Archive for October, 2015

Iraq: Popular Mobilization Forces burn mosques and kill dozens in Baiji

Monday, 26 October 2015

An Iraqi tribal leader has accused Shia Popular Mobilization Forces of burning mosques and killing dozens of people in Baiji in the Salahuddin province in Iraq.

Sheikh Abdul Razzaq Al-Shammari said: “Eight mosques were burned and destroyed in the city of Baiji by the Popular Mobilization Forces in the past days,” adding that dozens of people were arrested and taken to an unknown destination.

Al-Shammari explained that the city of Baiji is currently witnessing “genocide” after the forces destroyed the mosques and then burned them.

On 12 October, Iraqi national army, with the support of the Popular Mobilization Forces, launched large-scale military operations that aimed at restoring the city of Baiji after it was seized by Daesh.

Baiji is located 210 kilometers north of Baghdad and has the largest oil refinery in Iraq.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/21890-iraq-popular-crowd-militias-burn-mosques-and-kill-dozens-in-baiji.

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Classes swell in Iraq camps as teachers leave for Europe

October 26, 2015

KAWERGOSK, Iraq (AP) — The young Syrian refugees at the Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq have already lost so much — and now they’re losing their teachers.

One after another, school teachers have packed up and left for Europe — searching for opportunity, safety and a better life. With the school year just kicking off in Iraq, schools like this one are scrambling to accommodate the refugee students left behind. Nine of Kawergosk’s teachers fled to Europe this summer and the remaining teachers are doubling up on students.

Mizgeen Hussein, 28, is among those teachers left behind. A refugee from Derik, Syria, Hussein admits that despite her commitment to the students, she would leave if she had the money. “The reason for me to leave is to have a future”, said Hussein, who teaches a class of 37 children at the camp’s school. “For sure this has an effect on us,” she added. “For now, we’ll solve it with the people who are here until they will bring other teachers.”

Camps across Iraq are experiencing the same exodus of teachers heading to Europe. Meanwhile student numbers are on the rise as fighting continues to tear through Syria and Iraq, forcing people to flee their homes. An increasingly chaotic civil war has gripped Syria for nearly five years, and the Islamic State militant group has claimed territory in a third of both Iraq and Syria.

Four of the 21 teachers at the Kobani primary school in Domiz camp have left in the past month. With over 1,000 students, manager Abdullah Mohammed Saeed said the school’s future is in jeopardy. “We need new people, otherwise we have to close the school,” he said.

“Our problem is that now our teachers are escaping to Europe,” said Mazhar Mohammed, Kawergosk’s principal. “We don’t have any other problems. The government is providing us with enough books.” Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern region hosts approximately 250,000 Syrian refugees, with more than a third of them living in camps. Many have found work, opened shops and pursued some form of education. But their uncertain future has caused those in doubt to flee the region, either back to Syria or across the border to Turkey and beyond.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of Syrians leaving northern Iraq for Europe has tripled in recent months. Among them are many Syrian teachers who have been getting paid by the Kurdish regional government to teach at the various camps. But the region is facing a severe financial crisis, and many teachers have not received salaries — another reason to leave.

On the first day of school at Kawergosk, children gripped the school’s fence waiting for the gates to open. Hundreds flooded into the schoolyard, anxious to get back into their classrooms. The lessons are shortened, as there are not enough teachers to handle all the students. “We dropped the last lessons, so we send the students home earlier,” Mohammed, the camp principal, said. The lack of teachers has forced many instructors to give lessons in areas outside their specializations, with history teachers covering geography and math teachers expanding into physics.

Some teachers, like Jeveen Salah Omer, have nevertheless vowed to stay, whatever the cost. “The education of students is more important than anything,” she said. “They became refugees and had to come here. This is the least we can do for them.”

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France, Saudi Arabia deepen alliance with 10B euros in deals

October 13, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — France has signed deals worth 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) with Saudi Arabia, said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Tuesday, underscoring the shared foreign policy stances that have helped deepen the two countries’ military and economic ties.

Valls, who announced the deals on his official Twitter account, is in Saudi Arabia with a large delegation of French business representatives and top officials, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the deal includes the start of negotiations to provide Saudi Arabia with its own communication and observation satellites — something the kingdom has been coveting as it expands its regional military reach and fights a war against Shiite rebels in Yemen.

