Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Sadr girds for political comeback

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks during news conference in Najaf, Iraq this screen grab taken from a live video, August 30, 2022. (REUTERS)
Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks during news conference in Najaf, Iraq this screen grab taken from a live video, August 30, 2022. (REUTERS)
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Updated 13 May 2024
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Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Sadr girds for political comeback

Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Sadr girds for political comeback
  • A dominant figure in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, self-styled nationalist Sadr has railed against the influence of both Iran and the United States in Iraq

NAJAF, Iraq: Powerful Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is laying the groundwork for a political comeback two years after a failed and ultimately deadly high-stakes move to form a government without his Shi'ite rivals, multiple sources said.
His return, likely planned for the 2025 parliamentary election, could threaten the growing clout of rivals including Iraqi Shi'ite parties and armed factions close to Iran, and undermine Iraq's recent relative stability, observers say.
However, many among Iraqi's majority Shi'ite population are likely to welcome Sadr's re-emergence, especially his masses of mostly pious and poor followers who view him as a champion of the downtrodden.
Reuters spoke to more than 20 people for this story, including Shi'ite politicians in Sadr's movement and in rival factions, clerics and politicians in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, and government officials and analysts. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
"This time, the Sadrist movement has stronger plans than the last time round to win more seats in order to form a majority government," a former Sadrist lawmaker said, though the final decision to run has not officially been made.
Sadr won the 2021 parliamentary election but ordered his lawmakers to resign, then announced a "final withdrawal" from politics the next year after rival Shi'ite parties thwarted his attempt to form a majority government solely with Kurdish and Sunni Muslim parties.
A dominant figure in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, self-styled nationalist Sadr has railed against the influence of both Iran and the United States in Iraq.
Iran views Sadr's participation in politics as important to maintaining Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated political system in the long term, though Tehran rejects his aspirations to be recognised as its single most dominant force.
The United States, which fought Sadr's forces after he declared a holy war against them in 2004, sees him as a threat to Iraq's fragile stability, but also views him as a needed counter to Iranian influence.
Many Iraqis say they have lost out no matter who is in power while elites siphon off the country's oil wealth.
CLERICAL NOD
Since March, Sadr has stepped back towards the limelight.
First, he held a rare meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a prominent cleric revered by millions of Shi'ites who played a central role in ending the deadly intra-Shi'ite clashes in 2022 that preceded Sadr's political exit.
Sadrists interpret the March 18 audience with Sistani, who stays above the fray of Iraq's fractious politics and does not typically meet politicians, as a tacit endorsement, according to six people in Sadr's movement.
A cleric close to Sistani said Sadr spoke about a possible return to political life and parliament and "left this important meeting with a positive outcome". Sistani's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Days after the meeting, Sadr instructed his lawmakers who resigned in 2021 to gather and re-engage with the movement's political base.
He then renamed his organisation the Shi'ite National Movement, a swipe at rival Shi'ite factions he deems unpatriotic and beholden to Iran as well as a bid to further mobilise his base along sectarian lines, a person close to Sadr said.
While some analysts fear the disruption of a Sadr return to frontline politics, others say he could re-emerge humbled by the routing of his forces during the intra-Shi'ite strife as well as the relative success of the current Baghdad government, including its balancing of relations between Iran and the U.S.
"Of course, there is always a greater risk of instability when you have more groups balancing power, especially when they are armed. But the Sadrists should return less hostile," said Hamzeh Hadad, an Iraqi analyst and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"The political parties know it's best to share power than to lose it all together," he said.
A senior Sadrist politician said the movement might seek to ally with some ruling Shi'ite factions, such as popular Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, while isolating others including arch-rival Qais Al-Khazaali, leader of the powerful, Iran-backed political and military group Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Advisers to Sudani said he was keeping his options open.
"There are groups in the framework that we have long-time relations with and could ally with before or after elections. What we don't accept is to get into deals with corrupt militias," the senior Sadrist said.
In Sadr City, Sadr's sprawling, long-impoverished stronghold on the east side of Baghdad, many supporters await his return in the hope this could translate into jobs and services.
"This city supports Sadr and I don't think he would forget us after all the sacrifices we have made for him," said Taleb Muhawi, a 37-year-old father of three who was waiting to hear back on a government job.
"He needs to shake things up when he comes back."

 


UN official says worst scenes of Gaza war witnessed at Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis

UN official says worst scenes of Gaza war witnessed at Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis
Updated 15 July 2024
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UN official says worst scenes of Gaza war witnessed at Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis

UN official says worst scenes of Gaza war witnessed at Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis

RIYADH: A UN official said he witnessed “one of the worst scenes he has seen in Gaza in the past nine months” during his visit to the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis on Saturday.
Scott Anderson, the director of UNRWA Affairs in Gaza, said that “many of the injured were receiving treatment on the hospital floor without disinfectants due to insufficient beds and a lack of essential cleanliness equipment and supplies.” 
Nasser Medical Complex is under tremendous strain and burden, with children who are amputees, others paralyzed and deprived of medical treatment, the Saudi Press Agency quoted Anderson as saying.
The UN official also noted how parents were in despair about the conditions of their children.
He added that the United Nations team provided referral services on Saturday, along with additional tents, beds, stretchers, supplies and medications.
He also pointed out the obstacles hindering humanitarian operations prevented aid from reaching people, SPA added.


