Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai speaks after meeting with President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 15, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 October 2021

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence
  • Thursday’s spasm of violence saw seven Shiite Muslims killed

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, the top Christian cleric, said on Sunday the country’s judiciary should be free of political interference and sectarian “activism” amid tensions over a probe into last year’s blast at Beirut port.
Rai also said that it was unacceptable for any party to resort to threats or violence after last week’s deadly unrest around the investigation — which was Lebanon’s worst street bloodshed in more than a decade and stirred memories of the ruinous 1975-1990 civil war.
“We must free the judiciary from political interference, sectarian and partisan political activism and respect its independence according to the principle of separation of powers,” he said in his sermon.
Rai, head of the Maronite church, has an influential role as religious leader of the biggest Christian community in Lebanon, where political power is divided between its main Christian, Muslim and Druze sects.
The inquiry into the Aug. 4, 2020 explosion, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut, has made little headway amid pushback from powerful political factions. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has called Judge Tarek Bitar — the lead investigator — biased and politicized.
“The rise in doubts over the (integrity of the) judiciary that has been going for a while has not only undermined the judiciary but also the reputation of Lebanon,” said Rai.
Seven Shiite Muslims were killed on Thursday as crowds were on their way to a protest against Bitar in a demonstration called by the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah group and its Shiite ally Amal.
The violence added to concerns over the stability of a country that is awash with weapons and grappling with an economic meltdown.
“The democratic system has afforded us peaceful means for freedom of expression whether in support or opposition so it’s not acceptable that any party should resort to threats or violence and setting up party checkpoints or tribal ones to get what they want through force,” said Rai.
Hezbollah blamed the Christian Lebanese Forces party for the deaths on Thursday, an accusation the head of that party, Samir Geagea, denied.
The perpetrators should be held to account, the pro-Iranian Al-Mayadeen TV quoted a Hezbollah representative in the Lebanese parliament as saying on Sunday.
“What the criminals ... did is a massacre and it will have important ramifications,” MP Hassan Fadallah said, according to the Beirut-based channel. “Those who incited, planned ... and opened fire should be held to account all the way up to the top.”
On Thursday, the army initially said rounds were fired on at protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shiite Muslim neighborhoods. It later said there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.
Defense Minister Maurice Selim said on Saturday that a stampede and a clash in Teyouneh led to gunfire by both sides, adding that the exchange of fire had preceded the sniper fire.
Families of the victims of the port blast expressed their support for judge Bitar on Saturday after a spokesman for one of their groups surprisingly changed tack on Friday night by saying he should leave.
His sudden change of stance prompted a flurry of speculation on social media that he had been threatened.


Former US officials call for regime change in Iran led by the nation’s people

Former US officials call for regime change in Iran led by the nation’s people
Updated 18 August 2022

Former US officials call for regime change in Iran led by the nation’s people

Former US officials call for regime change in Iran led by the nation’s people
  • They were speaking at an event marking the 20th anniversary of a conference that revealed to the world the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear program
  • National Council of Resistance of Iran’s Alireza Jafarzadeh said the regime in Tehran sees the nuclear program as a way to guarantee its survival

WASHINGTON: The National Council of Resistance of Iran in the US on Wednesday urged American authorities and the wider international community to stand firm against the regime in Iran and its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

The call came during a conference in Washington organized by the council. The speakers included a number of American former political and military leaders who called for support for regime change spearheaded by the Iranian people.

They also argued that the administration of President Joe Biden is making a critical mistake in negotiating with Iranian authorities over a possible revival of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, without leveraging the power of the US military capability to strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The US, under President Donald Trump, unilaterally withdrew from the JCPoA in 2018.

Wednesday’s conference was organized to examine Iran’s current nuclear agenda on the 20th anniversary of the NCRI press conference in Washington that revealed to the world the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear program at the Natanz and Arak nuclear facilities.

