Iraq political deal hands Abdul Mahdi a reprieve in face of mass protests

Demonstrators read books during a protest in Baghdad. More than 300 people have been killed during the recent anti-government protests in the country. (Reuters)
Updated 20 November 2019

Iraq political deal hands Abdul Mahdi a reprieve in face of mass protests

  • Demonstrators see the 45-day deadline an attempt by politicians to buy time

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s political forces have signed an agreement that will allow the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and the current Parliament to continue to operate until the end of the year. In return, they have pledged to implement a number of demands issued by protesters, including a crackdown on corruption, amendments to the electoral law, changes to the Independent High Electoral Commission and a comprehensive ministerial reshuffle within 45 days, political leaders involved in the talks said on Tuesday.
However, the announcement of the deal, late on Monday, was criticized by protesters as an attempt by the political forces to give themselves some breathing space in the hope that the protests will run out of steam.
Widespread anti-government demonstrations began in Baghdad and nine Shiite-dominated southern provinces at the start of October. Since then, more than 300 people have been killed and 15,000 injured, mainly in Baghdad, by bullets and tear gas canisters during efforts by Abdul Mahdi’s government and its allies to suppress the unrest.
Protesters first took to the streets on Oct. 1 demanding action to address corruption, high unemployment and a lack of basic daily services and amenities. This prompted a brutal crackdown by Abdul Mahdi and his Iran-backed armed allies, during which 147 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured. This temporarily halted the demonstrations but protesters returned to the streets on Oct. 24, after domestic and international pressure led to a pledge from security forces that they would not use live ammunition against demonstrators.
When the demonstrations resumed, protesters added a number of new demands, including the resignation of Abdul Mahdi’s government, changes to election law, early national parliamentary elections, and the formation of a new electoral commission.
Key Iraqi political forces, especially those backed by Iran, subsequently agreed to meet the demands of the demonstrators, with the exception of the resignation or removal of Abdul Mahdi and the holding of early elections. However, growing internal pressure from the supreme religious authority in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Al-Sistani, international pressure from the United Nations and other diplomatic missions in Baghdad, and the high number of fatalities plus an increase in kidnappings and arrests of activists and journalists forced them to reconsider the demands they had rejected.
The political factions signed a written agreement late on Monday, after weeks of intensive meetings, stating that they will meet most of the demands of protesters within 45 days. If they fail to do so by Jan. 1, the government will be dismissed and preparations will begin for early elections, politicians said.
Arab News has seen the agreement, which was prepared and signed by leaders of the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political alliances. It includes a number of “recommendations,” the most important of which are to “preserve the structure of the state and its democratic political system, and deepen the principle of peaceful transfer of power through constitutional mechanisms.”

BACKGROUND

• Widespread anti-government demonstrations began in Baghdad and nine Shiite-dominated southern provinces at the start of October.

As part of the obligation on Parliament and the government to implement the demands of the demonstrators within 45 days, a special court must be set up to deal with allegations of corruption and prosecute the guilty, regardless of political positions and affiliations.
Iraq ranks high on the list of the most corrupt countries. The political power-sharing system in the country, which has been in place since 2004, has contributed to the spread of financial and administrative corruption in all ministries and government institutions, and has helped to protect those involved in it.
The signed agreement also states that “political forces are committed to upholding court decisions and not covering up for corrupt officials.” They have pledged not to interfere in the work of ministries and state institutions, and to work on legislation and legal amendments designed to improve the political system and meet the demands of the protesters.
Changes to election laws and the Independent High Electoral Commission, including the removal of current commission members, are among the proposed legal amendments. In addition a law will be introduced to abolish the special privileges currently granted to senior politicians and officials.
The agreement states: “Political leaders express their full commitment and follow-up to these steps, and if the Parliament or the government is unable to achieve their tasks … within the agreed times (45 days), they (the prime minister and the speaker of the Parliament) are obliged to move, through their blocs in the Parliament, to alternative constitutional options to meet the demands of the people, by withdrawing confidence from the government or conducting early elections.”
The agreement was widely criticized by demonstrators and observers, who viewed it as the latest ruse by political groups to buy themselves some time in the hope that the protesters will despair and give up.
“What is contained in this agreement is an attempt to circumvent the demands of millions of demonstrators, and has nothing to do with their demands,” said Mohammed Al-Shimary, one of the protesters. “Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political forces have given Abdul Mahdi everything he needs to legitimize his repression of the demonstrations, and keep their own privileges and thefts.
“This agreement will not (persuade the protesters to give up) and any reasonable person knows for sure that what they have pledged could not be fulfilled in years, let alone 45 days.
“They are playing with fire and will pay for it soon.”

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Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

Updated 10 August 2020

Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

  • Death of three-year-old from injuries caused by August 4 explosions has brought grieving nation together
  • Outpouring of online tributes to Alexandra testified to the despair and anguish of Lebanese across the world

LONDON: In an ideal world, Alexandra Najjar should have been able to enjoy the rest of a pleasant Mediterranean summer with her family. Once the coronavirus outbreak in Lebanon had been tamed, she should have been able to experience her first day of school.

