Tehran using violence and politics to push US out of Iraq, say experts

Tehran using violence and politics to push US out of Iraq, say experts
An Iraqi protester flashes the victory sign during a strike and anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 24 January 2020

Tehran using violence and politics to push US out of Iraq, say experts

Tehran using violence and politics to push US out of Iraq, say experts
  • A withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-US militias

BEIRUT: Iran has long sought the withdrawal of American forces from neighboring Iraq, but the US killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander in Baghdad has added new impetus to the effort, stoking anti-American feelings that Tehran hopes to exploit to help realize the goal.

The Jan. 3 killing has led Iraq’s parliament to call for the ouster of US troops, but there are many lingering questions over whether Iran will be able to capitalize on the sentiment.

An early test will be a “million-man” demonstration against the American presence, called for by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and scheduled for Friday.

It is not clear whether the protesters will try to recreate a New Year’s Eve attack on the US Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militias in the wake of US airstrikes that killed 25 militiamen along the border with Syria. Iran might simply try to use the march to telegraph its intention to keep up the pressure on US troops in Iraq.

But experts say Iran can be counted on to try to seize what it sees as an opportunity to push its agenda in Iraq, despite an ongoing mass uprising that is targeting government corruption as well as Iranian influence in the country.

“Iran is unconstrained by considerations of Iraqi sovereignty, domestic public opinion, or legality when compared to the Western democracies,” said David Des Roches, an expert with The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “This is Iran’s strategic advantage; they should be expected to press it.”

A withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-US militias that carry out attacks, as well as exerting political pressure on Iraqi lawmakers sympathetic to its cause. Despite usually trying to keep attacks at a level below what might provoke an American response, Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets at a military base in Kirkuk in December, killing a US contractor and wounding several US and Iraqi troops.

The US responded first with deadly airstrikes on Iran-affiliated militia bases in western Iraq and Syria, then followed with the Jan. 3 drone attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military officer, along with Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis as they left Baghdad’s airport.

The severity of the US response surprised Iran and others, and it had the unanticipated result of bolstering Tehran’s political approach by prompting the Iraqi parliament to pass the resolution calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country. 

In response, President Donald Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq.

“What they want to do is get rid of US troops in what they see as a legitimate political manner,” said Dina Esfandiary, a London-based expert with The Century Foundation think tank. “If Iraqis themselves are voting out US troops, it looks a lot better for Iran than if Iran is a puppet master in Iraq trying to get rid of them — and on top of that it would be a more lasting decision.”

The legitimacy of the resolution is a matter of dispute. Not only was the session boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers and many Sunnis, but there also are questions of whether Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has the ability to carry it out. Abdul Mahdi resigned in November amid mass anti-government protests but remains in a caretaker role.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bluntly rejected the call for the troops’ removal, instead saying Washington would “continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is.”

Abdul Mahdi strongly supported the resolution, but since then has said it will be up to the next government to deal with the issue, and there are indications he has been working behind the scenes to help keep foreign troops in the country.

After closed-door meetings with German diplomats last week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the prime minister had assured them that he had “great interest” in keeping the Bundeswehr military contingent and others part of the anti-Daesh coalition in Iraq.

The US, meantime, said it had resumed joint operations with Iraqi forces, albeit on a more limited basis than before.

Trump met Iraqi President Barham Saleh on Wednesday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and said Washington and Baghdad have had “a very good relationship” and that the two countries had a “host of very difficult things to discuss.” Saleh said they have shared common interests including the fight against extremism, regional stability and an independent Iraq.

Asked about the plan for US troops in Iraq, Trump said, “We’ll see what happens.”

In a sign that bodes well for NATO’s continuing mission in the country, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister went to Brussels last week for talks with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on the alliance’s presence in Iraq.

The mixed message of publicly calling for the troops to go but privately wanting them to stay is an indication of Iran’s strong influence, particularly among its fellow Shiite Muslims, Des Roches said.

“For any Iraqi politician in Baghdad — particularly a Shia politician — to defy Iran openly is to risk political as well as physical death,” he said. “So we shouldn’t be surprised if the public and the private lines espoused by Iraqi politicians differ.”

