Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor

Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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A Lebanese protester sits in front of riot police in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020, as anger over a spiralling economic crisis re-energised a months-old anti-government movement in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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Syrian refugees walk out of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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Syrian refugees watch as sanitation workers spray disinfectant near a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon on March 22, 2020 amid the spread of COVID-19. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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A Lebanese protester, wearing a protective mask bearing a fist (the sign of the anti-government movement), is pictured during a demonstration in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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Lebanese demonstrators chant anti-government slogans outside central bank headquarters in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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Syrian refugees look from the window of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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Syrian refugees look from the windows of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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Syrian refugees stand in the balcony of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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Palestinian tailors make protective face masks with the patterns of the Kaffiyeh, the chequered scarf that is worn by Palestinians to symbolise struggle, at a workshop in the refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh, south of the Lebanese capital Beirut on March 27, 2020. (AFP)
Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
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Lebanese demonstrators chant anti-government slogans while they walk through the streets of the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 01 August 2020

Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor

Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor
  • Protests resume as food prices soar, currency weakens and coronavirus strains the health system
  • Lebanese pound dropped to record lows on the ‘black market” last week, reaching 4,200 to the dollar

DUBAI: As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the wealth and health of nations, one small Levantine country in particular has its work cut out.

A “revolution of the hungry people” is convulsing Lebanon as food prices skyrocket and the value of the pound plummets, trapping 6.8 million people between economic ruin and political chaos.

Almost every day, demonstrators across the country are defying the COVID-19 lockdowns to vent their fury over the worsening situation.




A protester, wearing a face mask with the colours of the Lebanese flag, takes part in an anti-government demonstration in a vehicle convoy in the capital Beirut on April 22, 2020. (AFP

They are braving bullets to burn tires to block roads in protest against the ruling elite’s handling of the crisis.

To all intents, the street protests that kicked off in October 2019 have made a comeback as people look for ways to make their voices heard despite the exigencies of the health emergency.

Some protesters in the capital Beirut have attempted to maintain social distance by holding protests in their vehicles and wearing medical masks.




A Lebanese protester smashes the facade of a bank at Al-Nour square following the funeral of a fellow protester in Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli, on April 28, 2020. (AFP)

A number of commercial stores and supermarkets on Monday joined Lebanon’s long list of shuttered businesses – victims of the relentless erosion of people’s purchasing power.

The pound has been on the slide since October in tandem with a financial crisis that has driven up the prices of essential items beyond the reach of the average Lebanese.

Lebanese banks have responded to the challenge by setting an exchange rate that is more than 50 percent weaker than the currency’s official pegged rate and locking depositors out of their US-dollar savings.

A number of money exchange shops have been ordered to close for not abiding by the country’s Central Bank rules of selling and buying US dollars at 3,200 Lebanese pounds.

The pound (or lira) dropped to record lows on the black market last week, reaching 4,200 to the dollar before currency dealers went on strike.

The dismal outlook has been made worse by the COVID-19 outbreak, the impact of which is almost impossible to estimate despite the precautionary measures taken by the government.




A Lebanese policeman reacts as his jeep is engulfed in flames during clashes between protesters and Lebanese soldiers in the northern port city of Tripoli on April 28, 2020. (AFP)

“The government’s uncoordinated and inadequate response to the pandemic has further eroded public trust in its ability to help people weather this pandemic and pull Lebanon out of its worst economic crisis in decades,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Months before the COVID-19 outbreak, the World Bank predicted that the portion of Lebanon’s population living below the poverty line would rise from 30 percent to 50 percent in 2020.”

Majzoub pointed out that the virus crisis and its associated shutdown measures were bound to further increase poverty and economic hardship.

She noted the direct link between the pound’s loss of nearly half its value in April and the inflation rate, which the Lebanese Ministry of Finance estimates will reach 27 percent in 2020.




A Lebanese protester sits in front of riot police in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020, as anger over a spiralling economic crisis re-energised a months-old anti-government movement in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown. (AFP)

“Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Moucharafieh admitted on April 14 that between 70 to 75 percent of Lebanese citizens now need financial assistance,” Majzoub added.

Earlier this month, HRW had warned that more than half of Lebanon’s residents were at risk of going hungry due to the government’s failure to implement a robust, coordinated plan to provide assistance to families who have lost their livelihoods.

