European archaeologists back in Iraq after years of war

European archaeologists back in Iraq after years of war
Members of a French-Iraqi archaeological team excavate at the site of the Sumerian city-state of Larsa, near Nasiriyah, on Nov. 22, 2021. (AFP/File)
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Updated 12 January 2022

European archaeologists back in Iraq after years of war

European archaeologists back in Iraq after years of war
  • A team of archaeologists had unearthed a 4,000-year-old cuneiform inscription in Larsa, southern Iraq

NASIRIYAH, Iraq: After war and insurgency kept them away from Iraq for decades, European archaeologists are making an enthusiastic return in search of millennia-old cultural treasures.

“Come and see!” shouted an overjoyed French researcher recently at a desert dig in Larsa, southern Iraq, where the team had unearthed a 4,000-year-old cuneiform inscription.

“When you find inscriptions like that, in situ, it’s moving,” said Dominique Charpin, professor of Mesopotamian civilization at the College de France in Paris.

The inscription in Sumerian was engraved on a brick fired in the 19th century B.C.

“To the god Shamash, his king Sin-iddinam, king of Larsa, king of Sumer and Akkad,” Charpin translated with ease.

Behind him, a dozen other European and Iraqi archaeologists kept at work in a cordoned-off area where they were digging.

They brushed off bricks and removed earth to clear what appeared to be the pier of a bridge spanning an urban canal of Larsa, which was the capital of Mesopotamia just before Babylon, at the start of the second millennium B.C.

“Larsa is one of the largest sites in Iraq; it covers more than 200 hectares,” said Regis Vallet, researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, heading the Franco-Iraqi mission.

The team of 20 people has made “major discoveries,” he said, including the residence of a ruler identified by about 60 cuneiform tablets that have been transferred to the national museum in Baghdad.

Vallet said Larsa is like an archaeological playground and a “paradise” for exploring ancient Mesopotamia, which hosted through the ages the empire of Akkad, the Babylonians, Alexander the Great, the Christians, the Persians and Islamic rulers.

However, the modern history of Iraq — with its succession of conflicts, especially since the 2003 US-led invasion and its bloody aftermath — has kept foreign researchers at bay.

Only since Baghdad declared victory in territorial battles against the Daesh group in 2017 has Iraq “largely stabilized and it has become possible again” to visit, said Vallet.

“The French came back in 2019 and the British a little earlier,” he said. “The Italians came back as early as 2011.”

In late 2021, said Vallet, 10 foreign missions were at work in the Dhi Qar province, where Larsa is located.

Iraq’s Council of Antiquities and Heritage director Laith Majid Hussein said he is delighted to play host, and is happy that his country is back on the map for foreign expeditions.

“This benefits us scientifically,” he told AFP in Baghdad, adding that he welcomes the “opportunity to train our staff after such a long interruption.”

Near Najaf in central Iraq, Ibrahim Salman of the German Institute of Archaeology is focused on the site of the city of Al-Hira.

Germany had previously carried out excavations here that ground to a halt with the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Equipped with a geomagnetic measuring device, Salman’s team has been at work in the one-time Christian city that had its heyday under the Lakhmids, a pre-Islamic tribal dynasty of the 5th and 6th centuries.

“Some clues lead us to believe that a church may have been located here,” he explained.

He pointed to traces on the ground left by moisture which is retained by buried structures and rises to the surface.

“The moistened earth on a strip several meters long leads us to conclude that under the feet of the archaeologist are probably the walls of an ancient church,” he said.

Al-Hira is far less ancient than other sites, but it is part of the diverse history of the country that serves as a reminder, according to Salman, that “Iraq, or Mesopotamia, is the cradle of civilizations. It is as simple as that!”


Former Israeli health minister sentenced over student abuse case

Former Israeli health minister sentenced over student abuse case
Updated 08 August 2022

Former Israeli health minister sentenced over student abuse case

Former Israeli health minister sentenced over student abuse case

JERUSALEM: An Israeli court sentenced a former health minister to probation and a fine on Monday for obstructing justice in connection with the protracted extradition case against a former teacher accused of sexually abusing her students in Australia.

Yaakov Litzman, a former health minister and longtime ally of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, resigned from parliament earlier this year after striking a plea deal with prosecutors.