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle Daesh after the extremist group seized vast areas in the north and west of the country. A US-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces, including Iran-backed militias, regrouped and drove Daesh out in a costly three-year campaign. There are currently some 5,200 American troops in the country.

Even before the drone strike, there were growing calls in nationwide protests across sectarian lines, which started in October centered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, for the end of all foreign influence in the country. The demonstrations also targeted government corruption and poor public services.

The rejection of Iranian influence over Iraqi state affairs has been a core component of the movement, and pro-Iranian militias have targeted those demonstrations along with Iraqi security forces, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Protesters fear that with the focus on the push for the US troop withdrawal in response to the attack that killed Soleimani, they may be even easier targets for those forces and that their message will be lost.

“I think Iraq has had enough of having to deal with the Americans and the Iranians alike,” Esfandiary said. “But the assassination of Al-Muhandis, almost more so than Solemani, was such a glaring oversight of sovereignty and of all agreements they had signed on to with the US in terms of the US presence in Iraq, that it has kind of taken some of the attention away from Iran, to Tehran’s delight.”

Friday’s march called for by Al-Sadr is expected to redirect the focus onto the US troops. The cleric, who also leads the Sairoon bloc in parliament, derives much of his political capital through grassroots mobilization.

The Tahrir Square protesters initially rejected that call, saying they want the escalating conflict between Iran and the US off of Iraqi soil.

Since then, Al-Sadr has reached out to them directly, saying the demonstrations against the government and against the American troops are “two lights from a single lamp,” and it is not yet clear whether that might convince them to participate in the march.


Yemen launches first round of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
Updated 21 April 2021

Yemen launches first round of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
  • The 12-day campaign was launched in the temporary capital Aden and 13 Yemeni governorates
  • The campaign aims to reach 317,363 people in 133 districts

RIYADH: Yemen launched the first round of its COVID-19 inoculation campaign on Tuesday in the temporary capital, Aden.
The campaign is supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief).
Yemeni Minister of Public Health and Population Qasim Buhaibeh, Minister of Civil Service and Insurance Abdul Nasser Al-Wali, Governor of Aden Ahmed Hamed Lamlas, Yemen’s representative for UNICEF Philippe Duamelle, and director of the WHO office in Aden Noha Mahmoud all received the vaccine in a show of support, Saba News Agency reported.
Yemen received 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 31, part of a consignment from COVAX expected to total 1.9 million doses this year.
Buhaibeh said this was the first step toward reaching the ministry’s goal of administering 12 million vaccines by the end of the year, urging doctors, the elderly and those with chronic diseases to register to receive the jab.
Duamelle said frontline workers, the elderly and those with certain health problems would be prioritized.
“The launch of the campaign against the coronavirus is an important day in Yemen’s history,” he said, adding that the health minister and other ministers have taken the vaccination confirming its safety.
The 12-day campaign aims to reach 317,363 people in 133 districts across 13 Yemeni governorates under the control of the internationally recognized government.
There has been a dramatic spike in coronavirus infections in Yemen since mid-February, further straining a health system battered by the conflict.
The government’s health ministry has previously said the COVAX vaccines will be free, and distributed across the country. COVAX is co-led by the Gavi Vaccine Alliance and the WHO to provide COVID vaccines to low-income countries.
Tuesday’s rollout covered only government-held parts of the country, said Ishraq Al-Seba’ei who is with the government’s emergency coronavirus committee. But she said 10,000 doses were being sent to Sanaa via the WHO.
Yemen’s emergency coronavirus committee registered 42 confirmed cases and six deaths on Tuesday. It has recorded 5,858 coronavirus infections and 1,132 deaths so far though the true figure is widely thought to be much higher as the war has restricted COVID-19 testing.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia, which controls the capital Sanaa and much of the north have provided no figures since a couple of cases last May.
Meanwhile, KSrelief said it has provided support for protection projects within Saudi Arabia’s grant for the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan 2020. 
The center cooperated with UNICEF to provide protection services by enabling children and their families to access psychosocial support and mental health services, totaling $4 million.
(With Reuters)


Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad

A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 20 April 2021

Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad

A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Natanz nuclear plant sabotage lays bare vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of own population
  • Analysts say Tehran’s tepid response is a sign of its desperation for sanctions relief above all else

LONDON: Analysts have said that the blast that struck Iran’s most critical nuclear facility on April 11 is another significant event in a decades-long shadow war between Tehran and its regional adversary Israel.