No sooner had authorities slightly eased the COVID-19 lockdown measures than clashes erupted between protesters and security forces in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

As dozens of men smashed the fronts of local banks and set fire to an army vehicle, the security forces responded with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas.

Amid the growing political tensions and economic hardship, many suspect the small number of officially confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lebanon conceals the actual picture.




A young Syrian girl is pictured at a refugee camp in the village of Mhammara in the northern Lebanese Akkar region on March 9, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“I don’t know what the future holds. No one knows,” said Dr. Naji Aoun, head of the department of infectious disease at Clemenceau Medical Center in Beirut.

“Seeing what is happening in Europe, Lebanon is a small country, so it may not apply to us. It could be different on our scale. But my thoughts (go out) to the Syrian refugees. Who will take care of them?”

Of Lebanon’s 5.9 million residents, about 1.5 million are Syrian refugees – the highest number per capita ratio in the world.

FASTFACT

NUMBERS

87% Refugees in Lebanon who lack food.

$5.7bn Money moved out of banks in January and February 2020.

45% Population below poverty line in 2020.

Sources: Lebanon government, World Bank, International Rescue Committee

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the refugees’ socio-economic situation is becoming increasingly dire by the day owing to income loss.

Nonprofit organizations are aware of the gravity of the situation but there are limits to what they can do.

“You can’t offer medical services (as they won’t be) accepted in hospitals, which is an issue,” Aoun said.

With no medical insurance or international aid, the humanitarian crisis can only get worse, he added.




Dr Naji Aoun, Infectious Disease Specialist at Clemenceau Medical Center in Beirut. (Supplied)

“This will weigh a lot on the refugees. NGOs don’t know what to do. They don’t have any resources and the government can’t help them either because it is bankrupt. They can’t help their own people.”

Aoun is one of the many health workers who have been devoting their time to treat patients, often free of cost.

“We need more support for nurses and doctors because we are going to get infected or bring the infection home with us. This is what happened in Italy and in China, so we need more support – moral, social, psychological and financial – from our government and our society.

“Life is important to everyone and we are dedicating ours to help the community,” he added.

Dr. Clara Chamoun, a pulmonary, sleep and critical care medicine specialist at the Clemenceau Medical Center, said the situation across Lebanon was grim because the COVID-19 outbreak had come amid a severe economic crisis.




Workers disinfect the Wavel camp (also known as the Jalil Camp) for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, on April 22, 2020. (AFP)

“It is harder to convince people that they need to stick to quarantine rules because they live on a daily basis,” she told Arab News.

“We started from a place where we were already facing a shortage of basics. And now, we have got a huge hit due to a lack in ventilators, face masks and alcohol solutions. And there’s no help.”

Proper hygiene is especially difficult in refugee camps, where overcrowding is common and access to basics, such as clean water, soap and detergents, is not a given.

“Those people aren’t going to be in contact with civilians in Beirut, but they are in contact with each other and if one of them is (infected), it would lead to a rapid spread,” Chamoun said.

Earlier this month, the UNHCR announced it required more than $30 million to cover Lebanon’s additional health needs due to the pandemic.




A Syrian refugee receives sanitisation and cleaning supplies from a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 20, 2020. (AFP)

The funds would help expand the Ministry of Public Health’s hotline capacity, procure thermometers for detection, hygiene items for refugees and protective equipment for frontline responders.

The plans also include establishing isolation shelters for 5,600 people, expanding hospital-bed capacity by 800 and intensive care units by 100, conducting 1,200 diagnostic tests and arranging intensive care treatment for 180 refugees.

The UNHCR’s program requires a further $55 million to meet the secondary healthcare needs – both related to COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 – of refugees.

Aoun appealed for international solidarity in providing succor to migrants and refugees in Lebanon.

“They may say it’s not their problem, but the problem is getting worse. No one will go blaming the international community nor the Lebanese authorities – it’s a worldwide problem.

“If countries have medication, they will prioritize it for their people. Europe closed its borders so they prioritized their own population, but we can’t do the same with the refugees,” he said.

With hunger, poverty, joblessness and a deadly pandemic staring Lebanese in the face, Chamoun said the resilience of the people was the country’s only hope.

“We have been through a lot already. But this is truly the biggest challenge,” she said.


