‘Cheaper than water’: Iraqis angry but unsurprised over Blackwater pardons

‘Cheaper than water’: Iraqis angry but unsurprised over Blackwater pardons
An Iraqi man rides a bicycle passing by a remains of a car, burnt after Blackwater guards escorting US embassy officials opened fire in Baghdad on September 16, 2007. (File/AFP)
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Updated 23 December 2020

‘Cheaper than water’: Iraqis angry but unsurprised over Blackwater pardons

‘Cheaper than water’: Iraqis angry but unsurprised over Blackwater pardons
  • The Blackwater team, contracted to provide security for US diplomats in Iraq following the American-led invasion in 2003, claimed they were responding to insurgent fire
  • The bloody episode left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead and 17 wounded

BAGHDAD: Iraqis on Wednesday were outraged, heartbroken but not surprised to hear US President Donald Trump had pardoned for four Blackwater contractors convicted of killing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
“I lost hope a long time ago,” said Fares Saadi, the Iraqi police officer who led the investigations into the shootings at Baghdad’s crowded Nisur Square.
The Blackwater team, contracted to provide security for US diplomats in Iraq following the American-led invasion in 2003, claimed they were responding to insurgent fire.
The bloody episode left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead and 17 wounded, many of whom Saadi remembered taking to the hospital himself.
“Thirteen years, you said? My God. I remember it like it was yesterday,” he told AFP by telephone in Baghdad.
“It was random fire, 360 degrees. I picked up people, drove them to the hospital, took statements,” he said.
Saadi was the lead Iraqi police investigator into the incident, coordinating with FBI teams sent to Baghdad and even providing witness testimony in US trials.
Three of the guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were initially convicted of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and a firearm offense, and sentenced to 30 years each.
A fourth, Nicholas Slatten, was determined to have fired the first shots and was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Slatten was retried and sentenced in August 2019 to life in prison. The following month, Slough, Liberty and Heard had their sentences reduced by half or more.
“I was following carefully the whole time. It was a gradual reduction — I knew we’d never get justice,” Saadi said.
Iraq’s foreign ministry said Wednesday it would ask Washington to “review the decision,” which it described as “inconsistent with the US administration’s declared commitment to the values of human rights, justice and the rule of law.”
Kataeb Hezbollah, a hard-line Iraqi armed group backed by Iran, said the US was “deluding itself into thinking our people would forget these crimes.”
The pardon came just a few weeks after the International Criminal Court shut down a preliminary probe into alleged war crimes by British troops in Iraq after the invasion.
The ICC prosecutor had said in 2017 that there was “reasonable basis” for believing British soldiers had committed such crimes.
But she said this month she could not find proof Britain had shielded suspects from prosecution.
Ali Bayati of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission said the back-to-back decisions showed there was little respect for human rights abroad.
“The latest decision confirms these countries’ violations of human rights and international law,” he told AFP.
“They grant immunity to their soldiers even as they claim to protect human rights.”
Baghdad was gripped by bloody sectarian warfare in 2007, and there was no local trial over the September 16 deaths in Nisur Square.
Following the shootings, Iraq announced it would not renew Blackwater’s operating license and the US State Department did not renew its contract there with the firm.
Blackwater changed its name several times, eventually becoming Academi and merging with other firms to form the Constellis Group.
One of Constellis’s smaller firms, Olive Group, is currently operating in Iraq.
“It was a charade of a trial, then they get released and it’s all over,” said Mohammed Al-Shahmani, a Baghdad resident.
“The US president just proved that they occupied this country, not liberated it.”
The US trial found none of the 14 people killed in Nisur Square was armed. Many were in their vehicles, which had been sprayed with machine-gun fire.
At least one child died.
All but one of the victims’ families accepted compensation from Blackwater, a lawyer wounded in the attack told AFP previously.
Those hurt received up to $50,000, while the relatives of those killed were offered $100,000.
Haitham Al-Rubaie, who lost his son Ahmad and wife Mahasin, was the only one to turn down the offers.
Ahmad was a 20-year-old medical student, a former classmate said on Wednesday.
“All of us at school were devastated and heartbroken,” said the classmate, who asked for her name to be withheld so she could speak freely.
“Times were really tough... and to hear that he and his mom were both murdered added to our sense of desperation.”
She said she expected Ahmad would have been a successful physician — like his mother — had he lived.
“It is an utter outrage, but it is also not surprising by any means. The Americans have never approached us Iraqis as equals,” the former classmate said.
“As far as they are concerned, our blood is cheaper than water and our demands for justice and accountability are merely a nuisance.”


