US-Iran match mirrored a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

Lebanese fans of Iran’s team, sit at a coffee shop under an Arabic banner that reads: “Death to America” as they watch the World Cup group B soccer match between Iran and the United States, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 30 November 2022

US-Iran match mirrored a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

  • Critics of Iran say it has fomented war and unrest across the Arab world by supporting powerful armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories

BAGHDAD: The US team’s victory over Iran at the World Cup on Tuesday was closely watched across the Middle East, where the two nations have been engaged in a cold war for over four decades and where many blame one or both for the region’s woes.
Critics of Iran say it has fomented war and unrest across the Arab world by supporting powerful armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories. Supporters view it as the leader of an “axis of resistance” against what they see as US imperialism, corrupt Arab rulers and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
The divide is especially intense in Lebanon and Iraq, where heavily armed Iran-backed political factions vie for political influence with opponents more oriented toward the West. In those countries, many believe Iran or the US are due for comeuppance — even if only on the pitch.
Others wished a plague on both their houses.
“Both are adversaries of Iraq and played a negative role in the country,” Haydar Shakar said in downtown Baghdad, where a cafe displayed the flags of both countries hanging outside. “It’s a sports tournament, and they’re both taking part in it. That’s all it is to us.”
A meme widely circulated ahead of Tuesday’s match between the US and Iran jokingly referred to it as “the first time they will play outside of Lebanon.” Another Twitter user joked that whoever wins the group stage “takes Iraq.”
The Iran-backed Hezbollah was the only armed group to keep its weapons after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. It says its arms are needed to defend the country from Israel and blames Lebanon’s economic crisis in part on US sanctions. Opponents decry Hezbollah as an “Iranian occupation,” while many Lebanese accuse both the US and Iran of meddling in their internal affairs.
In Iraq, the 2003 US-led invasion led to years of intense violence and sectarian strife, and Iran-backed political factions and militias largely filled the vacuum. While US forces and Iran-backed militias found themselves on the same side against the Islamic State extremist group, they have traded fire on several occasions since its defeat.
Both Lebanon and Iraq have had to contend with years of political gridlock, with the main dividing line running between Iran’s allies and opponents.
In Yemen, the Iran-aligned Houthi militia captured the capital and much of the country’s north in 2014. The Houthis have been at war since then with an array of factions supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two US allies.
In Syria’s civil war, Iran supported President Bashar Assad’s government against rebels, some supported by the West. In the Palestinian territories, it backs Hamas and Islamic Jihad, militant factions that do not recognize Israel and have carried out scores of attacks over the years.
Interviews with soccer fans in Beirut and Baghdad revealed mixed emotions about the match.
In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a center of Hezbollah support, young men draped in Iranian flags gathered in a cafe hung with a “Death to America” flag to watch the match.
“We are against America in football, politics and everything else,” Ali Nehme said. “God is with Lebanon and Iran.”
Across the city on the seafront promenade, Beirut resident Aline Noueyhed said, “Of course I’m not with Iran after all the disasters they made. Definitely, I’m with America.” She added, however, that the US also was “not 100 percent helping us.”
The post-game reaction in the streets of Beirut after the US defeated Iran 1-0, eliminating it from the tournament and advancing to the knockout round, was far more subdued than after the previous day’s win by Brazil — a fan favorite in Lebanon — over Switzerland.
In Baghdad, Ali Fadel was cheering for Iran, because “it’s a neighboring country, an Asian country.”
“There are many linkages between us and them,” he added.
Nour Sabah was rooting for the US because “they are a strong team, and (the US) controls the world.”
In Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, fans also gave mixed reactions.
Twenty-seven-year-old Zainab Fakhri was rooting for the US to beat Iran “to punish the Iranian regime that has been oppressing the women’s revolution,” referring to recent protests there.
At the same cafe, Aras Harb, 23, was backing Iran. “We prefer them because my family were able to flee there during the war, and the Iranian people are kind.”
Saad Mohammad, 20, had been hoping for a tie, fearing that a win could worsen an already alarming security situation. If locals celebrate the win, he said, “I fear Iran will launch rockets at us.”
Although the Iran supporters were visibly upset at their loss, the crowd filed out after the game without incident.
Regional politics hovered over the last matchup, at the 1998 World Cup, when Iran famously defeated the US 2-1, eliminating it from the tournament. That came less than two decades after Iran’s Islamic Revolution toppled the US-backed shah and protesters overran the US Embassy, leading to a prolonged hostage crisis.
French riot police were on site at the stadium in Lyon that year, but they weren’t needed. The teams posed together in a group photo, and Iran’s players even brought white roses for their opponents.
In this year’s matchup, allegiances have been scrambled by the nationwide protests gripping Iran, with some Iranians openly rooting against their own team. The players declined to sing along to their national anthem ahead of their opening match, in what was seen as an expression of sympathy for the protests, but reversed course and sang ahead of their next one.
In some neighborhoods of Tehran, people chanted “Death to the dictator!” after the match, even though it was past midnight local time.
Danyel Reiche, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar who has researched the politics of sports, said World Cup fandom is not necessarily an indicator of political affiliation, even in countries with deep divisions.
Local sports in Lebanon are “highly politicized,” with all the major basketball and soccer clubs having political and sectarian affiliations, he said. But when it comes to the World Cup — where Lebanon has never qualified to play — fans latch on to any number of teams.
That’s true across the region, where fans sporting Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo jerseys can be found from Gaza to Afghanistan.
“This is one of the few spheres where people have the liberty and freedom to choose a country that they simply like and not the country where they think there’s an obligation for them to be affiliated with it,” Reiche said.