Israel to issue 16,000 more work permits for Palestinians

Israel to issue 16,000 more work permits for Palestinians
Updated 7 min 43 sec ago

Israel to issue 16,000 more work permits for Palestinians

Israel to issue 16,000 more work permits for Palestinians
  • The new permits will bring the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel to 106,000
  • The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Israel to suspend the 7,000 permits previously granted to workers

JERUSALEM: Israel announced Wednesday it is to issue 16,000 more permits for Palestinians from the occupied West Bank to work in its construction and hotel industries, taking the total to over 100,000.
“Israel intends to increase by 15,000 workers the quota of Palestinian residents of Judea and Samaria (the southern and northern West Bank) working in the field of construction,” the Israeli military body responsible for civil affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, COGAT, said.
Another 1,000 permits will be issued to Palestinians working in Israeli hotels, it added.
The new permits will bring the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel to 106,000, with another 30,000 Palestinians authorized to work in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity told AFP.
The announcement followed discussions between Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. The Israeli government is expected to approve it next week, the security source said, adding: “We want to apply it as fast as possible. It’s in the interest of both sides.”
Jobs in Israel offer higher wages than those in Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank but Palestinians complain they do not get paid as much as their Israeli counterparts or enjoy similar labor protections.
The head of COGAT, Major General Rassan Alian, said the additional work permits “will strengthen the Israeli and Palestinian economies, and will largely contribute to the security stability in the area of Judea and Samaria.”
No Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip are currently permitted to work in Israel, the security official said.
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Israel to suspend the 7,000 permits previously granted to workers from the impoverished territory of some two million people which has been under Israeli blockade since 2007.


A birthday gift: Israeli woman donates kidney to Gaza boy

A birthday gift: Israeli woman donates kidney to Gaza boy
Updated 28 July 2021

A birthday gift: Israeli woman donates kidney to Gaza boy

A birthday gift: Israeli woman donates kidney to Gaza boy
  • ‘You don’t know me, but soon we’ll be very close because my kidney will be in your body’

ESHHAR, Israel: Idit Harel Segal was turning 50, and she had chosen a gift: She was going to give one of her own kidneys to a stranger.
The kindergarten teacher from northern Israel, a proud Israeli, hoped her choice would set an example of generosity in a land of perpetual conflict. She was spurred by memories of her late grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who told her to live meaningfully, and by Jewish tradition, which holds that there’s no higher duty than saving a life.
So Segal contacted a group that links donors and recipients, launching a nine-month process to transfer her kidney to someone who needed one.
That someone turned out to be a 3-year-old Palestinian boy from the Gaza Strip.
“You don’t know me, but soon we’ll be very close because my kidney will be in your body,” Segal wrote in Hebrew to the boy, whose family asked not to be named due to the sensitivities over cooperating with Israelis. A friend translated the letter into Arabic so the family might understand. “I hope with all my heart that this surgery will succeed and you will live a long and healthy and meaningful life.”
Just after an 11-day war, “I threw away the anger and frustration and see only one thing. I see hope for peace and love,” she wrote. “And if there will be more like us, there won’t be anything to fight over.”
What unfolded over the months between Segal’s decision and the June 16 transplant caused deep rifts in the family. Her husband and the oldest of her three children, a son in his early 20s, opposed the plan. Her father stopped talking to her.
To them, Segal recalled, she was unnecessarily risking her life. The loss of three relatives in Palestinian attacks, including her father’s parents, made it even more difficult.
“My family was really against it. Everyone was against it. My husband, my sister, her husband. And the one who supported me the least was my father,” Segal said during a recent interview in her mountaintop home in Eshhar. “They were afraid.”
When she learned the boy’s identity, she kept the details to herself for months.
“I told no one,” Segal recalled. “I told myself if the reaction to the kidney donation is so harsh, so obviously the fact that a Palestinian boy is getting it will make it even harsher.”
Israel has maintained a tight blockade over Gaza since Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes Israel’s existence, seized control of the area in 2007.
The bitter enemies have fought four wars since then, and few Gazans are allowed to enter Israel. With Gaza’s health care system ravaged by years of conflict and the blockade, Israel grants entry permits to small numbers of medical patients in need of serious treatments on humanitarian grounds.
Matnat Chaim, a nongovernmental organization in Jerusalem, coordinated the exchange, said the group’s chief executive, Sharona Sherman.
The case of the Gaza boy was complicated. To speed up the process, his father, who was not a match for his son, was told by the hospital that if he were to donate a kidney to an Israeli recipient, the boy would “immediately go to the top of the list,” Sherman said.
On the same day his son received a new kidney, the father donated one of his own — to a 25-year-old Israeli mother of two.
In some countries, reciprocity is not permitted because it raises the question of whether the donor has been coerced. The whole ethic of organ donation is based on the principle that the donors should give of their own free will and get nothing in return.
In Israel, the father’s donation is seen as an incentive to increase the pool of donors.
For Segal, the gift that had sparked such conflict in her family accomplished more than she hoped. Her kidney has helped save the boy’s life, generated a second donation and established new links between members of perpetually warring groups in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. She said she visited the boy on the eve of his surgery and maintains contact with his parents.
Segal said she honored her grandfather in a way that helps her cope with the grief of his death five years ago. The donation was an act of autonomy, she said, and she never wavered. And eventually her family came around — a gift, perhaps, in itself.
She said her husband understands better now, as do her children. And on the eve of Segal’s surgery, her father called.
“I don’t remember what he said because he was crying,” Segal said. Then, she told him that her kidney was going to a Palestinian boy.
For a moment, there was silence. And then her father spoke.
“Well,” he said, “he needs life, also.”