UAE administers 118,805 doses of COVID-19 vaccines overnight

UAE administers 118,805 doses of COVID-19 vaccines overnight
Updated 5 min 10 sec ago

UAE administers 118,805 doses of COVID-19 vaccines overnight

UAE administers 118,805 doses of COVID-19 vaccines overnight
  • UAE health officials reported 2,022 new coronavirus cases overnight

DUBAI: The UAE administered 1118,805 more doses of COVID-19 vaccines overnight bringing total jabs given to residents and citizens to 9,156,728 or about 92.58 doses per 100 individuals.

The nationwide inoculation program aims to give the population immunity from coronavirus that will help curb its spread as well as bring down infection cases.

UAE health officials reported 2,022 new coronavirus cases overnight, bringing the country’s caseload to 487,697 since the pandemic began. Four deaths were also confirmed due to COVID-19 complications, bringing the total number of deaths in the country to 1,537.

Meanwhile, an additional 1,731 individuals had fully recovered from COVID-19, bringing the total number of recoveries to 471,906.


Biden administration proceeding with $23 billion weapon sales to UAE

Biden administration proceeding with $23 billion weapon sales to UAE
Updated 25 min 58 sec ago

Biden administration proceeding with $23 billion weapon sales to UAE

Biden administration proceeding with $23 billion weapon sales to UAE

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden’s administration has told Congress it is proceeding with more than $23 billion in weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including advanced F-35 aircraft, armed drones and other equipment, congressional aides said on Tuesday.
A State Department spokesperson said the administration would move forward with the proposed sales to the UAE, “even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials” related to the use of the weapons.
The Democratic president’s administration had paused the deals agreed to by former Republican President Donald Trump in order to review them.


Israel shocked by self-immolation of traumatized ex-soldier

Israel shocked by self-immolation of traumatized ex-soldier
An honour guard of Israeli soldiers with their rifles stands to attention during a one minute siren, as they partake in a state ceremony for Memorial Day in Jerusalem on April 13, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 14 April 2021

Israel shocked by self-immolation of traumatized ex-soldier

Israel shocked by self-immolation of traumatized ex-soldier
  • ‘He saw horrible things and nobody took care of him,’ his tearful brother Avi Saidian told journalists at the hospital

JERUSALEM: Israel was shaken Tuesday after a 26-year-old former soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder since the 2014 Gaza war set himself on fire, suffering severe injuries.
Itzik Saidian went to a support service for wounded soldiers near Tel Aviv on Monday, doused himself with a flammable liquid and lit it, “due to significant psychological distress,” the army said.
He was rushed to the intensive care unit of Tel Hashomer Hospital near Tel Aviv and was in “critical condition” with “deep burns all over his body,” the hospital said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “very shocked” and “determined to undertake a complete reform of the way we take care of our disabled and wounded veterans.”
The young man had been recognized as partially disabled because he suffered from PTSD related to his service during the 2014 war between Israel and the armed Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Around 2,250 Palestinians were killed in the war, mostly civilians, and 74 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
Saidian’s self-immolation came on the eve of Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and attack victims.
It sparked controversy over the support system for wounded or psychologically ill soldiers, which is often deemed inefficient and bureaucratic.
“He saw horrible things and nobody took care of him,” his tearful brother Avi Saidian told journalists at the hospital.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced a “thorough investigation to find the reasons for this tragic event.” His ministry pledged to “substantially improve the treatment of post-traumatic soldiers.”
Military service is mandatory in Israel for 18-year-olds. Women serve two years and men two years and six months.


Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval

Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval
Updated 13 April 2021

Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval

Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval
  • Aoun's decision could significantly delay the process
  • Israeli Energy Minister said Monday Lebanon's expanded claim would derail talks

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president said on Tuesday a draft decree expanding its maritime claims in a dispute with Israel must be approved by the caretaker government, rejecting a request to grant it swift presidential approval.
The dispute with Israel over the maritime boundary has held up hydrocarbon exploration in a potentially gas-rich area of the eastern Mediterranean.
The decree, approved by Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, defense minister and minister of public work on Monday, would add around 1,400 square km (540 square miles) to an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean claimed by Lebanon.
Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s office said the decree should be approved by President Michel Aoun so that the new maritime coordinates setting out Lebanon’s claim could be submitted to the United Nations.
But the presidency said it should be approved by Diab’s full cabinet, even though the government resigned eight months ago following a devastating explosion in Beirut, because of the gravity of the issue.
The draft decree “needs a collective decision from the council of ministers..., even under a caretaker government, due to its importance and the consequences,” a statement from Aoun’s office said.
Aoun’s decision could significantly delay the process. Since the government resigned in August it has referred all issues for exceptional approval by the president, leaving them to get formal endorsement when a new government is finally agreed.
Negotiations were launched in October to try to resolve the dispute with Israel yet the talks, a culmination of three years of diplomacy by the United States, have since stalled.
Israel already pumps gas from offshore fields but Lebanon has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday Lebanon’s expanded claim would derail the talks rather than help work toward a common solution, warning that Israel would implement “parallel measures.”
Lebanon, in the throes of a deep financial meltdown that is threatening its stability, is desperate for cash as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. But political leaders have failed to bridge their differences and form a new government.


