Iraq begins national mourning for protest dead

Iraqi government admitted the use of “excessive force” in Sadr City in Baghdad. (File/AFP)
Updated 10 October 2019

Iraq begins national mourning for protest dead

  • Social media sites are still inaccessible in Iraq
  • The military acknowledged the use of “excessive force” in Sadr City in Baghdad

BAGHDAD: Iraq began three days of national mourning Thursday for more than 100 people killed during recent protests, while the government was expected to present a reshuffle to parliament in response to the political crisis.
While social media sites in Iraq remained inaccessible — except intermittently via virtual private network (VPN) applications — more images emerged of the violence over the past week in which mainly protesters died from live fire.
Footage showed demonstrators — who initially demanded jobs and services before calling for “the fall of the regime” — being fatally shot, or running for cover under heavy fire.
Authorities initially blamed “unidentified snipers” and infiltrating “saboteurs” but later acknowledged that the military had used “excessive force” in the Shiite bastion of Sadr City in Baghdad.
The judiciary also announced that a riot police officer had “confessed to killing a protester” in Hilla, south of Baghdad.
Prime Minister Adel Abdel Madhi responded to public anger in his second public address in less than a week, pledging to propose a cabinet reshuffle to parliament on Thursday.
The deeply divided assembly depends on the participation of its largest bloc: 54 lawmakers led by populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr.
The bloc includes ministers but Sadr called for the resignation of the government nearly a week ago.
Since protests and violence calmed on Tuesday, the government has proposed reforms to lower youth unemployment, currently at 25 percent, while the labor ministry proposed an online job register.
The government has also ordered housing aid. Local authorities demolishing informal housing settlement in September fueled the anger of protesters.
One in five Iraqis live below the poverty line, in one of the world’s most oil-rich countries.
Flags were flown at half-mast Thursday to mourn those who died during the week of violence.
Those killed — protesters and police — have been declared “martyrs” and their families will receive compensation.
With the return of normal life in Baghdad, traffic has again clogged the main roads of the sprawling city of nine million inhabitants. Schools, government offices and businesses have reopened.
At checkpoints into the city and on main roads however, vehicles were searched and additional troops were deployed.
Amnesty International called for authorities to properly investigate the “use of excessive and deadly force.”
The rights group interviewed eight activists and journalists who described seeing protesters killed by snipers.
Security forces did not protect protesters from sniper fire, Amnesty said, “nor have police intervened and arrested anyone responsible for firing at demonstrations.”
Washington called on Baghdad to exercise “maximum restraint” in dealing with protests, while London “raised concerns” about the violence and “the need to respect peaceful protest and media freedoms.”
Amnesty also described “a sinister campaign of harassment, intimidation and arrests of peaceful activists, journalists and protesters by the authorities.”
Several local television stations were ransacked, and their staff threatened and asked to stop broadcasting during night raids by armed men in uniform. Journalists and activists also received threats via telephone.
In a country where political rivals accuse each other of allegiance to foreign powers, President Barham Saleh has called for “sons of the same country” to end the discord.
So far this “national dialogue” has included meetings between MPs, tribal chiefs and political parties.
With calm returned to southern Iraq, Shiite Muslim pilgrims continue to converge. On October 20 they will commemorate Arbaeen, in which millions of Shiite Muslims walk to the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.


US to pull last troops from north Syria

Updated 14 October 2019

US to pull last troops from north Syria

  • The developments illustrate Washington’s waning influence over events in Syria
  • Turkey aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of US’s Kurdish-led ally the Syrian Democratic Forces

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: The United States said on Sunday it will withdraw its remaining 1,000 troops from northern Syria in the face of an expanding Turkish offensive while Syria’s army struck a deal with Kurdish forces to redeploy along its border with Turkey, both major victories for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The developments illustrate Washington’s waning influence over events in Syria and the failure of the US policy of keeping Assad from reasserting state authority over areas lost during the more than eight-year conflict with rebels trying to end his rule.
The developments also represent wins for Russia and Iran, which have backed Assad since 2011 when his violent effort to crush what began as peaceful protests against his family’s decades-long rule of Syria exploded into a full-blown civil war.
While the US withdrawal moves American troops out of the line of fire, the return of Syrian soldiers to the Turkish border opens up the possibility of a wider conflagration should the Syrian army come in direct conflict with Turkish forces.
The Turkish onslaught in northern Syria has also raised the prospect that Daesh militants and their families held by the Kurdish forces targeted by Turkey may escape — scores were said to have done so already — and permit the group’s revival.
The remarkable turn of events was set in motion a week ago when US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw about 50 special operations forces from two outposts in northern Syria, a step widely seen as paving the way for Turkey to launch its week-long incursion against Kurdish militia in the region.
Turkey aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of Washington’s Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key US ally in dismantling the “caliphate” set up by Daesh militants in Syria.
Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said the offensive would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east and extend some 30 kilometers into Syrian territory, with the town of Ras al Ain now in Turkish control.
US Defense Secretary Mike Esper said the United States decided to withdraw its roughly 1,000 troops in northern Syria — two US officials told Reuters it could pull the bulk out in days — after learning of the deepening Turkish offensive.
It was unclear what would happen to the several hundred US troops at the American military outpost of Tanf, near Syria’s southern border with Iraq and Jordan.
Another factor behind the decision, Esper indicated in an interview with the CBS program “Face the Nation,” was that the SDF aimed to make a deal with Russia and Syria to counter the Turkish onslaught. Several hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had struck just such an agreement for the Syrian army to deploy along the length of the border with Turkey to help repel Ankara’s offensive.
The deployment would help the SDF in countering “this aggression and liberating the areas that the Turkish army and mercenaries had entered,” it added, referring to Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, and would also allow for the liberation of other Syrian cities occupied by the Turkish army such as Afrin.
The fighting has sparked Western concerns that the SDF, holding large swathes of northern Syria once controlled by Daesh, would be unable to keep thousands of militants in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.