Related


Tunisians back their president as he vows: ‘Your freedoms are safe’

Tunisians back their president as he vows: ‘Your freedoms are safe’
Updated 28 July 2021

Tunisians back their president as he vows: ‘Your freedoms are safe’

Tunisians back their president as he vows: ‘Your freedoms are safe’
  • Responsibility for political crisis lies with Islamist Ennahda party, analysts tell Arab News

JEDDAH: Tunisians threw their weight behind President Kais Saied on Tuesday after he told leading civil society groups that the emergency situation was temporary and he would “protect the democratic path.”
Saied pledged that the “freedoms and rights of Tunisians would not be affected in any way,” said Sami Tahri, an official in the powerful UGTT trade union.
Thousands celebrated on the streets on Monday after Saied dismissed the government, including Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and the justice and defense ministers. He also suspended parliament, which had been dominated by its speaker, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party.
On the streets of Tunis, many welcomed the president’s orders. Najet Ben Gharbia, 47, a nurse, said she had been waiting “a long time” for such a move. A decade after Tunisians ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, many are struggling.
“There is still great poverty,” Ben Gharbia said, describing the inflation that has stripped the value of income, making meat too expensive to buy. “People are miserable.
“Kais Saied, he’s a teacher, not a politician, he’s like us. We are sure of him, he is not like Ben Ali, he is not a dictator.”
Mounir Mabrouk, 50, said: “What the president is doing is in our interest. Political parties have done nothing except sell our property to foreigners and wealthy elites.”

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Taxi driver Hosni Mkhali, 47, said action had to be taken — especially to bring the cases of coronavirus under control, as Tunisia struggles with one of the world’s worst recorded death rates. “All Tunisians are disgusted,” he said. “It was the best time to act.”
Analysts laid the blame for Tunisia’s turmoil firmly at the door of Ennahda, the Islamist party led by Ghannouchi.
Ammar Aziz, an associate editor at Al Arabiya News Channel, told Arab News: “With Ennahda controlling parliament and also the government, everything has simply collapsed — from security to the economy. The same is true for the country’s transport system and public health institutions. All Tunisians have noticed the deterioration and it is for this reason we saw the protests in different towns on July 25.”
Writing today in Arab News, Sir John Jenkins, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and former leading British diplomat, said Ghannouchi’s motives were questionable.
He said: “Although Ghannouchi claimed to have separated the political, social welfare and dawa wings of Ennahda in 2016, there has never been anything to suggest that he does not share the ultimate Muslim Brotherhood goal of an Islamized state.”


