US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election
US soldiers walk near a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a military patrol in the countryside near Al-Malikiyah in Syria’s Hasakah province on Tuesday. (AFP)
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Updated 29 October 2020

US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election
  • It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body

NEW YORK: The US and several Western allies on Tuesday accused the Syrian regime of deliberately delaying the drafting of a new constitution to waste time until presidential elections in 2021, and avoid UN-supervised voting as called for by the UN Security Council.

US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills urged the Security Council to “do everything in its power” to prevent Bashar Assad regime from blocking agreement on a new constitution in 2020. The Trump administration believes Assad’s hope is to “invalidate the work” of UN special envoy Geir Pedersen who has been trying to spearhead action on a constitution, and the council’s call for a political transition.

The Security Council resolution adopted in December 2015 unanimously endorsed a road map to peace in Syria that was approved in Geneva on June 30, 2012 by representatives of the UN, Arab League, EU, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members — the US, Russia, China, France and Britain.

It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and ending with UN-supervised elections. The resolution says the free and fair elections should meet “the highest international standards” of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians — including members of the diaspora — eligible to participate.

At a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution. That took until September 2019, and since then only three meetings have been held with little progress.

Pedersen, the UN envoy, told the Security Council on Tuesday he was unable to convene a fourth meeting in October because the government wouldn’t accept a compromise agenda which the opposition agreed to. During his just concluded visit to Damascus, he said there was “some valuable narrowing of the differences” that could enable consensus on agendas for the next two meetings.

“If we are able to find agreement in the next two days, it should be possible to meet in Geneva sometime in the month of November,” Pedersen said, dropping the Nov. 23 date in his prepared speech.

Mills, the US envoy, urged Pedersen “to take any measures he thinks are appropriate to facilitate the parties’ efforts ... and also to identify to the council who is blocking progress.”

“Syria is wholly unprepared to carry out elections in a free, fair and transparent manner that would include the participation of the Syrian diaspora,” Mills said. “This is why we need the constitutional committee to work, and why we need the UN to accelerate its planning to ensure Syria’s upcoming elections are credible.”

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen called Assad’s “delaying and obstruction tactics” on the constitutional committee’s work “just detestable.”

He said Russia, Syria’s most important ally, “should finally use its influence by, for instance, just cutting military aid and stopping its support, so that the Syrian regime finally plays ball.”

Syria’s tactics are clear, Heusgen said. “They want to waste time until the presidential elections in 2021. The regime should not have any illusions. The elections will not be recognized if they are held under the present circumstances.”

French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere also criticized Assad’s “refusal to engage in good faith” and called for preparations to begin for UN-supervised elections that include the diaspora. France won’t recognize results that don’t comply with these provisions, he said, stressing: “We will not be fooled by the regime’s attempts to legitimize itself.”

Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, made no mention of the April presidential election and countered that Syrians must have “the opportunity to negotiate without interference from the outside.”

“The work of the constitutional committee should not be subject to any deadlines,” he said, expressing hope that Pedersen’s mediation will enable the committee’s work to continue “in line with the agenda agreed by the Syrians.”

Russia also sparred with Western ambassadors over its veto threats that led to the closure of two border crossings to deliver aid to Syria — one in the northeast and one in the northwest — leaving only one crossing to Idlib in the northwest.

The US, Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and others criticized the border crossing closures.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council that Syrian government deliveries across conflict lines to the northeast are “not delivering at the scale or frequency required to meet the current health needs.” He said one hospital received only 450 gowns in April, and another received nothing for its maternity wing.

Lowcock also said “the situation of families across Syria is truly desperate,” citing food prices more than 90 percent higher than six months ago.

Russia’s Nebenzia responded, noting “with satisfaction the progress in UN humanitarian deliveries from inside Syria including through cross-line routes,” saying this “proves” the government is providing aid to people including in areas not under its control.


Explosion sound heard at Beirut neighborhood caused by tire burst

Explosion sound heard at Beirut neighborhood caused by tire burst
Updated 8 min 18 sec ago

Explosion sound heard at Beirut neighborhood caused by tire burst

Explosion sound heard at Beirut neighborhood caused by tire burst

CAIRO: An explosion sound heard at a neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut was reportedly caused by a tire burst, local news agency NNA reported Saturday.  

A bursting sound was reportedly heard across several towns in Al-Salam neighborhood resembling that of an explosion. 

It resulted from a bulldozer tire bursting inside a waste plant in the area, the NNA said


Abu Dhabi to reopen cinemas with reduced capacity, Dubai bans cafes offering drinks in baby bottles

Abu Dhabi to reopen cinemas with reduced capacity, Dubai bans cafes offering drinks in baby bottles
Updated 58 min 56 sec ago

Abu Dhabi to reopen cinemas with reduced capacity, Dubai bans cafes offering drinks in baby bottles

Abu Dhabi to reopen cinemas with reduced capacity, Dubai bans cafes offering drinks in baby bottles
  • Earlier in February, the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Committee approved closing all cinemas
  • Dubai authorities have banned local cafes from serving drinks in baby bottles to prevent the spread of coronavirus

DUBAI: Abu Dhabi will reopen its cinemas at a reduced 30 percent capacity while adhering to coronavirus precautionary measures, state news agency WAM reported.
Earlier in February, the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Committee approved closing all cinemas.
Meanwhile, Dubai authorities have banned local cafes from serving drinks in baby bottles to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Dubai Economy said in a tweet.
“The Commercial Compliance & Consumer Protection (CCCP) Sector in Dubai Economy directed coffee shops to stop serving drinks in baby bottles,” DED said.
There has been a spike in new daily cases since the beginning of the year, largely due to the high number of tourists traveling to the country over the holiday period.

The UAE has recorded 2,959 new coronavirus infections, 1,901 recoveries and 14 deaths in the past 24 hours. The total number of cases now stands at 408,236 with 391,205 recoveries and 1,310 deaths.


Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: govt military source

Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: govt military source
Updated 06 March 2021

Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: govt military source

Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: govt military source

DUBAI: Fierce fighting between Yemeni pro-government forces and Iran-backed Houthi rebels has killed at least 90 combatants on both sides in the past 24 hours, government military sources said Saturday.
The Shiite rebels launched an offensive last month to seize Marib, the last stronghold in northern Yemen of pro-government forces who are backed by a Arab-led military coalition.
The clashes in the oil-rich province left 32 dead among government forces and loyalist tribes, while 58 Houthi rebels were killed in coalition air strikes, the sources told AFP.
They said heavy clashes broke out on six fronts as government forces were able to counter attacks by the Houthis who managed to advance only on the Kassara front northwest of Marib city.
The fighting also left dozens of people wounded, the sources added.
The loss of Marib would be a huge blow for the Yemeni government, but would also threaten catastrophe for civilians, including hundreds of thousands of displaced people sheltering in desolate camps in the surrounding desert.
It would also be a major setback for Saudi Arabia, which has been the target of increasingly frequent Houthi missile attacks in recent weeks.
Shrapnel from Houthi drones intercepted by the Saudis on Friday wounded two civilians, including a 10-year-old, in the southwest of the kingdom, the official SPA news agency reported.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday urged the Houthis to halt their offensive in Marib, as he announced $191 million in aid at a donors' conference.
"Aid alone will not end the conflict. We can only end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by ending the war... so the United States is reinvigorating our diplomatic efforts to end the war," he said.
The United Nations had sought to raise $3.85 billion from more than 100 governments and donors, but only $1.7 billion was offered.


Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace
Updated 06 March 2021

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace
  • The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked a landmark moment in modern religious history
  • Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,”

NAJAF, Iraq: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the authority for most of the world’s Shiite Muslims, told Pope Francis in a historic meeting in the Iraqi city of Najaf Saturday that the country’s Christians should live in “peace.”
The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked a landmark moment in modern religious history.
Pope Francis is defying a second wave of coronavirus cases and renewed security fears to make a “long-awaited” trip to Iraq, aiming to comfort the country’s ancient Christian community and deepen his dialogue with other religions.
The meeting between the two elderly men lasted 50 minutes, with Sistani’s office putting out a statement shortly afterwards thanking Francis, 84, for visiting the holy city of Najaf.
Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,” it said.
His office published an image of the two, neither wearing masks: Sistani in a black turban with his wispy grey beard reaching down to his black robe and Francis all in white, looking directly at the grand ayatollah.
Sistani is extremely reclusive and rarely grants meetings but made an exception to host Francis, an outspoken proponent of interreligious dialogue.
The Pope had landed earlier at Najaf airport, where posters had been set up featuring a famous saying by Ali, the fourth caliph and the Prophet Muhammad’s relative, who is buried in the holy city.
“People are of two kinds, either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity,” read the banners.
The meeting is one of the highlights of Francis’s four-day trip to war-scarred Iraq, where Sistani has played a key role in tamping down tensions in recent decades.
It took months of careful negotiations between Najaf and the Vatican to secure the one-on-one meeting.
“We feel proud of what this visit represents and we thank those who made it possible,” said Mohamed Ali Bahr Al-Ulum, a senior cleric in Najaf.
Pope Francis, a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue, has met top Sunni clerics in several Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Sistani, meanwhile, is followed by most of the world’s 200 million Shiites — a minority among Muslims but the majority in Iraq — and is a national figure for Iraqis.
“Ali Sistani is a religious leader with a high moral authority,” said Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a specialist in Islamic studies.
Sistani began his religious studies at the age of five, climbing through the ranks of Shiite clergy to grand ayatollah in the 1990s.
While Saddam Hussein was in power, he languished under house arrest for years, but emerged after the US-led invasion toppled the repressive regime in 2003 to play an unprecedented public role.
In 2019, he stood with Iraqi protesters demanding better public services and rejecting external interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs.
On Friday in Baghdad, Pope Francis made a similar plea.
“May partisan interests cease, those outside interests who don’t take into account the local population,” Francis said.
Sistani has had a complicated relationship with his birthplace Iran, where the other main seat of Shiite religious authority lies: Qom.
While Najaf affirms the separation of religion and politics, Qom believes the top cleric — Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — should also govern.
Iraqi clerics and Christian leaders said the visit could strengthen Najaf’s standing compared to Qom.
“The Najaf school has great prestige and is more secular than the more religious Qom school,” Ayuso said.
“Najaf places more weight on social affairs,” he added.
In Abu Dhabi in 2019, the Pope met Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and a key authority for Sunni Muslims.
They signed a text encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue, which Catholic clerics hoped Sistani would also endorse, but clerical sources in Najaf told AFP it is unlikely.
While the Pope has been vaccinated and encouraged others to get the jab, Sistani’s office has not announced his vaccination.
Iraq is currently gripped by a resurgence of coronavirus cases, recording more than 5,000 infections and more than two dozen deaths daily.
Following his visit to the grand ayatollah, the pope will head to the desert site of the ancient city of Ur — believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, common patriarch of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths — where he will host an interfaith service, with many of Iraq’s other religious minorities in attendance.


Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo
Updated 06 March 2021

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

CAIRO: A trailer-truck crashed into a microbus, killing at least 18 people and injuring five others south of the Egyptian capital, authorities said.
The country’s chief prosecutor’s office said in a statement the crash took place late Friday on a highway near the town of Atfih, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Cairo.
The Cairo-Assiut eastern road, located on the eastern side of the Nile River, links Cairo to the country’s southern provinces and is known for speeding traffic.
Police authorities said the truck’s tire exploded, causing it to overturn and collide with the microbus. The victims were taken to nearby hospitals, the statement said. The truck driver was arrested.
Traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
The country’s official statistics agency says around 10,000 road accidents took place in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, leaving over 3,480 dead. In 2018, there were 8,480 car accidents, causing over 3,080 deaths.