Iraq faces a vote that will offer hope for the future — or leave it teetering on the brink

Iraq faces a vote that will offer hope for the  future — or leave it teetering on the brink
Iraqis are hoping that Saturday’s elections can lock in a fragile peace while Daesh continues to pose a major security threat. (AFP)
Updated 12 May 2018

Iraq faces a vote that will offer hope for the future — or leave it teetering on the brink

Iraq faces a vote that will offer hope for the  future — or leave it teetering on the brink
  • The new government will have to set the wheels rolling on reconstruction projects across the war-ravaged country and combat rampant corruption in all sections of the state
  • Abadi also spent most of his four-year term trying to repair some of the ruin left by his predecessor

 BAGHDAD: Iraqis go to the polls on Saturday in the fourth election to be held since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with the country at a critical economic and social crossroads as it emerges from the war on Daesh.

Security forces will guard polling stations across the country as voters select the members who will sit in a 329-member parliament, which in turn will form the next government. 

The election is the most important since the US-led invasion in 2003, with its results defining the future of the country after one of the darkest periods in its recent bloody history, political analysts said.

Iraq is still dusting itself down from the costly and exhausting war that lasted almost four years. Daesh militants swamped northern and western regions, seizing almost a third of Iraqi territory in June 2014. Their defeat in the country was announced only in December.

Buoyed by their success in Syria, the extremists capitalized on the sectarian strife and administrative corruption that dominated the security establishment during the second term of the then Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.

Haider Abadi, a fellow member of the Shiite Dawa party, outmaneuvered Al-Maliki after the last election in 2014 to take the top job. His term was defined by the extremists’ expulsion from the country.

The challenges awaiting the next government are large and critical. They include maintaining security and social cohesion in the divided nation — something that improved with the military success against Daesh.

The new government will also have to set the wheels rolling on reconstruction projects across the war-ravaged country and combat rampant corruption in all sections of the state. 

“The post-election phase is critical and if it is not led properly by the next government, we will return to square one,” Sarmad Al-Biyaty, an Iraqi political analyst, told Arab News. 

“If there is no strong government that knows how to deal with these files (maintaining the security and peace, construction and corruption), everything will collapse soon.”

Abadi, the current prime minister, took office in September 2014, inheriting a heavy legacy. He managed to create a balance between the biggest military figures in Iraq, Iran and the US, and convinced them to support the liberation of Iraqi territory by all possible means.

His diplomacy harnessed some of the most powerful weapons in the region: US air power and technical and intelligence support, and the Shiite militias funded and equipped by Tehran.

Abadi also spent most of his four-year term trying to repair some of the ruin left by his predecessor. He changed military commanders, dismissed corrupt officers, and restructured the security establishment to be more professional and effective. 

These reforms have restored the security situation and significantly improved the government’s relations with citizens in the Sunni-dominated areas. 

“These (security and peace) are the two greatest achievements to be taken into account,” Abdulwahid Touma, an Iraqi political analyst, told Arab News.

“Abadi’s calmness and methods helped him to get an international consensus around him. This relative stability in security and success in the liberation of Iraqi territory were the main results. 

“If this unanimity does not continue, it is impossible to say how quickly the situation inside Iraq could collapse.”

But there are real concerns over how Abadi will perform in the election. While he is from the same Dawa party as Al-Maliki, the two men are now enemies and have formed separate coalitions, splitting the Dawa support.

The moderate improvement in Sunni-Shiite relations is embodied in several religiously mixed electoral lists, Mohammed Emad, a social science professor from Anbar University in Fallujah, told Arab News.

“This could collapse if a new sectarian government took place in Iraq,” he said. 

“It could easily happen if Al-Maliki’s State of Law or the Al-Fattah Alliance get a chance to form the next government.”

Many Iraqis are fearful that the Al-Fattah Alliance, one of the biggest Shiite lists that includes most of the candidates representing Iran-backed factions, will nominate Hadi Al-Amiri, the Al-Fattah leader for prime minister. 

Al-Amiri, is also commander of Badr Organization, the most prominent Shiite militia, and a victory for him would be a significant boost to Iran’s influence in the country.