Iraqis protest after father kills YouTuber daughter

Updated 9 sec ago

Iraqis protest after father kills YouTuber daughter

BAGHDAD: Iraqi activists protested Sunday to demand a law against domestic violence, days after a YouTuber was strangled by her father in a killing that has outraged the conservative country.
Tiba Al-Ali, 22, was killed by her father on January 31 in the southern province of Diwaniyah, interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan said on Twitter on Friday.
Maan said there had been an attempt to mediate between the young woman and her relatives to resolve a “family dispute.” The father later surrendered to the police and confessed to murdering his daughter.
On Sunday, security forces prevented some 20 activists from demonstrating outside the country’s Supreme Judicial Council, and they gathered instead at a road leading to the building, an AFP journalist said.
Some held placards saying “Stop killing women” and “Tiba’s killer must be held to account.”
“We demand laws to protect women, especially laws against domestic violence,” 22-year-old protester Rose Hamid told AFP.
“We came here to protest against Tiba’s murder and against all others. Who will be the next victim?“
Another demonstrator, Lina Ali, said: “We will keep mobilizing because of rising domestic violence and killings of women.”
On the sidelines of Sunday’s demonstration, human rights activist Hanaa Edwar was received by a magistrate from the Supreme Judicial Council to whom she presented the protesters’ grievances.
Tiba Al-Ali had lived in Turkiye since 2017 and was visiting Iraq when she was killed, a security official in Diwaniyah told AFP.
In Turkiye she had gained a following on YouTube, posting videos of her daily life in which her fiance often appeared.
Recordings have been shared on social media by a friend of Ali, and picked up by activists, reportedly of conversations with the father, angry because she was living in Turkiye.
In the recordings, she also accuses her brother of sexual harassment.
AFP could not independently verify the authenticity of the voice recordings.

Iran’s supreme leader issues pardon for ‘tens of thousands’ of prisoners — IRNA

Updated 05 February 2023

Iran’s supreme leader issues pardon for ‘tens of thousands’ of prisoners — IRNA

DUBAI: Iran’s supreme leader has pardoned “tens of thousands” of prisoners including some arrested in recent anti-government protests, state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday, after a deadly state crackdown helped quell the nationwide unrest.
However, the pardon approved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came with conditions, according to details announced in state media reports, which said the measure would not apply to any of the numerous dual nationals held in Iran.
State news agency IRNA said those accused of “corruption on earth” — a capital charge brought against some protesters, four of whom have been executed — would also not be pardoned.
Neither would it apply to those charged with “spying for foreign agencies” or those “affiliated with groups hostile to the Islamic Republic,” state media reported.
Iran was swept by protests following the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman in the custody of the country’s morality police last September. Iranians from all walks of life took part, marking one of the boldest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.
According to the HRANA activist news agency, about 20,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests, which the authorities accused Iran’s foreign enemies of fomenting.
Rights groups say over 500 have been killed in the crackdown, including 70 minors. At least four people have been hanged, according to the Iranian judiciary.
In a letter to Khamenei requesting the pardon, judiciary head Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei said: “During recent events, a number of people, especially young people, committed wrong actions and crimes as a result of the indoctrination and propaganda of the enemy.
Protests have slowed considerably since the hangings began.
“Since the foreign enemies and anti-revolutionary currents’ plans have been foiled, many of these youth now regret their actions,” Ejei wrote.
Khamenei approved the pardons in honor of the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
It would not apply to those “facing charges of spying for foreign agencies, having direct contact with foreign agents, committing intentional murder and injury, (and) committing destruction and arson of state property.”
“Naturally, those who do not express regret for their activities and give a written commitment for not repeating those activities, will not be pardoned,” deputy judiciary chief Sadeq Rahimi said, state media reported.
The Norway-based Iran Human Rights group said this week that at least 100 detained protesters faced possible death sentences.
Amnesty International has criticized Iranian authorities for what it called “sham trials designed to intimidate those participating in the popular uprising that has rocked Iran.”


Bus crash kills at least 8, injures dozens in western Turkiye

Updated 05 February 2023

Bus crash kills at least 8, injures dozens in western Turkiye

ISTANBUL: A passenger bus crashed off a road and overturned in western Turkiye Sunday, killing at least eight people and injuring dozens.
The governor’s office of Afyonkarahisar province said the bus was traveling from the southeastern Diyarbakir province to the Aegean city of Bodrum.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted that 42 people were injured, with three in critical condition.
Videos from the scene showed ambulances lined up and a crane holding the bus up.
An injured passenger with a broken arm told official Anadolu news agency that he was half asleep when the bus “flew.” He said people were stuck underneath the bus.
The bus was operated by a company called Star Has Diyarbakir.


How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations

Updated 05 February 2023

How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations

  • Judiciary and politicians have accused Tarek Bitar of insubordination for resuming his inquiry after a 13-month hiatus 
  • For survivors and the families of those killed in the explosion, Judge Bitar’s fresh effort offers a glimmer of hope

DUBAI: When a massive explosion tore through the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, killing more than 215 people, Lebanese officials promised a swift investigation that would bring the culprits to justice within days.

Since then, the inquiry has repeatedly stalled, with its lead investigator Tarek Bitar accused of insubordination for resuming his probe into the blast and charging several top officials.

The blast, which devastated the port and surrounding districts, injuring more than 6,500 and displacing some 300,000, occurred when a large quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, improperly stored in a warehouse since 2014, somehow caught fire.

Survivors, relatives of the victims and rights groups have blamed the disaster on a political class widely viewed as corrupt and inept. To date, no official has been held accountable.

Relatives of Brirut Port blast victims clash with police outside the Palace of Justice in Beirut. (AFP)

“The stuttering investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion had already demonstrated that the judiciary was a plaything in the hands of powerful figures, who could gleefully toss spanners into the legal works to hamstring procedures indefinitely,” broadcaster and political commentator Baria Alamuddin said in a recent op-ed for Arab News.

Bitar’s investigation was initially halted in December 2021 due to a ruling from the Court of Cassation. Three former cabinet ministers had filed court orders against him, while groups opposed to the inquiry, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah, accused him of bias.

Bitar was already the second judge to head the investigation following Judge Fadi Sawan’s removal. In December 2020, Sawan had charged former prime minister Hassan Diab — who had resigned in the explosion’s aftermath — and three former ministers with negligence.

 

However, Sawan was removed from the case after mounting political pressure, and the probe was suspended.

His successor, Bitar, also summoned Diab for questioning and asked parliament, without success, to lift the immunity of lawmakers who had served as ministers. The interior ministry also refused to execute arrest warrants, further undermining Bitar’s quest for accountability.

In October 2021, protests calling for Bitar’s removal were organized by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, a Shiite political party headed by Nabih Berri, in the civil war-scarred Beirut neighborhood of Tayouneh.

A supporter of Hezbollah and the Amal movements carries a portrait of Judge Tarek Bitar during a rally in Beirut on October 14, 2021, to demand his dismissal. (AFP)

The protests quickly turned deadly when unidentified snipers opened fire on the crowd, killing seven civilians and injuring dozens in echoes of the 1975-90 civil war period. The gunmen were suspected members of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian party.

Given these tensions and hurdles, it took many by surprise when Bitar resumed his investigation on Jan. 23 after a 13-month hiatus, charging eight new suspects, including high-level security officials and Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat.

Bitar also charged former prime minister Diab, parliamentarian Ghazi Zaiter, former interior minister Nouhad Machnouk, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, former army commander Jean Kahwaji, and Major General Tony Saliba.

Oweidat responded by issuing a travel ban against Bitar, accusing him of “sedition” and of “acting without a mandate,” charging him with “rebelling against the judiciary.” He also issued an order releasing 17 suspects held in pretrial detention.

Lebanese protest in Beirut on January 28, 2023 to demand the removal and prosecution of top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat. (AFP)

“Lebanon’s judiciary has become an object of ridicule, as judges leveled retaliatory charges against each other and arbitrarily ordered the releases of detainees,” said columnist Alamuddin.

“By filing charges against senior officials, Bitar is not an out-of-control judge. Rather he is signaling that the entire complicit, corrupt leadership deserves to be brought to account.”

