US defense chief Mattis slams Iran for ‘mucking around’ in Iraq elections

An Iraqi supporter of Moqtada Al-Sadr raises a sign showing the colors of the Iraqi flag superimposed on a hand flashing the victory gesture with a caption in Arabic reading at the bottom ‘million-man march, reformist, electoral, walking towards reform,’ during a demonstration in Baghdad against corruption in the Iraqi government on March 2. (AFP)
Updated 17 March 2018

US defense chief Mattis slams Iran for ‘mucking around’ in Iraq elections

ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis lambasted Iran on Thursday for “mucking around” in Iraq’s upcoming elections in a bid to sway votes toward pro-Tehran candidates.
Speaking to reporters as he returned from a trip to Oman, Afghanistan and Bahrain, Mattis said officials he met with had expressed frequent concerns about Iranian behavior.
“One thing that came through loud and clear is the suspicion of Iran and the evidence of Iranian destabilizing efforts,” said Mattis, a longtime Iran hawk.
“I heard it when I was up in Afghanistan. You know what’s going on in terms of Iran’s support to Assad. Now Iran is following Russia’s example (and) mucking around in Iraq’s elections,” Mattis said, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“It was just brought home to me again that they are not changing their behavior, they are continuing to be a destabilizing influence,” Mattis added.
The Pentagon chief said he would not speculate as to whether Iran’s efforts were having any impact on the Iraqi electorate ahead of the May parliamentary and provincial assembly elections.
“Iran is trying to influence, using money, the Iraqi elections. That money is being used to sway candidates, to sway votes,” he said.
“Iran should leave the Iraqis to determining their own future,” said Mattis.
Despite increased rhetoric from Washington about Iran’s activities in the region and US President Donald Trump’s continual railing against the Iran nuclear deal, Mattis noted that Iranian naval vessels in the Gulf have become less provocative toward US ships.
He said ships from both the regular Iranian navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps have curtailed the sorts of incidents that had become almost routine over the past few years, and are now staying away from American vessels.
“In the Gulf itself, they are not coming in as close to our ships, the provocative actions in the Gulf seem to have relented somewhat,” Mattis said.
“They are not doing as many bellicose confrontations and that sort of thing.”
Commander Bill Urban, a spokesman for the Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, said there had been no “unsafe or unprofessional” interactions with the Iranians at sea since Aug. 14, 2017, when an Iranian drone with no lights on flew close to US aircraft operating in the Gulf.
Urban told reporters that “a substantial period time” has passed since then, “something that we think is great.”
He said there has been “an across-the-board change in behavior.”
Last year and in 2016, the US Navy frequently complained about the behavior of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels, which would often shadow and steer toward American ships.
In at least one incident, US sailors had to fire flares and warning shots before the Iranians turned away.
Urban said that since then, the Iranians have stopped approaching so closely.
Mattis said that off the Yemen coast around the Bab-El-Mandab strait, Iran is testing a number of offensive capabilities.
“It’s where you find (Iran’s) radars, their ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles,” Mattis said.
“We’ve found their mines, their explosive boats all being tested, increased capability being demonstrated down there.”
The Fifth Fleet and its associated task forces continually patrol the Gulf and inspect some of the ships passing through the region. In 2016, sailors seized weapons apparently headed from Iran to Yemen, including machine guns and rocket launchers.
Urban said task forces this year have confiscated record amounts of heroin, much of which may have been grown in Afghanistan to fund the Taliban.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps is a paramilitary force that answers directly to the country’s supreme leader. In January 2016, the Iranians briefly captured the crew of two small US patrol boats that strayed into Iranian waters. The 10 US sailors were released 24 hours later.


Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

Updated 18 October 2019

Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

  • “Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Al-Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father said
  • Twenty-four hours later, hei was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home”

BAGHDAD: A prominent Iraqi blogger resurfaced Friday a day after he was seized by masked gunmen, his father said, as Amnesty International denounced a “climate of fear” in the country after protests and deadly violence.
Shujaa Al-Khafaji’s family said armed men had snatched him from his home on Thursday without identifying themselves or showing an arrest warrant.
Khafaji’s Facebook page, Al-Khowa Al-Nadifa (Arabic for “Those Who Have Clean Hands“), carries posts on political and social issues and has some 2.5 million followers.
“Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father, Fares Al-Khafaji, told AFP.
He said they seized his son’s phones and computers, but were not violent.
Twenty-four hours later, Khafaji was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home,” his father added.
The report of Khafaji’s seizure sparked an outcry from activists and influential political leaders.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International denounced a “relentless campaign of intimidation and assault against activists in Iraq” by authorities.
“The Iraqi authorities must immediately rein in the security forces and dismantle the climate of fear they have deliberately created to stop Iraqis from peacefully exercising their rights to freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Lynn Maalouf, the group’s Middle East research director.
The group said other activists, including a doctor and a lawyer, were “forcibly disappeared more than 10 days ago,” and called on Iraqi authorities to reveal their whereabouts.
Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr wrote on Twitter that “any act of aggression (against journalists or activists)... by the state constitutes an attack on freedom of speech.”
Former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi’s parliamentary bloc called on the government “to stop abuses of free media.”
Iraq was gripped by anti-government protests between October 1 and 6, during which 110 people, mainly demonstrators, were killed in clashes with security forces.
During the protests, unidentified armed men in uniforms raided several local television stations in Baghdad, destroying their equipment and intimidating their staff.
Journalists and activists also reported receiving threats, mostly by phone, from unidentified callers accusing them of having sided with the protesters.
Khafaji faced online harassment last month after a string of attacks on bases of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force dominated by pro-Iran groups.
The group on Thursday denied any involvement in the disappearance of activists, threatening legal action against anyone making such accusations.
But according to Amnesty, the Hashed was involved in at least one abduction — that of lawyer Ali Hattab, who represented protesters and was seized on October 8 in the southern city of Amara.
He was snatched by “suspected members of a faction of the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashed),” Amnesty said quoting Hattab’s relatives.
It happened two days after “two armed men from the PMU came to (his) home to warn him to stop being vocal about the killing of protesters on Facebook, otherwise they would kill him,” Amnesty added.