They say the sabotage has not only exposed Iran’s vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of its own population, but its tepid response has revealed its desperation for sanctions relief above all else.

Unnamed intelligence officials from Mossad told Israeli media and the New York Times last week that the mysterious Natanz explosion was their handiwork. And, according to Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, it is a continuation of the spate of blasts, blackouts, and fires that swept across the Islamic Republic last year — but with one major difference.

“What has changed from last year is how public it is. (Israel) is ready to take responsibility. From a shadow war it has moved to the forefront,” Mekelberg told Arab News.

“This confrontation has been taking place for two decades now, at least. Cyberattacks, assassinations of scientists, attacks on ships — this is something that is ongoing. What you have seen in the last year or so is that it is becoming open, from covert to overt.”

In the past year alone, Iran has been rocked by a relentless series of attacks, assassinations, and sabotages. The country’s top nuclear scientist was killed in a sophisticated attack.

Their entire nuclear archives were stolen and smuggled out of the country, and nuclear, military, and logistics sites across the country have suffered from a series of mysterious setbacks.

An image grab from footage obtained from Iranian State TV IRIB on April 17, 2021 shows the portrait of a man identified as 43-year-old Reza Karimi, saying the intelligence ministry had established his role in last week's "sabotage" on the Natanz nuclear facility. (AFP/File Photo)

According to Mekelberg, these incidents have not only hindered Iran’s economy and nuclear program, but also exposed a fundamental weakness in the regime.

“They have a real issue inside their nuclear program,” he said. “The idea that their top scientist, they couldn’t protect him, and that someone managed to take your nuclear archives out of the country — that is not something you can simply put in your pocket.”

Iranian state television named 43-year-old Iranian national Reza Karimi as the prime suspect in the April sabotage — but said he had already fled the country in the hours before the blast occurred.

Mekelberg and other experts believe the involvement of an Iranian national is indicative of the regime’s core vulnerability: Turncoats within its population, and even within the nuclear program itself.

INNUMBERS

Iranian oil

* $40 - Price per barrel of oil used in Iran’s budget calculations.

* 300,000 - Estimated oil exports in barrels per day (bpd) in 2020.

* 2.8m - Iranian oil exports in bpd in 2018.

“They have a real issue with security. I assume that the more things like this happen, the more paranoid they become about who they can trust, who is working with foreign agencies. Obviously, someone is,” Mekelberg said.

Olli Heinonen, a non-proliferation expert and distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, believes the sophistication of the Natanz attack means there is little doubt that local collaborators from within the regime enabled it.

“Those who have designed and executed these actions have insider information and highly likely local contributors,” Heinonen told Arab News.

This handout satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on January 8, 2020 shows an overview of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital Tehran. (AFP/Maxar/File Photo)

Like Mekelberg, Heinonen highlighted Iran’s apparent ineptitude in defending even its most critical nuclear facilities and pointed to the stark contrast between the country’s record and another global pariah state’s nuclear program.

“It is worth noting that we have not heard about similar incidents in North Korea,” he said. “It is evident that the (Iranian) security forces have not been able to protect the assets as the leadership had expected.

“This does not come as a surprise. Not all Iranians, including technical professionals, buy the reasonability of the enrichment efforts, the investments for which could be used better elsewhere, even within the nuclear program.”

Tehran has admitted that the attacks caused serious damage at the Natanz facility. Last week, Alireza Zakani, a regime hardliner who heads the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in an interview on state television.

