prayer endorsed Sadr’s call for early elections.
“Iraq is a prisoner of the corrupt,” the imam said, denouncing “the scandalous deterioration of public services, health and education.”
Sheikh Ali Al-Atabi, 38, joined the throng to support Sadr. Calling people to Friday prayers is “part of his repertoire” when he “wants to use the people for something,” Atabi explained.
A similar prayer call and pressure tactic from Sadr in mid-July drew hundreds of thousands of Muslim worshippers to Sadr City, a Baghdad district named after his assassinated father.
Qassem Abu Mustafa, 40, described the latest gathering as “a thorn” jabbing “the enemy to demand legislative elections and reforms.”
The faithful, mostly men but with some women, used umbrellas to protect themselves from Baghdad’s 42 degrees Celsius (108 Fahrenheit) heat.
Some waved Iraqi flags and carried portraits of their leader.
“Whatever Mr. Sadr’s opinion, we are with him,” Abu Mustafa said.
Sadr’s bloc emerged from the October elections as parliament’s biggest, but still far short of a majority.
In June, his 73 lawmakers quit in a bid to break the logjam. That led to a rival Shiite bloc, the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, becoming the largest in the legislature.
The Coordination Framework’s nomination of former cabinet minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani as prime minister angered the Sadr bloc and triggered the occupation of parliament by his supporters.
With armed groups linked to the various political factions in Iraq, the United Nations has warned that tensions could escalate.
On Wednesday Sadr called for the dissolution of parliament and new polls. The Coordination Framework late Thursday said they were open to that idea, signalling a potential deescalation.
But “a national consensus on the question and providing a safe environment” were prerequisites for such polls, it said.
The Framework stressed the importance of “not disrupting the functioning” of constitutional institutions — a clear reference to the occupation of parliament by Sadr’s followers.
The Coordination Framework includes lawmakers from the party of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, a longtime foe of Sadr, and the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a pro-Iran ex-paramilitary network now integrated into the security forces.
Outgoing parliamentary speaker Mohammed Al-Halbussi, a member of the minority Sunni community, on Twitter expressed support for new elections.
He said it is “impossible to ignore the will of the masses.”
Tens of thousands pray in show of force by Iraq cleric Sadr
Tens of thousands pray in show of force by Iraq cleric Sadr
- Shiite cleric has for months been in a political standoff with a rival Shiite alliance backed by Iran
- Worshippers converged on a vast square inside the normally secure Green Zone
BAGHDAD: Tens of thousands attended mass prayers Friday in Baghdad’s Green Zone in a new power play by Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr after his adversaries conditionally backed his call for early elections.
Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call
- Comments sparked calls for protests in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces
- Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria
SYRIA: Protests broke out in Syria’s rebel-held north on Friday over a call from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for reconciliation between the Syrian government and opposition.
“We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace, we always say this,” Cavusoglu said Thursday, in remarks to diplomats.
The comments have sparked calls for protests after Friday weekly prayers in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces and their supporters, including in Al-Bab, Afrin and Jarablus.
Similar calls were made in Idlib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other rebel groups, to gather at border crossings with Turkey.
Small protests already began overnight in some areas, including Al-Bab, where dozens gathered holding opposition slogans and chanting against Turkey.
Some demonstrators burned a Turkish flag, while others took down Turkey’s colors hung up around the city, an AFP photographer said.
Dozens of others gathered at the Bab Al-Salama crossing to Turkey, many shouting “death rather than indignity.”
Turkey’s top diplomat also revealed that he had held a short meeting in Belgrade in October with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Al-Meqdad, adding that communication had resumed between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.
But he denied direct talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad, despite long-standing calls from Russia for such dialogue.
Cavusoglu added that Turkey would continue its fight against “terrorism” in Syria, following warnings from Ankara since May that it could launch new strikes on Kurdish-held areas in north and northeast Syria.
Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria. Most have targeted Kurdish militants that Turkey links to a group waging a decades-long insurgency against it.