He was accused of pressuring ministry employees to alter psychiatric evaluations to make it appear that Malka Leifer was unfit to stand trial.

Leifer was extradited to Australia in January 2021 after a six-year legal battle that strained relations between the two countries and angered Australia’s Jewish community.

Leifer has pleaded not guilty to the charges and her trial is expected to start later this month.

Litzman was health minister during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic but resigned in April 2020 in the face of a public uproar over his handling of the crisis.  He was charged with fraud and breach of trust earlier this year, but pleaded guilty to the breach of trust charge in the Leifer case.

In Monday’s hearing, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court upheld the plea deal and sentenced Litzman to eight months of probation and a $900 fine.

He and Leifer are members of the country’s insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Last year, then-Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Litzman had used his position “to advance the interests of private individuals.”

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges that Litzman used his influence to prevent a friend’s deli from being shut down over health concerns.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel said the court’s acceptance of the “lenient and shameful” plea deal erodes public trust and law enforcement’s ability to perform its duty.


Six migrants die after boat sinks off Algeria

Six migrants die after boat sinks off Algeria
Updated 08 August 2022

Six migrants die after boat sinks off Algeria

Six migrants die after boat sinks off Algeria
  • A search was ongoing for an unspecified number of missing people

ALGIERS: Six migrants were found dead at sea and others were missing after their boat sank on Monday off the coast of Algeria, local television reported, adding six survivors were rescued.

“Six bodies were retrieved and six injured people, including a pregnant woman, have been transferred to hospital at Bainem” west of the capital Algiers, private television channel Ennahar said.

The boat capsized around 4 a.m. local time, it added.

A search was ongoing for an unspecified number of missing people.

The boat’s occupants originated from various sub-Saharan African countries.  They were attempting to reach Europe.

More than 2,350 would-be migrants have been rescued or intercepted in the first seven months of this year off Algeria, according to data provided by national authorities.

Spain is a favored destination for migrants embarking from the North African nation. Tunisian coast guards “rescued” more than 250 migrants who were attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, the North African country’s National Guard said on Sunday.

Maritime authorities “were able ... to rescue 255 would-be migrants, including 170 people of various African nationalities, with the remainder Tunisians,” the National Guard said in a statement on Facebook. The attempted crossings — 17 in total — took place on the night of Friday to Saturday from the east of Tunisia, according to National Guard spokesman Houcem Eddine Jebabli.

The statement did not indicate whether any vessels had got into difficulty or sunk, but did note that an unspecified sum of cash was seized during the operations.

In a separate statement later on Sunday, the Tunisian navy announced that 22 other would-be migrants, including nine children and three women, had been rescued on Saturday.

They were all Tunisian, the statement said, adding that they were rescued on a boat 80 km off the island of Kuriat near the eastern coastal city of Monastir.

The National Guard on Friday had carried out a “pre-emptive operation,” arresting five people who were “preparing to lead an illegal immigration bid departing from the coast of Sousse province in the east of the country,” spokesman Jebabli said.

The Tunisian coast guard announced in mid-July that 455 migrants had been “rescued” in several operations off the northern, eastern and southern coasts of the country. Attempts by migrants to reach Europe from the North African coastline tend to increase in spring and summer, due to the lower risk of stormy seas.

Tunisia and Libya are principal departure points and Italy a favored destination.


Search operation underway after Lebanon prison break

Search operation underway after Lebanon prison break
Updated 08 August 2022

Search operation underway after Lebanon prison break

Search operation underway after Lebanon prison break
  • Sunday’s escape ‘reflects magnitude of problems,’ says parliamentary committee chief
  • Police official warns that country’s jails are three times over capacity

BEIRUT: A group of prisoners escaped from a prison in Beirut on Sunday, with the Lebanese Internal Security Forces’ Investigation Unit subsequently arresting four out of 31 escapees a day later.

“Work is underway to arrest the remaining detainees who escaped from Beirut’s prison,” the directorate general of the Internal Security Forces said.

The group of escaped prisoners includes Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and other nationals, he added.

A security source told Arab News that the detainees “managed to saw off the bars of one of the cell’s windows overlooking the street using a screw.”

