Iran-backed forces threaten Iraqi prime minister over minister standoff

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was sworn in at parliament last week. (AP)
Updated 02 November 2018
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Iran-backed forces threaten Iraqi prime minister over minister standoff

  • Pro-Iran Al-Binna'a alliance threaten to resume protests in Basra to force prime minister to accept their preferred choices for security ministers
  • Clashes in the oil hub over the summer sparked fears of an escalation in violence between rival Shiite factions

BAGHDAD: Iran-backed political forces in Iraq are preparing to launch mass demonstrations in Basra to pressure the new prime minister to choose their candidates for the key security ministries. 

Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was sworn in as prime minister alongside 14 ministers last week, failed to win the required parliamentary support for his full cabinet. Eight out of 22 ministries, including interior and defense, are still vacant.

The Iraqi parliament has given Abdul Mahdi until Tuesday to change his candidates or persuade the opposition parliamentary blocs to ratify them.

An agreement at the end of September between the two main rival Shiite-led parliamentary blocs to back Abdul Mahdi and his cabinet broke a political deadlock that had gripped the country since elections in May. 

But the divisions between the US-backed Reform Alliance, sponsored by the powerful cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, and the pro-Iranian Al-Binna’a, resurfaced during a session to approve the government last week.

Reform refused to vote on the candidates of Al-Binna’a and walked out of the session after just 14 ministers and the government program had been approved.

Since then, tension between the two parties has been at a high and frantic negotiations by Al-Binna’a have been underway to gain the necessary support for their candidates inside parliament. They have also made preparations to mobilize street protests in Basra, 600km south of Baghdad, to put pressure on Abdul Mahdi, MPs and security officials told Arab News.

Small protests took place on Thursday but more are expected in the coming days.

The Shiite-dominated city is home to the largest oil fields in Iraq and provides the backbone to the country’s economy.

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But it is also impoverished and has been rocked by violent protests through the summer against poor government services. The demonstrations have been fueled by parties exploiting the political stalemate in Baghdad.

Any further protests that threaten the oil institutions or companies in Basra could cause serious damage to the Iraqi economy. 

Renewed demonstrations fueled by pro-Iran factions in Basra would aim to force Abdul Mahdi and his backers to accept the candidates of Al-Binna’a. The alliance is led by Hadi Al-Amiri, the commander of Badr Organization, a powerful Shiite armed faction.

The alternative would be a risk of fighting between pro and anti-Iranian Shiite groups, security officials and observers said.

Bloody clashes erupted in September between Iraqi forces and demonstrators. At least 14 protesters were killed and dozens of people were wounded, including members of the security forces. During the violence, demonstrators attacked and burned a number of government and party headquarters, including the Iranian consulate in Basra.

MPs from Al-Binna’a, including from the armed factions Badr and Assaib Ahl Al-Haq, have called on people in Basra to participate in the demonstrations. 

The political protests are timed to coincide with demonstrations demanding an improvement in basic services, in particular clean drinking water. Tens of thousands of people have fallen ill during the past two months from the water, local activists told Arab News.

“Adel Abdul-Mahdi deliberately rejected to hand over a ministerial portfolio to Basra and ignored its people’s demands in the government program,” Udai Awad, an MP from Assaib Ahl Al-Haq said last week.

“We will re-organize the demonstrations again ... and we will stand in the face of anyone who tries to suppress the demonstrations and silence the voice of Basra.”

But a prominent Shiite leader involved in the talks between the two alliances told Arab News that Al-Binna’a “are trying to blackmail Abdul Mahdi and Al-Sadr to force them to accept some of their candidates.”

Al-Binna’a have been pushing for Faleh Al-Fayadh, a former national security adviser, to be interior minister and had previously wanted Faisal Fener, a former commander of dictator Saddam Hussein's private jet squadron, to be defense minister. Both men are supported by General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of  Iran’s Quds Force. Reform strongly objects to both.

“The pressure is great. We succeeded in excluding Fener and replacing him, but Fayadh is still a candidate,” a key Shiite negotiator from Reform told Arab News.

He said Soleimani had been “investing all his influence in Iraq” to support Fayadh.

Al-Binna’a have also already attempted to topple some of Abdel Mahdi’s ministers. Mohammed Halbousi, the speaker of the parliament and one of the key leaders of Al-Binna’a on Monday ordered background checks on all the new ministers. 

At least three will now probably lose their positions due to links with Saddam’s Baath Party, corruption and Al-Qaeda, Al-Binna’a leaders told Arab News.

Local activists in Basra who have taken part in protests against the government said they were helpless to stop fresh  protests being hijacked by the pro-Iran factions.

“We know this and we cannot stop it. What we care about is access to clean water, services and jobs, the rest we can’t deal with it and we can’t stop because of it too,” Kadhim Al-Sahlan, a local activist told Arab News.


New envoy stresses need for UN-backed solution to Syria war

Updated 17 January 2019
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New envoy stresses need for UN-backed solution to Syria war

  • Pedersen is the fourth UN envoy to seek a solution to Syria's conflict
  • Syria's war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since the war started with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011

DAMASCUS: The new UN envoy to Syria ended his first visit to the war-torn country Thursday, stressing the need for a UN-brokered political solution to the eight-year conflict.
Geir Pedersen, a seasoned Norwegian diplomat, concluded his three-day visit and headed to the Lebanese capital Beirut, a UN source told AFP.
The new envoy on Twitter late Wednesday said he had a "constructive meeting" with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem during his stay in Damascus.
During it, he stressed the need for a "Syrian-led and -owned political solution facilitated by the UN", he added.
Pedersen, who started his new job last week, is the fourth UN envoy to seek a solution to Syria's conflict, after endless rounds of failed UN-brokered peace talks.
In recent years, UN-led efforts have been overshadowed by separate negotiations led by regime allies Russia and Iran, as well as rebel backer Turkey.
After Damascus, Pederson said he was off to meet the Syrian Negotiations Committee, Syria's main opposition group.
But he "agreed to come back to Damascus on a regular basis to discuss commonalities and progress on points of disagreement", he added.
On Tuesday, Muallem expressed Syria's "readiness to cooperate with him... in his mission to facilitate Syrian-Syrian dialogue with the objective of reaching a political solution to the Syrian crisis", a foreign ministry statement said.
Pederson takes over from Staffan de Mistura, a Swiss-Italian diplomat who stepped down at the end of last year over "personal reasons".
Officials in the government of President Bashar al-Assad had set the tone for the new envoy's tenure shortly after his appointment was announced in October.
"Syria will cooperate with the new UN envoy Geir Pedersen provided he avoids the methods of his predecessor," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad said.
De Mistura ended his four-year tenure with an abortive push to form a committee tasked with drawing up a post-war constitution.
Syria's war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since the war started with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011.
With key military backing from Russia, Assad's forces have retaken large parts of Syria from rebels and extremists, and now control almost two-thirds of the country.
A drive to bring the Syrian regime back into the Arab fold also seems underway, with the UAE reopening their embassy in Damascus last month.