A handout picture released by the official website of Iran's Revolutionary Guard on August 25, 2014, shows an alleged Israeli drone that was shot down above the Natanz uranium enrichment site. (AFP/File Photo)

“From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee said. “They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

Heinonen said the attacks have “certainly slowed production” of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is above the enrichment level needed for nuclear power, but far below the 90 percent required for weapons-grade uranium.

However, he cautioned that production could begin to ramp up again within three months of the attack, and Tehran’s promise to begin enriching uranium to 60 percent in response to the attack could act as a springboard toward rapid development of a nuclear bomb.

“In a short term (60 percent enrichment) does not contribute much to breakout time, but it demonstrates the fact that uranium enrichment is mainly designed to build a nuclear latency; to be in a position to relaunch in short interval a full nuclear weapon acquisition program, if such a decision is made,” he said.

The response to the attacks is part of a delicate balancing act by Tehran, according to Nader Di Michele, an Iran-focused analyst at political risk consultancy Prelia.

This handout powerpoint slide provided by U.S. Central Command damage shows an explosion (L) and a likely limpet mine can be seen on the hull of the civilian vessel M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“They do not want escalations but the government has to show a response in terms of its foreign policy. That could be aimed at international actors or even its domestic population,” he told Arab News.

Beyond increasing uranium enrichment, it was reported that unknown actors targeted an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the following days. However, Di Michele thinks the damage caused by that attack was, by design, minimal compared with the devastation caused by the Natanz attack.

“There always has to be a response to these attacks, but I think the Iranian delegation understands that there is a limit to what they can do if they want sanctions relief.”

Di Michele said if the ongoing negotiations in Vienna prompt a lifting of sanctions and release of various assets that, in turn, deliver a financial boost to the regime, “we can never be sure what proportion of that would go to support which activities.”

He added: “It can be assumed that a proportion of those assets released would go toward foreign policy activities. What those entail, I couldn’t speculate on.”

---------------

Twitter: @CHamillStewart


Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started -data

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started -data
Updated 20 April 2021

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started -data

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started -data
  • Turkey registered its highest daily toll of 346 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday
  • Total cases stood at 4,384,624 while the total death toll rose to 36,613

ISTANBUL: Turkey recorded 346 deaths from COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Tuesday, registering the highest daily death toll since the beginning of the pandemic.
The data also showed the country recorded 61,028 new coronavirus cases in the same period.
The total number of cases stood at 4,384,624 while the total death toll rose to 36,613, according to the data.
Turkey currently ranks fourth globally in the number of daily cases based on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.


Defiant Lebanese judge referred to Judicial Inspection Authority

Defiant Lebanese judge referred to Judicial Inspection Authority
Ghada Aoun. (Photo/Twitter)
Updated 21 April 2021

Defiant Lebanese judge referred to Judicial Inspection Authority

Defiant Lebanese judge referred to Judicial Inspection Authority
  • Ghada Aoun has six criminal cases and 28 complaints against her
  • Judge Ghada Aoun had been investigating the Mecattaf money exchange company and Societe Generale Bank for allegedly withdrawing US dollars from the market and shipping the funds abroad

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge who defied a decision dismissing her from an investigation into possible currency export breaches was Tuesday referred to the Judicial Inspection Authority over her actions.

Judge Ghada Aoun had been investigating the Mecattaf money exchange company and Societe Generale Bank for allegedly withdrawing US dollars from the market and shipping the funds abroad.

She staged two raids on a currency exchange earlier this month, defying a decision from Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat to dismiss her from the case. There have been six criminal cases and 28 complaints filed against Aoun.

Lebanon’s Supreme Judicial Council met the judge on Tuesday, deciding to refer her to the authority and asking it to take the necessary measures.

“Any investigation or judicial case will be followed up to the end by the competent judiciary whoever the judge may be and regardless of any considerations outside of the judicial framework,” the council said, emphasizing that judicial authority was exercised by all judges. “It is their responsibility to preserve and protect it, abide by their oath and not mix between their duty and issues that do not come in line with the nature of proper judicial work.”

Aoun’s actions gained political traction when she was accompanied on one of the raids by supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the political party led by MP Gebran Bassil.   

A number of FPM supporters accompanied Aoun on Tuesday to the vicinity of the Justice Palace in Beirut.