The prison is located under a bridge close to the Justice Palace in Beirut and is subject to the authority of Lebanon’s prison administration, but was previously controlled by the General Security Service.

A huge organized escape operation took place in the Baabda jail on Nov. 21, 2021, during which five detainees died in a car accident while escaping, and others were detained.

Riots are a frequent event in Lebanese jails, with prisoners demanding better living conditions.

MP Michel Moussa, head of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights, questioned how 31 detainees could escape a facility that is presumably guarded and secured.

He told Arab News: “We have not received any answer to this question yet because the investigations are still ongoing.”

The MP added: “We have already asked for this so-called Adlieh prison built a few years ago to be shut down, as it does not provide the bare minimum on all levels. We were promised several times that it will be shut down, but this did not happen.

“What’s certain is that the prison does not meet any human-friendly criteria.

“Apparently, security bodies are using it again as a jail for the detainees of Beirut’s Justice Palace in light of prison overcrowding.”

Moussa added that Sunday’s escape reflected the magnitude of economic, security and judicial issues in Lebanon.

In response to increasing numbers of people being detained without trial, the MP demanded an end to the practice, adding that courts should be reactivated, and that the circumstances in Lebanon do not justify delays.

More than 80 percent of Lebanon’s population lives below the poverty line due to the acute economic crisis in the country.

As salaries dwindle, the economic crisis has led to a significant number of soldiers and security personnel fleeing from service or resigning to look for other jobs, or even migrate.

Military and security higher-ups are turning a blind eye to the fact that many soldiers and security officers are working second jobs.

Col. Joseph Moussallem, head of the Internal Security Forces’ Public Relations Division, told Arab News that the economic circumstances of police officers “do not affect their line of duty.”

He said that an increased number of arrests shows that crime continues to be under control in Lebanon, but admitted that the reform process had declined in prisons.

According to Internal Security Forces data, many prisoners have long criminal records and have been handed repeat prison sentences.

He added that prison overcrowding was causing problems, although “we are doing whatever it takes to carry out reforms and civil organizations are trying to help.”

Moussallem said that state and private property thefts were among the most frequent offenses taking place in the country.

On Sunday, residents in Hermel in Bekaa protested outside a store in the city following an armed robbery and shooting.

Residents blocked a road and carried signs that said: “Enforce security. Do not cover for perpetrators. Prosecute them and refer them to courts so they can receive the appropriate punishment.”

Sheikh Ali Taha, the mufti of Hermel, said: “What’s happening in the region is a weird phenomenon.”

He called on officials to urgently intervene and reduce crime in order to avoid the threat of vigilante justice.

In the Lebanese northern region of Koura, the Association of Olive Farmers denounced “the theft of seasonal crops in the region.”

In a statement, the association said that “every morning, a group of professional thieves pick our unripe crops and steal iron barrels, electric wires, iron fences and beehives. We can no longer stand this.”

Col. Moussallem estimated the total number of prisoners and detainees in the country to be about “9,000 individuals,” adding that Lebanon’s prisons were designed to only house about 3,000 people at maximum capacity.

He said that thefts and other offenses had decreased by 6.5 percent this year compared to last year.


Was Lebanon the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme?

Was Lebanon the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme?
Updated 08 August 2022

Was Lebanon the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme?

Was Lebanon the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme?
  • A World Bank study accuses the political elite of making a “conscious effort” to weaken public-service delivery
  • Report finds use of excessive debt to create illusion of stability and reinforce confidence in the economy

DUBAI: A day before the second anniversary of the Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut port blast, the World Bank published a scathing report on Lebanon’s financial crisis and alleged acts of deception that appear to have made the country’s economic collapse inevitable.

Entitled “Ponzi Finance?,” the report compares the Mediterranean country’s economic model since 1993 to a Ponzi scheme — an investment fraud named after Italian swindler and con artist Carlo Ponzi.

During the 1920s, Ponzi promised investors a 50 percent return within a few months for what he claimed was an investment in international mail coupons. Ponzi then used the funds from new investors to pay fake “returns” to earlier investors.

The World Bank report claims a similar act of deception has taken place in Lebanon since the end of the civil war, whereby public finance has been used for the capture of the country’s resources, “serving the interests of an entrenched political economy, which instrumentalized state institutions using fiscal and economic tools.”

