Iraq PM announces resignation after call from top Shiite cleric, Friday’s death toll rises

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The country's top Shiite cleric called for a cabinet change amid deadly protests. (File/AFP)
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Security forces try to disperse anti-government protesters during clashes in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. (AP)
Updated 30 November 2019

Iraq PM announces resignation after call from top Shiite cleric, Friday’s death toll rises

  • Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would submit his resignation to parliament
  • Al-Sistani earlier urged parliament to considering withdrawing its support for Abdul Mahdi's government

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation on Friday after the country’s senior Shiite cleric urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for a government rocked by weeks of deadly anti-establishment unrest.

Violence raged on in southern Iraq, however, killing at least 21 people, and protesters continued a thousands-strong sit-in at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad.

Young, unemployed and unarmed protesters have led calls for a rehaul of a political system they say is endemically corrupt and serves foreign powers, especially Baghdad’s ally Tehran.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi could be a blow for Iranian influence after Iran’s militia allies and its own commanders intervened last month to keep the premier in place despite mass anti-government unrest.

“In response to this (the cleric’s) call, and in order to facilitate it as quickly as possible, I will present to Parliament a demand (to accept) my resignation from the leadership of the current government,” a statement signed by Abdul Mahdi said.

The statement did not say when he would resign. Parliament is to convene an emergency session on Sunday to discuss the crisis.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani earlier urged Parliament to consider withdrawing its support for Abdul Mahdi’s government to stem spiralling violence.

Abdel Mahdi would be the first prime minister to step down since Iraq became a parliamentary system following the US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Jubilation

Protesters celebrated the imminent departure of Abdul Mahdi, but said they would not stop their demonstrations until the whole of the political class was removed. Violence continued in southern Iraq.

“Abdul Mahdi’s resignation is just the beginning. We’ll stay in the streets until the entire government has gone, and all the rest of the corrupt politicians,” said Mustafa Hafidh, a protester at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.

“It’s not enough,” said Ali Al-Sayeda, another demonstrator. “We need them all out, root and branch. We can’t let up the pressure.”

"It's our first victory, and we're hoping for many more," shouted one demonstrator in Tahrir, as patriotic tunes blasted from the motorized rickshaws used to ferry casualties from the square.

Nearby, protesters occupying a gutted 18-storey building that has become a symbol of the uprising could be seen dancing and pumping their fists in the air. But despite their joy, many said the premier's resignation did not go far enough.

"We won't leave the square until every last one of those corrupt people resigns," said another demonstrator in a black shirt.

"Weed them all out. Every single one."




Anti-government protesters shoot fireworks in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, on Nov. 29, 2019 to celebrate following an announcement that Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi would be resigning.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Massacre in Nassiriya

Security forces meanwhile shot dead at least 21 people in the southern city of Nassiriya after protesters tried to storm a local police headquarters, hospital sources said. In Najaf, unidentified armed men shot live rounds at demonstrators sending dozens scattering.

Iraqi forces have killed at least 435 people, mostly young, unarmed demonstrators since mass protests broke out on Oct. 1. More than a dozen members of the security forces have also died in clashes.

Iraq’s “enemies and their apparatuses are trying to sow chaos and infighting to return the country to the age of dictatorship ... everyone must work together to thwart that opportunity,” Al-Sistani said.

The US called on Iraqi leaders to address the “legitimate” grievances of protesters. “We share the protesters’ legitimate concerns,” a State Department spokeswoman said.

“We continue to urge the government of Iraq to advance the reforms demanded by the people, including those that address unemployment, corruption and electoral reform,” she said.

The UN's top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said the deaths "cannot be tolerated".

The previous day had been one of the bloodiest yet, with 44 demonstrators killed and nearly 1,000 wounded in Baghdad and across the south.

That came after protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in Najaf late Wednesday, accusing the neighbouring country of propping up Iraq's government.

Tehran demanded Iraq take decisive action against the protesters, saying it was "disgusted" by developments.

 

"We want all the parties to go"

In response, Abdel Mahdi ordered military chiefs to deploy in several provinces to "impose security and restore order" — but the result was the opposite. Men in civilian clothes opened fire at demonstrators, tribal fighters deployed in the streets and military commanders.

As the death toll surged, governors and police chiefs resigned and Abdel Mahdi sacked a senior military commander. On Friday, demonstrators encircled a Nasiriyah police station and torched five police cars.