The speakers included John Bolton, a former US national security advisor and ambassador; Gen. Chuck Wald, former deputy commander of US European Command; Robert Joseph, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security; Joe Lieberman, a former senator; Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency; and Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the NCRI’s Washington office.

Jafarzadeh said that the Iranians will never abandon their nuclear ambitions because they see the program as a way to guarantee the survival of the regime and deter any potential foreign attack or military intervention. He urged the US government to support the Iranian people in their push for change in Tehran.

“The solution is a regime change by the Iranian people and replacing (the regime) with a democratic republic,” he said.

Bolton echoed Jafarzadeh’s sentiments and said the Iranian regime has lied for 20 years about its nuclear program. There will be no peace or security if it remains in power, he added.

“The key is the Iranian people, who are a threat to the regime,” Bolton said.

Wald said the US and Israel have carried out a lot of planning in the past 20 years in case it is decided that Iranian nuclear sites must be attacked.

He pointed out that all the previous and current negotiations with the regime have failed to halt its nuclear program and said the US government must make it clear to Tehran that it has the military capability and political will to strike the nuclear facilities.

“The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps must stay on the (US government’s) Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, as well as placing the issue of Iran’s ballistic missiles on the negotiating table,” he added.

Arguing against the current round of negotiations with Iran, Joseph said that Tehran has stepped up its nuclear program while also building ballistic missiles, it provides support for terrorist groups and has carried out repression of the Iranian people since signing the 2015 nuclear deal.

“The key here is the Iranian people,” he said. “It’s the greatest threat to the administration. At the minimum, we shouldn’t stand in the way of people who seek democracy, basic human dignity and human rights.”

Joseph added that when Iran considers its nuclear weapons program it thinks of the fate of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who surrendered his country’s nuclear program and “eight years later he is dead in a ditch.”

He said said Iran’s breakout time — the term for how long is required to produce enough fissile material to develop a nuclear weapon — can now be measured in weeks.

“My view that Iran is a virtual nuclear weapons state” he added.


Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form govt

Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form govt
Updated 18 August 2022

Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form govt

Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form govt
  • 350 Lebanese judges on strike in protest over low salaries

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati has launched a new attempt to form a  government and end the political deadlock that has gripped the country for months.

After meeting President Michel Aoun on Wednesday, Mikati said: “I presented Aoun with a proposal for the government formation on June 29. We discussed it again today and I can tell you we are starting to see eye to eye.”

The meeting is believed to have improved relations between Mikati and Aoun, which soured after the latter claimed the proposed government formation robbed his political team of the ministries it wanted to keep.

Mikati briefed Aoun about a ministerial meeting that he called on Tuesday and held in his residence. Discussions did not take place in the official Cabinet hall since the government has been in caretaker mode following parliamentary elections in May.

The ministerial meeting focused on the issue of the customs dollar, and urgent financial and economic files.

A source in the PM’s office told Arab News: “Mikati was relieved after the meeting with Aoun. Although he did not want to reveal the details of the discussions, he hopes to form a government soon.”

The source said that during the ministerial meeting, Mikati sought to unify ministers’ views regarding the customs dollar between those who want to price it based on the rate of 12,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar and those who want to adopt the Central Bank’s Sayrafa platform rate of 26,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

The customs dollar is still priced at 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar — the official price that has prevailed during the past three years of economic collapse.

The source said: “They will most likely settle on an average rate so that the customs dollar would be based on the rate of 20,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. Any decision in this regard requires the government’s approval, which can only happen if a new government is formed and gains Parliament’s vote of confidence. This needs to happen before September since Parliament would turn into an electoral body only as of Sept. 1.”

A political observer said: “The customs dollar needs to be settled and approved to feed the state treasury and limit the collapse.”

Unifying the customs dollar price is one of several conditions Lebanon must meet in order to complete its agreement with the International Monetary Fund, in addition to enacting the capital control law, restructuring banks and approving the 2022 budget.

Political observers fear constitutional crises related to the caretaker government managing the presidential elections may be fabricated, which could suggest that such a government is not eligible to take power in the event of a presidential vacuum, resulting in the current president remaining in office after the end of his term.