She would have made many new friends and begun to absorb all the knowledge that a three-year-old is capable of when they first enter kindergarten.

And as the days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years, Alexandra’s parents would have watched her grow into a young girl, enjoy life, dream big and perhaps achieve greatness in some field.

Alas, in the harsh real world of a crisis-wracked Lebanon, the dreams of Alexandra’s parents will remain just that.

Some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate haphazardly stored in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut exploded as Alexandra was playing with a friend on the evening of August 4, leaving her severely injured.

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters )

Shockwaves from that blast devastated Beirut, its streets blanketed in rubble and shards of glass with many of its residents caked in grey dust and crimson-red blood.

Three days later, after being in a critical condition in a hospital and suffering internal bleeding in her brain, Alexandra succumbed to her wounds.

“You killed us in our own home, in a place where I thought I could leave my family, protect my family . . . where if crimes are happening and we don’t have anything in this country, then at least we have our home where we can be safe,” said Paul Najjar, Alexandra’s grief-stricken father, in a TV interview on Saturday evening, assailing Lebanon’s leaders.

“What you did is a crime at the cost of our family that is so very united and this for me, at the most, is a crime at the cost of love because if there’s anything I should believe in, it’s this  — which was the foundation of our family, it still is and will continue to be so.”

 

As the pain of the Najjar family’s loss sank in, photos and videos of Alexandra — or “Alixou,” the name by which parents called her — began to be shared widely via social media platforms and WhatsApp groups, both in Lebanon and outside it.

Tributes poured in online, testifying to the despair and anguish Lebanese across the world felt in the aftermath of the explosions. Alexandra’s untimely death had put a human face on Beirut’s horrible tragedy.

In one of the pictures, Alexandra is seen sitting atop her father’s shoulders as he took part in a march during last year’s October 17 “revolution,” demanding an end to Lebanon’s twin bane of corruption and sectarianism.

The protesters were calling for a better world for all Lebanese — and a brighter future for Alexandra.

The captions accompanying the photos point to the impact of the Najjar family’s tragedy on the Lebanese people and diaspora.

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters)

“This is a photo of Alexandra protesting for a better Lebanon to remove the corrupt government and no one listened and now she’s in heaven,” former Miss USA Rima Fakih wrote below a post on Instagram.

Another caption says: “Alexandra, you are in each of our hearts and prayers today and always. Your death will not be in vain . . . we will make sure of it!”

Alexandra was one of the youngest victims of the Beirut explosions, whose human cost so far includes 150 deaths, nearly 6,000 injured and another 300,000 homeless.

After citizens and residents independently organized and cleaned up the streets and homes of the areas most affected by the blast’s impact, shock turned to anger.

“My message to the Lebanese is a message of unity,” Paul Najjar said in the interview. “They killed us — they didn’t kill Christians or Muslims or politically-affiliated or not politically-affiliated. There is none of this anymore — a message to all the people who are still following these people.

“Please, enough. We need to stand together. We need to stand united so that we can make the change, so we can revolt for the sake of Alexandra and every child and every family that wants to live in this country like we had hope for.”

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters)

Paul Najjar said he and his wife returned to Lebanon and set up a company in an effort to help the country.

“We had hope that we would help the country. We also hoped that Alixou would grow up in Lebanon,” he said.

On Saturday, thousands of Lebanese made their way to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square demanding accountability for the explosions, and the resignation of all government officials. Many of them carried nooses, which they used for symbolic hangings of Lebanon’s principal political actors, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The government responded by deploying riot police and the army, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to subdue similar protests in front of the parliament in Riad Al-Solh Square and the nearby Beirut Souks.

Lebanese Red Cross and the Islamic Emergency and Relief Corps figures showed that the clashes left 728 more Lebanese injured, of whom 153 were taken to hospital and 575 treated on site.

“For your information, rubber bullets could kill and cause permanent damage. If necessary, it should be aimed at legs only. Yesterday, and in one hospital, there were seven open surgical eyes and a ruptured abdominal spleen,” Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh, a former Minister of Health, said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, little light has been shed by the government on why such a huge quantity of a highly combustible chemical was stored next to the Beirut Port Silos building after being confiscated from a Russian-leased ship six years ago.

“The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb,” President Michel Aoun said on Friday.

Whatever the truth, UNICEF has warned that almost 80,000 of those displaced by the “incident” are children whose families are in desperate need of support. 

One children’s hospital in the Karantina area, which had a specialized unit treating critical newborns, was destroyed.

Across Beirut, at least 12 primary health care facilities, maternal, immunization and newborn centers have been damaged, disrupting services for nearly 120,000 people.

Against this grim backdrop, Paul Najjar and his wife are hoping that Alexandra’s death will not be in vain but will have a positive impact when the nation rebuilds itself.

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Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad