FBI to join Beirut blast probe, Lebanon must end ‘empty promises’

University students, who volunteered to help in the clean-up, pass in front of a building that was damaged by last week's explosion, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 13 August 2020

FBI to join Beirut blast probe, Lebanon must end ‘empty promises’

  • David Hale: The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators at the invitation of the Lebanese to help answer questions about the circumstances that led up to this explosion
  • Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said the investigation will look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or possibly “external interference”

BEIRUT: A top US diplomat said on Thursday the FBI would join a probe of the massive Beirut explosion that killed at least 172 people, urging change in Lebanon to “make sure something like this never happens again.”
On a tour of a demolished Beirut neighborhood, US Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale said Lebanon needed “economic and fiscal reforms, an end to dysfunctional governance and to empty promises.”
The explosion at Beirut port injured 6,000 people and forced around 300,000 out of their homes in the city, which was already sinking deep into financial crisis. Some 30-40 people remain missing.
Authorities have blamed the Aug. 4 blast on a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored for years at the port without safety measures.
“The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators at the invitation of the Lebanese to help answer questions about the circumstances that led up to this explosion,” Hale said on Thursday.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said the investigation will look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or possibly “external interference.”
Aoun has asked France for satellite imagery for the probe. A UK Royal Navy vessel was also deployed to Beirut to survey the site.
An Israeli seismological expert said on Thursday the explosion was preceded by a series of blasts, the last of which was combustion of fireworks.
Authorities have estimated losses from the blast at $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay: it already defaulted on its enormous sovereign debt in March and IMF talks had stalled.
Humanitarian aid has poured in. But foreign countries that once helped have made clear they will not give funds to help Lebanon out of economic collapse without reforms to tackle state corruption and waste.
Hale, the No. 3 US diplomat, said Washington would back any new government that “reflects the will of the people” and enacts reforms. The fallout from the explosion forced the cabinet to resign this week.
But agreement on a new one could be daunting in a country with factional rifts and a sectarian power-sharing system. Public anger has grown at a political elite in power for decades, which many blame for the country’s woes.
The now-caretaker government came to office in January with backing from various political parties, including the heavily armed Shiite Muslim Hezbollah. Together with its allies, they have a majority of seats in parliament.
The United States classifies Hezbollah, which is backed by Tehran, as terrorist. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif landed in Beirut on Thursday evening, local media said.
Security forces were heavily deployed in Beirut on Thursday, stopping protesters from reaching a legislative session.
“They are all criminals, they are the ones who caused this catastrophe, this explosion,” said protester Lina Boubess, 60.
“Isn’t it enough that they stole our money, our lives, our dreams and the dreams of our children? What more do we have to lose?“
Parliament approved an earlier government decision declaring a state of emergency, which activists criticized as an attempt to suppress dissent. It also confirmed the resignations of eight MPs who quit after the blast.


Iraqis gather in Baghdad to mark anti-government protests anniversary

Updated 7 min 17 sec ago

Iraqis gather in Baghdad to mark anti-government protests anniversary

  • Protesters waved the Iraqi flag and chanted “free revolutionaries"

BAGHDAD: A few hundred Iraqis gathered in Baghdad’s central Tahrir square on Thursday to mark the anniversary of anti-government unrest that erupted last year and to put pressure on the authorities to meet their demands.
Protesters waved the Iraqi flag and chanted “free revolutionaries, we will continue the path.”
Some sang patriotic songs while clapping.
“We are here to start the revolution again...We haven’t forgotten about the blood of the martyrs,” said Abbas Younis, 25, wearing an Iraqi flag as a cape and a surgical mask.
More than 560 people, mostly unarmed demonstrators but also some members of the security forces, have been killed since a spate of popular unrest began on Oct. 1, 2019, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.
London-based Amnesty International called on the Iraqi government on Thursday to do more to “deliver justice to the hundreds killed in the course of exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
“Find the missing, deliver justice for lives lost,” it said.
Protesters, most of them young, are demanding an overhaul of a political system they see as profoundly corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty.
The protests have shaken the country out of two years of relative calm following the defeat of Islamic State insurgents.
Infighting between political parties clinging to power has fueled the crisis and threatens to kindle more unrest.
Last year’s protests caused the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was replaced in May by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who pledged to investigate the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of protesters.
Demonstrators on Thursday gave the government until Oct. 25 to meet their demands by Oct. 25 or face a general strike.
“Our demands are simple and legitimate...We demand the killers of the protesters be prosecuted,” said Mustafa Makki.
Dressed in combat trousers and wearing a shirt with an image of a slain protester and a necklace made out of an empty tear gas canister, the 24-year-old said he had four bullet wounds, and one of them had cost him his vision in his left eye.
Later on Thursday, dozens took to the streets in the southern cities of Diwaniyah and Najaf, waving the Iraqi flag and carrying photographs of demonstrators killed last year.
Kadhimi in July called an early general election for June 6, 2021, roughly a year ahead of when it would normally be held, a central demand of the protesters. But Iraqi’s parliament must still ratify the election date and amend the election law.
Kadhimi and President Barham Salih pledged to meet the demands of the protesters. “We affirm our loyalty to our people and to the roadmap imposed by the blood and scarifies of its youth,” Kadhimi said in a statement.