Iraqi elections were competitive and ‘surprisingly’ well-managed, observers say

Employees of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission conduct a manual count of votes following the parliamentary elections in Baghdad’s Green Zone area on Oct. 13, 2021. (AFP)
Employees of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission conduct a manual count of votes following the parliamentary elections in Baghdad’s Green Zone area on Oct. 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 15 October 2021

Iraqi elections were competitive and ‘surprisingly’ well-managed, observers say

Iraqi elections were competitive and ‘surprisingly’ well-managed, observers say
  • Chief EU observer Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel said although the low turnout and exclusion of some groups was a concern, the vote was well run in terms of administration and integrity
  • Iran is the country with the biggest stake in the outcome of Iraq’s election, because of the influence it exerts over its neighbor, says an expert

LONDON: Despite some lack of clarity, low voter turnout, the exclusion of several groups and the overarching security, the Iraqi elections this week were “surprisingly” well run and managed and were genuinely competitive, according to experts.
“It was a special experience being the first chief observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission to Iraq,” said Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel, a member of the European Parliament.
“Coming from a, let’s say, very civil society in Germany and even more-robust political environments in a post-Soviet world, something like this I have never experienced or seen before.”
She was speaking on Thursday during a panel discussion, organized by UK think tank Chatham House, about the Iraqi elections last Sunday and what they mean for the government. Only about 9 million of 22 million eligible voters cast a vote, a turnout of just over 40 percent.
Cramon-Taubadel said observers’ preliminary statement was fairly critical and that the low voter turnout was in part due to structural problems, including a lack of access and services for people with special needs, including those with vision and hearing impairments and in wheelchairs. The high level of security at polling stations also hindered access and several sections of the population were excluded, such as internally displaced persons, she added, and there were technical issues with voter cards that did not work and biometric systems that failed to recognize fingerprints.
However she compared this with election experiences in Berlin, where significant problems have also been encountered. And in terms of the fundamentals, Iraq fared relatively well, she added.
“In terms of administration, in terms of having everything, people knew what they were doing and the technology worked, mainly — I cannot say this for Berlin, honestly,” said Cramon-Taubadel.




(L to R) Head of the European Parliament’s delegation Domenec Ruiz Devesa, Chief Observer of the EU Election Observation Mission to Iraq Viola von Cramon, and deputy chief Alexander Matus hold a press conference to announce their preliminary report in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Oct. 12, 2021. (AFP)

Many democratic countries are experiencing increasingly low levels of voter turnout, even the US, she added, but rather than comparing Iraq’s elections with those in the West she suggested that a more relevant comparison was with the previous elections in Iraq, in 2018.
“The level of security, the level of professionalism...in general, if you look through the process how it went in 2018 and now, I would say this was a huge upgrade,” said Cramon-Taubadel. “And I have only heard that people were surprised by how many independent candidates in the end have made it, and they kind of regretted their decision to boycott (the election) because they didn’t believe, they didn’t trust the institution and there was no confidence in the IT system.”
Authorities ran election simulations before and after the vote and have precautionary measures in place to prevent fraud or tampering, she explained, and eradicated a number of loopholes in the past month.
Cramon-Taubadel said she saw highly-sophisticated precautionary measures in place at a warehouse in Basra where ballots were being stored, to protect it and avoid a repeat of incidents such as a warehouse fire in Baghdad during the 2018 election in which votes were destroyed. Staff at polling stations were well trained and committed, she added, but they were sad and frustrated because they had hoped for higher turnouts that would have given then more to do, especially in urban areas.
Regarding accusations of fraud and ballot-rigging, Cramon-Taubadel said the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq has access to the raw election data and has not found any evidence of this. Expressing her trust in Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, she said any indications of fraudulent activity should be submitted to it so that their and EU observers can implement the proper legal mechanisms and investigate.
She said the main thing now is for the government to listen to the people and include the views of protest movements in the political process, focus on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, particularly the “awful” schools, and try to capitalize on oil and other resources while it can because the Iraqi people “deserve better.”
Harith Hasan, a non-resident senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, said the low turnout had favored some parties and hurt others.
Muqtada Al-Sadr’s bloc was the biggest winner, taking more than 70 seats, followed by Mohammed Al-Halbousi’s Progress Party, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law, all of whom won more than 30 seats. The most notable loser was the Fatah bloc, pro-Iranian Shiite parties with links to armed groups, affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd Al-Shaabi).