They waited for her on the street while she attended the council session, which lasted for 40 minutes and took place amid strict security measures taken by the army and Internal Security Forces.

On Monday, rival protests had to be broken up after fighting erupted between those who supported her and those who did not.

The conflict between Aoun and Oweidat temporarily diverted attention away from the months-long political deadlock that has stopped a new government from being formed.

But the involvement of FPM supporters has angered some, who said the judge was being used as a tool to settle political scores.

The council downplayed the idea that there was a dispute, judicial or political.

“What happened is not a dispute between those who want to fight corruption and hold the corrupt accountable, and those who do not want to and are preventing it, or a conflict between the prosecutor general and the region public prosecutor. It definitely is not a political dispute between two parties, as some are portraying it.”

The council said it had asked the Court of Cassation’s Public Prosecutor and the head of the Judicial Inspection Authority to take the necessary measures, each within his jurisdiction, regarding her actions, to listen to her before the council due to her “violation of the obligation to exercise reserve, recurrent failure to meet the commitments she expressed before the council, and refusal to come to the Cassation Public Prosecution.”

Its statement also referred to Aoun’s “positions and actions” following Oweidat’s decision, in which he amended the distribution of work at Mount Lebanon Public Prosecution.

The council’s term ends in June and it tried, through the position it adopted on Tuesday, to save face due to the judiciary’s image suffering in the past few days.

 


Gaza Strip’s Karmousa Kitchen offers Ramadan delicacies

Gaza Strip’s Karmousa Kitchen offers Ramadan delicacies
Women shared the work among themselves, with each group undertaking a specific task that they must finish in the shortest period of time. (Supplied)
Updated 20 April 2021

Gaza Strip’s Karmousa Kitchen offers Ramadan delicacies

Gaza Strip’s Karmousa Kitchen offers Ramadan delicacies
  • Karmousa, named after an Algerian delicacy, relies on social media platforms to promote and market its products

GAZA: Warda Erbee and other women are busy preparing Ramadan foods and sweets in a Gaza Strip kitchen.

Erbee and her colleagues work in Karmousa Kitchen, from the Baraem Development Association, for about seven hours a day to cater for the increased demand during the fasting month.

Erbee, who joined the team in 2017, became the main breadwinner for her family after her husband lost his job due to the pandemic.

She works every day, from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m.

“We work throughout the year at a normal pace, but work increases significantly in the blessed month of Ramadan as the demand is greater for items related to this month, specifically the kubba and sambousak,” she said.

The kitchen’s stand-out offering the rest of the year is the maftool, which is made from wheat or white flour and has earned the satisfaction and admiration of customers.

Karmousa, named after an Algerian delicacy, relies on social media platforms to promote and market its products.

The goal of the Baraem Development Association when launching this project was to help marginalized women cope with poor living conditions.

Kitchen manager Khetam Arafat said that while work did not stop throughout the year, its production doubled during Ramadan and provided additional job opportunities for poor women.

Women shared the work among themselves, with each group undertaking a specific task that they must finish in the shortest period of time.

They need to maintain high levels of accuracy and quality to meet the demands of customers, maintain the position of their products in the market and compete with other factories and kitchens.

According to Arafat, the kitchen’s most famous products are the vegetable and cheese-stuffed sambousak and the Syrian kibbeh made of bulgur and stuffed with minced meat.

“Preparing for Ramadan begins days before in order to meet the demands received by the kitchen and to produce large quantities of items that are in high demand and consumption during this month.”

Despite the emergency conditions resulting from the pandemic, Arafat believed that the demand for Ramadan appetizers and sweets was in line with the annual average.

“Because of an increase in demand this year, the number of female workers has doubled from five to 10, and the number depends on the quality and quantity of the orders.”

From the middle of Ramadan until its end, work in Karmousa is focused on making cakes and maamoul, which are sweets associated with Eid Al-Fitr.

But Arafat feared that an increase in COVID-19 infections in Gaza may lead to a comprehensive closure and inflict heavy losses on the kitchen and all economic sectors.