Iranian-backed Shia militia chief Hadi Al-Amiri aiming to lead Iraq

Iranian-backed Shia militia chief Hadi Al-Amiri aiming to lead Iraq
Hadi al-Amiri, centre, commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, attends campaign rally in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, May 7, 2018. (AP)
Updated 08 May 2018

Iranian-backed Shia militia chief Hadi Al-Amiri aiming to lead Iraq

Iranian-backed Shia militia chief Hadi Al-Amiri aiming to lead Iraq
  • Hadi Al-Amiri leads Badr brigade a long time Iran based militia opposed to former regime of Saddam Hussein
  • Amiri spent over two decades in exile in Iran until Saddam fell

BAGHDAD: If Hadi Al-Amiri triumphs in Iraq’s election on Saturday it would be a crowning achievement for the dissident turned Shia militia leader who spent more than two decades fighting Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran.
Leader of the Badr Organization that was the backbone of the volunteer forces fighting Daesh, Amiri hopes to capitalize on his success on the battlefield in what is expected to be a tight three-way race for the premiership.
Victory for Amiri would be a win for Iran as the 63-year-old militia leader has forged close ties with Iraq’s Shia neighbor — but he would also have to balance Tehran’s interests in Iraq with Washington’s often competing goals.
The winner of the election will face the daunting task of rebuilding Iraq after the devastating three-year war against the ultra-hard-line Sunni militants, as well as fighting the corruption that consumes much of the OPEC member’s oil revenue.
Like the other frontrunners, incumbent Haider Al-Abadi and former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, Amiri has pledged to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services.
Amiri’s own record in government, a four-year stint as transport minister, was undistinguished.
Instead, Amiri aims to exploit his leading role in the Popular Mobilization Forces, the mainly Shia, Iranian-backed militias that rallied to confront the self-declared Daesh caliphate in Iraq four years ago.
“His lucky star rose in 2014. Amiri the unconvincing minister vanished and the guerrilla commander re-emerged when the Shias of Iraq needed him most,” said a Shia scholar and expert in former Shia opposition movements.

OLD FRIENDS
Amiri’s Iranian connections forged during long years in exile, particularly his ties with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were central to his rise to prominence, first challenging and finally helping defeat IS.
The Guards trained and armed the Popular Mobilization forces set up in response to a fatwa from Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
As leader of the Badr Organization, Amiri, a Farsi speaker, was often seen discussing offensives in Iraq with the Guards’ commander of foreign operations, Qassem Soleimani.
The numerous photos from the battlefront of Amiri with Soleimani in military fatigues, embracing and looking euphoric after evicting IS fighters, have personalized an old friendship.
Portraits of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are also a fixture in Badr offices, a reminder of the days when the group was the armed wing of Iraq’s Shia opposition, based in Iran.
Born in the mixed Sunni-Shia province of Diyala east of Baghdad, Amiri fled to Iran in his 20s after studying economics in Baghdad. Sentenced to death by Saddam, Amiri made Iran his second home for more than two decades.
Then, like Al-Maliki and Abadi, he returned from exile after the 2003 US-led invasion which overthrew Saddam.
Amiri embedded Badr members in key security positions purged of Saddam’s Baath Party officers but showed his pragmatic streak by avoiding clashes with US forces during their eight-year occupation.
Opponents accuse his Badr organization of assassinations and widespread abuses against Sunnis detained in secret prisons run by the group following the US-led invasion.
Kareem Nuri, Amiri’s media adviser and a candidate on his list, denied the accusations saying they were designed to “distort the reputation of Badr.”

