Iraqis protest to defy ‘slaughter’ in Baghdad as drone hits cleric’s home

Demonstrators carry a large banner that says in Arabic ‘peaceful, not destructive’ as they take part in an anti-government demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on December 6, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 08 December 2019

Iraqis protest to defy ‘slaughter’ in Baghdad as drone hits cleric’s home

  • A drone dropped a bomb on the home of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr in the shrine city of Najaf early Saturday but he was not in the country
  • Iraqi President Barham Salih said criminal gangs were behind the killing of demonstrators on Friday

BAGHDAD: Thousands attended angry protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq Saturday, grieving but defiant after 20 of them were killed in an attack the previous day that demonstrators described as "slaughter".
The protest movement faced another worrying turn on Saturday after an armed drone targeted the home of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, an attack his office said could lead to "civil war."
The dramatic developments have threatened to derail the anti-government rallies rocking Iraq since October, the largest and deadliest grassroots movement in decades.
Late Friday, at least 20 protesters were killed or sustained wounds that later proved fatal, while dozens more were injured, when unidentified gunmen attacked a large building where protesters had camped out for weeks, medics said.
Four police officers also died, the medics said, with witnesses saying gunshots were fired in the dark from atop the building towards Al-Sinek, where security forces are stationed.
The toll rose throughout the day on Saturday as wounded demonstrators and police officers died in hospital.
The violence pushed the protest toll past 450 dead and to nearly 20,000 wounded, according to an AFP tally compiled from medics, police and a national rights commission.
Under stormy skies, young men in central Baghdad prayed over an Iraqi flag to mourn those who died the previous night, sobbing heavily.
Small clusters of protesters stood near the charred parking complex that was attacked, as larger crowds flocked to nearby Tahrir Square.
"They fired intensely, mercilessly on the protesters," one witness told AFP.
"They wouldn't let us evacuate the wounded. It was slaughter."
As night fell on Saturday, protesters feared the same scene would play out again.
"The same type of men who came in last night are back and police are not stopping them," one worried demonstrator told AFP.
Protesters had suspected their movement's legitimacy would be smeared or pushed towards chaos and were particularly wary of any partisan support.
After Friday's attack, large crowds headed to Tahrir in solidarity - many of them apparently members of Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), headed by Al-Sadr.
The notoriously versatile cleric was one of the main sponsors of the current government but then backed the protests.
He sent his followers into the streets after Friday's attack "to protect protesters," a Saraya source told AFP.
But just a few hours later, Sadr's home in the shrine city of Najaf was hit by an apparent mortar round dropped by a drone, sources from his party told AFP.
"Only the external wall was damaged," one of them said, adding that Al-Sadr was currently in Iran.
Dozens of his supporters flocked to his home on Saturday to show support, waving Iraqi flags and the cleric's picture while chanting, "We are all your soldiers!"
"This is a clear attack that could kindle a war - maybe a civil war - in Iraq. Self-restraint is essential," Sadr's spokesman Salah Al-Obeidi told AFP.
Lawmakers from Sadr's Saeroon, which make up the largest bloc in parliament, called for an emergency session over Friday's violence.
The tensions continued into Saturday, when truckloads of armed men briefly blocked a main road near Tahrir, firing their weapons and shouting, witnesses said.
Army units then deployed on the street.
Further south in Nasiriyah, the usual rallies swelled with crowds also upset over the previous night's developments, an AFP correspondent said.
"We are coming in solidarity with Baghdad," one said.
In Diwaniyah, another protest hotspot, thousands turned out early on Saturday but security forces, too, deployed in larger numbers.
In the first comment on the Friday incident from a senior official, President Barham Saleh called on authorities to "identify the criminals and bring them to justice".
The Kurdistan region's president later described the deaths as "unjustified crimes" and said they were "unacceptable."
The United Nations said "acts of violence that are gang-driven, arising from external loyalties, politically motivated or intended to settle scores, risk placing Iraq on a dangerous trajectory,"
Amnesty International said the attack "raises serious questions as to how heavily-armed gunmen in a fleet of vehicles were seemingly able to pass through Baghdad's checkpoints and inflict such a bloody onslaught."
The country has a complex security apparatus including the military, various police forces and the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a mostly Shiite network including factions backed by Iran.
Tehran's pointman on Iraq, Major General Qasem Soleimani, has been in Baghdad for talks on a new prime minister after Adel Abdel Mahdi's recent resignation.
The US on Friday slammed Soleimani's presence as "a huge violation of Iraqi sovereignty."
It also slapped sanctions on three Iraqi Hashed leaders it accused of involvement in the deadly crackdown.


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.”