Germany’s Merkel sends positive signal to British PM May on Brexit talks

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she believed negotiations between the EU and Britain were moving forward and dismissing the prospect of a breakdown. (AP)
Updated 20 October 2017

Germany’s Merkel sends positive signal to British PM May on Brexit talks

BRUSSELS: German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered one of her most positive assessments of Brexit talks in months on Thursday, saying she believed negotiations between the EU and Britain were moving forward and dismissing the prospect of a breakdown.
Merkel made her comments after the first day of a EU summit at which British Prime Minister Theresa May appealed to her fellow leaders to help her silence critics at home and break a deadlock in the talks.
“In contrast to how it is portrayed in the British press, my impression is that these talks are moving forward step by step,” Merkel told reporters, dismissing suggestions from some in Britain that the talks should be broken off as “absurd.”
“I have absolutely no doubts that if we are all focused ... that we can get a good result. From my side there are no indications at all that we won’t succeed,” she said.
Arriving for a second day, others emphasized the positive too.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat called it May’s “best performance yet” and “a warm, candid and sincere appeal,” though Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said “rhetorical progress” needed to be followed by “tangible conclusions.”
May made no comment as she arrived for a breakfast meeting with summit chair Donald Tusk. Near midnight, speaking at the end of a dinner of butternut gnocchi and pheasant, she had sought to calm fears Britain would use its departure in March 2019 to undercut the EU economy by lowering standards and taxes.
She asked EU leaders to respond in kind to her efforts to break the Brexit stalemate, making clear she was disappointed at their plan to announce on Friday that talks have not yet made enough progress to move on to a discussion of future trade ties.
The EU is seeking a clearer commitment from Britain that it will settle financial obligations linked to its exit. Leaders will on Friday set a target of December for London to improve its divorce settlement offer.
But they will also make a gesture by launching internal preparations for the next phase of the negotiations.
In choreography that contrasted with images of May standing isolated in Brussels at previous summits, Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were filmed by television cameras engaging the British prime minister in an animated conversation at the start of the summit.
Merkel said the three had been discussing the need to safeguard the Iran nuclear deal after US President Donald Trump’s decision last week to “decertify” it.
May underlined the “difficult political background” she faces if she returns home empty-handed and said she had realized at the end of the summer what difficulties the talks were in.
“I took stock, listened to what the people in the UK were saying and what my friends and partners in Europe were saying and I made a step forward,” she was quoted as saying by a British official, referring to a speech she made in Florence on September 22.
Merkel repeatedly referred to the speech as an “important” signal from May.
There was no discussion after May spoke, according to an EU diplomat. Tusk said only that the leaders took note of her comments.
Weakened after losing her Conservatives’ majority in a June election and by failing to rally support at an ill-fated party conference, May needs to keep the talks on the road to silence the voices calling for her to walk away from the negotiations.
The talks have stalled largely over how much money Britain owes when it leaves the bloc, with EU leaders urging May on Thursday to give more detail on how she will settle the bill.
May instead proposed more moves to protect the rights of EU citizens in Britain — one of three issues the bloc says must be settled before moving to discuss a future trading relationship.
After May leaves the summit on Friday morning, the other 27 leaders are due to call on their staff to prepare for talks on a transition period that would smooth Britain’s exit in 2019.
That may be enough for May to stave off an attempt by several Brexit campaigners for her to walk away.
“There is increasingly a sense that we must work together to get to an outcome we can stand behind and defend to our people,” May told the other leaders, according to the British official.


Iran-backed militias deployed snipers during Iraq protests

Updated 14 min 8 sec ago

Iran-backed militias deployed snipers during Iraq protests

  • Militia men clad in black allegedly shot protesters on the third day of unrest, when the death toll soared to more than 50
  • Iran’s role in responding to the demonstrations was another reminder of Tehran’s reach in Iraq, where a sizable number of former militia commanders are now members of parliament and support the Iranian agenda