Syrians vote for their next parliament, which may consider allowing Assad to extend his rule

Syrians vote for their next parliament, which may consider allowing Assad to extend his rule
Updated 15 July 2024
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Syrians vote for their next parliament, which may consider allowing Assad to extend his rule

Syrians vote for their next parliament, which may consider allowing Assad to extend his rule
  • Syrians are voting for members of a new parliament in an election that is expected to hold few surprises
  • Syrians who’ve left their country due to the war are not eligible to vote in parliamentary elections

DAMASCUS: Syrians were voting for members of a new parliament in an election Monday that was expected to hold few surprises but could pave the way for a constitutional amendment to extend the term of President Bashar Assad.
The vote is the fourth in Syria since mass anti-government protests and a brutal crackdown by security forces spiraled into an ongoing civil war in 2011.
There are 1,516 government-approved candidates running this year for the 250-seat People’s Assembly.
The number of eligible voters has not been announced. In parliamentary elections, unlike presidential elections, the millions of diaspora Syrians — whose numbers have ballooned since the civil war — are not eligible to vote.
Some 8,151 polling stations were set up in 15 voting districts in government-held areas.
In the Druze-majority southern province of Sweida, where anti-government protests have been taking place regularly for nearly a year, many called for a boycott of the polls. Videos posted online showed protesters seizing ballot boxes off a truck in an attempt to stop them arriving to polling stations.
Elsewhere, campaigning was low key and candidates’ campaigns largely revolved around general slogans such as national unity and prosperity.
Assad’s Baath Party won 166 seats in the 2020 elections, representing nearly two-thirds of its membership, in addition to 17 members from allied parties. Another 67 seats went to independent candidates.
Vladimir Pran, an independent adviser on transitional political and electoral processes, said the competitive part of the Syrian election process comes before voters go to the polls, during the Baath Party primary process, when party members vote on which candidates’ names are sent to the party’s central command to make the final list.
“Elections are really already finished... with the end of the primary process,” he said. Once the Baath party list is completed, “you can check the list and the results, and you will see that literally all of them will be in the Parliament.”
The number of incumbents who made the final list this year was relatively low, suggesting a reshuffling within the Baath party.
Maroun Sfeir, a consultant on transitional electoral and political processes, said the 169 candidates put forward by the Baath party alone is past the margin of 167 MPs needed to propose a constitutional amendment, protect the president from being accused of treason and veto legislation.
Adding to that 16 candidates from Baath-allied parties running on the same list, he said, “you’re only three MPs short of three quarters of the parliament, which is required for (passing) a constitutional amendment.”
While that leaves 65 slots open for independent candidates, Sfeir said they should not be expected to present a real opposition bloc.
“They are all pre-vetted... to ensure that they’re all loyal or without any threat,” he said.
With Assad facing term limits that would end his presidency in 2028, the next parliament is widely expected to try to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his term.


Gaza civil defense says 15 killed in Israel strike on Gaza school

Gaza civil defense says 15 killed in Israel strike on Gaza school
Updated 15 July 2024
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Gaza civil defense says 15 killed in Israel strike on Gaza school

Gaza civil defense says 15 killed in Israel strike on Gaza school
  • The Abu Araban school was housing “thousands of displaced people,” civil defense agency spokesman Mahmud Bassal told AFP, adding that most of the dead were women and children

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories: The civil defense agency in Hamas-run Gaza said Sunday that 15 people were killed in a strike on a school sheltering war displaced where the Israeli military said it had targeted “terrorists.”
The strike on the UN-run Abu Araban site in central Gaza’s Nuseirat camp was the fifth on a school-turned-shelter in eight days.
The Abu Araban school was housing “thousands of displaced people,” civil defense agency spokesman Mahmud Bassal told AFP, adding that most of the dead were women and children.
Schools in Nuseirat were the target for two of the earlier school strikes as Israel keeps up its offensive against Hamas Palestinian militants who triggered the war with their October 7 attack on Israel.
The Israeli military said its air force “struck a number of terrorists who were operating in the area of UNRWA’s Abu Araban school building in Nuseirat.”
It said the building had “served as a hideout” and base for “attacks” on Israeli troops.
AFPTV images showed the three-story complex standing, with clothes and bedding airing out over its railings. A wall bearing the UN logo had been blown out, and rooms inside were damaged.
On July 6, Israeli aircraft hit Al-Jawni school, also run by the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), in Nuseirat. UNRWA said about 2,000 people were sheltering there at the time.
The following day, four people died in a strike on the church-run Holy Family school in Gaza City, in the territory’s north, according to the Civil Defense agency.
On Monday, Israel hit another Nuseirat school, again saying it was targeting “terrorists.”
The next day, a hospital source said at least 29 people died in a strike at the entrance to Al-Awda school in the Khan Yunis area, southern Gaza.
Israel says Hamas uses schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure for military purposes. Hamas denies the accusation.
France and Germany on Wednesday called for an investigation into the school strikes.
After the Al-Jawni strike, UNRWA spokesperson Juliette Touma told AFP that when the war began “we closed the schools and they became shelters.”
UNRWA is the main relief agency in Gaza but more than half, or 190, of its facilities have been hit — “some more than once” — in the military response to the October 7 Hamas attacks, she said.
 