The executive-judiciary squabble is a further test of Lebanon’s crumbling institutions. Wracked by financial crisis and political paralysis, its currency in free fall and thousands of professionals and young people fleeing the country, expectations are low.

Michael Young, editor of Diwan, a blog of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, and author of “Ghosts of Martyrs Square,” is convinced that Bitar will not be permitted to do his work properly.

“We have to understand that there are two steps in this process,” he told Arab News. “If Bitar invites someone, it’s going to be very difficult if not impossible for him to force the people he wants to investigate to sit for their interviews.

“The police will not do anything about it because the interior ministry in its turn will not implement anything. The judicial police is controlled by the public prosecutor Oueidat, and he’s made it clear that he will not order the implementation of any decisions.

“The ability of Bitar to do his job properly is going to be, in my opinion, impossible. His investigation is technically blocked.”

Why Bitar chose to resume his inquiry now remains unclear. But for survivors and the families of those killed in the blast, his return offers a glimmer of hope.

“It was time for Judge Bitar to resume his work. The truth has to come out at some point and I think what Judge Ghassan Oueidat did by defying Judge Bitar is strengthening his will to uncover the truth,” Tatiana Hasrouty, who lost her father Ghassan Hasrouty in the blast, told Arab News.

Lebanese protesters demand during a rally in Beirut on Jan. 28. 2023 that top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat be discharged and held accountable for the 2020 port blast. (AFP)

“I believe in Judge Bitar, not as a person, but rather as the judge who is in charge of investigating this crime and is working on uncovering the truth and upholding the rule of law. He is challenging the culture of impunity we, the Lebanese, have inherited by summoning politicians and high officials.” 

Bitar, who was first appointed as lead investigator in February 2021, was seen by many Lebanese as an impartial and honest judge.

The 49-year-old Christian, who hails from the country’s north, rarely appears in public or speaks to the press, and is known to have a clean reputation and no political affiliations, a rarity in such a deeply sectarian country.

“Bitar is disconcerting for the corrupt ruling classes because he doesn’t follow their rules,” Alamuddin said in her Arab News op-ed. “He declines invitations to social occasions to avoid perceptions of influence, and doesn’t accept calls from those seeking favors.”

In a recent sermon, influential Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al-Rahi voiced his support for Bitar, urging him to “continue his work,” despite the “unacceptable” judicial and political pushback.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi. (AFP)

“The meetings of the judicial bodies are witnessing a lack of quorum with judges and public prosecutors defying the Higher Judicial Council and its head and refraining from attending the meetings,” he said.

“We will not allow the port crime to go without punishment, no matter how much time passes and how many rulers change.”

Al-Rahi, who is patriarch of the largest Christian community in the country, also called on Bitar to seek the help and assistance of any international authority that might aid him in uncovering the truth.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on the UN Human Rights Council to “urgently pass a resolution to create an impartial fact-finding mission” into the port explosion.

“The Lebanese authorities have repeatedly obstructed the domestic investigation into the explosion,” they said in a joint statement.

In Lebanon’s fraught political climate, the chances of obtaining justice for the port blast’s survivors and the families of those killed appear low.

“We understood from the beginning that the political class does not want the investigation to go through to the extent that they are even willing — as we saw in the Tayouneh incident over a year ago — to risk sectarian conflict to do so,” Diwan editor Young told Arab News.

“They will not implement the rule of law. It is missing anyway in Lebanon today. They do not care about the consequences of having no rule of law.”

However, Hasrouty, who has used social media to express sorrow and anger over the loss of her father, says that regardless of what Lebanese politicians and officials do, she will not give up hope.

“The truth scares the ruling elite but this is why we will pursue it till the end,” she said. “They are scared of the power that the families and public now hold.”

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UN urges end to ‘illogical escalation’ between Israel, Palestine

Updated 05 February 2023

UN urges end to ‘illogical escalation’ between Israel, Palestine

  • Saturday’s violent storming of West Bank camp reflects ‘extremist mentality’ of Israeli govt, sources say

RAMALLAH: The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged an end to the “illogical escalation” between Israel and Palestine.

Volker Turk warned that recent measures taken by Israel would “lead to more violence and bloodshed.”

In a statement distributed in Geneva, Turk said: “I am afraid that the recent measures taken by the government of Israel only serve to fuel more violations and abuses, especially the decision to facilitate obtaining permits to carry weapons.”

He warned that the matter “accompanied by hateful rhetoric, will only lead to more violence and bloodshed.”

Israel denounced Turk’s statement, accusing him, in a statement issued by its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, of bias and of “only condemning the state of Israel.”