Iran-backed militias deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops during the Iraq’s deadliest anti-government protests in years, two Iraqi security officials told Reuters.
The deployment of militia fighters, which has not been previously reported, underscores the chaotic nature of Iraqi politics amid mass protests that led to more than 100 deaths and 6,000 injuries during the week starting Oct. 1. Such militias have become a fixture here with Iran's rising influence. They sometimes operate in conjunction with Iraqi security forces but they retain their own command structures.
The Iraqi security sources told Reuters that the leaders of Iran-aligned militias decided on their own to help put down the mass protests against the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, whose one-year-old administration is backed by powerful Iran-backed armed groups and political factions.
“We have confirmed evidence that the snipers were elements of militias reporting directly to their commander instead of the chief commander of the armed forces,” said one of the Iraqi security sources. “They belong to a group that is very close to the Iranians.”
A second Iraqi security source, who attended daily government security briefings, said militia men clad in black shot protesters on the third day of unrest, when the death toll soared to more than 50 from about half a dozen. The fighters were directed by Abu Zainab al-Lami, head of security for the Hashid, a grouping of mostly Shi’ite Muslim paramilitaries backed by Iran, the second source said. The Hashid leader was tasked with quashing the protests by a group of other senior militia commanders, the source said. The sources did not say how many snipers were deployed by militia groups.
A spokesman for the Hashid, Ahmed al-Assadi, denied the groups took part in the crackdown. “No members were present in the protest areas. None of the elements of the Hashid took part in confronting protesters,” al-Assadi said in a statement to Reuters.
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maal said state security forces did not fire directly at protesters and blamed unnamed “vicious” shooters for the mass deaths and injuries. The government has opened an investigation to determine who shot the protesters and who ordered it, Maal said in a news conference on Oct. 6.
The assertion that security forces did not participate in the violence seemed to contradict an earlier statement on Oct. 14 from the Iraqi government, which admitted state security forces had used excessive force and promised to hold individuals accountable for violence against civilians.
An official with the prime minister’s office said in a statement to Reuters Wednesday that it would be “premature to lay the blame on any parties, whether from Hashid or other security forces, before we end the investigation. Let’s wait and see who gave the order ‘shoot to kill.’”
Iran’s role in responding to the demonstrations was another reminder of Tehran’s reach in Iraq, where a sizable number of former militia commanders are now members of parliament and support the Iranian agenda. Stability of the Iraqi government is in the best interests of Iran, which has been steadily amassing influence in Iraq since 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Islamic Republic’s arch-enemy Saddam Hussein. Iran is Iraq’s biggest trading partner.
Iran's delegation to the United Nations did not immediately respond Wednesday afternoon to questions from Reuters about its support of militias and their involvement in the violence against protesters. Leaders of militias in Iraq have denied getting training and weapons from Iran.

SNIPERS ON ROOFTOPS
As protests entered their third day, on Oct. 3, snipers appeared on Baghdad rooftops. A Reuters cameraman who was covering the unrest near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square that afternoon said he saw a sniper, wearing a balaclava and dressed in black as he stood on top of an under-construction building that overlooked the demonstrations.
Protesters fled as the sniper opened fire. One protester who was shot in the head was carried away in a large crowd. Another who was shot in the head appeared to have died and was rushed off in a truck. When his phone rang, a friend recognized that the man’s brother was calling.
“Don’t tell him he died,” the friend said.
The protests started Oct. 1 amid public rage over chronic shortages of jobs, electricity and clean water. Iraqis blame politicians and officials for systemic corruption that has prevented Iraq from recovering after years of sectarian violence and a devastating war to defeat Islamic State.
Any vacuum of power could prove challenging for the region, given that Baghdad is an ally of both the United States and Iran, who are locked in their own political standoff. Thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in the country in positions not far from those of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.
The second security source told Reuters that the snipers were using radio communications equipment that was provided by Iran and is difficult to intercept, giving the groups an essentially private network.
A group of senior commanders from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards traveled to Iraq on the second day of the protests and met with Iraqi intelligence and security officials, according to a diplomat in the region familiar with Iran’s decision-making process. After the meeting, senior Revolutionary Guard officers with experience in curbing civil unrest continued to advise the Iraqi government, the diplomat said, although no Iranian soldiers were deployed.
A senior commander of one of the Iran-backed militias - who said his group was not involved in efforts to stop the protests or the resulting violence - said Tehran consulted closely with forces trying to quell the demonstrations.
“After two days, they jumped in and supplied the government and militias with intelligence,” the militia leader told Reuters. “Iranian advisors insisted on having a role and warned us that the ongoing protests, if not reversed, will undermine the government of Abdul Mahdi.”