The two sides also signed deals in Riyadh for $2 billion worth of Saudi public investment in French private funds with a focus on renewable energy and signed a letter of intent for cooperation in that sector. They also signed a cooperation agreement to establish a naval research center and to increase joint military training exercises.

The two countries agreed to hold another joint session in Paris next March. The visit to Saudi Arabia is part of a regional tour that included stops in Jordan and Egypt, where a $1.1 billion deal for two French Mistral amphibious assault ships was signed.

The French delegation, which arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, held talks with King Salman, Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in the capital, Riyadh.

A French official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media, says a military helicopter deal is also expected to be signed in Riyadh. In June, Saudi Arabia signed agreements worth billions of dollars to buy 23 helicopters for the Interior Ministry, 50 Airbus jets and two possible nuclear reactors from France.

The alliance between France and Saudi Arabia has grown stronger in recent years as ties between Washington and Riyadh cooled under President Barack Obama, particularly following his administration’s strong backing of a nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers.

Though France was a part of the nuclear negotiations, its position has more strongly reflected Saudi concerns that the deal could bolster Iran’s influence in the region if economic sanctions are not lifted gradually. Iran and Saudi Arabia back opposite sides in the civil war in Syria.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in a press conference Tuesday with his French counterpart “there is no future” for President Bashar Assad in Syria, who is backed by Iran and Russia. Valls, meanwhile, also met Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holding Company — which owns or manages several iconic landmarks in France, including The Four Seasons Hotel George V and the Le Royal Monceau Hotel.

The French delegation additionally took part in a business forum. According to Saudi media, France is the third largest investor in Saudi Arabia and has more than 80 companies operating in the kingdom, employing around 11,000 Saudi nationals.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy away from oil and to create more jobs in the private sector for its growing young population. A slump in oil prices has gutted the kingdom’s most important source of revenue, forcing it to run a budget deficit and draw from its large foreign currency reserves.

John Sfakianakis, the Middle East director for British fund manager Ashmore Group, participated in the Saudi-French business forum and said it was more than just “empty words.” “It’s actually based on contracts that will materialize,” he said. “The Saudi-French business ties are very deep and old, and quite extensive and cover many sectors ranking from defense, security, health care, retail, food sector. It’s very important for Saudi’s diversification efforts.”

The visit to Saudi Arabia comes after Paris expanded its airstrikes against the Islamic State group by targeting IS militants in Syria last month for the first time. France had previously targeted IS militants in Iraq, where the group also holds territory. France and Saudi Arabia are both part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing IS.

The strong alliance between France and Saudi Arabia was highlighted in May when French President Francois Hollande met with the heads of state of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh for a meeting in his honor. And in November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh. The Lebanese military is widely considered much weaker than the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, which is armed and funded by Iran.

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

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Pilgrims traumatized, asking how Mecca crane could collapse

September 14, 2015

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Jumaa Ibrahim and his wife Hasnaa Karam, a Syrian couple in their early 60s, arrived in Mecca on Friday, and headed straight to Islam’s holiest site, the cube-shaped Kaaba.

It had begun to rain in the ancient desert city. Karam, who had waited a lifetime to make the pilgrimage to stand before the Kaaba, stood with her palms facing toward the sky in prayer. Ibrahim stood a few feet to her side, quietly reading verses from the Quran.

Suddenly, a loud boom echoed. Karam found herself surrounded by carnage — body parts were scattered everywhere amid pools of blood on the white marble floor of the mosque. The kingdom’s Civil Defense says unusually strong winds tipped over one of the massive cranes around the Grand Mosque that houses the Kaaba. The crane crashed through part of the mosque’s roof and upper floors, sending concrete slabs crashing down.

“I saw a head, legs, blood, dead people,” Karam said Sunday, interviewed at her husband’s bedside in Mecca’s Al-Noor Specialist Hospital. “We started saying ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’ as the rain poured down.”

She escaped injury, but her husband was among the hundreds injured, his leg broken in two parts. The death toll reached 111 on Sunday as more of the injured died. The Health Ministry on Sunday said 394 people were treated at medical facilities after the crane collapse, and 158 of the injured remain hospitalized.