Cavusoglu’s comments have sparked widespread anger among the opposition, with renowned figure George Sabra writing on Facebook: “If Cavusoglu is concerned with reconciling with the Syrian regime, that is his business. As for the Syrians, they have a different cause for which they have paid and continue to pay the dearest price.”
About half a million people have died during Syria’s 11-year conflict, which has destroyed large swathes of the country and displaced millions of people.
Ethiopia says completes third filling of mega-dam reservoir
- The development could raise further tensions with downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan
ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia has completed the third filling of its mega-dam reservoir on the Blue Nile, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Friday, a development that could raise further tensions with downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan.
The announcement comes a day after Ethiopia said it had launched electricity production from the second turbine at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which lies in the west of the country.
“Today as you see behind me, the third filling is complete,” Abiy said in images shown on state television from the dam site.
“Compared to last year, we have reached 600 meters which is 25 meters higher than the previous filling,” he said.
“The Nile is a gift of God given to us for Ethiopians to make use of it.”
The massive $4.2 billion dam, set to be the largest hydro-electric scheme in Africa, has been at the center of a regional dispute ever since Ethiopia broke ground on the project in 2011.
There is still no agreement between Ethiopia and its downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan about the GERD’s operations despite talks held under the auspices of the African Union.
Cairo and Khartoum view it as a threat because of their dependence on Nile waters, while Ethiopia deems it essential for the electrification and development of Africa’s second most populous nation.
Egypt, which relies on the Nile for about 97 percent of its irrigation and drinking water, last month protested to the UN Security Council about the third refilling.
The process of filling the GERD’s vast reservoir, which has a total capacity of 74 billion cubic meters, began in 2020.
On Thursday, Abiy sought to reassure the two countries over the impact of dam and called for negotiations to reach an understanding.
“Any other option will not stop what we have started and will be futile,” he said, insisting that the third filling was not causing any water shortages downstream.
Ethiopia first began generating electricity from the GERD in February. Currently, the two turbines, out of a total of 13, have a capacity to generate 750 megawatts of electricity.
It is ultimately expected to produce more than 5,000 megawatts, more than doubling Ethiopia’s current output.
Project manager Kifle Horo said Thursday that overall the dam was now more than 83 percent complete and that the goal was for it to be finished in the next two and a half years.
The 145-meter (475-foot) high structure straddles the Blue Nile in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of western Ethiopia, near the border with Sudan.
The project was initiated under former prime minister Meles Zenawi, the Tigrayan leader who ruled Ethiopia for more than two decades until his death in 2012.
Assassins Creed: Why the plot to kill John Bolton is in the DNA of the Iranian regime
- In 2011 Iranian operatives had similarly plotted to kill (then Saudi ambassador) Adel Al-Jubeir in Washington, D.C.
- DoJ revelation of IRGC plot to target Bolton and Pompeo exposes Tehran’s long history of overseas terror
QAMISHLI, Syria/JEDDAH: For the past year, unbeknown to the citizens of Washington D.C., an assassin had allegedly been stalking the streets of the US capital searching for a prime target: A former high-ranking American official whose killing would shake the world and serve as a symbol of vengeance against the West.
This alleged plan was revealed to have been foiled when, on Wednesday, the US Department of Justice officially charged an Iranian citizen with plotting to kill John Bolton, a senior national security adviser under both the Bush and Trump administrations.
Shahram Poursafi was charged with use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire and providing and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.
According to the Justice Department’s indictment, Poursafi attempted to hire criminals in the US to carry out the murder in Washington, D.C., or Maryland for $300,000. On Nov. 9, 2021, Poursafi contacted a confidential source.
The FBI said that Poursafi is a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is designated as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the US. He was acting on behalf of the Quds Force, an elite arm of the IRGC. Poursafi remains at large and is considered armed and dangerous.
Nasser Kanaani, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, has strenuously denied that the Iranian government planned to assassinate Bolton, calling the accusations “baseless.” But the regime’s long history of targeting critics and dissidents abroad belies its protestation of innocence.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Tehran has carried out assassinations and attacks on Iranian dissidents and foreign officials worldwide. Which is why for Iranian affairs expert Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami, the revelation of the most recent plot comes as no surprise.