BALANCING ACT
Despite his close ties with Iran, Amiri has kept communication open lines with American diplomats in Baghdad, which would be a help were he to win given the continued military and economic importance of the United States to Iraq.
The United States retrained and assisted Iraqi government forces led by Abadi. It has provided billions of dollars in aid to the cash-strapped government and has actively encouraged Gulf and other foreign investors to help rebuild the country.
US-led coalition forces also operated in the same area as tens of thousands of Shia militiamen during the war against Daesh which culminated last year with the capture of Mosul. Despite the anti-American rhetoric of several militia leaders — other than Amiri — there were no major incidents.
“The Americans are able to work with Amiri and there is no reason to believe he will take Iraq to Iran unless he is forced to choose between the two,” said one Western diplomat.
That difficult choice could fall on Iraq’s next prime minister, however, if US President Donald Trump decides to reimpose sanctions on Iran lifted after a 2015 deal restraining its nuclear program.
Amiri says under his leadership Iraq would seek relations with all neighbors and not be dependent on Iran.
“Our hearts are open and hands are stretched, we want Iraq to be the master of the region, the center around which others will revolve. Iraq’s stature cannot allow it to be a tail for this country or that country,” he said.

‘TIME HAS COME’
His opponents are skeptical, saying his historic loyalty to Tehran means his actions will be dictated by Iranian interests.
They also question the image he is projecting of an outsider and military commander not involved in the political mismanagement, corruption and nepotism plaguing the country.
Critics point to his performance as transport minister from 2010 to 2014, including an incident in 2014 when he forced a passenger plane flying to Iraq to turn back in mid-air to collect his son who had missed the departure from Beirut.
Iraq’s road, railroads and airports didn’t improve under his watch, even though the government earned tens of billions of dollars from extra oil when crude was above $100 a barrel.
Amiri’s campaign has sought to position him above the country’s sectarian divisions and political failings, stressing his role in the Popular Mobilization forces, which some Sunni fighters joined too.
“I am a Popular Mobilization commander and it is normal that I’m running on (Amiri’s) list,” said Yazan Al-Jubouri, a Sunni standing for parliament in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad.
The logo of Amiri’s “Fateh,” or Conquest, list of candidates is a golden lion’s head on a green background, to project an image of strength and security as well as his Islamic ideology.
His slogan is simple: “Iraq’s time has come.”


UN hails reopening of Libya coastal road as historical achievement

Libyan security officers stand on a truck during the re-opening of the cross road across the frozen frontline between east and west in Libya. (Reuters/File Photo)
Libyan security officers stand on a truck during the re-opening of the cross road across the frozen frontline between east and west in Libya. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 30 July 2021

UN hails reopening of Libya coastal road as historical achievement

Libyan security officers stand on a truck during the re-opening of the cross road across the frozen frontline between east and west in Libya. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Road linking the country’s long-divided east and west reopens after the UN demanded the safe passage of civilians and goods
  • Highway had been closed since April 2019 when eastern commander Khalifa Hifter launched a military campaign to capture Tripoli 

NEW YORK: After nearly two years of closure, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) on Friday welcomed the official reopening of the coastal road linking Libya’s long-divided east and west.

Calling it a landmark and historical achievement, Jan Kubis, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Libya said, “the opening of the coastal road is a critical step to further the implementation of the cease-fire agreement of Oct. 23, 2020. Equally important, it will allow the free movement of commerce, humanitarian support, and the people of Libya.”

The highway had been closed since April 2019 when eastern commander Khalifa Hifter launched a military campaign to capture the capital of Tripoli from the then Government of National Accord.

Hifter endorsed the reopening of the road along the Mediterranean where a potential resumption of traffic is seen as a crucial step toward peace between the warring parties. 

The highway reopening was an “addition to other significant confidence-building measures achieved thus far, such as the resumption of flights and the exchange of detainees,” Kubis said.

He thanked Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeiba for the release of salaries for the security forces. Kubis also hailed the role of the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC), the presidency council, and the Government of National Unity for the achievement. 

“It is another step in strengthening peace, security, and stability in the country, and in the unification of its institutions,” Kubis said. 

The special envoy called on Libyan leaders to follow the “exemplary work of the 5+5 JMC” and “set aside their differences and work together to implement the roadmap and hold elections on Dec. 24.”

The highway was reopened following the 11th meeting of the JMC in Sirte.

“The next major step in the ceasefire agreement’s implementation process is to commence the withdrawal of all mercenaries, foreign fighters, and forces from Libya without delay,” Kubis said.

