Iraq protests swell as UN presses Baghdad to ‘step up’

An anti-government protester prepares to throw back a tear gas canister fired by police during clashes between Iraqi security forces and demonstrators, in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. (AP)
Updated 13 November 2019

Iraq protests swell as UN presses Baghdad to ‘step up’

  • UN has put forward a phased roadmap calling for an immediate end to violence and electoral reform within 2 weeks
  • Protesters have escalated their demands to deep-rooted regime change

BAGHDAD: Iraqi officials must “step up” to respond to mass demonstrations, the UN representative in Baghdad told AFP on Wednesday as anti-government rallies swelled in Iraq’s capital and the country’s south.
Protests demanding an overhaul of the political system have rocked Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south for weeks — the crowds unmoved by government pledges of reform and undeterred by the deaths of more than 300 demonstrators.
Washington and the United Nations have called on the government to respond seriously to the protests, with the world body’s representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert saying the country’s authorities must “step up to the plate and make things happen.”
“They are elected by the people, they are accountable to them,” the head of the UN’s Iraq mission (UNAMI) told AFP in an exclusive interview.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for his part, has said he told Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi that he “deplored the death toll” and to address the popular movement’s “legitimate grievances.”
The protests had slowed for a few days following a deadly crackdown by security forces in Baghdad and major southern cities but flared again Wednesday with demonstrations by striking students and teachers.
“We’re here to back the protesters and their legitimate demands, which include teachers’ rights,” said Aqeel Atshan, a professor on strike, in Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicenter of the protest movement.
In the southern port city of Basra, around 800 students returned to camp outside the provincial government headquarters, days after they had been pushed out by riot police.
Schools were also shut in the protest hotspots of Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah.
Protesters have felt emboldened since the country’s top Shiite religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said they “cannot go home without sufficient reforms.”
“Students, boys and girls alike, are all here for a sit-in,” another demonstrator in Tahrir told AFP.
“If Sistani gave the orders for mass civil disobedience, everything would close — the government, the oil companies, everything. That’s how we’ll have a solution.”
The UN has put forward a phased roadmap, backed by Sistani, calling for an immediate end to violence, electoral reform and anti-graft measures within two weeks.
Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN envoy, discussed the plan with lawmakers during a parliamentary session on Wednesday afternoon.
“Now is the time to act, otherwise any momentum will be lost — lost at a time when many, many Iraqis demand concrete results,” she told them on the sidelines of the parliamentary meeting.
At the session’s opening, speaker of parliament Mohammed Al-Halbussi pledged to work on laws to respond to protesters’ demands including electoral reform.
Parliament has received a draft law for electoral reform but has yet to discuss it.
Lawmakers also set dates to interrogate two ministers, which could indicate the first steps of a cabinet reshuffle announced by Abdel Mahdi.
Oil-rich Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International, and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent.
Demonstrations erupted on October 1 in fury over a lack of jobs and corruption, initially fracturing the ruling class.
Populist cleric Moqtada Sadr then called on the government to resign and President Barham Saleh suggested early elections, while other factions stood by Abdel Mahdi.
But after a series of meetings led by Iran’s influential Major General Qassem Soleimani, a consensus emerged at the weekend over the government remaining intact and both Saleh and Sadr appear to have changed their tunes.
Sadr, who is reported to be in Iran, took to Twitter on Wednesday to call on parliament to enact reforms and for “a general strike, even for one day,” but did not demand the premier step down.
Saleh, too, appears to have dropped the idea of early elections.
The agreement brokered by Soleimani appeared to have paved the way for a crackdown on demonstrations last weekend that sent the death toll amid the unrest to well over 300.
Iraq has faced growing criticism over its response to rallies, with rights defenders accusing authorities of shooting live rounds at protesters and curtailing freedom of expression with an Internet blackout and mass arrests.
Also on Wednesday, the president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, was in Baghdad to meet with the premier, president and speaker of parliament.
Barzani and Abdel Mahdi are believed to have good personal ties, and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have backed the current government.
But they have worried that any amendments to Iraq’s 2005 constitution as part of a reform process could infringe on Kurdish rights.


Lebanese restaurant attracts star support following Beirut blasts

Updated 52 min 11 sec ago

Lebanese restaurant attracts star support following Beirut blasts

  • Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe donated $5,000 to the fund, set up by a group of Beirut-based foreign correspondents
  • Operating on a plat-du-jour formula, each day of the week would serve a homemade Lebanese specialty

LONDON: Lebanese restaurant Le Chef found an unlikely high-profile supporter after a GoFundMe page was set up to save the diner from ruin following the Beirut blasts on August 4.

Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe donated $5,000 to the fund, set up by a group of Beirut-based foreign correspondents.

When Richard Hall, one of the organizers and the former-Beirut correspondent of UK daily The Independent, highlighted the generous donation, Crowe tweeted: “On behalf of Anthony Bourdain. I thought that he would have probably done so if he was still around. I wish you and LeChef the best and hope things can be put back together soon.” Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took his life two years ago.

Tucked away in the middle of the Gemmayze district, Le Chef – commonly seen as one of Beirut’s must-try hole-in-the-wall diners for tourists – was badly damaged in the recent blast.

The tiny diner with its neon-red logo and checkered tables was second home to many of the street’s residents and the country’s foreign correspondents. It featured in Bourdain’s report from Beirut during his travel show Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations in 2006.

“And yet I'd already fallen in love with Beirut. We all had — everyone on my crew. As soon as we'd landed, headed into town, there was a reaction I can only describe as pheromonic: The place just smelled good. Like a place we were going to love,” Bourdain’s field notes during his time on CNN's Parts Unknown said.

Operating on a plat-du-jour formula, each day of the week would serve a homemade Lebanese specialty – with Thursday’s mloukhiyye and rice a favorite among many journalists, according to Arab News’ correspondent Leila Hatoum.

“When I worked as a reporter based in Gemmayze between 2002 and 2006, Le Chef was the restaurant that provided home-cooked style meals at such affordable prices and in generous quantities…each dish literally could feed two persons,” Hatoum said.

“It was the meeting point for every reporter in the area, be it foreign or local. I would say Le Chef was the ‘it’ place for affordable but great home-cooked food.”

Other dishes include rice and lamb (kharouf mehshi) on Mondays, spiced Lebanese couscous with chicken (moughrabiyye) on Tuesdays, kibbeh bil sayniyye on Wednesdays, rice and fish (sayyidiye) on Fridays and roast lamb with potatoes on Saturdays.

“Le Chef was different, everything they served was as though my mom cooked it,” Netherlands-based designer Rawad Baaklini told Arab News.

“And it was so cheap! Their dishes were big compared to the price they charged. They used to deliver, so for me ordering from them was like eating at home,” Baaklini said, recalling his time working at a studio based in the area.

“My favorite dish was the kibbeh bel sayniyye … It was magical, I don’t know how they made it, but it was every time great.”