US in contact with ex-foe Al-Sadr after shock win in Iraq poll

If Moqtada Al-Sadr has a strong say in picking a new prime minister, the United States may have to work with him to safeguard its interests in Iraq. (Reuters)
Updated 22 May 2018
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US in contact with ex-foe Al-Sadr after shock win in Iraq poll

  • Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against US troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
  • Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shiite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.

BAGHDAD: The United States has contacted members of a political bloc headed by former foe Moqtada Al-Sadr after his parliamentary election victory put the Shiite cleric in a strong position to influence the formation of a new government, a top aide said.
Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against US troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
If Sadr has a strong say in picking a new prime minister, the United States may have to work with him to safeguard its interests in Iraq, one of its most important Arab allies, which also has close ties to Iran.
Dhiaa Al-Asadi, a top Sadr aide, said there had been no direct talks with the Americans but intermediaries had been used to open channels with members of his Sairoon alliance.
“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq,” he told Reuters.
“There’s no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces.”
The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.
Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shiite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.
Sadr made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment toward Iran and what some voters say is a corrupt political elite in Baghdad that it backs.
The United States has threatened “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran unless it makes sweeping changes, including dropping its nuclear program and pulling out of the Syrian civil war.
That will likely prompt Tehran to defend its interests fiercely in Iraq, where it vies with Washington for influence.
Sairoon extended an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad to attend a meeting of senior diplomats last week. The envoy apologized and said he could not make it, said Asadi.
Sadr has been meeting the leaders of several blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.
Sadr will not become premier as he did not run in the election.
His attempts to shape any future government could be undermined by Iran, which has skillfully manipulated Iraqi politics in its favor in the past.
Just days after election results were announced, Qassem Soleimani, head of the foreign operations branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, arrived in Baghdad to meet politicians.
“Soleimani came to weaken the blocs. He is working to break down the alliances,” said an adviser to Iraq’s government.
An Iraqi former senior official said Sadr would try to outfox Iran, but added that Tehran would not tolerate any threats to Shiite allies who have sidelined Sadr for years.
“There are limits on how far he can go. At the end they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver... But eventually, when he challenges the Shiites and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him.”
Sadr’s bloc has not ruled out forming a coalition with the bloc headed by Iran’s strongest ally, paramilitary leader Hadi Al-Amiri, as long as he abandons what Asadi says are sectarian policies and becomes an Iraqi nationalist.
“We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what’s going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue,” said Asadi.
The election dealt a blow to incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But Western diplomats and analysts say Abadi, a British-educated engineer, still has cards to play.
He appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran — inadvertent allies in the war against Islamic State — during his term in office.
“As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way,” said Ali Al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.


South Korea refuses refugee status for nearly 400 Yemenis

Updated 24 min 41 sec ago
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South Korea refuses refugee status for nearly 400 Yemenis

  • About 500 people from Yemen arrived on Jeju earlier this year
  • A recent opinion poll showed about half of South Koreans opposed accepting the Yemeni asylum-seekers

SEOUL: Nearly 400 Yemenis were denied refugee status by South Korea on Wednesday, months after their arrival on the resort island of Jeju triggered a populist outcry.
Ethnically-homogenous South Korea grants refugee status to only a tiny fraction of those who apply, despite having been ravaged by war itself within living memory.
About 500 people from the conflict-plagued Middle Eastern state arrived on Jeju earlier this year, taking advantage of the visa-free access the southern island offers to encourage tourism.
Their arrivals triggered a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the South, where only around four percent of the population are foreigners, mostly from China and Southeast Asia, and discrimination against migrant workers is widespread.
Many opponents cited the Yemenis’ Muslim religion and nearly 700,000 people — a record — signed a petition on the presidential website urging tightening of what are already some of the world’s toughest refugee laws.
The Jeju visa exemption rules were rapidly changed to exclude Yemenis.
A total of 481 Yemenis formally applied for asylum. Of those, 34 were rejected outright on Wednesday, the justice ministry said, and 339 were given humanitarian stay permits, allowing them to remain in the country for a year. Those whose claims were rejected outright may appeal.
Decisions were deferred on 85 others. Last month an initial 23, mostly families with children or pregnant women, were given the stay permits, which need to be renewed every 12 months and can be refused if the security situation in Yemen is deemed to have improved.
None of the applications for refugee status have so far been successful.
Since 1994 South Korea has approved just 4.1 percent of applications, official figures show. The rules do not apply to North Koreans, who are automatically considered citizens of the South.
A recent opinion poll showed about half of South Koreans opposed accepting the Yemeni asylum-seekers, with 39 percent in favor and 12 percent undecided.