Activists: Hours before cease-fire, 37 killed in Syrian town

A woman runs after an airstrike in Idlib, Syria. (Reuters)
Updated 23 March 2018
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Activists: Hours before cease-fire, 37 killed in Syrian town

BEIRUT: Syrian rescuers and a war monitoring group say 37 people were killed in airstrikes in a town in the eastern Ghouta region near the capital, Damascus, just hours before a cease-fire went into effect after midnight.
The rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman, one of at least three operating in the sprawling region, says intense government attacks targeted the area it controls on Thursday.
Rescuers, known as White Helmets, say the casualties were from an airstrike that hit an underground shelter in the town of Arbeen.
Rebel spokesman Wael Oweilan said Friday negotiations with Russia will follow to allow for the evacuation of civilians from the area.
A similar deal with another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, led to the evacuation of hundreds of fighters and civilians from Harasta, an eastern Ghouta town.
Meanwhile, hundreds of fighters evacuated by the Syrian regime from their Eastern Ghouta bastion arrived in rebel-held Idlib province on Friday, a monitor said.
Buses carrying the fighters and their families entered the northwestern province after their evacuation from the rebel-held town of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
An AFP reporter at a camp for the displaced in the Maaret al-Ikhwan area in the north of Idlib province saw some of the evacuees arrive.
Families entered the camp but the fighters were not allowed in, he said.
Before dawn, some 400 fighters and hundreds of civilians on buses and ambulances had stopped in the town of Qalat al-Madiq in Hama province to the south, the Observatory said.
Among them was a man who had died of his injuries on the way, said the monitor, which relies on a wide network sources inside Syria for its information.
The AFP reporter saw hundreds of people on buses draw into Qalat al-Madiq, where rebel fighters and members of the Red Crescent and of the White Helmets civil defence organisation were waiting.
The evacuation from Harasta comes after pro-regime forces launched a blistering air and ground offensive on Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion near Damascus, on February 18.
The assault has retaken 80 percent of the enclave, the Observatory says, and divided what remains into three shrinking pockets, each controlled by a different rebel group.
The evacuation of rebels from Harasta could empty the smallest of these pockets and pile pressure on those controlling the two other to accept similar deals.
Eastern Ghouta is within mortar range of central Damascus, and the evacuation deal could be a major first step in the regime's efforts towards securing the capital.
The one-month offensive on Eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,500 civilians, the Observatory says, and caused tens of thousands to flee into government-held areas.
More than 350,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.


In power for 15 years, Iraq’s Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

Updated 25 April 2018
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In power for 15 years, Iraq’s Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

  • About 60 percent of Iraqis are 27 or younger and many young people in urban areas say they want a secular government
  • If no clear winner emerges, Iran could have more of a chance to act as a broker between the Shiite parties and influence who becomes prime minister

BASRA/NAJAF, Iraq: United in their fight against Saddam Hussein’s oppression for decades, Iraq’s Shiites have become deeply fragmented and disillusioned with their leaders after 15 years in power.
In Iraq’s Shiite heartlands, many who once voted blindly along sectarian lines are now turning their ire against the Shiite-led governments they say have failed to repair crumbling infrastructure, provide jobs or end the violence.
The divisions within the community now risk splitting the Shiite vote in a May 12 election, which could complicate and delay the formation of a government, threaten gains against Islamic State and let Iran meddle further in Iraq’s politics.
In the oil-rich southern province of Basra, 81-year-old retired teacher Mowafaq Abdul Ghani is disappointed with the performance of the Shiite leaders since Saddam fell in 2003.
“I’ve been waiting for Saddam to fall since the 1970s. I’ve been waiting for you! Why would you do this to us?” he said.
“Look around. The streets are filthy, there are flies everywhere, pot holes at every step. Twenty years ago Basra was terrible but it was better than this,” Abdul Ghani said.
In the holy city of Najaf, home to Imam Ali’s shrine and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, there was a similar feeling of disillusionment.
At midnight on April 13 when official campaigning began, hordes of party activists plastered campaign posters on every visible surface, in same cases covering pictures honoring those who died fighting Islamic State.
“They took down the martyrs and replaced them with thieves,” said unemployed 29-year-old Abbas Saad.
Even Sistani seems unhappy with the performance of the politicians, issuing a fatwa recently implicitly calling on Shiites to vote for new blood.
“The tried should not be tried,” said the fatwa from Sistani, whose decrees are sacrosanct to millions.
 