The JMC called on the UNSMIL to convene a meeting with international stakeholders to discuss a plan for the withdrawal. 

The JMC also requested that the deployment of UN ceasefire monitors be expedited. 

The warring parties signed a UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement that ended the fighting in October 2020.


Afghan troops to be trained in Turkey under first NATO program abroad

Afghan troops to be trained in Turkey under first NATO program abroad
Updated 30 July 2021

Afghan troops to be trained in Turkey under first NATO program abroad

Afghan troops to be trained in Turkey under first NATO program abroad
  • Senior analyst Andrew Watkins sees Ankara solidifying its role in country amid uncertainty over Taliban stance

ANKARA: Afghan soldiers will receive training from NATO in Turkey, in the first such training program of its kind outside Afghanistan.

The location of the program for Afghan special forces, to begin after NATO officially finishes its mission in the country, has not been disclosed.

The move is expected to be the prelude to regular training programs outside Afghanistan for the country’s forces.

Turkey insists on not engaging in any combat operation in Afghanistan, except for self-defense purposes. However, it is negotiating with the Afghan government over the protection of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport after the withdrawal of US forces.

The move is considered a goodwill gesture by Turkey to show its willingness to improve ties with the West after it drew criticism for its military rapprochement with Russia through the purchase of the S-400 missile system.

The increased influx of Afghan migrants over recent weeks has prompted public criticism in Turkey and fueled anti-refugee sentiment, as hundreds have attempted to cross the border with Iran to flee instability and the Taliban after the US withdrawal.

Andrew Watkins, senior analyst on Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, said Ankara assuming the role of host for the training of Afghan forces is just one of several ways Turkey is solidifying its role in a post-US Afghanistan.

“It may also serve as a point of leverage with the US and NATO, as Washington appears to be scrambling to address the many details, complications and ripple effects of its decision to withdraw,” he told Arab News.

However, for Watkins, it is unclear how the Taliban will respond to news of the training, though they have already issued stern warnings against Turkish troops assuming security duties in Kabul.

“Much depends on if Turkey will engage in direct diplomatic dialogue with the group, in order to come to some understanding that might make their continued presence in Kabul more sustainable,” he said.

In mid-July, the Taliban warned Turkey against keeping troops in Afghanistan and extending its military presence in the country.

In January 2021, the Turkish army assumed leadership of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, requiring it to place thousands of soldiers on standby to be deployed within days if needed. 

This comes in addition to its key role offering advice and assistance to the government in Kabul.


HRW slams Iranian crackdown on Khuzestan protests

People gathering at Washington Square Park in support with the protests for access to water in Khuzestan, Iran. (Shutterstock)
People gathering at Washington Square Park in support with the protests for access to water in Khuzestan, Iran. (Shutterstock)
Updated 30 July 2021

HRW slams Iranian crackdown on Khuzestan protests

People gathering at Washington Square Park in support with the protests for access to water in Khuzestan, Iran. (Shutterstock)
  • Human Rights Watch calls for ‘independent international investigation into security agencies’ alleged use of lethal force’
  • Crackdown mainly aimed at province’s Arab population

LONDON: Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday condemned Iran’s violent crackdown on protests in Khuzestan province.

Amnesty International and UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet have also expressed condemnation in the past week.

HRW reported hundreds arrested and at least nine deaths, including a child. “Unconfirmed reports indicate the number of deaths and arrests may be higher,” it added.

On July 15, massive protests broke out in Khuzestan over water shortages, spearheaded by the province’s Arab community demonstrating against government negligence and anti-Arab discrimination.

Iranians in several other provinces have joined in solidarity. Iranian officials have blamed “rioters” for the killing of protesters.

But HRW said: “Videos shared on social media from protests in cities in Khuzestan show security officials shooting firearms and teargas toward protesters.”

Karim Dahimi, a London-based Ahwazi human rights activist, told Arab News that the death toll could go higher since many protesters “haven’t gone hospital for fear of being arrested and returned home with heavy injuries.”

