Tens of thousands pray in show of force by Iraq cleric Sadr

Tens of thousands pray in show of force by Iraq cleric Sadr
Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s mass prayer rally follows his demand for early elections. (Reuters)
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Updated 05 August 2022

Tens of thousands pray in show of force by Iraq cleric Sadr

Tens of thousands pray in show of force by Iraq cleric Sadr
  • Shiite cleric has for months been in a political standoff with a rival Shiite alliance backed by Iran
  • Worshippers converged on a vast square inside the normally secure Green Zone

BAGHDAD: Tens of thousands attended mass prayers Friday in Baghdad’s Green Zone in a new power play by Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr after his adversaries conditionally backed his call for early elections.
Sadr, a longtime political and religious force in the oil-rich but war-scarred country, has for months been in a political standoff with a rival Shiite alliance backed by Iran.
Worshippers converged on a vast square inside the normally secure Green Zone, home to government and diplomatic buildings, including the parliament which his followers began occupying on July 30.
“Yes, yes to reform! Sadr’s followers chanted during the prayers.
“No, no to corruption.”
After the prayers, hundreds returned to parliament’s vicinity, where tents were still erected and food served to protesters pursuing their sit-in among the gardens of the complex.
Sadr’s mass prayer rally follows his demand for early elections — a possibility that the rival bloc says it is conditionally open to, despite the last national polls only taking place about 10 months ago.
Months of post-election negotiations between Sadr’s bloc — the largest in parliament — and other factions failed to produce a new government, prime minister and president.
The political tensions come as Iraq remains beset by rampant corruption, crumbling infrastructure and unemployment.
As a result of past deals, the Sadrists also have representatives at the highest levels of government ministries and have been accused by opponents of being as corrupt as other political forces.
Supporters of Sadr, however, are ready to follow him almost blindly and view him as a champion of the anti-corruption fight.
Speaking from a dais, the imam who led the prayer endorsed Sadr’s call for early elections.
“Iraq is a prisoner of the corrupt,” the imam said, denouncing “the scandalous deterioration of public services, health and education.”
Sheikh Ali Al-Atabi, 38, joined the throng to support Sadr. Calling people to Friday prayers is “part of his repertoire” when he “wants to use the people for something,” Atabi explained.
A similar prayer call and pressure tactic from Sadr in mid-July drew hundreds of thousands of Muslim worshippers to Sadr City, a Baghdad district named after his assassinated father.
Qassem Abu Mustafa, 40, described the latest gathering as “a thorn” jabbing “the enemy to demand legislative elections and reforms.”
The faithful, mostly men but with some women, used umbrellas to protect themselves from Baghdad’s 42 degrees Celsius (108 Fahrenheit) heat.
Some waved Iraqi flags and carried portraits of their leader.
“Whatever Mr. Sadr’s opinion, we are with him,” Abu Mustafa said.
Sadr’s bloc emerged from the October elections as parliament’s biggest, but still far short of a majority.
In June, his 73 lawmakers quit in a bid to break the logjam. That led to a rival Shiite bloc, the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, becoming the largest in the legislature.
The Coordination Framework’s nomination of former cabinet minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani as prime minister angered the Sadr bloc and triggered the occupation of parliament by his supporters.
With armed groups linked to the various political factions in Iraq, the United Nations has warned that tensions could escalate.
On Wednesday Sadr called for the dissolution of parliament and new polls. The Coordination Framework late Thursday said they were open to that idea, signalling a potential deescalation.
But “a national consensus on the question and providing a safe environment” were prerequisites for such polls, it said.
The Framework stressed the importance of “not disrupting the functioning” of constitutional institutions — a clear reference to the occupation of parliament by Sadr’s followers.
The Coordination Framework includes lawmakers from the party of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, a longtime foe of Sadr, and the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a pro-Iran ex-paramilitary network now integrated into the security forces.
Outgoing parliamentary speaker Mohammed Al-Halbussi, a member of the minority Sunni community, on Twitter expressed support for new elections.
He said it is “impossible to ignore the will of the masses.”


US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs

US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs
Updated 58 min ago

US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs

US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs
  • Six of the Palestinian organizations were labeled last October as terrorist organizations by Israel
  • The NGOs have all denied any links to the PFLP, which many western nations have designated a terrorist group

WASHINGTON: Washington said Thursday it was “concerned” by the Israeli government’s forced closure of several Palestinian NGOs operating in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli military announced earlier in the day that it had conducted overnight raids of seven organizations in Ramallah, the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters are located.
Six of the Palestinian organizations were labeled last October as terrorist organizations by Israel for their alleged links to the leftist militant group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), though Israeli officials have not publicly shared any evidence of the links.
The NGOs have all denied any links to the PFLP, which many western nations have designated a terrorist group.
“We are concerned about the Israeli security forces’ closure of the six offices of the Palestinian NGOs in and around Ramallah today,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price at a press briefing.
“We have not changed our position or approach to these organizations,” said Price, though he noted that Washington does not fund any of them.
“We have seen nothing in recent months to change (our position)” he added.
US officials have reached out to their Israeli counterparts “at the senior level” to obtain additional information, which Israel has promised to provide, according to Price.
The seventh organization raided by Israel on Thursday, the Union of Health Work Committees, was banned by Israel from working in the West Bank in 2020.


Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits

Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits
Updated 19 August 2022

Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits

Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits
  • A further 1,500 people from the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip would be allowed to work in Israel from Sunday

JERUSALEM: Israel said Friday it plans to grant more work permits to Palestinians in blockaded Gaza, reviving a pledge made ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden but later scrapped.
A further 1,500 people from the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip would be allowed to work in Israel from Sunday, the military said in a statement.
“The decision will take effect ... on condition that the security situation remains quiet in the area,” said COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories.
The move to boost to 15,500 the total number of work permits was initially announced on July 12, on the eve of Biden’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But it was scrapped four days later, in the wake of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory strikes by Israeli warplanes.
The work permits provide vital income to some of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, who have been living under a strict blockade imposed by Israel since the Islamist movement Hamas seized power in 2007.
Friday’s announcement follows three days of fighting this month between Islamic Jihad militants and Israel.
At least 49 Gazans were killed and hundreds wounded, according to figures from the enclave’s health ministry.
The plan to issue additional permits follows a decision by Hamas largely to stay out of the recent fighting.


Market blast in north Syria kills at least 13, injures dozens

Market blast in north Syria kills at least 13, injures dozens
Updated 19 August 2022

Market blast in north Syria kills at least 13, injures dozens

Market blast in north Syria kills at least 13, injures dozens
  • The attack on the town of Al-Bab came days after a Turkish airstrike killed at least 11 Syrian troops and US-backed Kurdish fighters

BEIRUT: A rocket attack on a crowded market in a town held by Turkey-backed opposition fighters in northern Syria Friday killed at least nine people and wounded dozens, an opposition war monitor and a paramedic group reported.
The attack on the town of Al-Bab came days after a Turkish airstrike killed at least 11 Syrian troops and US-backed Kurdish fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, blamed Syrian government forces for the shelling, saying it was in retaliation for the Turkish airstrike.
The Observatory said the attack killed at least 13 and wounded more than 30.
The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, had a lower death toll, saying nine people, including children, were killed and 28 were wounded. The paramedic group said its members evacuated some of the wounded and the dead bodies.
Discrepancies in casualty figures immediately after attacks are not uncommon in Syria.
Turkey has launched three major cross-border operations into Syria since 2016 and controls some territories in the north.
Although the fighting has waned over the past few years, shelling and airstrikes are not uncommon in northern Syria that is home to the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
Syria’s conflict that began in March 2011, has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
President Bashar Assad’s forces now control most parts of Syria with the help of their allies, Russia and Iran.


Palestinian killed in Israeli West Bank raid: Palestinian ministry

Palestinian killed in Israeli West Bank raid: Palestinian ministry
Updated 19 August 2022

Palestinian killed in Israeli West Bank raid: Palestinian ministry

Palestinian killed in Israeli West Bank raid: Palestinian ministry
  • Israeli military say soldiers came under fire during a raid in the town
  • Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories Presse: A Palestinian man was killed Friday by Israeli forces during a raid in the north of the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said.
Salah Sawafta, 58, “died of critical wounds, sustained by live bullets from the occupation (Israeli military) in the head, in Tubas this morning,” a ministry statement said.
The Israeli military said soldiers came under fire during a raid in the town.
During an operation in “Tubas, several suspects hurled Molotov cocktails and opened fire at (Israeli) troops, who responded with fire,” the army said in a statement, adding “hits were identified.”
The mayor of Tubas, Hossam Daraghmeh, said Sawafta had been leaving dawn prayers when he was shot.
“He left the mosque and was heading to his house wearing a prayer robe. There was a vengeful soldier stationed in a building near the municipality who shot him in the head,” he said.
Daraghmeh said Sawafta had been unarmed when he was hit.
“This man did not have a stone or anything in his hand,” he said.
The Israeli military said five people were detained in overnight raids across the West Bank.
On Thursday, a 20-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli troops during clashes in the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967, when it seized the territory from Jordan.


Algeria wildfires ‘all under control’: civil defense

Algeria wildfires ‘all under control’: civil defense
Updated 19 August 2022

Algeria wildfires ‘all under control’: civil defense

Algeria wildfires ‘all under control’: civil defense
  • Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have destroyed hundreds of hectares (acres) of forest in Africa’s largest country

Algiers: Wildfires, which killed at least 38 people and left a trail of destruction in eastern Algeria this week, are now under control, a civil defense official told AFP on Friday.
“All of the fires have been completely brought under control,” said fire brigade Col. Farouk Achour, of the civil defense department.
Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have destroyed hundreds of hectares (acres) of forest in Africa’s largest country.
Deadly fires have become an annual scourge in Algeria, where climate change has turned large areas of forest into a tinderbox in the blistering summer months.
The justice ministry launched an inquiry after Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud suggested some of the fires were started deliberately, and authorities on Thursday announced four arrests of suspected arsonists.
Authorities have been accused of being ill-prepared, with few firefighting aircraft available despite record casualties in last year’s blazes and a cash windfall from gas exports with global energy prices soaring.