Ramadan in Lebanon limited due to high inflation, virus restrictions

Ramadan in Lebanon limited due to high inflation, virus restrictions
Mahmud Fannas, who carries out the traditional role of a Musaharati (Ramadan drummer), who awakens Muslims for the pre-dawn traditional suhur meal during Ramadan, visits a young fan in an alley in the old city of Sidon, Lebanon. (AFP)
Updated 14 April 2021

Ramadan in Lebanon limited due to high inflation, virus restrictions

Ramadan in Lebanon limited due to high inflation, virus restrictions
  • Iftar events banned as new curfew goes into effect and donations are fleeting during the holy month
  • People ask me about the prices, and when I answer, they seem very unhappy. Some even beg me to give them lower prices. But the truth is, I am one of these people. I am suffering just like them

BEIRUT: The social events, traditions and gatherings usually celebrated during Ramadan will be very different this year in Lebanon as the country continues to grapple with unprecedented economic collapse and a coronavirus (COVID-19) surge.

Leading up to the holy month, preparations for Ramadan were slight in Beirut as only a few signs reminding people to donate could be seen in the city’s main streets. Charity foundations usually rely on the month of Ramadan every year to collect donations but the country’s ability to give is fleeting.

“More than 50 percent of the Lebanese now live under the poverty line,” World Bank Group Vice President for Middle East and North Africa Farid Belhaj said on April 4.

In an attempt to combat the spread of the virus, the National Disaster Management Operations Room imposed a new curfew that applies during Ramadan from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. It has also banned all iftar events.

Charitable organizations can distribute food to houses, but only after obtaining a permit from the electronic platform. The capacity of worshippers at mosques will be limited to 30 percent while restaurants and cafes, which have already endured several months of lockdown, will be closed again during the holy month.

The price inflation has become a daily nightmare for the Lebanese, and with the arrival of Ramadan, the prices of essential goods, like vegetables and fruits, have increased even further due to the high demand.

“The price of one kilo of beef has increased to between 60 and 70,000 pounds and a kilo of taouk chicken was sold at 50,000 pounds on the first day of Ramadan,” Abbas Ali Salim, a butcher shop owner in Beirut’s southern suburbs, told Arab News.

“People ask me about the prices, and when I answer, they seem very unhappy. Some even beg me to give them lower prices. But the truth is, I am one of these people. I am suffering just like them. The black market is trading the state-subsidized meat, monopolized by traders who are controlling the prices.”

Due to inflation, the cost of a typical iftar meal — lentil soup, fattoush salad, a main dish of chicken and rice, a half a cup of yogurt and a single date — has reached more than 60,000 Lebanese pounds, according to the crisis observatory at the American University of Beirut.

By those estimates, a full month of iftar meals for a family of five would cost 1.8 million pounds, which is much higher than the Lebanese minimum wage of 675,000 pounds. This cost does not even cover the juices, desserts, gas, electricity or cleaning material used for cooking.

Researchers at the observatory said a fattoush salad for a small family that cost 6,000 pounds during Ramadan last year, now costs 18,500 pounds. This means that the cost of a daily salad during this year’s Ramadan would be about 82 percent of the minimum wage.

The observatory feared that families might cope with the inflation by “cutting quantities or opting for cheaper alternatives to replace vegetables and meat, which would result in malnutrition.”

Mohammad Chamseddine, a researcher from the independent studies and statistics company Information International, said: “The prices of basic goods in Ramadan have increased by between 25 and 100 percent, with a significant reduction in sales, as the purchasing power of the Lebanese, especially those getting paid in Lebanese pounds, has eroded.”

Ramadan has also been affected by the country’s slow COVID-19 vaccination plan, which started in February. Lebanon's Health Minister Hamad Hassan said on Tuesday that “over 20 percent of the Lebanese people have developed immunity, either through infection or vaccination.”