Ayman Shaaban, the owner of a hajj tour company in Egypt, was praying on the ground floor of the Grand Mosque when the crane collapsed. He says he was tossed some 20 meters (66 feet). He was immediately rushed into a large room with other injured people, the right side of his face broken, bloodied and swollen, unable to open his left eye.

Saudi media reported that a committee has been established to investigate the incident. It is unclear how the kingdom’s Civil Defense, which led rescue operations, was able to determine that winds caused the crane’s collapse. The spokesman for Civil Defense could not be immediately reached for comment.

Shaaban has questions about the cause of the accident. “Logically speaking, for a crane to fall from wind, even if there were strong winds, something doesn’t add up,” Shaaban said from his hospital bed. “If there is negligence, because of these souls lost, someone must be held accountable.”

Such concerns indicate the sensitivity of the incident for Saudi King Salman, whose title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the first mosque built by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. The king visited the Grand Mosque on Saturday and later met with some of the injured being treated at the government-run Al-Noor hospital.

The Al Saud royal family’s legitimacy is rooted in part in its claim to be the protectors of Islam’s two most sacred sites that are at the center of the hajj — the pilgrimage that all Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lifetime if they are able to do so.

The accident comes just over a week before this year’s hajj, which is expected to start around Sept. 21 and last four to five days. It will draw between 2 to 3 million Muslims from around the world for a series of rites in Mecca and surrounding areas that are believed to trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

Officials have not yet removed the crane. An Associated Press journalist saw the Liebherr crane on Sunday, its base tipped forward and its superstructure leaning into the mosque where it struck. The Liebherr Group, a large equipment manufacturer, makes many of its cranes at a plant in Biberach an der Riss, Germany, and has its global headquarters in Switzerland.

Liebherr spokesman Kristian Kueppers said in an email to The Associated Press that the company is doing everything in its power “to help bring the accident investigation to a speedy and logical conclusion.” The company said it had issued clear instructions on how the crane was to be installed and secured to protect it from winds. The company also expressed its deep sympathy for the families of the victims.

Over the years, the Grand Mosque has undergone several expansions to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims, but in the last decade, the kingdom launched its most ambitious overhaul ever. Historic sites significant for Islam have been demolished to make way for hotels, causing an outcry among some Muslims. Saudi officials say the overhaul is needed as the number of pilgrims during hajj is projected to reach 7 million by 2040.

The current $60-billion Grand Mosque expansion will almost double the area for pilgrims to pray at the Kaaba. The Grand Mosque is now surrounded by dozens of cranes, part of the massive construction effort headed by the Saudi Binladin Group. The Binladin family has been close to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family for decades and runs major building projects around the country. Al-Qaida’s late leader Osama bin Laden was a renegade son disowned by the family in the 1990s.

The Binladin Group has not released any statements to the press about the crane collapse and its representatives have not been made available for comment. The company’s chairman or a top representative is likely a member of the investigating committee, according to several Saudis familiar with the process.

On Sunday, the imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Sudais, also visited the injured. Flanked by a team of assistants, he gave patients bags that included a copy of the Quran, a vial of traditional Arab fragrance called oud, and bottles of water from the sacred underground Zamzam well in Mecca believed to have healing properties.

He told patients that that there was great reward for them in being at the Kaaba, just before the hajj. “This is God’s will,” he told each patient as he passed by their bed. “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, may God protect him, is very concerned with your well-being.”

Dr. Salem Bajuifer, medical director at Al-Noor,, said his team received around 120 patients, many of them with serious injuries requiring amputations. The injured at the hospital come from a range of countries, including Germany, Canada, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

The Indian mission in Saudi Arabia says two of its citizens were killed. The Saudi government has not released details about the nationalities or ages of the dead since many are still being identified. Several children are believed to have died.

“It is a big trauma,” Bajuifer said when asked about the emotional toll on patients and their relatives. “Of course everybody is traumatized, not only the patients. Even we are traumatized.” Karam, whose husband has been in and out of surgery for his leg, says she’s too traumatized to think about what comes next. She fled barrel bombs and the civil war in Syria to live in Turkey, never expecting to be so close to death at Islam’s most sacred site.

“I am still feeling terrified,” she said, as she broke into tears.

Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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Saudis: 107 dead in crane collapse at Mecca’s Grand Mosque

September 12, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — A towering construction crane toppled over on Friday during a violent rainstorm in the Saudi city of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, crashing into the Grand Mosque and killing at least 107 people ahead of the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage later this month.

Images posted by social media users showed a grisly scene, with police and onlookers attending to numerous bodies lying amid pools of blood on the polished mosque floors. Saudi Arabia’s civil defense authority provided a series of rising casualty numbers on its official Twitter account as ambulances whisked the wounded to area hospitals. As of early Saturday, it said those injured in the disaster numbered 238.

A photo released by the authority showed police and workers in hardhats inspecting a pile of collapsed concrete slabs inside a part of the sprawling, ornately decorated mosque. Another showed the base of the toppled red-and-white crane tilted upward at a sharp angle.

Images aired on Saudi state television showed the crane’s metal boom smashed through what appeared to be the roof of the mosque. Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Mansouri, the spokesman for the presidency of the Mecca and Medina mosque affairs, said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency that the accident happened late Friday afternoon during a severe storm carrying strong winds and heavy rain.

Authorities did not provide details on the victims’ nationalities, but it was likely that the tragedy will touch several countries. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his condolences and said the U.S. stands with Saudi Arabia and “all Muslims around the world in the aftermath of this dreadful incident at one of Islam’s holiest sites.”

The Grand Mosque and the cube-shaped Kaaba within it draw Muslims of all types from around the world throughout the year, though numbers increase significantly in the run-up to the hajj. The mosque is Islam’s holiest site to which Muslims face in daily prayers and a central site among the hajj rituals.

Performing the pilgrimage once during one’s lifetime is a duty for all able-bodied adult Muslims. This year’s pilgrimage is expected to start around Sept. 22. Al-Mansouri said the crane, which was being used in construction work at the mosque, struck a circular area around the Kaaba and a nearby walkway.

Pan-satellite Al-Jazeera Television broadcast footage from inside the mosque compound said to be from the aftermath of the accident, showing the floor strewn with rubble and what appear to be pools of blood.

Another video, on a Twitter posting, captured the apparent moment of the red-and-white crane’s collapse during a heavy rainstorm, with a loud boom, screams and confusion. The governor of the Mecca region, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, quickly called for the formation of a committee to investigate the cause of the accident. He directed all appropriate authorities to provide support for all of those injured, according to a statement from Mecca principality public affairs head Sultan al-Dosari that was carried on SPA.

Other Saudi officials could not immediately be reached or referred queries to the civil defense statements. Several cranes surround the mosque to support an ongoing expansion and other construction work that has transformed the area around the sanctuary.

Steep hills and low-rise traditional buildings that once surrounded the mosque have in recent years given way to shopping malls and luxury hotels — among them the world’s third-tallest building, a giant clock tower that is the centerpiece of the Abraj al-Bait complex.

The construction giant Saudi Binladin Group is leading the mosque expansion and also built the Abraj al-Bait project. The Binladin family has been close to the ruling Al Saud family for decades and oversees major building projects around the country. The Binladen family disowned one of its many members, late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in the 1990s.

It was not immediately clear who owned the crane that collapsed. During the week of the hajj, Muslims converge on Mecca to perform a series of rituals, including the circling of the cube-shaped Kaaba, praying and holding vigil at Mount Arafat and perform the symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles at the three pillars in Mina.

Prayers on and around the mount are a climactic emotional and spiritual moment in the hajj. The faithful believe that on that day the gates of heaven are open, prayers are answered and past sins are forgiven.

All male pilgrims, regardless of wealth or status, wear seamless terry white cloths to symbolize equality before God during the hajj. Women cover their hair and wear long loose clothing, forgoing makeup and other adornments to help them detach from worldly pleasures and outward appearances.

It was on Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, where Islam’s Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1,400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.

While following a route that the prophet once walked, the rites are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The millions of pilgrims who visit the country’s holy sites each year pose a considerable security and logistical challenge for the Saudi government, and large-scale deadly accidents have occurred on a number of occasions in years past.

In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a stampede at the desert plain of Mina, near Mecca. A crush of pilgrims two years earlier left 244 dead. The worst hajj-related tragedy was in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Katarina Kratovac in Cairo contributed to this report.

 

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