Iranian general ‘played leading role’ in crackdown on Iraqi protests

Gen. Qasim Soleimani
Updated 09 October 2019

Iranian general ‘played leading role’ in crackdown on Iraqi protests

  • Iraqi president acknowledges excessive force had been used against demonstrators

BAGHDAD: The Iraqi government sent Iranian-backed armed factions to crack down on demonstrations and kill protesters, senior Iraqi security officials and politicians told Arab News on Tuesday. 

The groups are said to directly report to Gen. Qasim Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

“The general personally came to Baghdad a few days ago to manage the crisis,” said a senior security official in Baghdad. “He gave the orders to brutally deal with the demonstrators, and even kill them to sow terror in the hearts of the rest.

“On his orders, Iraqi security leaders were excluded from (dealing with the protests), the internet was blocked, most local journalists covering the demonstrations were threatened and some local and Arabic satellite TV stations were set on fire.”

There have been widespread demonstrations in Baghdad and seven southern, Shiite-dominated provinces over the past week in protest against corruption, high levels of unemployment and a lack of basic daily services. They turned violent when Iraqi riot police used live bullets and tear gas to disperse demonstrators who were trying to reach government and political party headquarters.

In the past eight days, more than 180 people have been killed and 7,000 injured, including security personnel, and dozens of government buildings, political party headquarters and military vehicles have been torched, security sources said.

Video footage recorded by demonstrators and activists reveals that many of the demonstrators who were killed were unarmed and not close enough to any security services or government buildings to pose a threat.

One of the videos seen by Arab News showed a young demonstrator running through a popular small marketplace to escape his pursuers. When he stopped to talk to someone a gunman approached and, from a distance of less than a meter, shot him in the head.

In a speech on Monday evening, Iraqi President Barham Salih acknowledged that excessive force had been used against demonstrators but added that the authorities did not give any orders to use deadly force, and the killers are criminals.

“Targeting peaceful demonstrators and security forces with live bullets ... is unacceptable in Iraq, which we have accepted and pledged to be a democracy in which rights and freedoms are fostered,” he said.

“The government and the commanders of the security services assure us that there were no orders to shoot, and that these abuses, the excessive violence and the targeting (of demonstrators) with live bullets, were not (the result of) a decision by the state and its agencies. Consequently, the perpetrators are criminals and outlaws.”

Security chiefs said Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ignored their recommendations not to use force against protesters as long as they did not pose a threat to citizens or the state, and to try to calm their anger. Rather than allow some time to find a peaceful solution, he ordered armed factions allied with the government to deal with the situation, security officials said.

The factions that took to the street are said to be the Badr Organization, the largest armed Shiite group, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Sayyid Al-Shuhada Brigades and Saraya Al-Khorasani. Security leaders, politicians and activists said these groups played a pivotal role in cracking down on the demonstrations and the killing of demonstrators.

Iraqi authorities on Tuesday blocked internet access for an eighth consecutive day in an attempt to control the protests and prevent demonstrators from sharing videos and pictures that they hope will help gain more domestic and international support.

Most Iraqi and foreign journalists and activists who were reporting on or monitoring the protests left Baghdad over the past week after receiving warnings that warrants had been issued for the arrest of dozens of them under terrorism legislation, the punishment for which includes the death penalty or life imprisonment.

“We have nothing to do with any of these measures,” said a senior National Security Council official. “Everything related to the demonstrations is currently managed by the Popular Mobilization Security Directorate. Even the arrest warrants issued against journalists and activists, we have nothing to do with them. The situation gets worse day after day.”

The Popular Mobilization Forces is a governmental umbrella organization, established in June 2014, composed of pro-Iran Shiite armed factions and individuals who volunteered to fight Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. The Badr Organization, Assaib Ahl Al-Haq and several other factions form its backbone.

Abdul Mahdi on Sunday announced a package of policies he described as exceptional, including the creation of thousands of jobs, the construction of housing for poor families, loans for the unemployed, and the chance for thousands expelled from military service to return to their units and for volunteers to join the army. It coincided with large-scale arrests of protesters or anyone else involved in the demonstrations.

The protests in Baghdad have greatly diminished since Sunday. There are now only small groups concentrated in Sadr City, east of Baghdad, and the surrounding areas. However, they have been the deadliest in the city to date, with 57 killed and more than 1,000 wounded, 205 of whom are in a critical condition, security and medical sources said.

“What Abdul Mahdi and his allies have done to the protesters is particularly brutal,” a key organizer of the demonstrations told Arab News. “They may silence the demonstrations by force for now but we will soon return more strongly.