The report says excessive debt accumulation has been used to give the illusion of stability and to reinforce confidence in the economy so that commercial bank deposits keep flowing in. The study analyzes Lebanon’s “public finances over a long horizon to understand the roots of the fiscal profligacy and its eventual insolvency.”

At the same time, according to the report, there has been a “conscious effort” to weaken public-service delivery to benefit the very few at the expense of the Lebanese people. As a result, citizens end up paying double while receiving low-quality services.

The World Bank experts who wrote the report describe Lebanon’s financial crisis as “a deliberate depression” because “a significant portion of people’s savings in the form of deposits at commercial banks have been misused and misspent” over the past 30 years.

“It is important for the Lebanese people to realize that central features of the post-civil war economy — the economy of Lebanon’s Second Republic — are gone, never to return. It is also important for them to know that this has been deliberate.”

A protester stands with a Lebanese national flag during clashes with army and security forces near the Lebanese parliament headquarters in the centre of the capital Beirut on August 4, 2021, on the first anniversary of the blast that ravaged the port and the city. (AFP/File Photo)

The report adds: “These are earnings by expats who toil in foreign lands; they are retirement funds for citizens and perhaps the sole resource for a dignified living; they are necessary financing for essential medical and education services that consecutive governments have failed to provide; they are funds to pay for electricity in light of colossal failures in Electricite du Liban.”

Since 2019, Lebanon has been in the throes of its worst ever financial crisis, which has been compounded by the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s political paralysis.

In October 2019, the Lebanese took to the streets in the short-lived “thawra,” or revolution, demanding political and economic change. Their hopes were soon crushed by the trauma of the Beirut port blast, which on Aug. 4, 2020, killed 218 people, injured 7,000, and left 300,000 homeless.

These overlapping crises have sent thousands of young Lebanese abroad to search for security and opportunity, including many of the country’s top medical professionals and educators.

A World bank review of Lebanon's public finances has blamed an entrenched political elite for the economic collapse plaguing the country. (AFP)

Lebanese economists and financial analysts largely agree with the World Bank’s Ponzi scheme analogy.

“Lebanon is the greatest Ponzi scheme in economic history,” Nasser Saidi, a Lebanese politician and economist who served as minister of economy and industry and vice governor for the Lebanese central bank, told Arab News.

Unlike financial crises elsewhere in the world through history, Saidi said the cause of Lebanon’s woes could not be pinned to any single calamity that was outside the government’s control.

 “In Lebanon’s case it was not due to an actual disaster, not due to a sharp drop in export prices in commodities, it is effectively man-made.

“The World Bank talks about Ponzi finance, and they are right to point to the fact that you have two deficits over several decades. One was a fiscal deficit brought on by continued spending by the government more than revenues.

“The problem was that the government’s spending did not go for productive purposes. It did not go for investment in infrastructure or to build up human capital. It went for current spending. So, you didn’t build up any real assets. You had a buildup of debt, but you didn’t build up assets in proportion or to compare to the borrowing that you had.”

Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon should have been undergoing a period of reconstruction. However, spending on such infrastructure projects remained low, with the money seemingly siphoned off elsewhere.

“The infrastructure that was required — electricity, water, waste management, transport, and airport restructuring — was neglected,” said Saidi.

A Lebanese activist displays mock banknotes called “Lollars” (top) for a 100 USD bill, in front of a fake ATM during a stunt to denounce the high-level corruption that wrecked the country in Beirut on May 13, 2022. (AFP)

But it was not just material infrastructure of this kind that was neglected. Institutions that would have improved and solidified governance, accountability, and inclusiveness were also ignored, leaving the system vulnerable to abuse.

“Whenever you go through a civil war, you need to think about the causes of the war, and much of it was due to dysfunctional politics, political fragmentation, and the break-up of state institutions,” said Saidi.

“There was no rebuilding of state institutions and because of that, budget deficits continued, and a very corrupt political class began owning the state. They went into state-owned enterprises and government-related enterprises and considered that all state assets are their possessions and instead of possessions of the state.”

Lebanon’s “Ponzi scheme” was also driven by current account deficits and the overvalued exchange rate caused by the central bank policy of maintaining fixed rates against the dollar.