And in Najaf, where 16 people died the previous day, new clashes erupted between protesters and armed men dressed in civilian clothes. As in Baghdad, demonstrators in the south did not appear satisfied with Abdel Mahdi's resignation.




Iraqi anti-government protesters carry away an injured comrade amid clashes with security forces by the capital Baghdad's Rasheed street near al-Ahrar bridge on Nov. 29, 2019. (AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

"Our problem isn't the prime minister -- we want all the parties to go!" one man told AFP in Diwaniyah.

Since October 1, Baghdad and the south have been rocked by the most widespread street unrest in decades, demanding an overhaul of the ruling elite and reforms to root out corruption, end unemployment and improve infrastructure. The demonstrations initially shook Abdel Mahdi, who came to power last October after a strained alliance between the two largest parliamentary blocs, Saeroon and Fatah.

The protests divided them, with Fatah backing the premier while Saeroon leader and firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr called for him to resign. But they closed ranks around the cabinet following a deal brokered by top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.

The tide turned again this week, culminating with Sistani's dramatic intervention. For weeks, the 89-year-old cleric had called for restraint and urged parties to get "serious" about reform. But he ramped up his demands on Friday.

"The parliament, from which this current government is drawn, is asked to reconsider its choice in this regard," he said in his weekly sermon. Within minutes, Saeroon as well as MP and former premier Haider al-Abadi had called for a vote of no-confidence.

The Fatah bloc called for "the necessary changes in the interests of Iraq".

Parliament is set to meet on Sunday and if it drops its support for the government, the cabinet would remain in place as caretakers until the president names a new premier. Iraq's constitution, drafted in 2005, does not include a provision for the resignation of the premier, so his intention to submit a letter to parliament would trigger a no-confidence vote.

The country is OPEC's second-largest crude producer but one in five Iraqis lives in poverty and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, according to the World Bank.


British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

Updated 21 January 2020

British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

  • Palestinian envoy welcomes cross-party call ahead of visit by Prince Charles

LONDON: A group of British MPs has called for the UK to recognize the state of Palestine ahead of a visit by Prince Charles to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

In a letter to The Times, the MPs, along with figures from think tanks and pressure groups, said the move was long overdue and would help fulfill Britain’s “promise of equal rights for peoples in two states.” 

The call comes as the heir to the British throne travels on Thursday to Israel and the occupied West Bank. 

During the visit, he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem. 

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

The letter said since 2014, no meaningful progress has been made in the peace process, and Israel’s actions are pushing a two-state solution beyond reach.

“Illegal Israeli settlements, described by the Foreign Office as undermining peace efforts, are expanding,” the letter said.

Among the signatories are Emily Thornberry, a candidate for the Labour Party leadership, and Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council.

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the UK, welcomed the move but said full recognition from the British government should have happened many years ago.

“Recognition doesn’t contradict peacemaking and negotiations,” Zomlot told Arab News, referring to the main argument used by the UK against taking such a step. 

“It reinforces the vision (of a Palestinian state) and a negotiated two-state solution. It should happen now because of the threat of annexation (of Palestinian territory) and the killing of the two-state solution.”

FASTFACT

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP who signed the letter, told Arab News that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government toward Palestine “makes the achievement of a two-state solution more and more remote with every week that passes.”

He said: “The UK has historic and political obligations toward Israelis and Palestinians. There’s now no longer any good reason not to recognize the state of Palestine.”

A spokesman for Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, who also signed the letter, told Arab News: “The fact that this has cross-party support shows the growing desire across Parliament for the recognition of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the international community needs to finally stand up for the solution that it has had on the table for decades.

Doyle, an Arab News columnist, said the letter is an “indication that many people in British politics think we should be doing this, we should be standing up for the Palestinian right to self-determination, the legal rights, at a time when the state of Israel is doing everything to stop this, to take more land from the Palestinians.”

The letter was timed to coincide with a meeting of European foreign ministers on Monday, who discussed the Middle East peace process.

The Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank, has been increasing calls for European countries to recognize the state of Palestine as the US has shifted to a more pro-Israel stance, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Europe could strengthen its role in the peace process if it recognized Palestine.

“European recognition of this state is not only a European responsibility but a concrete way to move towards a just and lasting peace,” he said.

Only nine out of the 28 EU countries have so far recognized Palestine as a state, compared to 138 out of the 193 UN member states.

In 2011, the UK’s then-Foreign Minister William Hague said the British government “reserves the right” to recognize Palestine “at a time of our own choosing, and when it can best serve the cause of peace.”

In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status to that of “nonmember observer state.”