“Recent days have proven to us that we are alone and that all political forces have abandoned us, while others have traded us, so our next step is to resort to arms. They have left us no other choice.”


Coronavirus crisis creates opportunities for venture capital entrepreneurs

Updated 07 August 2020

Coronavirus crisis creates opportunities for venture capital entrepreneurs

  • A number of sunrise sectors have emerged in response to pandemic-linked business and lifestyle challenges
  • In the GCC bloc, funding to MENA startups was up 2 percent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier

DUBAI: A resource crunch and the expansion of new economic sectors in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic could have a major impact on the availability of venture capital (VC) for entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

Yet, even as startups in the region, like their global counterparts, face significant challenges to fundraising, a number of sunrise sectors have emerged in response to coronavirus-linked business and lifestyle challenges, according to Fady Yacoub, co-founder and managing partner at the global technology investment firm HOF Capital.

“While angel investors and family offices accounted for a record-breaking amount of the capital deployed in the region in 2019, COVID-19 has made this source of funding scarce,” Yacoub said. “This is similar to trends abroad, but it is most acutely felt in the region as family offices have historically represented a significant share of invested dollars.”

Global VC funding has plunged 20 percent since the coronavirus outbreak in December last year, data from Startup Genome shows.

Global VC funding has plunged 20 percent since the coronavirus outbreak in December last year, data from Startup Genome shows. (Supplied)

In the Gulf, funding to MENA startups was up 2 percent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, although the number of venture capital deals fell 22 percent, principally because of a steep drop in March, according to the regional data platform Magnitt.

Given the interruption to business schedules, VCs are doubling down on their holdings, Yacoub said.

“Most VC dollars are being spent on putting out fires at existing portfolio companies rather than on new investments.”

Winning VC funding is now a challenge, even for companies growing in double or triple digits week on week, he said.

“Rounds that were once oversubscribed have had investors walk away, forcing companies to mark down valuations and raise at lower levels per share than their previous round. We have seen this play out with quite a few firms.”

Winning VC funding is now a challenge, even for companies growing in double or triple digits week on week, Yacoub said. (AFP/File Photo)

Yacoub, an Egyptian, teamed up with compatriots Onsi Sawiris and Hisham Elhaddad to found HOF Capital in 2016. The firm is backed by more than 70 influential families and organizations, including leading brands such as Morgan Stanley, Etihad Airways and BNP Paribas.

Its investors have $350 billion of assets under management. HOF focuses its investments on nascent technologies with the potential to solve major social problems, backing entrepreneurs in areas including artificial intelligence software, next-generation finance, and genetics and computational biology.

Yacoub and his colleagues believe the downturn offers an opportunity to launch category-leading businesses. Challenging times present new problems to be solved, creating new market prospects.

Given the widespread changes to lifestyles around the world, Yacoub pinpoints four possible growth sectors:

Remote work: “Beyond tools enabling remote work, we are excited about how this trend will alter the distribution of tech talent. Clusters beyond expensive central locations will emerge in places offering better quality of life or that are closer to home for migrants, even in the MENA region.”

Electronic sports and gaming: As alternatives to live sporting events and other in-person experiences, e-sports and video games have seen player activity levels rise. Yacoub predicts exciting times ahead for the sector, particularly with localized Arabic-language products.

Lockdowns and social distancing have forced consumers to shop online, with regional platforms Noon and Souq enlarging their workforce even as companies in other sectors have laid off staff. (AFP/File Photo)

Telemedicine: Telehealth claims in the US rose by more than 4,000 percent in the year to March 2020. “A similar trend may follow in other countries, which was part of our motivation for investing in Helium Health. Its telemedicine service has seen rapid growth during the pandemic.”

E-commerce: Lockdowns and social distancing have forced consumers to shop online, with regional platforms Noon and Souq enlarging their workforce even as companies in other sectors have laid off staff. “Overall, e-commerce has grown in the GCC and Egypt at a 30 percent compound annual growth rate. Investors will be keen to find the next e-commerce winner in the region.”

With a number of factors expected to affect consumer spending in the medium term, VC funding could be affected accordingly. Yacoub said that founders should expect longer fundraising cycles as VCs look more closely at all aspects of a company’s business model and operating market.

“VC investors are generally exposed to hundreds or thousands of startups each year, so it’s important to stand out from the crowd in a good way, such as having a world-class team, a best-in-class or unique product or technology, market-leading traction, and being able to convey an interesting and compelling story to investors,” he said.

* This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.