The high commissioner added: “Instead of doubling down on the failed methods of violence and coercion that have single-handedly failed in the past, I urge all concerned to break out of the illogical logic of escalation that only ended with dead bodies, loss of life and sheer despair.

“Collective punishment measures, including forced evictions and house demolitions, are expressly prohibited under international humanitarian law and are incompatible with provisions of international human rights law.”

The high commissioner called for urgent measures to de-escalate tensions, including ensuring that international standards were maintained in investigating deaths and serious injuries.

Turk said: “Impunity has spread, which signals that abuses are permissible.”

His warning came as Mustafa Al-Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative Party, criticized the bias of the US in failing to pressure the Israeli government into ending attacks on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

He made the remarks to Arab News after Palestinian medical sources said that at least 13 Palestinians were injured during clashes with the Israeli military in the West Bank on Saturday.

Israeli troops stormed the Aqbat Jabr refugee camp south of Jericho on Saturday morning.

The action led to clashes, resulting in the injury of three citizens by live rounds and other rubber-coated metal bullets.

Israeli forces had demolished part of the walls of a besieged house in the camp and used loudspeakers to request the surrender of those inside.

Palestinian medical sources said that three of the injured in the camp clashes were transferred to Ramallah hospitals in critical condition.

According to media sources and residents in the camp, three family members were arrested, including a father and son. The Israeli army also demolished a house in the camp.

Israeli sources said that troops ended the military activity in Aqabat Jabr camp and left four hours after the raid began. A search for two people who allegedly carried out an armed attack at Almog junction a week earlier did not result in arrests.

Israeli armed forces claimed that troops had raided Aqabat Jabr refugee camp and questioned several people suspected of involvement in the attack.

An army statement said that clashes took place with Palestinian gunmen during the military operation, and that there were no casualties on the Israeli side.

It added that 18 people were interrogated in the field, and six were transferred to Shin Bet for investigation.

Al-Barghouti told Arab News that the violent storming of the camp reflected the “extremist mentality” of the Israeli government, which has imposed a policy of collective punishment on Palestinians.

He described the military action — which resulted in the wounding of 13 Palestinians — as unjustified.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health said that the Israeli military impeded the entry of medical and health personnel into Jericho.

Israeli armed forces have limited the exit of Palestinians in Jericho city’s eastern side during the last seven days.

It deployed tightened checkpoints at all main road entrances into the area.

Israeli authorities closed all secondary entries with earthen mounds, searching for two gunmen who opened fire toward on a restaurant at Almog on Jan. 28. No injuries were reported from the incident. Several Palestinians were arrested and later released after questioning.

Authorities adopted a “collective punishment policy” on the city by obstructing movement, searching cars and checking identities, sources said.

Citizens waited in vehicles for several hours in front of checkpoints at all entrances to the city.

The army’s actions disrupted daily life for the city’s 30,000 residents.

Dozens of citizens and workers endured waits of up to four hours at Israeli military checkpoints, while others were prevented from leaving the city entirely.

Jericho houses a terminal that serves as the only exit point for 3 million Palestinians to travel from the West Bank to countries around the world.

The closure of the city over the past week has significantly impeded the movement of citizens traveling and returning from abroad.

A doctor in the emergency department of a major Palestinian hospital in Ramallah told Arab News that the Israeli army was “deliberately shooting at the upper limbs” of targets, increasing the chances of fatal injury and death.

An ambulance officer from Jericho told Arab News that the three people left in critical condition from the camp raid were moved to Ramallah hospitals due to a lack of medical equipment in nearby hospitals.

They were transported more than 40 km, passing through several Israeli military checkpoints.

Palestinian factions have condemned the storming of Aqabat Jabr as a crime, calling for a confrontation with Israel.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said: “The occupation’s aggression against the Palestinian camps in the occupied West Bank, in addition to the escalation of daily arrest campaigns, will not weaken the continuous resistance until the occupation is defeated and our national goals are achieved.

“The escalation of resistance operations in all forms and various means categorically confirms that a new phase is taking shape in the West Bank and will pursue settlers and turn their colonies into prisons for settlers.”

Tariq Ezz El-Din, media spokesman for the Islamic Jihad Movement, said that the “ very dangerous” Israeli escalation needed to be met by “resistance activities.”

The Palestine Center for Prisoners Studies warned that Israeli authorities had stepped up arrest campaigns against Palestinians since the beginning of the year.

The center recorded 540 arrest cases, including 92 children and 10 women, in January.

It also referred to the Israeli army’s escalation of raids on towns and cities in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The center said that Jerusalem saw the largest share of arrests, with 270.

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