Daesh long gone, but former Iraqi oil hub still dead

A member of the Iraqi forces guards a checkpoint in the northern Iraqi city of Baiji on Nov. 27, 2017. Two years after the jihadists of Daesh were forced from this one-time industrial hub, Baiji remains a devastated ghost city as pledges of funds to help rebuild life have failed to materialize. (AFP/Mahmud Saleh)
Updated 11 December 2017

Daesh long gone, but former Iraqi oil hub still dead

BAIJI, Iraq: A white rocking horse and a child’s toy car lie abandoned on a dusty lane in the Iraqi city of Baiji, a small sign of the ruin that can be seen all around.
Two years after the jihadists of Daesh were forced from this one-time industrial hub, Baiji remains a devastated ghost city as pledges of funds to help rebuild life have failed to materialize.
Home to what was once Iraq’s biggest oil refinery, its rubble-strewn streets are lined by the twisted carcasses of buildings, and in 2016 it was declared a disaster zone by the national parliament.
“Up until now there has been no money to reconstruct the town despite the promises made by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi,” Khaled Hassan Mahdi, a member of the regional council, told AFP.
Instead, Mahdi said, all available funds have gone into financing Iraq’s military campaign against Daesh, which Hadi declared defeated after three years of brutal fighting.
“And even if the ministries unblock the money, it will only go to restoring infrastructure, water, roads, electricity, but not pay benefits to people or give them aid to rebuild their homes.”

For Baiji, 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Baghdad, its role as a major industrial center boasting sprawling oil and chemical plants seems like a distant memory.
“It will be very difficult to rehabilitate the Baiji refinery, which was built in 1975 and used to produce 250,000 barrels a day, as so much equipment has been pillaged,” a high-ranking official in Iraq’s North Oil Company told AFP.
Even if the facility does get up and running again, the official said, then “it won’t have the same capacity as before.”
The level of devastation in Baiji is among the worst left behind after Baghdad’s punishing campaign to reclaim its towns and cities from the grip the jihadists, who fought fierce house-to-house battles to cling on to the city.
“Baiji is the most destroyed place in Iraq after western Mosul,” said council member Khazal Hammadi, referring to the obliterated old heart of the country’s second city.
Before the jihadist’s seized control in 2014 the city had a population of some 180,000 people.
“Now 90 percent of Baiji is destroyed and the people have still not returned,” city councillor Sheikh Hatef Bassam said.
Wearing a black and white checked keffiyeh headscarf, he insists that “the destruction was the work of the IS terrorists after local Arab tribes rejected their presence,” using a different acronym for Daesh.
But the full story of Baiji’s downfall is far more protracted and complex.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baiji found itself at the heart of the so-called “Sunni triangle” where those loyal to ousted leader Saddam Hussein continued to wage a ferocious insurgency — and the oil infrastructure was attacked repeatedly.
Daesh swept into the city in June 2014 as the Iraqi forces collapsed and after more than a year in control were forced out by government troops and allied militias with the help of air power from a US-led coalition in October 2015.

Traffic has long ceased along Baiji’s wrecked main highway and, apart from a few military checkpoints, life is nowhere to be seen.
“The city is destroyed and the houses are uninhabitable,” said local militia commander Hajj Ibrahim Taha.
“The roads are destroyed, the water system is damaged, electricity is non-existent and all the people have left.”
Local police chief Saad Nafus said that some families come back from time to time to check their houses, but they have to get “authorization” from security officials who still worry about jihadists returning.
In a camp for displaced people run by charities in the region, three kilometers north of the city of Tikrit, former Baiji resident Amer Abbas has no idea if his home is still standing or not.
“We are afraid that we will find nothing if we go back,” he said.
Nearby, Said Imad Ahmed said he already knows full well that his house has been destroyed and that for the foreseeable future he will remain trapped in the camp.
“I don’t have any money to rebuild and the government has given us nothing,” he said.
“We have no choice but to remain here.”

Turkey votes amid questions over the elections’ integrity

Updated 7 min 39 sec ago

Turkey votes amid questions over the elections’ integrity

ANKARA: Turkey held its breath on Sunday for the outcome of the elections that could consolidate Recep Tayip Erdogan’s power or deal him a bloody nose from an increasingly emboldened opposition.

Since early morning, people have cast their votes both for the president and parliament. 

The elections mark Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system after the constitutional changes approved in April 2017 to abolish the office of prime minister and reduce legislative power by giving the president extra authority. 

The election campaign in Turkey this time was unfair but competitive. A preliminary report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the restrictions on freedom of association and speech.

Turkish media is almost completely owned by pro-government business groups, and the campaigns of opposition candidates were barely published or broadcast. 

The pro-Kurdish HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas ran his campaign to be the next president from his prison cell. He has been in pre-trial detention since Nov. 2016 on terrorism charges.

Demirtas was a charismatic challenger against Erdogan in the previous presidential election when he was free and getting huge support not only from Kurds but from the liberal and socio-democrat segments of Turkish society. 

The concerns about the elections’ integrity has topped the agenda during the campaigns. Some major changes to election procedures such as relocation of polling stations in south-eastern regions on security grounds and the validation of unsealed ballots have been criticized by a wide segment of society. 

Allegations of vote rigging in the south-eastern province of Urfa, where four people have been killed in pre-election tensions, were immediately heard by the Supreme Electoral Board of Turkey, which said on Sunday that investigations had been opened about the claims. 

“People are illegally placing mass votes and they are physically attacking election observers who attempt to prevent it,” said a young voter in the capital Ankara. “In which democratic country can 'Votes Are Stolen in Urfa' hashtag become a trend topic on Twitter in such a critical day?”

In the subsequent hours, a car stopped in the south-eastern town of Suruc, where three people carrying four bags with ballots were detained. 

This is not the first time that Turkish elections have been marked by fraud allegations. The angry citizens have once again mobilized to prevent any further vote rigging under grassroots initiatives such as Vote and Beyond by becoming volunteer ballot observers and monitoring the vote registration processes. 

Opposition-supporting social media users reminded others to not forget the misdeeds and the injustices that Erdogan’s ruling AKP committed during 16 years of its rule, such as silencing the media, steady weakening the rule of law and many illiberal practices in financial governance. 

But the election campaign has given hope to Erdogan’s opponents that he is no longer invincible.

Millions of enthusiastic voters have felt encouraged enough to pour on to the streets for opposition election rallies. 

The rising star during the campaign, Muharrem Ince, who is the candidate of the main opposition CHP, succeeded in gathering more than five million people in his latest rally in Istanbul, and an estimated three million participants in a rally in Izmir the day before. 

The opposition attempted to capitalize on the economic concerns, made promises for social benefits and committed to broadening democratic rights while improving relations with Western allies. 

One of the secrets behind Ince’s success was surely his non-polarizing political discourse, by giving strong signals that he would be the “president of all” when elected. 

“I would like to raise my child in a democratic and free country. She cannot vote now because she is four years old, but I vote for her future,” said Nalan Celik, a secular CHP voter who attended Ince’s Izmir rally. 

Although there are multiple scenarios for the outcome of the elections, according to most surveys the dominant scenario is Erdogan winning the first round and AKP and its nationalistic ally MHP forming the majority in the parliament.

However, given that there is still emergency rule in the country after the 2016 attempted coup and a spiral of silence among voters, the reliability of the polls is in question.