Iraq’s populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station in the central Iraqi shrine city of Najaf on Oct. 10, 2021. (AFP)

Hasan said Iran is the country with the biggest stake in the outcome of Iraq’s election, because of the influence it exerts over its neighbor.
“The Iranians have three interests in Iraq,” he explained. “The first is, of course, the ending of the US military presence and making sure there are no threats coming from Iraq.
“The second is maintaining the Hashd Al-Shaabi, and the third is keeping the Iraqi markets open for Iranian products.”
Tehran would prefer an Iraqi government dominated by its allies, which they believe would secure their interests much better than a government dominated by Al-Sadr, Hasan said, but much will depend on who is responsible for Iraqi policy in President Ebrahim Raisi’s government.
Hanaa Edwar, the founder and general secretary of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, a non-political, non-sectarian organization of volunteers that works to improve the lives of all Iraqis, said that if there is an effort to “really build an opposition for the first time inside the parliament,” that would be a positive first step.
“And if they really can confront cutting MPs’ privileges, materially and funding and so on, I think this is also something we can take into consideration as a positive step,” she added.
She said this will depend on how established national parties and MPs cooperate with new parties, as well as civil society, intellectuals and “the movement in the street,” which have a large role to play “in the development of this new era in the country.”


UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq
Updated 09 December 2021

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq
  • Two incidents in the past week, one in Basra and the other in the north of the country, left dozens of people dead or injured
  • Council members pledged their continued support to Iraq in its fight against terrorism, and in opposing Daesh in particular


The UN Security Council on Wednesday strongly condemned recent terrorist attacks in Iraq that killed or injured dozens of people. Daesh has claimed responsibility.
At least four people were killed and 20 injured in an explosion in Basra on Dec. 7, and at least 13 died in an attack in the north of the country on Dec. 3.
The members of the Security Council offered their condolences to the families of the dead and wished the injured a speedy recovery. They also reiterated their support for the “independence, sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity, democratic process and prosperity of Iraq.”
They urged all states to “actively” cooperate with Iraqi authorities to bring to justice the “perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism.” Such cooperation, they stressed, is in line with obligations under international law and Security Council resolutions.
Council members “reiterated that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.”
Pledging its continued support to Iraq in its fight against terrorism, and particularly Daesh, the council “reaffirmed the need for all states to combat by all means — in accordance with the charter of the United Nations and other obligations under international law, including international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law — threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.”


Half of Iran’s civil jets grounded for lack of spare parts

Half of Iran’s civil jets grounded for lack of spare parts
Updated 09 December 2021

Half of Iran’s civil jets grounded for lack of spare parts

Half of Iran’s civil jets grounded for lack of spare parts

TEHRAN: More than half of Iran’s fleet of civilian aircraft is grounded due to a lack of spare parts, the deputy head of the country’s airlines association has said.

“The number of inactive planes in Iran has risen to more than 170 ... as a result of missing spare parts, particularly motors,” Alireza Barkhor said in an interview with state news agency IRNA.

The shortage represented more than half of the civilian aircraft in the sanctions-hit country, he said in an interview this week.

“If this trend continues, we will see even more planes grounded in the near future,” Barkhor was quoted as saying.

“We hope that one of the priorities of the government will be helping to finance airlines so that they are able to provide the spare parts to refurbish the grounded planes,” he added.

According to the Iranian economic daily Financial Tribune, national carrier IranAir currently operates a fleet of 39 planes, the majority of them Airbus jets.

Iran’s economy has struggled under sanctions that were lifted after a landmark nuclear deal in 2015 but reimposed again after the US withdrew from the pact in 2018.

In 2016, following the lifting of sanctions, Iran concluded deals to purchase 100 Airbus jets, 80 Boeing planes and 40 ATR aircraft.

But the Islamic republic received only 11 planes as deliveries were interrupted following the reimposition of sanctions, according to the daily.

Meanwhile, Iran has voiced criticism over new US sanctions imposed on a dozen Iranian entities and officials accused of “serious” human rights abuses.

Washington announced the sanctions late on Tuesday, adding to already stringent measures against the Islamic republic.

They came just before talks on reviving a nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers are to resume on Thursday in Vienna, according to Iran’s main negotiator.

“Even amid #ViennaTalks, US cannot stop imposing sanctions against Iran,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted.

“Washington fails to understand that ‘maximum failure’ and a diplomatic breakthrough are mutually exclusive,” he added.

“Doubling down on sanctions won’t create leverage — and is anything but seriousness and goodwill.”

The new US measures target government officials and organizations involved in the repression of protesters and political activists, and prisons where activists have been held in brutal conditions.

After a pause of several months the nuclear talks resumed in Vienna last week but paused on Friday.


Music therapy helping lift spirits of war-weary Gazans

Music therapy helping lift spirits of war-weary Gazans
Updated 09 December 2021

Music therapy helping lift spirits of war-weary Gazans

Music therapy helping lift spirits of war-weary Gazans
  • Music therapy gained official recognition after World War II in successfully dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • According to UNICEF figures, 1 million children live in Gaza which has witnessed four wars with Israel since 2008

GAZA CITY: Specialists in the besieged Gaza Strip are mixing psychiatry and music in therapy sessions designed to improve positivity among the Palestinian enclave’s war-weary population.

And 12-year-old Reem, whose family home was bombed in May during the latest clashes in the ongoing Israeli Palestinian conflict, has been one of those to benefit.

The youngster was left traumatized after an explosion at her house in Gaza’s Tel Al-Hawa neighborhood, an experience that has since regularly reduced her to tears and caused her to feel isolated and depressed.

But after getting involved in a music therapy scheme run by the Sununu Association for Culture and Arts and funded by the German GIZ organization, her stresses and fears have been significantly eased.

Reem listens to music without words during her weekly psychological support sessions organized as part of the Enjoy Your Life with Music initiative.

Program coordinator, Rania Al-Shurihi, said Reem’s mental health had improved dramatically as a result of her treatment, adding that the association also held group sessions for Gazans suffering from the psychological effects of years of war and economic hardship.

Music therapy gained official recognition after World War II in successfully dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and it is now used to treat a range of conditions including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, heart irregularities, and blood pressure issues.

Al-Shurihi pointed out that sometimes exposing people to sad music helped them shed negative energy through crying but added that happy and relaxing music incorporating the sound of rain and waves could have similar positive outcomes.

She noted that psychological pressure often generated the need to listen to music or readings from the Holy Qur’an for relaxation.

Mental health specialists also use therapeutic methods such as writing, cooking, sailing, and breathing exercises to relieve tensions.

“Despite society’s inherited and negative view of mental health center visitors, the success of the music therapy experience has greatly contributed to changing these concepts,” Al-Shurihi said.

Experts believe that many children living in Gaza suffer from psychological damage related to the conflict including depression, anxiety, behavioral disorders, urinary incontinence, and nervous mood swings.

According to UNICEF figures, 1 million children live in Gaza which has witnessed four wars with Israel since 2008. The aid organization said the deadly conflict in May had a devastating impact on many youngsters after schools, health facilities, homes, and offices were damaged or flattened in missile attacks.

Al-Shurihi said it was important that music therapy continued to be offered in Gaza not just to tackle the effects of war but also the daily pressures of life faced by Palestinians.

“We all need psychological intervention to varying degrees. And through music, we seek to help the neediest people to overcome difficult circumstances and not drown in a sea of psychological crises,” she added.


Lebanese caught between old and new $100 banknotes

Lebanese caught between old and new $100 banknotes
Updated 08 December 2021

Lebanese caught between old and new $100 banknotes

Lebanese caught between old and new $100 banknotes
  • Banks and money changers deny taking commissions on old bills

BEIRUT: Lebanese money changers refusing to accept older $100 banknotes, known as “white notes,” is causing confusion, particularly after some people were charged an extra $5 fee for exchanging $100 white bills.

Dozens of customers flocked to banks to learn more about the news, especially since some of the white $100 notes were issued by banks.

A customer told Arab News: “Every Lebanese is keeping a stack of $100 bills in their home for when they need them the most since the banks confiscated our deposits, and no one dares to deposit a single dollar in the bank nowadays.”