New generation
Under the informal power-sharing arrangement in place since Saddam’s fall, the prime minister has always come from the Shiite majority with a Kurdish president and a Sunni speaker.
In the past, while no party has won enough seats to govern alone, there has typically been one Shiite leader with enough support to shape a ruling coalition government.
This time there are three Shiite frontrunners: incumbent Haider Al-Abadi who has promoted a more inclusive government, his overtly sectarian predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki who failed to inspire unity and Hadi Al-Amiri, a military commander close to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards seen as a war hero by many.
If no clear winner emerges, Iran could have more of a chance to act as a broker between the Shiite parties and influence who becomes prime minister, while Daesh could capitalize on any power vacuum and exploit Sunni feelings of marginalization.
At a party for university graduates in Najaf, dozens of young people danced under a glittering disco ball and listened to poetry in a packed hall. At the event sponsored by Adnan Al-Zurfi, a former governor running on Abadi’s Victory Alliance list, the talk was of inclusiveness.
About 60 percent of Iraqis are 27 or younger and many young people in urban areas say they want a secular government, underscoring the split within the Shiite voter base.
“I’m against voting based on sect,” said student Ali Reda.
Abadi’s list, touted by Zurfi as “cross-sectarian,” is the only one contesting the election in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
“The youth care about unemployment, education, and freedoms,” he said at a nearby cafe surrounded by young men playing billiards. “The Shiite majority has a responsibility to calm the fears of other communities. We are proposing an inclusive government in which everyone is represented.”
 

Shiite rule
Just an hour away from Najaf in Karbala, the holy city visited by 30 million Shiite pilgrims a year, sharing power with Sunnis and Kurds is not seen as a solution.
“Iraq has a Shiite majority. It is natural that it be ruled by a Shiite,” said Muntazer Al-Shahrestani, who runs a school for Shiite clerics.
While there has been no census for a long time, US figures from 2003 put the breakdown of the Iraqi population at roughly 48-60 percent Shiite Arabs, 15-22 percent Sunni Arabs, 18 percent Kurds with other groups making up the rest.
Shahrestani said while the rights of minorities should be protected there should be a Shiite government, echoing a popular opinion among religious Shiites.
Many campaign on that sentiment, none more than former prime minister Maliki, who is widely viewed by Sunni and Kurds as sectarian and oppressive.
Maliki is also blamed by many Shiites for losing a third of Iraq to Islamic State in 2014 before being replaced by Abadi, but he remains popular with others who credit him with signing Saddam’s death warrant.
 

Men of God
In Hayaniya, one of the poorest parts of Basra, Ali Khaled plans to vote for Amiri’s Conquest Alliance, as do many in his neighborhood.
Khaled’s brother was killed fighting Islamic State for Amiri’s Badr Organization, an Iran-backed militia that is one of the many state-sponsored groups collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that emerged as a response to a Sistani fatwa calling on Iraqis to fight Islamic State.
He receives up to $675 a month as payment for the death of his brother but he’s not thanking the current government.
“The PMF follow God, they don’t have bureaucracy like the government,” Khaled said. “Hadi Al-Amiri fought with us. He left his cushy post as a minister to fight for us. He eats our food. He lived with us.”
But many others view Amiri, whose candidates hang photos of Iranian Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in their offices, as having a stronger allegiance to Iran than Iraq.
“Amiri is a hero but he is too close to Iran. A vote for him is one against Iraq’s sovereignty,” said Abdul Ghani, the retired teacher in Basra.
 

Neglected heartland

For years, the province was a support base for Shiite leaders. Now, many Basrawis are fed up.
Basra produces about 3.5 million barrels of oil per day, the vast majority of Iraq’s oil wealth equivalent to more than 80 percent of the federal budget.
But many in the city don’t believe they get a fair share of government revenues handed out to the 18 provinces and say what little they do get is squandered by local officials.
The city’s water is undrinkable, its roads neglected, and its streets overflowing with waste. The Al-Ashar river that divides the city was once a source of prosperity for its people, but now its clogged with rubbish.
Jobs are scant, as are school supplies and medical equipment but there is no shortage of posters for the Shiite candidates.
At the same house in Hayaniya where Khaled was speaking, his neighbor, a soldier with an elite Interior Ministry unit, said he would just not vote, even for Abadi, his commander-in-chief.
Many do still plan to vote for Abadi, though more out of pragmatism than passion with some describing him as “the best of the worst.”
Wounded fighting Islamic State in Mosul last year, the soldier, who requested anonymity, sipped tea sitting on the floor, his leg still in a cast he was forced to pay for himself.
“When I was first injured I got visits and promises (from officials) but nothing, ultimately. I have no faith in the government or parliament,” he said.
A majority of those interviewed by Reuters in Basra said they would not vote. Two men, who declined to be named, said they planned to sell their families’ votes to the highest bidder, just to help make ends meet.
“I am hungry. I have eight votes and I want to sell them,” said one.