He said Iranian authorities have set conditions for the return of victims’ bodies to families, including “protesters’ mobile number, information on who they were in contact with, who was with them, and who informed the parents.”

Another condition is that the fathers of victims go on camera and claim that “the protesters killed my son, and my son had no involvement in the demonstrations,” Dahimi added.

“Some families are under pressure and want to take the bodies, so they’ve accepted the government’s conditions. Other families haven’t.”

Eight of the protesters killed are Ahwazi Arabs and the ninth is Bakhtiari, Dahimi said. The crackdown on the mass protests is disproportionately impacting Iran’s Arab minority.

Shadi Sadr, a lawyer and co-founder of London-based NGO Justice for Iran, tweeted that the hundreds of protesters and activists arrested are “mostly of Arab Ahwazi ethnicity.” They have been arrested “in their homes and workplaces,” he added.

HRW said Iranian authorities “should immediately and unconditionally release peaceful protesters, provide information about deaths, and allow an independent international investigation into security agencies’ alleged use of lethal force. All those responsible for abuses should be held to account.”

 


Foreign fighters in Libya must be held accountable for rights abuses, say UN experts

The departure of foreign fighters from the country is a “vital precondition” for the peaceful staging of elections scheduled for December, UN experts said. (Reuters/File Photo)
The departure of foreign fighters from the country is a “vital precondition” for the peaceful staging of elections scheduled for December, UN experts said. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 30 July 2021

Foreign fighters in Libya must be held accountable for rights abuses, say UN experts

The departure of foreign fighters from the country is a “vital precondition” for the peaceful staging of elections scheduled for December, UN experts said. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Head of working group warns continued presence of mercenaries ‘impedes progress in peace process’ and is ‘an obstacle for upcoming elections’
  • The UN estimates that more than 20,000 foreign fighters seek to profit from the conflict, the majority of them from Syria, Turkey, Chad and Sudan

NEW YORK: Human rights abuses committed by foreign mercenaries and private contractors in Libya must be investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, UN experts said on Friday.

The departure of foreign fighters from the country is a “vital precondition” for the peaceful staging of elections scheduled for December, they added.

The UN estimates there are more than 20,000 foreign fighters seeking to profit from the conflict in Libya, the majority of them from Syria, Turkey, Chad and Sudan.

The members of the UN Security Council have agreed that they must be repatriated. However two of the council’s permanent members, the US and UK, accuse another, Russia, of being responsible for some of the foreign fighters. In particular they point to the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed private-security firm that UN experts say is involved in the fighting in Libya.

Moscow has repeatedly denied any role on the country’s battlefields. Jelena Aparac, chair of the UN working group on the use of mercenaries, said that well-armed private contractors from Russia, Syria, Sudan and Chad threaten the security and stability not only of Libya but also other countries in the region.

“Nine months after the ceasefire agreement calling for withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya, mercenaries and private military and security contractors continue to operate in the country,” she said.

“Their continued recruitment and presence in Libya impedes progress in the peace process and constitutes an obstacle for the upcoming elections.”

The working group’s experts said these mercenaries must leave the country immediately and “there must be an immediate end to the transfer of military weapons and materiel into Libya.”

Aparac appealed to the international community “to take concrete steps” to move the repatriation process forward.

During the UN-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, representatives of both sides in the conflict agreed a road map to “credible, inclusive and democratic national elections” that are due to take place on Dec. 24 this year.

If foreign fighters remain in the country at that time, Libyans will not be able to vote in a safe and secure environment, Aparac warned.

Her working group concluded more than a year ago that a reliance on mercenaries since 2019 contributed to the escalation of the conflict in Libya, undermined the peace process, and constituted a breach of the Security Council’s arms embargo on the country. Since then, the experts have repeatedly urged governments to investigate all allegations of violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

“A year on, and looking forward to elections, we remain concerned that any political process aiming to establish sustainable peace has to include a genuine commitment to human rights,” the experts said on Friday.

“There must be real accountability for abuses committed by mercenaries, mercenary-related actors, and private contractors.”