The Strong Lebanon Bloc, Aoun’s political team, warned in a statement on Tuesday of the danger of refraining from forming a government under various pretexts that allow a resigned government to take the president’s place if a new one is not elected within the constitutional deadline.

“Any attempt in this direction is rejected and allows constitutional chaos, which may create a custom that could lead to many new ones,” the bloc said.

It demanded Mikati form a new government, taking into account the president’s constitutional role in the process.

The bloc insisted that the presidential candidate should be from a parliamentary bloc with balanced representation, or be supported by significant parliamentary blocs, adding that it will not accept the nomination of those who have no representative capacity.

Meanwhile, more than 350 out of 560 judges have decided to stop work in protest against the withdrawal of a decision to pay judges’ salaries based on the rate of 8,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

The Central Bank had adopted this measure to raise the value of the judges’ salaries, but was met with protests by public sector employees, who went on strike until they received pay rises.

The judges’ strike could have serious repercussions, and includes investigative judges and judges in the Public Prosecution Office, as well as members of the Supreme Judicial Council, the State Shoura Council and the Court of Audit.

Aoun addressed judges on Tuesday, urging them “to fight for their dignity and authority, and not fear the oppression of those in power.”

He asked the judiciary “to confront everyone who restricts their judgment in the case filed against Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, and in the Beirut port explosion probe.”


Young Palestinians losing interest in politics, poll shows

Young Palestinians losing interest in politics, poll shows
Updated 18 August 2022

Young Palestinians losing interest in politics, poll shows

Young Palestinians losing interest in politics, poll shows
  • Study by Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre finds young people are reluctant to join political parties

RAMALLAH: Young Palestinians have the potential to play a vital role in politics but lack the opportunity to do so, according to the results of a recent poll.

The study, by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, found that young people were reluctant to join political parties, despite more than 82 percent of respondents believing they had an important role to play.

More than 88 percent of people thought it was important for young people to become members of the central committees and politburos of political parties and factions, but almost 69 percent said there had been a significant decline in them doing so.

Almost 75 percent of respondents said they believed in the importance of holding legislative elections, while 79 percent said it was essential to hold presidential elections. Just over 70 percent of people said they would vote in such elections.

More than 34 percent of people said economic issues were their primary concern when evaluating the platforms of electoral lists or parties, followed by safety and security at 29 percent and fighting corruption at 14 percent.

The poll showed that 51 percent of respondents would support the PLO’s platform, 22 percent would support Hamas and 27 percent did not respond.

Almost 76 percent of people said it was essential to hold leadership elections for Palestinian political parties and factions.

Just over 32 percent of respondents said they would vote for the PLC elections candidate representing Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, while 13.5 percent would opt for Hamas, led by Ismail Haniyeh. More than 33 percent said they would not vote or were unsure whom to vote for.

In the study, 19 percent said they wanted Marwan Barghouthi to be the future president of the PLO, while the same percentage said they wanted him to be president of the PA, followed by Mohammed Dahlan with 4.3 percent, Hussein Al-Sheikh with 3.6 percent, Mohammed Shtayieh with 3.3 percent and Mohammed Aloul with 2.9 percent.

Just over 44 percent said that Abbas’ decision to appoint Hussein Al-Sheikh as PLO executive committee secretary was not good and 33 percent said they expected him to do a bad job.

A shade over 50 percent of the participants said the PA’s performance was good — down from over 68 percent who thought so in June 2020 — while 45 percent said it was terrible. A total of 58.5 percent said they believed the PA should be maintained, while 33 percent said it should be dissolved.

On the issue of the war in Ukraine, 65 percent of respondents said they were neutral, while 17 percent said they sympathized with Russia and 8 percent said they sympathized with Ukraine. Almost 65 percent of people said the Palestinian leadership should take a neutral stance on the conflict.

Just over 42 percent of respondents said they thought that US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region would not affect the interests of the Palestinian people, while 38 percent said it would be harmful and 13 percent thought it could be beneficial.


