Iraq’s main port blocked by protesters hours after reopening

Anti-government protesters re-block the port of Umm Qasr Iraq, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. Iraqi security and medical officials say the country's main port has closed again after brief resumption of services. (AP)
Updated 07 November 2019

Iraq’s main port blocked by protesters hours after reopening

  • Protesters have blocked roads to raise pressure on the government
  • Iraq has been gripped by protests in the capital Baghdad and across most of its southern provinces

BAGHDAD: Four Iraqis were shot and killed on Thursday as they tried to remove barriers blocking their march in central Baghdad, while in the south, protesters forced the closing of the country's main port hours after services had resumed following days of closure, officials said.

Demonstrators have been trying to reach the Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies.

Along with the four killed, at least 24 protesters were wounded as security forces fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse the march in downtown's Rashid Street, where the central bank is located, security and medical officials said.

The protesters were trying to remove barriers near two bridges that lead to the west bank of the Tigris River. Now all bridges leading to the Green Zone have been blocked by security forces.

Later, a security official said more reinforcements have been added to the entrances leading to the Green Zone. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets since last month in the capital and across the largely Shiite south to demand sweeping political change. The protesters complain of widespread corruption, a lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, including regular power cuts despite Iraq's vast oil reserves. More than 250 people have been killed since the unrest erupted on Oct. 1.

Protesters have blocked roads to raise pressure on the government. A similar tactic is being used in Lebanon's ongoing anti-government demonstrations.

In southern Iraq, the reopening of the Umm Qasr port, which houses a vital oil terminal and is an entry point for food and basic goods, came a day after the military called on the protesters to stop blocking roads and ports. It said the blockages had cost Iraq $6 billion, and vowed to arrest those responsible.

On Thursday afternoon, protesters returned, burning tires and blocking the road to the port. Trucks came to a standstill and the port shut down again.

Iraq's leaders have promised reforms and early elections, but the process they laid out could take months, and the protests have only grown in recent days.

Iraq has held regular elections since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but they have been dominated by Shiite Islamist parties that have failed to deliver on promises to improve daily life.

The protests pose the biggest challenge to the government since it declared victory over militants from the Islamic State group nearly two years ago.

Fifteen years later, Arafat is sorely missed

Updated 36 min 33 sec ago

Fifteen years later, Arafat is sorely missed

  • When Arafat passed away, an airport funeral procession was held in Paris and Cairo while the body was flown by a Jordanian military helicopter to Ramallah
  • While Palestinians look forward to a new generation of leaders, questions continue to dog the Palestinian leadership as to the circumstances behind Arafat’s untimely death

AMMAN: For Rauhi Fatouh, the memories of Yaser Arafat’s last days are as vivid as they were yesterday. 

Fatouh, a Gazan leader who belongs to Arafat’s Fatah movement, was the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council on Oct. 12, 2004 when president Arafat suddenly became sick while holed up at the Muqata headquarters in Ramallah, surrounded by Israeli tanks.

Fatouh recalls going with the ailing Arafat to a French military hospital outside Paris along with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and Ahmad Kurei (Abu Alaa) and a special visitor came by. “We were visited by French President Jacque Chirac who talked about the issue of transition and asked me to follow the Palestinian basic law so that there would be a smooth transition,” Fatouh told Arab News.

Article 37 of the Palestinian law stipulates that if the president of the Palestinian Authority is unable to carry on his duties, the speaker of the Legislative Council will take over for a 60-day transitional period, after which new elections are supposed to take place. 

“We were hoping that this would not happen but everyone including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Abdallah Saleh kept on calling us wanting to be sure that the transition will take place without any obstacles and if it is possible to hold the funeral outside of Palestine so that they can attend.”

When Arafat passed away, an airport funeral procession was held in Paris and Cairo while the body was flown by a Jordanian military helicopter to Ramallah. Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, and Foreign Minister Suleiman Abu Ghaith came to Ramallah to attend the funeral.

Fatouh recalls the following sequence of events: “Abbas was elected as chairman of the executive committee and I was sworn in as acting president, as per the Palestinian Basic Law in front of the Legislative Council and the senior court judges. Everything concerning the transition took place in an orderly fashion,” he said noting that he resisted various attempts by people close to him to skip the idea of having presidential elections and stay in power.

One of the first orders of business for the acting president was to respond to the hundreds of letters, requests and laws that were unanswered. “I had to deal with thousands of documents, I vowed not to refuse any request for help from Palestinians needy medical or educational help, but sometimes we had to reduce the amount.”

On his third day in office, Fatouh signed a decree allowing for presidential elections to take place exactly 60 days later. “While some wanted to have simultaneous presidential and legislative elections, I decided to only have presidential elections to fill Arafat’s seat and that took place on Jan. 9, 2005.” Mahmoud Abbas won the presidential elections defeating independent medical doctor Mustafa Barghouti with 72 percent of the vote.

Najeeb Qadoumi, a member of the Palestine National and Central Councils, told Arab News that the absence of Arafat has left a vacuum in Palestinian political life. “We are sad on this occasion because we feel lonely. Arafat was able to move the Palestinian cause from a humanitarian and refugee cause to one of a revolution, a flag, national identity and statehood. Today, whenever you meet anyone and say you are Palestinian, they will mention Arafat’s name.”

While Palestinians look forward to a new generation of leaders, questions continue to dog the Palestinian leadership as to the circumstances behind Arafat’s untimely death. Hamdi Farraj, a left-wing writer from Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp, told Arab News that the mystery must be solved. Palestinian officials, including Arafat’s nephew Nasser Kidwa, insist that Arafat was poisoned, possibly with orders from former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with help from someone close to the late president. “We are further saddened by the fact that the killer of Arafat is still free, eating our food and breathing our air,” Farraj said.

Palestinians are expecting to have legislative elections early in 2020 followed within three months by presidential elections. Abbas has said previously that he has no plans to run again, but Fatah strongman Hussein Sheikh has said publicly that Abbas remains the party’s only candidate. Fatah Secretary Jibril Rajoub, seen by many as the strongest Fatah candidate, has said on Palestine TV that Abbas should be the “wise leader” of the Palestinian people and should give room to others to take his place.

Some analyst also expect Fatah deputy Mahmoud Alloul to be a candidate along with current Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. Renegade Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan, living in exile in the UAE, has a significant following and is expected to run for office if elections take place. Other possible candidates include Hamas’s leader Ismael Haniyeh and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as an independent.