He added: “I went to my bank to inquire about this new rule adopted by money changers. My daughter told me that one refused to exchange the $100 that she gave him, claiming it was an old edition and he had the right to take $5 as commission if she wanted to exchange it. Who gave them the right to do this? I, my wife and my children all work and we save whatever we make in dollars. Does this mean that our savings have become worthless?”

He said: “The bank manager told me that the problem is with money changers, not banks, since they do not have instructions to stop dealing with the old $100 bills; on the contrary, banks are using both the old and new editions. He suggested that I occasionally bring him $200 to $400, in exchange for which he would give me $50 bills until the issue with money changers is resolved.”

Over the past few days, the topic of “old, white” $100 and the “new, blue” $100 banknotes has dominated conversation.

Money transfer companies were also said to have refused to deal with the older notes. Some money changers have taken advantage of the ambiguity to impose a $10 fee for exchanging white $100 bills.

The confusion was said to said to have been stirred by one of the largest money shipping companies, shut down after it was subject to a judicial investigation into smuggling funds abroad after Oct. 17, 2019 — when the financial crisis hit Lebanon, and in light of which Banque du Liban froze transfers inside and outside Lebanon.

Mahmoud Murad, former head of the Syndicate of Money Changers, told Arab News: “This fad has been circulating in the Lebanese financial market for about a week now. We do not know its source, nor who invented it. The problem is that people believe anything in Lebanon.”

He added: “People who come to my business to buy dollar bills only accept the blue-colored edition now. We, as money changers, are buying and selling both the old and new editions; nothing has changed.”

Murad said: “If the $100 notes are worn-out or torn, we buy them from people but never sell them again. Instead, we give them to shipping companies to return them to the US and replace them with brand-new ones.

“But everyone in Lebanon is now a money changer. The Lebanese, the Syrian, the Sri Lankan, the Bengali, the supermarket cashier, the butcher, all engage in exchanging money. Money changers should not be blamed for this.”

Murad said that the Syndicate of Money Changers met on Wednesday and stressed that all money changers follow legal and moral rules when dealing with customers.

However, Banque du Liban revealed in a statement on Wednesday that “some banks and money changers have charged fees for exchanging $100 banknotes, claiming that they are outdated.”

It added: “The specifications of valid $100 notes are determined by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, an agency affiliated with the US Treasury,” noting: “BDL alone determines the specifications of valid Lebanese currency.”

The US Embassy in Lebanon also stated on Wednesday that “it is US government policy that all designs of Federal Reserve notes remain legal tender, or legally valid for payments, regardless of when they were issued. This policy includes all denominations of Federal Reserve notes, from 1914 to present.”

Meanwhile, the Association of Banks in Lebanon announced that “after the great controversy surrounding some money changers taking commissions on old $100 bills, ABL would like to clarify that Lebanese banks deal with banknotes without any amendment to existing procedures. No additional fee is charged for accepting white $100 banknotes.”

OMT Exchange also stated that it “has not stopped accepting white $100 bills, if they are in good condition, and no additional fee is charged at any of our centers. OMT does not accept any banknotes that are torn, burnt, yellowed, or even partially damaged.”


Kuwait detects first case of omicron variant

Kuwait detects first case of omicron variant
Updated 08 December 2021

Kuwait detects first case of omicron variant

Kuwait detects first case of omicron variant
  • The variant was detected in a European traveler who arrived from an African country

KUWAIT: Kuwait has detected its first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, state news agency KUNA reported on Wednesday.
The variant was detected in a European traveler who arrived to Kuwait from an African country where the variant had been detected, KUNA reported, citing a health ministry spokesman.
Speaking to KUNA, Dr. Abdullah Al-Sanad said the traveler had received both dosages of the COVID-19 vaccine previously and now he is under institutional quarantine, according to the health protocol.
He added that the ministry has taken necessary precautions since several nations announced discovering the new variant.
Currently, the pandemic situation in Kuwait is stable, according to Al-Sanad, however, citizens and residents have been advised to take the booster shot to help the ministry curb the spread.
Studies have shown that current vaccines are effective against omicron, he stressed.
On Wednesday, health authorities recorded 18 recoveries, one death and 33 new coronavirus infections, bringing the cases to a total of 413,588 in Kuwait.