KARBALA, BAGHDAD: Iraq’s top Shiite cleric on Friday condemned recent deadly attacks on anti-government demonstrators, chastising security forces for not doing more to prevent violence in protest squares across the country.
Eight demonstrators were killed this week in attacks on protest camps by supporters of populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, including in Najaf — home to Iraq’s Shiite religious leadership.
In his weekly sermon delivered by a representative, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani condemned the bloodshed as “painful and unfortunate” and said state security forces are “indispensable” to keeping the country from “falling into the abyss of chaos.”
“There is no justification for them to stop fulfilling their duties in this regard, or for anyone to stop them from doing so,” Sistani said.
“They must bear responsibility for maintaining security and stability, protecting peaceful protesters and their gathering places, revealing the identities of aggressors and infiltrators, and protecting the interests of citizens from the attacks of saboteurs.”
Sistani’s sermon appeared to have buoyed the demonstrators in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. “I was watching, afraid that he would be too general and it would allow for more suppression of the protests,” said one activist who gave his name only as Ali.
“But he was able to deliver a message: He accepts only the official security forces, no ‘blue caps’ or anyone else.”
In Diwaniyah further south, demonstrator Mohammad Al-Bulani said the sermon showed Sistani’s support for the protest movement. “He is the only one that has stood with our demands and defended us,” he said.
Nearly 550 Iraqis have been killed in protest-related violence since demonstrations erupted in the capital and southern cities in October, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said.
Iraq’s Health Ministry confirmed the first protester shot dead on Oct. 1 but clammed up thereafter. The commission has since repeatedly complained that authorities declined its requests for information on deaths, injuries and arrests.
The commission, which is government-funded but operates independently, became the only source for death tolls until it too faced pressure last year to stop reporting.
It has resumed its public reporting and on Friday shared its latest statistics with the media, showing that 543 people have been killed since October, including 276 in Baghdad alone.
Seventeen members of the security forces are among the dead nationwide. The remaining are all protesters or activists, including 22 who were assassinated.
Up to 30,000 more have been wounded during the rallies, according to medical sources.
How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen
Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe
Updated 21 September 2020
AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.
It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.
Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.
The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”
When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.
Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.
45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer
1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker
During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.
The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.
The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.
In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.
In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.
As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”
In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.
Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.
“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”
Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.
“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.
For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.
But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.