Ahmed Al-Bashir, a prominent critic of Al-Maliki and presenter of the popular, satirical “Al-Bashir Show,” devoted his last episode to Al-Amiri.

“I did not expect that I would ever say this, Abu Esraa (Maliki). Please return,” he said sarcastically.

Years of violence have blighted Iraq’s economy, despite the vast oil reserves, leaving the country with high levels of poverty, unemployment, a dependence on oil and the absence of a dynamic private sector strategy.

The collapse of oil prices in 2014, accompanied by the failure of the Iraqi Army in the face of Daesh, meant oil revenues were directed to pay mobilized fighters in the campaign against the extremists. All infrastructure projects were put on hold 

The Iraqi government has estimated the cost of reconstruction of areas affected by the war against Daesh at $100 billion. 

Sunni areas suffered immense destruction in the past four years and around 2 million displaced people are still waiting to return to their homes, where electricity and drinking water have yet to be restored. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, while whole neighborhoods are still laced with mines and explosive devices.

In cooperation with the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, the Iraqi government held an international donor conference in Kuwait in February to attract corporate funding for multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects, mostly in oil and housing.

The government managed to secure only $30 billion, mostly through loans and insurance bonds.

“If the new government fails to combat the corruption and modify investment law, the international community will raise their hands and leave us alone,” Wathiq Al-Hashimi, an economic expert, told Arab News.

“Our economy is almost dead and needs to be reactivated by the private sector and more foreign companies investing in Iraq.

“This will not happen if we go back to the same atmosphere that emboldens the corrupt officials, who will cause the collapse of security and peace.”


Syria reports Israeli missile attack near capital, Damascus

Syria reports Israeli missile attack near capital, Damascus
Updated 01 March 2021

Syria reports Israeli missile attack near capital, Damascus

Syria reports Israeli missile attack near capital, Damascus
  • Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years, but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations
  • Israel views Iranian entrenchment on its northern frontier as a red line

DAMASCUS: Syrian air defenses were activated in the capital Damascus and its southern suburbs Sunday night to repel an Israeli missile attack, state media reported. There was no word on casualties.
State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that most of the Israeli missiles were shot down before reaching their targets near Damascus.
Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years, but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations.
Israel views Iranian entrenchment on its northern frontier as a red line, and it has repeatedly struck Iran-linked facilities and weapons convoys destined for Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group.
The attack comes after the United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups.
The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.


UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home

UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home
Updated 28 February 2021

UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home

UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home
  • UNICEF made its plea a day after three children died in a fire at Al-Hol camp
  • Syria’s Kurds hold thousands of alleged militants in jails and tens of thousands of their family members in camps in northeast Syria

BEIRUT: The UN children’s agency called Sunday for all minors held in displacement camps or jails in northeast Syria to be allowed home.
UNICEF made its plea a day after three children died in a fire at the overcrowded camp of Al-Hol, for people displaced in the fight against Daesh.
After years of leading the US-backed fight against Daesh, Syria’s Kurds hold thousands of alleged militants in jails and tens of thousands of their family members in camps in northeast Syria.
They hail from Syria, neighboring Iraq and dozens of other foreign countries.
Many are children.
“In the northeast of Syria, there are more than 22,000 foreign children from at least 60 nationalities who languish in camps and prisons, in addition to many thousands of Syrian children,” UNICEF regional director Ted Chaiban said in a statement, without giving a number of children held in jails.
He urged authorities in the northeast of Syria and UN member states to “do everything possible to bring children currently in the northeast of Syria back home.”
They should do this “through integrating Syrian children in their local communities and the repatriation of foreign children,” he added.
The Kurdish authorities have started sending thousands of displaced Syrians home from the camps.
But repeated calls for Western countries to repatriate their nationals have largely fallen on deaf ears, with just a handful of children and even fewer women being brought home.
Three children and a woman died on Saturday after a stove exploded in the Al-Hol camp, starting a fire, a Kurdish official said.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said at least 26 were injured.
Al-Hol is home to more than 62,000 people, displaced family members and relatives of alleged IS fighters, more than half of them children, it says.
A spate of killings, including decapitations, has rocked the camp since the start of the year, and humanitarian actors have repeatedly deplored living conditions there.
On February 1, the Save the Children charity also urged Iraq and Western countries to repatriate children from northeast Syria faster.
Daesh overran large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed air strikes by a US-led coalition expelled Daesh from their last patch of territory in Syria in March 2019, in a battle that displaced tens of thousands.