In economics, said Saidi, this is what you called the “impossible trinity,” meaning that a state could not simultaneously have fixed exchange rates, free capital movements, and independence of monetary policy.

The portside blast of haphazardly stored ammonium nitrate, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever, killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands more and decimated vast areas of the capital. (AFP/File Photo)

“If you peg your exchange rate, you no longer have any freedom of monetary policy. Lebanon’s central bank tried to defy the impossible trinity and tried to maintain an independent monetary policy at a time in which the exchange rate was becoming more and more over-valued.”

The Lebanese central bank increased borrowing in an attempt to protect the currency and, in 2015, bailed out the banking system, all the while insisting the system was sound and suppressing IMF reports claiming otherwise.

“The World Bank report states things that we have all been saying since the beginning of the crisis,” Adel Afiouni, Lebanon’s former minister for investments and technology, told Arab News.

“Of course, the crisis was predictable. The indicators were there for years. The debt to GDP level and the unsustainability of this debt to GDP level and the unsustainable deficit that kept growing, and the way (the central bank) has managed public finances in an irresponsible way was a red flag for years.

“Countries usually react in a responsible way by announcing a set of measures to control public finance to reduce the deficit and the debt. This did not happen in Lebanon. The current authorities have ignored basic principles of how to avoid a crisis pre-2019 and how to manage a crisis post-2019.”

In April 2022, Lebanon reached a draft funding deal with the IMF that would grant the equivalent of around $3 billion over a 46-month extended fund facility in exchange for a batch of economic reforms. However, in June, the Association of Banks in Lebanon called the IMF draft agreement “unlawful,” stalling the process.

“This is the first step that should have happened in the first few weeks of the crisis, not two and a half years later,” said Afiouni. “Yet we still need to see radical reforms before we see the funding, and there is no indication now that we are about to see serious implementation of those reforms.”

The World Bank report calls for a comprehensive program of macro-economic, financial, and sector reforms that prioritize governance, accountability, and inclusiveness. It says the earlier these reforms are initiated, the less painful the recovery will be for the Lebanese people. But it will not happen overnight.

“Even if the reforms and laws were passed, it will take time to recover and to restore trust,” said Saidi. “Trust in the banking system, in the state, and in the central bank has been destroyed. Until that trust is rebuilt, Lebanon will not be able to attract investment and it will not be able to attract aid from the rest of the world.”

And although Lebanon held elections in May, propelling several anti-corruption independents to parliament, Saidi doubted their influence would be enough to drive change.

“Some 13 new deputies entered parliament, but they are unlikely to make the changes that are required,” he said. “Politically, business continues as usual. There is a complete denial of reality.”


UN Security Council to meet over Gaza fighting

UN Security Council to meet over Gaza fighting
Updated 08 August 2022

UN Security Council to meet over Gaza fighting

UN Security Council to meet over Gaza fighting
  • Both sides have reserved the right to respond if the cease-fire is violated

USA: The UN Security Council was to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the situation in Gaza, where a truce is holding between Islamic Jihad militants and Israel after three days of deadly conflict.
China, which holds the presidency of the Security Council in August, announced the emergency meeting on Saturday, with Ambassador Zhang Jun expressing his concern over Gaza’s worst fighting since an 11-day war last year.
Ahead of the meeting, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan called Monday for the council to place “full accountability” on Islamic Jihad, accusing the Iran-backed group of using Gazans as “human shields.
“There must be one outcome and one outcome only, to condemn the (Islamic Jihad) for its double war crimes while placing the full accountability ... for the murder of innocent Palestinians on the shoulder of the radical terror group,” he said at a press briefing.
“They fire rockets at Israeli civilians while using Gazans as human shields. This is a double war crime,” he said.
Israel had since Friday launched a heavy aerial and artillery bombardment of Islamic Jihad positions in Gaza, leading the militants to fire over a thousand rockets in retaliation, according to the Israeli army.
An Egypt-brokered cease-fire reached late Sunday ended the intense fighting that killed 44 people, including 15 children, and wounded 360 in the enclave according to Gaza’s health ministry.
Both sides have reserved the right to respond if the cease-fire is violated.
The Security Council’s consultations will take place on Monday afternoon in New York. No statement is expected after the meeting, several diplomatic sources have said.