“Iran has been following this strategy for decades,” Al-Sulami, founder and chairman of Rasanah: International Institute for Iranian Studies in Riyadh, told Arab News. “More than two dozen successful assassination operations have been carried out by the Iranian regime across the globe.”
Since 1979, individuals believed to be linked to the Iranian government have carried out attacks against dissidents and opposition figures in more than a dozen countries, including, France, the US, Austria, Switzerland, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Albania, Thailand, Denmark and Turkey. Individuals linked to the Iranian government have also hijacked aircraft and bombed government offices as well as military installations around the world.
“Worldwide threat assessments from the US intelligence community have for years warned that Iran is trying to develop networks inside the US for such operations,” Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, told Arab News.
“These operations are shocking, but not surprising. There’s a long history dating back to the beginning of the Islamic Revolution,” he said, citing the assassination of Iranian exile and former press attache to the Iranian embassy in the US, Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, in Maryland in 1980.
Brodsky pointed out that in 2011, the US Justice Department charged two Iranian citizens, one of whom was a commander in the Quds Force, with planning a murder-for-hire targeting the then Saudi ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.
FBI investigations revealed that money had been wired to Iranian US dual national Mansour Arbabsiar, one of the potential assassins, from a known Quds Force bank account, and that the fee for the assassination was $1.5 million.
The 2011 criminal complaint from the Justice Department said that “the Quds Force conducts sensitive covert operations abroad, including terrorist attacks, assassinations and kidnappings, and is believed to sponsor attacks against coalition forces in Iraq.”
Eric Holder, US attorney general at the time, added: “The criminal complaint unsealed today exposes a deadly plot directed by factions of the Iranian government to assassinate a foreign ambassador on US soil with explosives.”
Ultimately, the plot, which involved the hiring of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Al-Jubeir — now the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs — failed due to poor planning and the use of unskilled operatives. Arbabsiar, who was working as a used car salesman in Texas, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2013.
“Iran has, beyond any reasonable doubt, sponsored international terrorism,” Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri, a Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar, told Arab News.
“They do so through their agents and proxy army, creating chaos in the region and beyond. They are now a threat not only to the region, but to the US as well by attacking US missions and army bases.”
Such attacks blamed on Iran are not just limited to political figures. Masih Alinejad, an Iranian US journalist and women’s rights activist, was the target of a kidnapping plot in July of last year. Just last month, a man with a loaded AK-47 rifle was arrested outside her home in New York City.
Brodsky says that in the plot against Alinejad, instead of the elite international Quds Force, Iranian intelligence operatives were directly involved.
“Not just the IRGC Quds Force has attempted operations to harm American citizens on US soil. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence has also undertaken those operations,” he said. “That shows that we have different parts of the Iranian system all trying to penetrate the US, and that’s definitely a cause for concern.”
Sources close to Mike Pompeo, the former US secretary of state, told CNN that Bolton was not the only target of the most recent Iranian plot. Pompeo was reportedly one of two individuals whom Poursafi had sought to assassinate through a third party, with the price tag for Pompeo’s death being $1 million.
Iran’s plots against US officials and citizens have come in the wake of the Jan. 1, 2020, strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. After the incident, Iranian political and military officials vowed revenge for Soleimani’s death.
However, according to Al-Sulami, the regime completely failed in terms of taking revenge, denting its image among followers in the region and beyond.
“Soleimani is not a replaceable military commander in terms of managing the IRGC’s militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen; he is a big loss for the management of Iran’s regional file,” Al-Sulami told Arab News, adding that Iran resorted to carrying out assassinations when its propaganda failed to convince Iranians and Iran-backed militias that it had avenged Soleimani’s death.
In January, two years after the killing of Soleimani, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi vowed to exact vengeance on those responsible if then US President Donald Trump was not put on trial for ordering the strike.
Pompeo was serving as secretary of state at the time of Soleimani’s killing, and Bolton had pushed for both regime change in Iran and the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement.
