Polls open in first Iran presidential vote since atomic deal

A man fills out his ballots to vote in the presidential and municipal council election in Tehran, Iran. (AP)
Updated 19 May 2017
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Polls open in first Iran presidential vote since atomic deal

TEHRAN, Iran: Iranians began voting Friday in the country’s first presidential election since its nuclear deal with world powers, as incumbent Hassan Rouhani faced a staunch challenge from a hard-line opponent over his outreach to the wider world.
The election is largely viewed as a referendum on the 68-year-old cleric’s more moderate policies, which paved the way for the nuclear accord despite opposition from hard-liners.
Economic issues also will be on the minds of Iran’s over 56 million eligible voters as they head to more than 63,000 polling places across the country. The average Iranian has yet to see the benefits of the deal, which saw Iran limit its contested nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful man in Iran, symbolically cast the election’s first vote and called on Iranians to turn out in huge numbers for the poll.
“Elections are very important and the fate of the country is in the hands of all people,” he said.
In the election, Rouhani has history on his side. No incumbent president has failed to win re-election since 1981, when Khamenei became president himself.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy, however. Rouhani faces three challengers, the strongest among them hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, 56.
Raisi, a law professor and former prosecutor who heads an influential religious charitable foundation with vast business holdings, is seen by many as close to Khamenei. Raisi has even been discussed as a possible successor to him, though Khamenei has stopped short of endorsing anyone.
Raisi won the support of two major clerical bodies and promised to boost welfare payments to the poor. His populist posture, anti-corruption rhetoric and get-tough reputation — bolstered by his alleged role condemning inmates to death during Iran’s 1988 mass execution of thousands of political prisoners — are likely to energize conservative rural and working-class voters.
Mostafa Hashemitaba, a pro-reform figure who previously ran for president in 2001, and Mostafa Mirsalim, a former culture minister, also remain in the race.
The race has heated emotions and pushed public discourse in Iran into areas typically untouched in the tightly controlled state media. That includes Rouhani openly criticizing hard-liners and Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force now involved in the war in Syria and the fight against Daesh militants in neighboring Iraq. Rouhani also found himself surrounded by angry coal miners who beat and threw rocks at his armored SUV during a visit to a northern mine struck by an explosion earlier this month that killed at least 42 people.
But authorities worry about tempers rising too high, especially after the 2009 disputed re-election of former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that saw unrest, mass arrests and killings. Authorities barred Ahmadinejad from running in Friday’s election, and Khamenei days ago warned anyone fomenting unrest “will definitely be slapped in the face.”
That hasn’t stopped those at Rouhani rallies from shouting for the house-arrested leaders of the 2009’s Green Movement. Opposition websites have said Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi both have endorsed Rouhani against Raisi. Rouhani promised in his 2013 campaign to free the men, but that pledge so far remains unfulfilled.
Mohammad Khatami, another reformist who served as Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005, also has endorsed Rouhani.
Voting is scheduled to run until 6 p.m., though Iran routinely extends voting for several hours in elections. Iranian authorities say they believe the vote will exceed a 70 percent turnout.


Nearly a year since fall of Iraq’s Mosul, hunt for bodies goes on

Updated 21 May 2018
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Nearly a year since fall of Iraq’s Mosul, hunt for bodies goes on

  • “The operations will continue until all the corpses are extracted” from the heart of the city
  • The rubble makes it impossible to bring in heavy construction machinery

MOSUL: Atop an enormous mound of rubble under blistering sun in Iraq’s second city Mosul, fire crews and police chip away at a grim but vital task.
Some 10 months after dislodging the Daesh group, they are still extracting bodies from the ruins of the shattered Old City.
“Over three days, 763 bodies have been pulled from the rubble and buried,” Lt. Col. Rabie Ibrahim says.
Despite the overpowering stench, the men work relentlessly, braving unexploded munitions in an area devastated by the nine-month battle.
“The operations will continue until all the corpses are extracted” from the heart of the city, Ibrahim says.
Civilians’ bodies that can be identified are handed to their families, while the remains of Daesh combatants are buried in a mass grave on the western outskirts of Mosul.
Some of the putrefied corpses are sent to Nineveh province’s health services, Ibrahim adds.
The workers, their faces covered with masks or scarves, move with great caution.
The bodies of jihadists are sometimes still clad in suicide belts.
Grenades, homemade bombs and other crude contraptions left by Daesh fighters during their retreat to Syria pose a constant threat.
The improvised boobytraps are hidden under multiple layers and obstacles — the rubble of collapsed homes, disemboweled furniture and uprooted trees, in some places subsiding into the waters of the Tigris that meander murkily below.
Where a maze of cobbled streets was once lined with homes and market stalls, there is now a formless mess populated by stray animals, insects and disease.
The destruction is so great that some residents cannot pinpoint the remnants of their homes or even their street as they try to direct salvage workers to the remains of loved ones.
The rubble makes it impossible to bring in heavy construction machinery, says General Hossam Khalil, who leads Nineveh province’s civil defense force.
His men therefore have to rely on smaller vehicles, but Mosul “only has a few,” he says.
There is a pressure to work as quickly as conditions will allow: residents are exhausted by three years of Daesh rule, nine months of brutal urban combat and now the slow pace of reconstruction.
“But it’s impossible, with this stench, this pollution and the epidemics they can cause,” says Othmane Saad, an unemployed 40-year-old whose home in the old city is entirely destroyed.
Another resident, 33-year-old Abu Adel, wants the authorities “to clear all the corpses as quickly as possible” and to “compensate residents so they can rebuild, then establish public services.”
But the task is titanic.
Since Mosul was retaken in July, “2,838 bodies, including 600 Daesh members, have been retrieved from the rubble,” governor Naufel Sultane says.
Even after the corpses are taken away and buried, they leave harmful bacteria which the Tigris can carry far beyond the old city.
The authorities insist drinking water stations are unaffected and that they pump water from the Tigris’ central depths, avoiding the banks and other shallows.
But gastroenterologist Ahmed Ibrahim advises caution.
“You must boil water before drinking it and don’t use river water, either for bathing or washing,” he says.
Birds and fish “can carry typhus, bilharzia and gastroenteritis,” he adds.