Iraqi protesters block commercial ports, split capital

People cross the Tigris River in central Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (AP)
Updated 19 November 2019

Iraqi protesters block commercial ports, split capital

  • Iraqi civilians are increasingly relying on boats to ferry them across the Tigris River as ongoing standoffs shut key bridges in Baghdad
  • The Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar bridges connect both sides of the city by passing over the river

BAGHDAD: Anti-government protesters blocked access to a second major commercial port in southern Iraq on Tuesday, as bridge closures effectively split the capital in half, causing citizens to rely on boats for transport to reach the other side of the city.
Since anti-government protests began Oct. 1, at least 320 people have been killed and thousands wounded in Baghdad and the mostly Shiite southern provinces. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in the tens of thousands over what they say is widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, despite the country’s oil wealth.
Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun guns to repel protesters, tactics that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday would be punished with sanctions.
“We will not stand idle while the corrupt officials make the Iraqi people suffer. Today, I am affirming the United States will use our legal authorities to sanction corrupt individuals that are stealing Iraqis’ wealth and those killing and wounding peaceful protesters,” he said in remarks to reporters in Washington.
“Like the Iraqi people taking to the streets today, our sanctions will not discriminate between religious sect or ethnicity,” he added. “They will simply target those who do wrong to the Iraqi people, no matter who they are.”
Over a dozen protesters blocked the main entrance to Khor Al-Zubair port, halting trade activity as oil tankers and other trucks carrying goods were unable to enter or exit. The port imports commercial goods and materials as well as refined oil products.
Crude from Qayara oil field in Ninewa province, in northern Iraq, is also exported from the port.
Khor Al-Zubair is the second largest port in the country. Protesters had burned tires and cut access to the main Gulf commercial port in Umm Qasr on Monday and continued to block roads Tuesday.
Iraqi civilians are increasingly relying on boats to ferry them across the Tigris River as ongoing standoffs between demonstrators and Iraqi security forces on three key bridges has shut main thoroughfares connecting east and west Baghdad.
The Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar bridges, which have been partially occupied by protesters following days of deadly clashes, connect both sides of the city by passing over the Tigris River. The blockages have left Iraqis who must make the daily commute for work, school and other day-to-day activities with no choice but to rely on river boats.
“After the bridges were cut, all the pressure is on us here,” said Hasan Lilo, a boat owner in the capital. “We offer a reasonable transportation means that helps the people.”


Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

Updated 07 December 2019

Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

  • President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States”
  • Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018

TEHRAN: Iran and the US conducted a prisoner exchange Saturday that saw a detained Princeton graduate student released for an Iranian scientist held by America, marking a potential breakthrough between Tehran and Washington after months of tensions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made the first announcement on the trade via Twitter. The trade involves graduate student Xiyue Wang and scientist Massoud Soleimani.
“Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly," Zarif wrote. “Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government.”
In his tweet, Zarif confirmed rumors that had been circulating for days that a deal was in the works to free Wang.
President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States.”
“Mr. Wang had been held under the pretense of espionage since August 2016,” Trump said. “We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran.”
The Swiss Embassy in Tehran looks out for America's interests in the country as the U.S. Embassy there has been closed since the 1979 student takeover and 444-day hostage crisis.
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, accompanied the Iranian scientist to Switzerland to make the exchange and will return with Wang, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity as the information had yet to be released. The swap took place in Zurich and Hook and Wang are now en route to Landstuhl in Germany where Wang will be examined by doctors, the official said. Hook is expected to return to the US from Germany alone, as Wang is expected to be evaluated for several days.
Although Hook was present for the swap, the official said Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien played the lead role in the negotiations dating from his time as the special representative for hostage affairs at the State Department.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency later reported that Soleimani was with Iranian officials in Switzerland. Soleimani was expected to return to Iran in the coming hours. Zarif later posted pictures of himself on Twitter with Soleimani in front of an Iranian government jet and later with the two talking on board.
Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for allegedly “infiltrating” the country and sending confidential material abroad. His family and Princeton University strongly denied the claims. Wang was arrested while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty that once ruled Iran for his doctorate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history, according to Princeton.
Hua Qu, the wife of Xiyue Wang, released a statement saying “our family is complete once again.”
“Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue,” she said. “We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”
Princeton University spokesman Ben Chang said the school was aware of Wang's release.
“We are working with the family and government officials to facilitate his return to the United States,” Chang said.
Iran’s Revolutionary Court tried Wang. That court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow its Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals with ties to the West often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Soleimani — who works in stem cell research, hematology and regenerative medicine — was arrested by US authorities on charges he had violated trade sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran. He and his lawyers maintain his innocence, saying he seized on a former student’s plans to travel from the US to Iran in September 2016 as a chance to get recombinant proteins used in his research for a fraction of the price he’d pay at home.
Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018. In the time since, the US has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran's economy. There also have been a series of attacks across the Mideast that the US blames on Iran.
Other Americans held in Iran include the 81-year-old businessman Baquer Namazi who has been held for over two years and diagnosed with epilepsy.
Both Baquer Namazi and his son Siamak Namazi, also a dual national who has been held for over three years, are serving a 10-year sentence after they were convicted of collaborating with a hostile power.
An Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Also held is US Navy veteran Michael White.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, but his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while saying Wang would soon be able to go home to his family, acknowledged other Americans remain held by Iran.
“The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones,” Pompeo said in a statement.