Nervous Iran races to secure Iraq interests

The pro-Iranian Shiite Al-Fattah alliance that came second in the election with 47 seats, is led by Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization. AFP
Updated 06 June 2018
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Nervous Iran races to secure Iraq interests

  • The pro-Iranian Shiite Al-Fattah alliance came second in the election with 47 seats
  • Iranian airlines have been under a suffocating blockade since 2011 over their involvement in transporting arms and fighters to Syria and Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iran is scrambling to secure its interests in Iraq amid fears it will lose out in the political battle to form Iraq’s new government.

Negotiators and political analysts told Arab News that Tehran is even ready to support an administration led by its rivals in a bid to maintain influence in the country.
Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq have been “cautiously” watching the new kingmaker Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sairoon alliance triumphed in elections last month.
While Al-Sadr has led talks to build the largest coalition in Parliament, Iran’s allies “have not sought to seriously compete” to form a rival bloc, but instead joined negotiations to try to secure Iran’s interests in the country, the sources said.
Iraq is a focal point for international rivalry in the region, especially between Iran and the US since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. No stable government can form without the agreement of both nations.
Al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric openly hostile to Iran, heads the Sairoon bloc, which won 54 seats in the May 12 election.
Arab News revealed last week that he is close to securing the largest coalition without the need for any of the Iran-backed parties.
That bloc would then be able to nominate a prime minister who would be assigned to form a government.
The pro-Iranian Shiite Al-Fattah alliance came second in the election with 47 seats. The alliance is led by Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, one of the most prominent Shiite armed factions, supported by Tehran.
Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, made a short visit to Baghdad on May 18 to tell Al-Fattah’s leaders that they should keep negotiating.
“The message was very clear. No red lines against anyone, not Sadr or Abadi,” a senior Fattah leader who attended the meeting with Soleimani told Arab News.
Al-Fattah leaders were advised by the Iranian commander to “negotiate with whoever you think will serve your interests.”
Two days later, Al-Amiri went to visit Al-Sadr in his temporary Baghdad headquarters to “discuss the developments of the political process … and the formation of a patriarchal government,” the senior leader said.
“Iranians are still negotiating to get Al-Amiri into the coalition,” a negotiator close to Al-Abadi told Arab News.
But he said it would not include the other main Shiite armed faction in the Al-Fattah alliance — Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.
Last week, the US Congress included Assaib in the list of terrorist organizations whose members or collaborators would be covered by US Treasury sanctions.
“They (the Iranians) knew that Assaib had no chance to get any position in the government,” the negotiator said.
“So they negotiate to get just Badr in.”
Al-Amiri’s Badr faction won more than 20 seats and is angling to get the transport ministry, negotiators involved in the talks told Arab News.
An Iran ally controlling that ministry would help maintain the air bridge between Iran and Syria, where Iranian forces and militias are heavily involved in military support for President Bashar Assad, the source said.
Keeping the transport routes running freely through Iraq would also help Iran get around US sanctions.
Iranian airlines have been under a suffocating blockade since 2011 over their involvement in transporting arms and fighters to Syria and Iraq.
Iraq’s Transport Ministry is responsible for the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority, and the Iraqi government and private transport fleet, and Al-Badr’s control of the ministry would relieve the pressure on Iran.
Fearing this outcome from negotiations, Al-Abadi, who is favorite to stay as prime minister and enjoys US support, last week ordered the Civil Aviation Authority to be separated from the Transport Ministry and linked to the Cabinet.
The move sparked widespread objections from his Shiite rivals, who accused him of seeking to control the aviation authority for personal reasons.
 “Separating the aviation authority from the ministry of transport is a proactive step to reassure the international community,” the negotiator said.
Tehran is also seeking to ensure it can continue to use Iraq to circumvent US sanctions and ensure the flow of foreign currency into Iran and the sale of Iranian oil on the global market away from US monitoring.
“(Iran’s) concern is that the flow of money is threatened. US Treasury sanctions may be imposed on Iraqi banks and companies linked to Iran at any moment,” a Shiite politician familiar with the negotiations told Arab News.
Last month, the US Treasury Department listed Arass Habib, the owner of Iraq’s Al-Billad Islamic Bank, on the list of terrorist-cooperating organizations for transferring funds to Hezbollah on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
“Also, they want us to sell oil on their behalf,” a negotiator said.
Sami Al-Asskari, a prominent Shiite leader and one of the negotiators of the State of Law bloc, told Arab News that Iran wants a government that will not be involved in any hostile policy toward Iran or its interests in Iraq.
“A government that does not engage in any regional or international axis against Iran,” he said.


Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

Nearly half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million have been uprooted from their homes. AP
Updated 16 July 2018
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Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

  • Regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside
  • In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces unleashed hundreds of missiles on an opposition-held area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, activists said, the latest phase in an offensive to clear southern Syria of insurgents.
The regime’s push came after it had secured control of most of Daraa province in an offensive that began in June. On Sunday, the first batch of armed fighters and their families left the city of Daraa, the provincial capital, in buses that would take them to the opposition-held Idlib province in the north.
Similar deals in other parts of Syria resulted in the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians — evacuations that the UN and rights groups have decried as forced displacement.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday the success in driving the opposition out of Daraa embodies the will of his army and allied forces to “liberate all of Syrian territories” of “terrorism.”
In recent months and backed by Russian air force, the Syrian regime has restored control of over 60 percent of previously opposition-held territory across the country.
Assad spoke during a meeting on Sunday with visiting Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari. Assad’s office said the two agreed that the “elimination of terrorism in most of the Syrian territory has laid the most appropriate ground to reach results at the political level” that could put an end to Syria’s war.
Syria’s regime refers to all armed opposition groups as “terrorists” and accuses the West, Turkey, Israel and regional countries of supporting them.
The statement came a day before President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are to meet in Finland. Syria is expected to feature highly on the agenda. Russia is a major Assad ally.
In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control. Daraa, which lies on a highway linking Damascus with Jordan, was the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since early Sunday, regime forces turned their missiles toward a stretch of land controlled by the armed opposition in northern Daraa and the countryside of adjacent Quneitra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside, about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Observatory said government forces advanced on Massharah, a village in Quneitra, and rebels fought back in intense clashes that killed several pro-government fighters. The pro-Syrian regime Central Military Media said a number of insurgents were killed in the clashes.
The Observatory reported airstrikes in Massharah, the first in over a year to hit the Quneitra countryside. It also reported airstrikes in a nearby village in northern Daraa, where regime forces have been trying to retake a key hill there after failing to reach a deal with the fighters. Capturing the hill would enable them to advance on militants in the area linked to Daesh.
Daraa activist Abou Mahmoud Hourani said an estimated 400 members of the armed opposition and their families will be evacuated out of Daraa.
Pro-regime TV Al-Ikhbariya said 10 buses carrying 407 people left for northern Syria.
The station said the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people was likely to be completed by Sunday.