Top Pentagon official in Iraq to discuss US troop presence

Patrick Shanahan replaced Mattis after his resignation. (File/AFP)
Updated 13 February 2019

Top Pentagon official in Iraq to discuss US troop presence

  • He held talks with Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi
  • US troops are in Iraq as part of an agreement with Baghdad with a specific mission to combat terrorism, and they should stick to that, Iraqi President Barham Salih said

Baghdad: America’s most senior Pentagon official flew into Baghdad on a surprise visit on Tuesday amid tension over the future of the US military presence in Iraq.

“We are in Iraq at the invitation of the government and our interests are to build Iraqi security capability,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said.

He held talks with Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and top military advisers, as well as Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of anti-Daesh coalition forces.

“I want to hear firsthand from them about concerns, the political dynamics that they are facing, and then based on that we will obviously factor it into our planning,” Shanahan said.

The US has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to train and advise its security forces, 16 years after the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

President Donald Trump angered Iraqi politicians this month when he said the US had “spent a fortune” building Al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq, and US forces should remain there to keep an eye on Iran.

Iraqi officials said this was not the stated US mission in Iraq, it would violate the Iraqi constitution, and in any case the base belonged to Iraq. 

US troops are in Iraq as part of an agreement with Baghdad with a specific mission to combat terrorism, and they should stick to that, Iraqi President Barham Salih said.

Iran-aligned politicians in Iraq’s Parliament used the furor to repeat their demand that the US mission in Iraq be restricted and troop numbers reduced.

Shanahan is a temporary replacement for James Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in part over Trump’s decision to withdraw all 2,000 US troops from Syria. 

Asked whether US troops in Syria could be moved to Iraq, Shanahan said he would be having conversations on these topics during his visit.

Curbing foreign influence has become a major issue in Iraq after parliamentary elections last year in which politicians backed by Iran made significant gains. 

A draft law that would set a timetable for a US troop withdrawal is now before the Iraqi Parliament.

That political tension formed the backdrop to Shanahan’s visit, his first time in Iraq. 

He flew to Baghdad from Afghanistan, where he met US troops and President Ashraf Ghani amid a US push for peace talks with the Taliban. 

Trump has said he wants to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan after 18 years of war, but Shanahan said he has no orders for a troop reduction.

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 10 min 33 sec ago

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”