Al-Shehri says the latest revelation begs the question of how US-Iranian relations will be affected, if at all. “Since Ayatollah Khomeini denounced the US as the ‘Great Satan’ and approved seizing the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, the US has treated Iran as one of the most extreme, irrational and dangerous governments in the world,” he told Arab News.
After the attempt on Bolton and Pompeo’s lives, he asks, “will the US still allow Iran to continue its enrichment program? Will they allow Iran to obtain nuclear capabilities.”
With the uncovering of the alleged plot, political commentators took to social media to criticize the Biden’s administration’s approach to relations with Iran.
“Intent to murder a former senior US official is not enough to dissuade this administration from negotiating with Iran,” tweeted Simone Ledeen, former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.
Reacting on Twitter, Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokesperson, said: “It is clear that the Iranian regime will spare no cost to kill (Mike Pompeo). The smoking gun that the Biden administration apparently requires to push back on Iran must not be a mass-casualty event with our former secretary of state at the center.”
Analysts caution that the perception of a lack of serious consequences may be behind Iran’s bold attempts to assassinate dissidents and enemies abroad. Brodsky says that for Iran, the potential rewards associated with assassinating a top US official far outweigh the risks, partially due to the lack of perceived consequences from the US.
“On the policy level toward the Iranian regime, the US is saying there will be severe consequences when there is an attack on US officials. What about an attempted attack? This was an attempted attack on a former US national security adviser and secretary of state. That’s explosive,” he said.
“So if there isn’t a consequence when there’s an attempted attack, it’s not going to break the cycle and change the Iranians’ calculation.”
Looking to the future, Al-Sulami said, “The Iranian political system will continue targeting other countries in the region and beyond, as well as officials from the US and Saudi Arabia in particular, unless the political and security negotiations, and engagements with Tehran, address this belligerent and terrorist behavior.
“If not, Iran will continue with its policy of assassinations targeting US and Arab officials.”
Hamas ‘wins with Israel but loses with Palestinians’: Analysts
- Group ‘showed self-restraint in recent Gaza clashes, avoided prolonged war’
AMMAN: Long after the dust of the latest attack on Gaza has settled, the Hamas movement — the predominant power in the Gaza Strip — has yet to overcome the political fallout of its refusal to join fellow Islamic Jihad in retaliation against Israel.
Leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki told Arab News that Hamas failed to consider the arrest of Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader in Jenin Bassam Saadi a national threat requiring a military response from the Gaza Strip.
“But it seems Hamas did see the assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Tayseer Al-Jabari as a threat requiring a military response, but only a limited one. Yet even in response to the latter, Hamas held its guns while allowing Islamic Jihad to defend itself and bear the brunt of the Israeli war machine.”
Shikaki, a professor of political science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told Arab News that Hamas’ decision was “wise, but it might cost it some popular support.”
Comments by Palestinian political activists and social media were not as kind to the Hamas movement, which has often attacked other figures and groups for their silence.
They compared the passive Hamas position to how the Ramallah leadership has behaved in order to protect some of the benefits of governing.
Jamal Dajani, former communications director of the Palestinian Prime Ministry, told Arab News that Hamas understood that the new Israeli leadership initiated the attack on Gaza for political gain.
“Hamas did not bite the bait and showed self-restraint avoiding a prolonged war causing more death and destruction,” he said.
Shikaki believes that both Egypt and Israel will value Hamas’ behavior and will reward the movement by providing greater economic facilities, allowing it to consolidate control over the Gaza Strip.
“Israel will hope that this will provide Hamas with the means to exert greater leverage over Islamic Jihad and ensure a long-term quietness,” said Shikaki.
“Ultimately, those in Israel who call for direct Israel-Hamas dialogue, particularly with the Israeli security sector, will gain more points and use this episode to prove that Hamas is not bound by ideology alone and that it is a pragmatic organization with whom Israel can make long-term deals.