Egypt opens online registration for COVID-19 vaccination

Egypt opens online registration for COVID-19 vaccination
Updated 28 February 2021

Egypt opens online registration for COVID-19 vaccination

Egypt opens online registration for COVID-19 vaccination
  • Text messages will be sent to prompt all those eligible to register for the vaccine as part of the Egyptian president’s initiative to eliminate waiting lists and facilitate the vaccination process

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Health and Population Hala Zayed announced on Sunday the start of online registration to obtain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination for eligible citizens.

Khaled Mujahid, the ministry’s spokesman, said that registration has begun for eligible groups, including persons with tumors and kidney failure; those who have undergone operations, including open-heart surgery, and kidney and liver operations; and those with cerebral or peripheral catheters.

Text messages will be sent to prompt all those eligible to register for the vaccine as part of the Egyptian president’s initiative to eliminate waiting lists and facilitate the vaccination process.

Mujahid said that offices have been allocated in health units and hospitals across Egypt to register those who are unable to do so online. The spokesman pointed out that the site informs citizens of all details concerning the vaccine and allows them to register their data so that priority is automatically given according to age and chronic disease.

Mujahid said that the categories of people eligible to register on the website are divided into three groups in line with universally recognized priorities. These groups include health workers, those with chronic diseases and the elderly.

He explained that those registering online will have to enter identifying data, including name, ID number and contact information, such as phone number, where a verification code will be sent. Following this, the governorate and nearest health unit where the citizen may be vaccinated are determined.


US disappointed by Iran move on nuclear talks, remains ready to engage

US disappointed by Iran move on nuclear talks, remains ready to engage
Updated 48 min 40 sec ago

US disappointed by Iran move on nuclear talks, remains ready to engage

US disappointed by Iran move on nuclear talks, remains ready to engage
  • US would consult P5+1 partners on the best way forward
  • Iran says US must lift all its unilateral sanctions first

WASHINGTON/TEHRAN: The United States on Sunday said it was disappointed that Iran had ruled out an informal meeting to discuss ways to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, but said it remained ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy on the issue.
“While we are disappointed at Iran’s response, we remain ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments,” a White House spokeswoman said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal.
She said Washington would be consulting with its P5+1 partners, the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom — plus Germany on the best way forward.
Iran dismissed Europe’s offer for an informal meeting, saying the time is not “suitable” as Washington has failed to lift sanctions.
The European Union’s political director earlier this month proposed the informal meeting involving all parties of the Vienna deal, a proposition accepted by US President Joe Biden’s administration.
Following Biden’s election, Washington, the European parties to the deal and Tehran have been trying to salvage the accord, which granted Iran international sanctions relief in return for restrictions on its nuclear program.
The accord has been nearing collapse since former president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
“Considering the recent positions and actions of the United States and the three European countries, (Iran) does not consider the time suitable to hold the informal meeting proposed by the European coordinator,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement.
“There has still been no change in the US positions and behavior yet,” he added, saying the Biden administration has continued “Trump’s failed policy of maximum pressure.”
Biden has signalled readiness to revive the deal, but insists Iran first return to all its nuclear commitments, most of which it suspended in response to the sanctions, while Tehran demands Washington take the first step by scrapping the sanctions.
The foreign ministry statement comes ahead of a quarterly meeting Monday of the United Nations nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors, which is likely to discuss Iran’s recent restrictions of some nuclear inspections.
“Remember: Trump failed to meet because of his ill-advised ‘Max Failure’,” Khatibzadeh wrote on Twitter shortly after his statement.
Tehran’s position is unchanged “with sanctions in place... Censuring is NOT diplomacy. It doesn’t work with Iran,” he added.
The US “has not even announced its commitment to fulfilling its responsibilities” under the deal and the UN Security Council resolution that enshrined it, the spokesman said in the statement.
“America must end its illegal and unilateral sanctions and return to its (deal) commitments. This needs neither negotiations nor resolutions,” he added.
Iran “will answer action with action, and just as it will return to (deal) commitments in accordance with the lifting of sanctions, it will respond to hostile actions and behaviors in the same way.”
Khatibzadeh said Tehran would continue to consult with other parties to the nuclear agreement, and European Union Foreign Minister Josep Borrell “in his capacity as the (deal) coordinator, both bilaterally and multilaterally.”
Iran last Tuesday started to restrict some site inspections by the IAEA, in continuation of suspended nuclear commitments in response to the US failure to lift its sanctions.
London, Paris and Berlin said they “deeply regret” the move and that they were “united in underlining the dangerous nature of this decision.”
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said last week an interim three-month deal agreed during a visit to Tehran was “far from an ideal situation,” but will allow the body to continue monitoring “all the key activities.”
It will facilitate “time for the indispensable diplomacy that will be deployed,” he added.
Under the temporary agreement, data on Iran’s nuclear program “will be stored and not handed over to the IAEA,” according to Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization has said that if US sanctions are still not lifted after three months, it will start erasing the recordings.
(With Reuters and AFP)