Collective action is key to fighting corruption in Lebanon, experts say

Collective action is key to fighting corruption in Lebanon, experts say
Updated 28 July 2021

Collective action is key to fighting corruption in Lebanon, experts say

Collective action is key to fighting corruption in Lebanon, experts say
  • A new research paper says the Lebanese state ‘is built on systemic corruption and non-accountability. This system has effectively collapsed’
  • Recovery is possible but will require civil society groups, the media, private organizations and other activists to work together to confront the ruling elite and force change

LONDON: The political and economic crisis in Lebanon can be resolved, experts say, but it will require collective action, the mobilization of civil society, and the formation of coalitions.
Since the end of the civil war in 1990, corruption among the political elite has undermined Lebanon’s recovery and development, according to Karim Merhej, a researcher and data analyst at The Public Source, culminating in the unprecedented socioeconomic crisis the country now faces.
Lebanon is in a transitional period in which the foundations of the post-civil war political and economic systems are built on the exploitation of resources that should be benefiting the people of the country, Merhej said.
His comments came during a discussion of his newly published research paper, “Breaking the Curse of Corruption in Lebanon,” hosted by Chatham House, a think tank in London.
“This state is built on systemic corruption and non-accountability,” he said. “This system has effectively collapsed and we are in a period where we are not sure what is going to happen yet. Even the political class in Lebanon do not know what is happening — they have gone almost 10 months without forming a government.”
On Monday, billionaire businessman Najib Mikati was chosen to be Lebanon’s new Prime Minister-designate, tasked with forming a government to end a year of political deadlock that has crippled the country. This is the third time he has been elected to the post after previously serving in 2005 and 2011.
He replaced Saad Hariri, who resigned on July 15 after nine months of negotiations with President Michel Aoun about the composition of the new government ending in failure. After his resignation, the Lebanese currency, which had already lost most of its value, hit record lows.
Last month the World Bank said Lebanon is enduring one of the three worst economic collapses since the mid-19th century. More than half the population is believed to be below the national poverty line and children, 30 percent of whom “went to bed hungry or skipped meals” in June, are “bearing the brunt” of the crisis, the institution said.

Words are written by Lebanese citizens in front of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. (AP)

Merhej’s paper examines the anti-corruption laws in Lebanon, investigates why they are not working, and offers recommendations for action by the government, the international community and civil society.
“Lebanon’s anti-corruption initiatives, culminating in the recent adoption of the National Anti-corruption Strategy, are destined to be ineffective,” he writes.
“The Lebanese political elite unveiled these initiatives to the international community, as well as the Lebanese electorate, following the uprising of late 2019 and early 2020 in order to rehabilitate their tarnished image, and in some cases to acquire much-needed international funding.”
Merhej said that while the strategy and new laws might look commendable on paper, they are likely to be poorly implemented because of “a lack of political will among Lebanon’s ruling elites to engage in transparency, the absence of an independent judiciary, the use of state resources to benefit the private interests of the elites, the use of bureaucracy to make laws unimplementable, and the fact that the ruling elites are the custodians of the country’s broad anti-corruption strategy.”
The fight against corruption requires great effort and will not achieve results overnight, he warned. The government must prioritize the formation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, he added, and ensure the judiciary is independent and not tied or subservient to the political class.
“We have seen a lot of collective organizing in the past two-to-three years, particularly after the October uprising in 2019, and we have seen the emergence of alternative syndicates (and) grassroots organizations and initiatives to protect free speech,” he said.
A lot of funding is flowing into Lebanon, with more expected, Merhej added as he called on the international community to implement transparency strategies to ensure aid goes directly to the people who need it and not into the pockets of corrupt officials.

Diana Kaissy, director of civil society engagement at the International Republican Institute in Lebanon, agreed that greater transparency is needed, particularly for parliamentary committee meetings, which are held behind closed doors and the minutes are not released to the public.
“We need to be sitting at the table, being part of these consultations, drafting these laws, so we make sure that they are laws that can be used (and) they are not toothless, they do not have loopholes,” she said.
Not all government officials are corrupt, Kaissy added, and a multi-stakeholder approach must be adopted that capitalizes on key players.
Little by little, she said, eventually it will be possible to make the changes people want. “I currently see no other way, and that is maybe what is keeping us hopeful and working the whole time,” she added.
Badri Meouchi, a corporate governance consultant with Tamayyaz, said countries or institutions that want to support anti-corruption efforts in Lebanon should work closely with the media, civil-society groups, private-sector organizations, and others in the public arena. Elections are also important, he said, but there are major challenges to overcome.
“We need to organize ourselves better, as well as financially, because they are very well organized (and) have amazing financial resources at their disposal, and we need to become more creative than they are — because they’re very creative,” he said.
Lebanon is set to hold separate municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections next year.
There is hope, however, in what is happening on the ground, he added.
“What has changed in the past two years, which is encouraging, is that the formula of fear has changed,” Meouchi said. “It used to be, a couple of years ago, that if a politician entered a public place everyone wanted to shake their hand and be seen with them.
“Today you have citizens who are emboldened and this is a new factor in the fight against corruption, because there is only so much that we in civil society can do.”