Working groups and special rapporteurs are part of what is known as the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. They are independent experts and work on a voluntary basis. They are not members of UN staff and are not paid for their work.


Wildfires sweep Turkey as government slammed over emergency response

In this image provided by Maxar, a satellite view of smoke rising from wildfires near Oymapinar Dam, southern Turkey, on Thursday July 29, 2021. (AP)
In this image provided by Maxar, a satellite view of smoke rising from wildfires near Oymapinar Dam, southern Turkey, on Thursday July 29, 2021. (AP)
Updated 2 min 56 sec ago

Wildfires sweep Turkey as government slammed over emergency response

In this image provided by Maxar, a satellite view of smoke rising from wildfires near Oymapinar Dam, southern Turkey, on Thursday July 29, 2021. (AP)
  • More than 70 wildfires have broken out this week in provinces o
  • Countries including Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, and Greece have offered emergency help

ANKARA: The death toll from wildfires on Turkey’s southern coast has risen to four and firefighters were battling blazes for a third day on Friday after the evacuation of dozens of villages and some hotels.

More than 70 wildfires have broken out this week in provinces on Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts as well as inland areas.

At least four people are reported to have died and dozens have been hospitalized as the blazes continued for a fourth consecutive day.Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said fires raged on in six provinces and officials promised to bring to account anyone found responsible for starting them.

Villages and some hotels have been evacuated in tourist areas and television footage has shown people fleeing across fields as fires closed in on their homes.

Pakdemirli said fires were still blazing in the Mediterranean resort region of Antalya and the Aegean resort province of Mugla.

“We were hoping to contain some of the fires as of this morning but while we say cautiously that they are improving, we still cannot say they are under control,” he said.

Turkey’s civil aviation agency has come under public criticism for its handling of the crisis. 

Although wildfires during summertime are common in Turkey, this year the fires have reached an unprecedented level.

The mayor of the southern resort town of Marmaris blamed “sabotage” for the fires and said an investigation had been launched. A number of buildings and hotels in tourist zones of Marmaris and Bodrum were evacuated after separate fires.

Countries including Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, and Greece have offered emergency help. Three planes, nine drones, 38 helicopters, 680 firefighting vehicles, and more than 4,000 personnel have been deployed to put out the fires.

Turkey has only three planes available to fight forest fires, but all are leased from Russia for 1.3 million liras ($154,350) per day.

Alpay Antmen, a lawmaker from the southern Mersin province and a member of the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), told Arab News: “We have been monitoring the situation on the ground since the beginning. Fortunately, they contained the fire from reaching the settlements. But this tragic case has shown once again the weakness of state apparatus in such emergency situations.”

He, along with other opposition parliamentarians, have been lobbying the Turkish government for a year to upgrade the country’s firefighting capacity.

“Nobody replied to our parliamentary inquiries, and we all witnessed the result of this incapacity. The Turkish president has 13 private planes in his possession, but why couldn’t they buy one single firefighting plane so far?” Antmen said.

Wildfires have broken out elsewhere in the region, with more than 40 in Greece in the last 24 hours, fanned by winds and soaring temperatures, authorities said. On Tuesday, a blaze tore through a pine forest north of Athens, damaging more than a dozen homes before it was brought under control.

Tolga Ozbek, general coordinator of the aviation sector website kokpit.aero, told Arab News that Turkey had increased its annual water carrying capacity to 148,000 tons this year from 80,000 tons in 2018.

“Fighting wildfires requires an integrated approach, using different types of planes and helicopters based on the geographical conditions. Turkey has been leasing its firefighting helicopters for the last 35 years. This has turned out to be costlier than buying some,” he said.

He pointed out that Turkey needed a permanent fleet of firefighting planes and should allocate a reasonable budget for such emergency situations.

“Whatever you invest in fighting fires, it always falls short because the fires can erupt anywhere anytime. While formulating specific policies in this regard, one should always consider the implications of global warming and the ongoing drought in the country,” Ozbek added.

Fires also burned large swathes of pine forest in the mountainous north of Lebanon this week, killing at least one firefighter and forcing some residents to flee.