Iraq’s Garden of Eden now ‘like a desert’

Iraq’s Garden of Eden now ‘like a desert’
Updated 18 August 2022

Iraq’s Garden of Eden now ‘like a desert’

Iraq’s Garden of Eden now ‘like a desert’

HUWAIZAH MARSHES, Iraq: To feed and cool his buffaloes, Hashem Gassed must cross 10 kilometers (6 miles) of sunburnt land in southern Iraq, where drought is devastating swaths of the mythical Mesopotamian Marshes.

The reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, Iraq’s swamplands have been battered by three years of drought and low rainfall, as well as reduced water flows along rivers and tributaries originating in neighboring Turkey and Iran.

Vast expanses of the once lush Huwaizah Marshes, straddling the border with Iran, have been baked dry, their vegetation yellowing. Stretches of the Chibayish Marshes, which are popular with tourists, are suffering the same fate.

“The marshes are our livelihood — we used to fish here and our livestock could graze and drink,” said Gassed, 35, from a hamlet near Huwaizah.

Southern Iraq’s marshlands were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016, both for their biodiversity and their ancient history.

But now, beds of dry streams snake around the once verdant wetlands, and the area’s Um Al-Naaj Lake has been reduced to puddles of muddy water among largely dry ground.

Like his father before him, Gassed raises buffaloes, but only five of the family’s around 30 animals are left.

The others died or were sold as the family struggles to make ends meet.

Family members watch carefully over those that remain, fearful that the weak, underfed beasts might fall in the mud and die.

“We have been protesting for more than two years and no one is listening,” Gassed said.

“We are at a loss where to go. Our lives are over.”

Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian Marshes suffered under the former dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered that they be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting insurgents, and to hunt them down.

The wetlands have sporadically gone through years of harsh drought in the past, before being revived by good rainy seasons.

But between August 2020 and this month, 46 percent of the swamplands of southern Iraq, including Huwaizah and Chibayish, suffered total surface water loss, according to Dutch peace-building organization PAX.

Another 41 percent of marsh areas suffered from reduced water levels and wetness, according to the organization, which used satellite data to make the assessment.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Iraq said the marshes were “one of the poorest regions in Iraq and one of the most affected by the climate change,” warning of “unprecedented low water levels.”

It noted the “disastrous impact” on more than 6,000 families who “are losing their buffaloes, their unique living asset.”

Biodiversity is also at risk.

The swamplands provide a home for “numerous populations of threatened species,” and are an important stopping point for around 200 species of migratory water birds, according to UNESCO.

Environmental activist Ahmed Saleh Neema said there were “no more fish,” wild boar or even a subspecies of smooth-coated otter in the marshes.


Morocco bus crash leaves 23 dead, scores injured

Morocco bus crash leaves 23 dead, scores injured
Updated 17 August 2022

Morocco bus crash leaves 23 dead, scores injured

Morocco bus crash leaves 23 dead, scores injured
  • The bus overturned on a bend of a motorway in Khouribga province in the morning
  • Regional health director Rochdi Kaddar later revised the death toll up to 23

RABAT: A bus crash east of Morocco’s economic capital Casablanca on Wednesday left 23 people dead, a health official said, marking one of the deadliest such accidents in recent years.
The bus overturned on a bend of a motorway in Khouribga province in the morning, local authorities said, giving an initial toll of 15 dead.
Regional health director Rochdi Kaddar later revised the death toll up to 23, telling AFP that another 36 people were injured in the crash.
The bus was traveling between Casablanca and the rural region of Ait Attab, near the town of Beni Mellal at the foot of the High Atlas mountains.
The injured were taken to a hospital in Khouribga and an investigation has been opened into the accident.
Road accidents, often deadly, are relatively frequent in Morocco and other North African countries.
An average of 3,500 deaths and 12,000 injuries have been recorded annually in Morocco, according to the National Road Safety Agency, with an average of 10 deaths per day.