 


As war rages, Palestinian culture stifled in Israel

As war rages, Palestinian culture stifled in Israel
Updated 14 July 2024
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As war rages, Palestinian culture stifled in Israel

As war rages, Palestinian culture stifled in Israel
  • About 20 percent of Israel’s 9.5 million inhabitants are Arab, and many of them identify as Palestinian

TEL AVIV: Comedian Ayman Nahas said he has kept a “low profile” since Oct. 7, fearing reprisals as an Arab artist in Israel while the country wages war in the Gaza Strip.
He is one of many Arab artists in Israel or annexed East Jerusalem who describe facing increasing hostility and harassment and fearing looming funding cuts or arrests.
“You never know where your place is, and that is not the right atmosphere to perform,” said Nahas, the artistic director at the Arabic-language Sard theater in Haifa, in Israel’s north.
He said that his theater depends on government subsidies “like 99 percent of cultural spaces” in Israel.
But he fears the money could be cut, as happened in 2015 to Al-Midan, another theater in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, after it put on a play inspired by the story of a prisoner jailed by Israel over an attack on troops.
One 25-year-old performer, who asked to use the pseudonym Elias to avoid a backlash, said he has put acting aside and became a swimming pool attendant because he was fed up with only getting stereotyped roles.
Other Arab actors say that since the war, they can no longer find work in Israel. Elias has finally found a role in Berlin.
“I have had to go into exile to practice my art,” he said in a Tel Aviv cafe.
“I don’t wear my ‘Free Palestine’ bracelet anymore, and I take care of what I put on social media. I have friends who the police have visited.”
Nonprofit group Mossawa has documented an increase in human rights violations against Israel’s Arab minority since October, including arrests, discrimination at work, and harassment at schools, as well as curbs on the right to protest.
Singer Dalal Abu Amneh, who is also a neuroscientist, was detained for 48 hours for a social media post after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack that said “the only victor is God.”
Abu Amneh later said she had been harassed in her Jewish-majority hometown of Afula in northern Israel. Her lawyer said she had received hundreds of “death threats.”
About 20 percent of Israel’s 9.5 million inhabitants are Arab, and many of them identify as Palestinian.
They say they are frequently the targets of discrimination by the Jewish majority, and those complaints have grown through more than nine months of war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Huda Imam, who promotes Palestinian cultural sites in Jerusalem, said that “a cultural silence has taken hold since Oct. 7.”
“There has been a shock, an inability to produce out of fear and respect” for the war’s victims, she added.
“There was a Palestinian cultural life before the war, especially in east Jerusalem,” Imam said, referring to the sector Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognized by most of the international community.
“Now people don’t go out.”
And it is primarily exiles “who give a voice to Palestine,” said Imam, highlighting the rapper Saint Levant, who played at the Coachella music festival in the US in April, and the European-based singer and flute player Nai Barghouti.
Palestinians still express themselves through their “living heritage, like drinking coffee or dancing dabkeh,” a traditional dance, said artist Hani Amra.
Some artists wondered about the relevance of their work now.
“You turn on the television, and you see the war live. The reality is more powerful than any artistic work,” Amer Khalil, the director of east Jerusalem’s Al-Hakawati, also known as the Palestinian National Theater.
The theater, founded in 1984, “has been closed more than 200 times in 40 years” and is again in the crosshairs of Israeli authorities, said Khalil.
“Running a theater is always difficult, but after Oct. 7 things became even more complicated,” he said, adding that Al-Hakawati was preparing a play about that day.
“It is a game, like censorship. It comes and goes.”

 


UAE delivers medical aid to Gaza after Israeli attack on refugee camps

UAE delivers medical aid to Gaza after Israeli attack on refugee camps
Updated 14 July 2024
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UAE delivers medical aid to Gaza after Israeli attack on refugee camps

UAE delivers medical aid to Gaza after Israeli attack on refugee camps
  • The initiative follows Israel’s targeting of displaced Palestinians at camps in Khan Younis on Saturday
  • The aid includes supplies for hospitals facing shortages, medicines for various injuries and insulin

DUBAI: The UAE delivered three tonnes of medical supplies and a range of medicines to support the healthcare sector and hospitals still operating in the Gaza Strip, the UAE state news agency reported on Sunday.

The initiative follows Israel’s targeting of displaced Palestinians at camps in Khan Younis on Saturday.

The medical aid includes medical supplies for hospitals facing shortages, medicines for various injuries, insulin for diabetic patients, and other solutions to bolster the healthcare sector during the crisis.

The UAE on Sunday condemned Israel’s attack on refugee camps in Khan Younis, which claimed the lives of 100 people.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday expressed its strongest condemnation and denunciation of what it termed “continued genocidal massacres against the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli war machine.”