Pro-Iran groups welcome US vow to end Iraq combat operations

U.S. soldiers wearing protective masks are seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces, in Baghdad, Iraq August 23, 2020. (REUTERS)
U.S. soldiers wearing protective masks are seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces, in Baghdad, Iraq August 23, 2020. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 July 2021

Pro-Iran groups welcome US vow to end Iraq combat operations

U.S. soldiers wearing protective masks are seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces, in Baghdad, Iraq August 23, 2020. (REUTERS)
  • Hashd Al-Shaabi considers Biden’s move ‘a positive step toward the full sovereignty of Iraq’

BAGHDAD: Several powerful pro-Iran groups in Iraq on Tuesday welcomed an announcement by Washington that US combat operations in the country will end this year, an outcome they have long demanded.

US President Joe Biden declared on Monday that “we’re not going to be, at the end of the year, in a combat mission,” as he hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi for White House talks.
US troops would continue to provide training and assistance to the Iraqi military, including intelligence cooperation, falling short of pro-Iran factions’ demands for a full withdrawal.
But the Conquest Alliance, the political wing of Iraq’s Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary network, which is dominated by pro-Iran groups, said it considered Biden’s announcement “to be a positive step toward the full sovereignty of Iraq.”
“We hope that it will materialize on the ground,” it added.
US troops were invited into Iraq in 2014 — three years after ending an eight-year occupation that began with the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein — by a government desperate to halt a sweeping advance by the Daesh group.
Iraq’s government declared Daesh defeated in late 2017, but the extremists retain sleeper cells and still launch periodic suicide attacks.
The US and Iran are both major allies of Iraq and share an enmity toward Daesh, but Tehran also considers Washington its arch foe and has long pressed for a withdrawal of US troops from its neighbor.
Pro-Iran armed factions stand accused of carrying out around 50 rocket and drone attacks this year against US interests in Iraq.
Since last year, the principal role of the remaining US troops — now totaling 2,500, after drawdowns under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump — had already been to train, advise and support the Iraqi military in its fight against Daesh.
Biden’s announcement therefore indicated little major change of policy.
The face-to-face meeting was to give political cover to Al-Kadhimi, in power for little over a year and under intensifying pressure over the continued US presence, analysts said.
Several other pro-Iran groups in Iraq also reacted positively.
The Imam Ali Brigades lauded “the end of the foreign presence” and said it “thanked the (Iraqi) government for keeping its promises,” while influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr also welcomed Biden’s announcement.

BACKGROUND

The US and Iran are both major allies of Iraq and share an enmity toward Daesh, but Tehran also considers US its arch foe and has long pressed for a withdrawal of US troops from its neighbor.

But more radical pro-Iran groups have not yet responded.
Meanwhile, Iran’s state TV reported on Tuesday that authorities arrested members of a group linked to Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency amid ongoing protests over water shortages in the country’s southwest.
The report said “a network of spy agents, with a large amount of weapons and ammunition” was arrested after sneaking into Iran from across its western border. It claimed the alleged Mossad agents intended to use the weapons during riots in Iran and also for assassinations.
The state TV did not elaborate or say how many alleged agents were arrested or when they purportedly infiltrated into Iran. Iran borders Turkey and Iraq to the west.
At least five people have been killed amid days of protests over water shortages affecting Iran’s Khuzestan province. That’s according to statements carried by state-run media in Iran.
Iran occasionally announces the detention of people it says are spying for foreign countries, including the US and Israel.
Western Iran has seen occasional fighting between Iranian forces and Kurdish separatists as well as militants linked to Daesh.
In July 2020, Iran said “terrorists” killed two people in an attack in the Iranian province of Kurdistan. Last year, Iran executed a man convicted of leaking information to the US and Israel about prominent Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps general Qassem Soleimani, who was later killed by a US drone strike in Iraq.