Former Mosul priest: Pope’s Iraq visit a ‘precious gift’ for all

Former Mosul priest: Pope’s Iraq visit a ‘precious gift’ for all
Updated 28 February 2021

Former Mosul priest: Pope’s Iraq visit a ‘precious gift’ for all

Former Mosul priest: Pope’s Iraq visit a ‘precious gift’ for all
  • ‘Like a dove, he’ll bring a twig of peace to all the people living in this land who’ve suffered for too long,’ priest tells Arab News
  • Pope Francis due to arrive in Baghdad on March 5

ROME: The pope’s upcoming visit to Iraq is a “precious gift” not only for the Christians who live there, but for all those who after years of war want a return to peace and coexistence between religions, a priest who worked for eight years in the diocese of Mosul told Arab News.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. Pope Francis is coming … to invite us to all be instruments of peace,” said Fr. Jalal Jako.

“Like a dove, he’ll bring a twig of peace to all the people living in this land who’ve suffered for too long.”

Jako, currently in Italy, will return to Iraq for the pope’s visit, which will begin on March 5.

The priest was born in Qaraqosh, a historic Christian city near Mosul, which is part of the pope’s itinerary.

Jalal Jako visiting a church in Qaraqosh after it was badly damaged by Daesh. (Supplied)

He fled the region in August 2014 along with nearly 150,000 Christians and made his way to Erbil in northern Iraq. There, Jako worked in a refugee camp where he said the conditions for those who had fled the extremists were “terrible.”

When he returned to Qaraqosh three years later, “We found that everything had been destroyed,” he said.

The pope will be welcomed by Iraq’s prime minister in Baghdad and then visit the country’s president at the presidential palace, where he will meet with local authorities, representatives of civil society and the diplomatic corps.

Pope Francis will also meet with bishops and priests at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad.

On March 6, he will fly to the city of Najaf and meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. The pope will return to Baghdad that day and celebrate Holy Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph.

On March 7 he will visit Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and meet with religious and civil authorities of the autonomous region. He will also visit the city of Qaraqosh. His return to Rome is scheduled for March 8 from Baghdad.

Jako said: “We can’t fail to be there at such an important moment for us Christians — the first visit of a pope to Iraq. He’ll tell us, ‘No more blood, live all as brothers.’ Thus he’ll send out a message that all the Iraqi people need.”

Jako added: “Pope John Paul II was supposed to come on a pilgrimage in 2000 … but it wasn’t possible for him. Pope Francis is keeping his predecessor’s promise to come to Iraq to visit a Christian community that today has only 500,000 faithful, a third of the number who lived there in 2003. He comes as the leader of a Church that respects all religions and aims to build peace.”