“Internally, however, Islamic Jihad-Hamas relations might become tense. Hamas-Palestinian Authority relations might also worsen, as greater Hamas control over Gaza might create conditions in which the Ramallah leadership loses any prospects for a return to control the strip any time soon,” said Shikaki.
Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and fellow with the Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Arab News that Hamas was always interested in showing itself to be the “real” resistance to Israeli occupation when the Fatah-led Palestinian government was standing by in escalations of violence, such as during May 2021.
“The latest bombardment by Israel in Gaza forced Hamas to stay on the sidelines not wanting to cause economic fallout that would invariably result in access restrictions.
“But if Hamas’ popularity has been based on it being the real resistance, particularly when Al-Aqsa is involved, keeping quiet during the march of hundreds of Israeli right-wing activists on the Haram Al-Sharif for the ‘temple’ destruction commemoration was not a good look for the organization.”
But Samar Muhareb, an Amman-based civil society activist and a close watcher of the Palestinian issue, took a different view.
Muhareb, executive director of the Amman-based Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development, said that what was important was to look at the gains of the resistance by Islamic Jihad.
She told Arab News that the cycle of violence in Gaza had been frustrating.
“Despite all the disappointments and losses, the resistance in Gaza came out with tangible accomplishments on the ground that will lead to change if Israel continues in its madness within the fragile ceasefire.”
By looking at the economic benefits, Ofer Salzberg, Middle East program director at the Herbert Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation, told Arab News that Hamas’ decision was “more economic than ideological.”
He added: “Hamas choosing to stay out of the fighting provided a tailwind to the dominant recommendation of Israel’s defense officialdom: To strengthen the Gazan economy despite Hamas’ rule in order to defer wars.”
US envoy to Yemen visiting Saudi Arabia, other Gulf nations, amid Houthi escalation in Shabwa
- Tim Lenderking’s regional tour is part of the intense diplomatic efforts to extend a UN-mediated truce in Yemen and bolster the peace process
- He is also expected to rally support and funding for UN efforts to tackle the threat posed by the derelict Safer oil tanker, amid fears of an ecological disaster in the Red Sea
LONDON: The US special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, began a tour of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman on Thursday, and members of his team have traveled to Jordan, as part of intense diplomatic efforts to extend an UN-mediated truce in Yemen and bolster peace efforts, the State Department said on Friday.
“The special envoy and his team will focus on helping to meaningfully expand benefits of the truce to all Yemenis and pave the way for a permanent ceasefire and an inclusive, durable Yemeni-led resolution to the conflict,” the State Department said.
Lenderking will also discuss recent instability in Shabwa and the need for a return to calm after fighting intensified in the oil-rich, eastern province, and highlight the need for additional financial assistance for the Yemeni people.
“The United States has already provided over $1 billion in humanitarian aid this year alone, bringing our total contribution to the humanitarian response in Yemen to nearly $5 billion since the crisis began eight years ago,” the State Department said.
“We urge donors both to give generously and to make previous pledges immediately available for the sake of the people of Yemen.”
The head of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad Al-Alimi, on Wednesday announced moves designed to quickly end sedition in Shabwa and hold to account those responsible.
He added that “the strife that occurred in Shabwa confirms the importance of rallying around the state,” according to a report by the official Yemeni news agency, Saba.
Lenderking is also expected to continue to rally support for UN efforts to raise awareness of the threat posed by the Safer oil tanker, and funding to address it. The vessel, which is moored in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, holds more than 1.1 million barrels of oil and has had little or no maintenance carried out since the civil war began in late 2014. As a result, its condition has deteriorated to the point where there are fears of a major ecological disaster.
“With about $14 million unfunded and an UN-Houthi agreement to offload the oil to a temporary vessel, we are the closest we have ever been to addressing the threat posed by this derelict tanker,” Lenderking said.
“An oil spill would exacerbate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, cause severe environmental damage, and impact global shipping and other economic activity.”
Meanwhile, the EU said it is very concerned about the recent violence in Shabwa and the reported loss of lives.
“The EU welcomes the efforts of President Rashad Al-Alimi and the PLC to deescalate the situation (in) Yemen,” it said.