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

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi (L), Hadi Al-Amiri (C), and Iraq’s Vice President Nuri Al-Maliki (R) (AFP)
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.


‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

Updated 23 May 2018
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‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

  • As strife-torn Yemen marks its unity day, thousands of Yemeni refugees in neighboring Djibouti say they have little to cheer about
  • Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen

DUBAI: Yemen this week celebrated its national unification day, marking 28 years since the north and south were united — only to be torn apart again by the current war. 

Across the Red Sea from Yemen’s coastline, however, a forgotten segment of the country’s vast displaced population would have found little time for the festivities on Tuesday.

Thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge in a desolate, sun-baked desert camp in the tiny nation of Djibouti.

Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen. 

Associate reporting officer for the the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Djibouti, Vanessa Panaligan, told Arab News that many Yemenis had fled their homeland in search of safety. 

“From the stories I keep hearing, they were tired of seeing bombs and constant fighting in their neighborhood,” Panaligan said.

“They thought, ‘I’ve had it, we’ve stayed long enough and it’s time to get going because you never know when you are next, or if you would survive the next couple of months,’” she said.

Ali Thabit family

Shortly after the war began, Nathair Ali Thabit, 37, took his wife, Goma Salaamy, 27, and their three children, Nadi, 8, Malka, 9, and Atif, 2, and traveled to Mokha port, where he paid 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) to board a boat to Obock. They left Yemen at 8 p.m. and arrived in Djibouti the next morning. 

“We were living in Dhubab and that was on one of the fronts,” Ali Thabit said. “There were forces fighting from all directions and we were right in the middle of all of that. So one night we decided to leave everything behind — our home and belongings — and flee.”

His wife said: “We were all seasick. It was the first time we had been on a boat.”

“Now we live on handouts and rations, and I try to sell bags I sew. At least we are safe,” she said.

“The heat is also unbearable. My young child gets heat rash, he can’t handle it.”
From left, Nathair Ali Thabit, Nadi, Goma Salaamy and Malka. 

Four years of war in Yemen have displaced more than 2 million people and left 75 percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

UNHCR said there has been a spike in the number of refugees coming from Yemen in the past six months. 

From the end of last year, after the killing of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Houthi rebels, the situation deteriorated significantly, leading to “a sharp surge in new arrivals” in Djibouti. 

Almost 200 refugees arrived in December, and more than 100 in January and February. 

Panaligan said that although the influx has tapered off, the conflict shows no signs of letting up, forcing the agency to remain on standby with a contingency plan in case of an emergency influx.

“The sharp increase from what we are used to seeing is definitely a cause for alarm,” Panaligan said. “We’re planning for an emergency.” 

In 2015, 38,000 Yemenis traveled to Djibouti. However, due to the harsh living conditions, many left to go elsewhere, while others returned to Yemen. The current population of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti is almost 4,000 — of which 1,695 live at the Markazi refugee camp in the port town of Obock.

Refugees arrive in Obock and are then sent to reception centers, where they are registered, and given food and water before being sent to Markazi camp. 

Meha Abdul Sala

The 35-year-old mother lives in the camp with her daughter Asiah, 11. She had to sell all her gold to pay $560 to get her three children and herself to Obock in 2015. 

“We had no choice because of the war,” Abdul Saleh said. “At least it’s safe in the camp. I was happy and comfortable in my country, I wish I could go back. I had a shop. It helped me look after my children. I’m divorced. But because of this war we had to throw all that away. Now I make bags to sell to earn some money. But sometimes I don’t have enough money to buy thread, so I have to wait until something comes along.

“I try to sell bags to try and earn money to get food for my children. The food they give us is enough to get by, but it’s not the same when you have your own money.”

Aisha said that she attends school at the camp, but also helps her mother make the bags. “I like to play with skipping ropes. I miss my country and my friends,” she said.

The tiny coastal country is home to more than 22,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, making up 2.5 percent of its 900,000 population. 

Houssein Hassan Darar, executive secretary of the Office of National Assistance for Refugees and Displaced Persons (ONARS), proudly explained his country’s history of helping other nationalities.

Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti had welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from nations including Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, he said. 

In response to the growing refugee population, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh signed two decrees in December to allow better access to social services and employment.

 

The government said it was building a new school for refugees in Obock.

Refugees with teaching experience are able to work in the existing schools, and are paid and trained by Djibouti’s education ministry, Panaligan said. 

In Markazi camp, most of the population is under the age of 18, but fewer than 300 primary students and 20 secondary students are enrolled in school.

Despite attempts to house the influx of Yemeni refugees, living conditions in the camp are harsh. 

When Arab News visited the camp in Obock last year, many refugees were living in tents made of thin fabric to protect them from the desert environment and endured scorching temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius as well as sandstorms. 

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center built 300 housing units in January to ease their suffering, spokesman Dr. Samer Al-Jatili told Arab News. 

Ali Ibrahim

The 51-year-old father was relatively lucky and managed to get his family of 11 on a boat to Obock without having to pay.

“As soon as we arrived at the Djibouti port, they welcomed us,” he said. “The (government officials) were very kind to us. They gave us water, food and blankets. We stayed in the port for one night. The next day they sent us to the camp.

“Life here is at least safe. We get rations, but the most important thing is safety. They give us water, oil, lentils, flour, rice. 

“They give us gas and some pans to cook with, but it’s not enough, so we have to go to the mountains to get wood. 

“We are not used to this life — we grew up with electricity, gas and proper cookers. But we have to deal with this to survive.

Ali Ibrahim said his village in Yemen was near a military camp and close to the fighting.

“There was fire from all directions. We didn’t even get a chance to take anything with us, we left everything behind. The whole neighborhood left together.

“If there is stability and safety in Yemen, I would return. But I would rather die here than go back to the war.”

The housing units hold two rooms. One is the living space, with a kitchen and living room, while the other is the sleeping area. A small closet holds a shower area, and the floor lifts up to work as a toilet. 

However, the camp lacks running water and electricity.

Panaligan said that of the 300 housing units, 250 were given to families and 50 to single people. An average family has five or six members.

Refugees are given food rations, but many have said it is not enough. The UNHCR reported that in the past few months, about 164 refugees at Markazi were at risk of malnutrition.

Nathair Ali Thabit, 34, who has a family of five, told Arab News last year that refugees get two meals a day, but no meat or vegetables. 

“We have bread and tea in the morning and in the evening rice,” Thabit said. “I haven’t tasted meat, chicken or fish in two years.

“My children sometimes want biscuits or milk, so I try to distract them by taking them to the beach and playing with them.

“We are in the middle of nowhere, so there’s not much we can do” he said. 

“We cry in our hearts — we don’t show anyone, we just cry to God.”

Panaligan said that despite the challenges of life in Djibouti, Yemeni refugees come for safety, which is missing in their homeland. 

“Many have come to join their families who left Yemen last year, too,” she said. 

FACTOID

Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen