Archive for April, 2016

Iraqi forces reclaim Islamic State-held town of Hit

By Amy R. Connolly

April 15, 2016

BAGHDAD, April 15 (UPI) — Iraqi forces reclaimed the city of Hit from the Islamic State, taking back the last IS stronghold in that region and severing an important IS supply route between Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service spokesman Sabah al-Noman said the city “is cleared of any Daesh gunmen,” using another name for the militant group. It is also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Coalition forces have been fighting to recapture the city, located about 90 miles outside Baghdad, since March. Forces entered Hit on April 4 after recapturing the nearby city of Kubaysah.

Backed by U.S. airpower and using a single M1 Abrams tank, nicknamed “The Beast,” forces killed IS militants. The American-made tank tore through IS fighting positions, destroying vehicles and improvised explosive devices.

Coalition forces conducted four airstrikes, hitting three IS tactical units. The strikes destroyed four machine gun positions and IS equipment that included a boat and boat dock.

“The joint forces had inflicted heavy human and material losses on ISIS gangs,” officials said.

Thousands of people fled the city in October 2014 when the IS moved in. Forces are now preparing to recapture Fallujah, the second largest city in the province and Mosul.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/04/15/Iraqi-forces-reclaim-Islamic-State-held-town-of-Hit/6151460713284/.

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Iraq PM delivers new cabinet list, angering some MPs

By Ammar Karim and Salam Faraj

Baghdad (AFP)

April 12, 2016

Iraq’s premier presented a new list of cabinet nominees on Tuesday that angered some lawmakers, who criticized it as perpetuating the system of ministries being distributed according to political quotas.

Parliament descended into chaos after the session was postponed to Thursday, with lawmakers shaking fists and chanting against political quotas and then beginning a sit-in.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for a government of technocrats to replace the current party-affiliated ministers, but has faced major resistance from powerful parties that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds.

He presented a list of 13 cabinet nominees to parliament on March 31, but lawmakers later said that the political blocs would nominate other candidates, a process that apparently resulted in the current list of names.

Abadi gave the new list of candidates to parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi, then met with him and leaders of the political blocs, according to posts on their official Twitter accounts.

But with major disagreement over the proposed list of candidates, the session was postponed until Thursday, Juburi’s office said.

Lawmakers chanted “The people want the fall of the quotas!” after the session ended, according to video shot inside parliament.

The phrase is a variation on “The people want the fall of the regime”, which was chanted at Arab Spring protests against despots across the region.

More than 100 MPs then began a sit-in inside parliament to protest against the delay of the session, lawmakers Haider al-Kaabi and Iskander Witwit told AFP by telephone.

“We announced an open sit-in inside parliament because of the postponement of the session until Thursday,” Kaabi said, adding that they are demanding an emergency session on Wednesday.

According to the new list of 14 names, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, most of Abadi’s original nominees did not make the second cut.

The nominees for water resources, health and transport stayed the same, while a fourth nominee from the original list became a candidate for the planning ministry.

– ‘Ministries for them’ –

The new list also includes Faleh al-Fayad, a long-time member of the Dawa party who served as national security adviser under former premier Nuri al-Maliki and then Abadi, as the nominee for foreign minister.

Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Juburi said that the new list is opposed by almost a third of MPs.

The MP said he had gathered 98 names of lawmakers who are against the list and who reject the “principle of (political) quotas that was agreed upon by the leaders of the blocs”.

“The blocs and the parties do not want to give up their gains and their ministries,” said Shiite MP Hassan Salem.

“They do not consider them ministries of the people as much as they consider them ministries for them,” Salem said.

And MP Zainab al-Tai, from the bloc affiliated with powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for a government of technocrats, threatened a no-confidence vote in Abadi.

“We demand the formation of an independent government, and if not, we will go to withdraw confidence from Abadi’s government,” Tai said.

Abadi called in February for “fundamental” change to the cabinet so that it includes “professional and technocratic figures and academics”.

That kicked off the latest chapter in a months-long saga of Abadi proposing various reforms that parties and politicians with interests in the existing system have sought to delay or undermine.

Sadr, the scion of a powerful clerical family from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, later called for his supporters to protest and then stage a sit-in at Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where the government is headquartered.

Sadr relented after Abadi presented his list of nominees at the end of March, calling off the sit-in.

But efforts to change the government have run up against entrenched political interests that do not want to cede the power and funds that controlling ministries confers.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraq_PM_delivers_new_cabinet_list_angering_some_MPs_999.html.

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Displaced Sunnis from Salahadin complain they can’t return to their homes

By Rudaw

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Some 1,500 Sunni families complain that the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias are preventing them from returning to their homes in Salahadin province that have been liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS).

“Our areas (in Salahadin province) have been liberated from ISIS for almost a year and seven months, but there is not even a glimmer of hope of returning to our homes because the Iraqi government is fighting a sectarian war with us,” an elderly Sunni man based at the Lailan refugee camp in Kirkuk, claimed to Rudaw.

At least 7,500 displaced people live in miserable conditions at the Lailan refugee camp, complaining that they do not have money even to by the most basic foods.

“If anyone has the money to buy even a kilo of tomatoes, they can survive. But those who can’t are left to begging,” said another displaced person at the camp, complaining that there are no facilities at the camp, which is “drowning in filth.”

Salahadin province has been cleared of ISIS for more than 18 months. During the militants’ sway over the province, hundreds of thousands of residents fled to other Iraqi cities, many to Kirkuk.

Refugees who fled are now living in refugee camps, where they complain there are no schools, work, healthcare or clean water.  The refugees call on the Shiite militia, known as Hashd al-Shaabi, to allow them return to their lands.

“The Iraqi government has not aided us, now we only want to return to our areas. We do not want anything else,” said one refugee.

Provincial authorities in Kirkuk have thrice urged Baghdad to help return the displaced people to their homes, but the central government has not made any move.

An estimated 500,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in central and southern Iraq have taken shelter in the north, most in the autonomous Kurdistan Region.

Source: Rudaw.

Link: http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/12042016.

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How religious movements gained the upper hand in Iraqi protests

April 6, 2016

Author Adnan Abu Zeed

Translator Pascale el-Khoury

BAGHDAD — After weeks of protests in the streets of Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on March 31 handed the parliament his plan for major ministerial changes to fight corruption. The pressure recently brought to bear on Abadi grew from an unusual, arm’s-length alliance between religious and secular groups.

In July, religious groups in Iraq such as the Sadrist movement allied with nonreligious civil movements to take to the streets and call for governmental reform, accountability of corrupt officials and improved services. These protests were termed secular because they criticized the clergy’s interference in politics and called for separation of church and state.

However, recently such protests took a new turn. On Feb. 26, hundreds of sympathizers of the radical Sadrist movement led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr swarmed into Tahrir Square. Sadr has been pushing for reforms, a change in government ministers and the formation of a government of technocrats.

Sadrists drowned out the voices of secular protesters, taking control of the demonstrations and escalating them with a sit-in staged March 18 in front of the Green Zone in central Baghdad, which houses the Iraqi government institutions, parliament and embassies amid tight security measures. The protests called for holding corrupt officials accountable and turning them in.

Although the secular movement and the Sadrist movement have some sort of plan for shared political work, one might doubt the viability of their cooperation in these protests, especially since they are completely different.

While the secular movement calls for a modern, nonreligious state, the Sadrist movement calls for an Islamic state based on “velayat-e faqih” (guardianship of the Islamic jurist), which authorizes governance by Islamic clerics and fundamentalist legal views.

One might also wonder if the secular movement is trying to seek protection from a religious party to cover up its failure to achieve demonstrable results in the protests, which have been going on for several months, according to an Iraqi newspaper report March 6.

The shared political events between radical secular and religious movements pushed author Sadek al-Tay to wonder, in a March 8 article in Al-Quds al-Araby, “how the desire to establish a secular state, which is the civil movement’s demand, coincides with the goals of the Sadrist movement, which was founded on the [prospect] of a religious state.”

The Sadrist movement is part of the government and is allied with another religious movement, the Supreme Islamic Council, which is hostile toward secular movements. Jalal al-Din al-Zaghir, one of the council leaders, said in a Sept. 13 video that “secularists are the cause of the destruction of Iraq.”

This alliance between the secular movement and the Sadrist movement seems to be contradictory on many levels. What can possibly bring together a secular movement advocating freedoms and women’s emancipation with a religious faction that restricts basic personal freedoms?

The protests called for by Sadr seem to have stifled the secular movement protests.

Parliament member Shorouq al-Abeji, representing the secular movement, decided to wear a veil while visiting Green Zone sit-ins March 18 so as not to offend hard-line members of the Sadrist movement, who formed the majority of protesters. The fact that she wore a chaste outfit, unlike her usual attire, did not go unnoticed, and she was criticized by the secular movement, which described her behavior as submissive.

Jassim al-Hilfi, a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Communist Party, regularly participates in anti-government protests. He told Al-Ghad Press on March 15 that the alliance between the Sadrists and the secular activists reflects a cooperation, not an ideological alliance or an intellectual convergence.

“Each party has its own peculiarities; we cooperate to raise national demands,” he said.

Author Ali Hussein, a columnist for the left-leaning al-Mada daily, seems to share that attitude. He told Al-Monitor that the secular movement benefits from participating in protests staged by the Sadrists.

“The participation of secular forces in the sit-ins [rebuts] the accusations leveled against them of standing idle as events unfold,” he said.

He noted, “Religious parties are skeptical about the Communist Party because of ideological differences.”

Civic activist Hassan al-Shanoun, who participates in the protests staged every Friday, told Al-Monitor that the secular movement’s association with the Sadrists’ sit-ins shows the rise of religious forces and their influence over the marginalized secular campaigns.

The political landscape in Iraq shows that the influence of political Islam has been on the rise since 2003 — when the United States toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime — in parallel with the decline of the influence of Iraqi leftist forces to the extent that communists, who are part of the leftist current in Iraq, were accused of political isolationism.

Political blogger and social media activist Shabib al-Medhati and Hamza al-Sultani, a supporter of the Sadrist movement, both told Al-Monitor they believe the Sadrist participation turned the protests into religious demonstrations.

However, writer Ali Hassan Fawaz told Al-Monitor, “These are popular protests. Even if some religious groups have joined the protesting masses, the [ongoing protests] revealed the need for a secular state, following the failure by numerous symbols of political Islam to achieve such a state.”

The failure of Arab political regimes such as those in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt — mostly those established after World War II ended in 1945 — led the Arab people to support Islamic parties and oppositions, brandishing the slogan “Islam is the solution.” The influence of these religious parties seems to have escalated, while the influence of secular and leftist forces has diminished.

This is especially true in Iraq, particularly after the US invasion in 2003, when strife broke out and the role of religious parties in the Iraqi political arena increased.

The cooperation between secular and religious leaders in the protests reflects a deep-rooted crisis in Iraq. From a political standpoint, this cooperation may indicate a tactic used by both sides to regain people’s confidence and reach efficient solutions for Iraq’s political and economic problems.

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/04/iraq-secular-protests-muqtada-al-sadr-reform-sit-ins.html.

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Egypt protests after el-Sissi gives islands to Saudi Arabia

April 15, 2016

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian security forces fired tear gas Friday at demonstrators protesting President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Chants of “leave, leave!” directed at el-Sissi marked the first significant wave of street protests since the former army chief became president in 2014.

Riot police first cracked down on protesters in Cairo’s twin city of Giza, where demonstrators had gathered at two prominent mosques after Friday prayers and started marching toward Tahrir Square downtown. Many carried signs reading, “Land is Honor” and denouncing the surrender of the islands. Others chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime” and “Down with military rule!”

After police fired tear gas, the protesters ran in all directions, according to videos posted online by activists. Several photojournalists covering the protests were briefly detained near al-Istiqama mosque in Giza, according to witnesses at the scene who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their own safety.

All unauthorized demonstrations in Egypt are illegal and security forces have, in the past, used lethal force against peaceful demonstrators. Egypt’s state news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying that the protesters were members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group and that they chanted “anti-regime slogans.” The official said police responded with tear gas after protesters threw rocks at them.

Another demonstration of nearly 2000 protesters gathered outside the Press Syndicate downtown, a few meters from a collection of armored vehicles and hundreds of police in full riot gear who sealed off the surrounding streets. The protesters there chanted, “They sold our lands to the Saudis.” Except for a handful of bearded men and female protesters wearing full-face veils, there was little sign of an organized Islamist presence among the demonstrators.

“If we give up the lands now, there will be more future concessions for him to stay in power, for few more months,” said Alaa Morsi, one of the protesters, echoing a widely-held notion that el-Sissi essentially sold Egyptian territory in exchange for much-needed Saudi financial support, to shore up his rule.

What infuriated many was the secretive nature of the deal and particularly its timing. It was announced at the same time the Saudis were pledging billions of dollars of loans, causing critics and even some former el-Sissi supporters to accuse the president of a desperate and humiliating territorial sell-off.

“He should have told us before the deal,” said 28-year-old lawyer and protester Rania Rafaat, who was carrying a banner read, “el-Sissi sold his land, leave.” El-Sissi has defended his decision on the islands and tried to defuse the controversy.

The government maintains that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba belong to Saudi Arabia, which asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them from Israel. Israel captured the islands in the 1967 Middle East war, but handed them back to Egypt under their 1979 peace treaty.

In response, Egyptians have taken to social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter, posting numerous old maps to prove Egypt’s ownership of the islands. Though relatively small in number, the protests come at a time of public tension and tight security, underscoring increasing public discontent at el-Sissi’s rule since he was elected president in the summer of 2014. A year earlier, as army chief, he led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against Morsi’s rule. El-Sissi also led the military’s crackdown on thousands of Islamists who staged sit-ins and rallies across Egypt to demand Morsi’s reinstatement. Thousands were imprisoned and hundreds killed in the crackdown.

El-Sissi is Egypt’s fourth president in six years, after millions of Egyptians revolted against the longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak and his police state in 2011. Hailed by his supporters at the time as the country’s savior, el-Sissi has faced a series of crises in recent months including a surging Islamic insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, a declining economy, and deeply disenchanted youth and democracy advocates who see him as another version of Mubarak.

Away from the capital, el-Sissi once again defended his decision to give up the islands to the Saudis, saying that they always rightfully belonged to Saudi Arabia and were only temporarily placed under Egyptian protection.

Speaking to a number of carefully-chosen youth in an under-construction Red Sea resort city, he promised to turn Egypt into a new economic and culture powerhouse. El-Sissi acknowledged in his lengthy speech that he kept the talks over the islands secret in order to avoid public debate which he perceived as harmful to Egyptian foreign relations.

The rare show of defiance, the Friday demonstration reinvigorated demands of retribution to killings of the youth protesters. Some protesters waved a banner carrying the picture of Mina Danial, a young protester killed when army troops crackdown in 2011. Others carried pictures of detained Islamists.

El-Sissi still retains a large base of support among Egyptians who fear for their security, and see him as the only protection against an Islamist takeover and state disintegration. At a small rally Friday in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, dozens of supporters carried posters with photographs of the president and chanted, “We love you, el- Sissi!”

The calls for the Friday protests in Cairo prompted the Interior Ministry to beef up security in Tahrir Square, shutting down the Tahrir subway station and positioning dozens of police vehicles mounted by masked riot police around the square and the surrounding area.

Earlier, the state MENA news agency quoted an unnamed ministry official as saying police were “encircling” all the strategic routes into the capital. The official said the precautions would prevent “infiltration of the terrorist group” bent on causing chaos — a reference to Morsi’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamist group, which has been declared a terrorist organization, had joined calls by secular and leftist groups for mass demonstrations over the islands issue. The Islamist presence in the Press Syndicate demonstration was relatively low, and some protesters prevented others from raising pro-Brotherhood signs. One Islamist protester who identified himself by an elias, Abu Shehab, told The Associated Press, “I am protesting against everything. El-Sissi is not fit to be a president.”

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Egypt cedes two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Egyptian government on Saturday evening said a new maritime border agreement with Riyadh would put the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran – long considered Egyptian possessions – within Saudi territorial waters.

“The Red Sea islands [Sanafir and Tiran] fall within Saudi territorial waters in light of the new border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” the Egyptian government said in a statement.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail signed the deal with Saudi officials at the presidential palace in Cairo in the presence of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the latter of whom is currently visiting Egypt.

The government statement went on to describe the agreement as an “important achievement” that would allow both countries to take full advantage of their “rich natural resources”.

It added that the border demarcation deal was the “result of six years of hard work and 11 rounds of meetings”, noting that two technical committees had used the latest scientific methods to accurately demarcate the maritime border between the two countries.

“Ratification of this agreement will allow Egypt to take advantage of the exclusive economic zone in the Red Sea and will provide Egypt with exploration opportunities for additional natural resources,” the government statement read.

It went on to note that the deal would be brought before Egypt’s parliament – which is dominated by pro-regime MPs – for ratification.

Criticism

The agreement came in for heavy criticism by opposition figures, including many prominent former officials and parliamentarians.

In a joint statement, they asserted their “total rejection” of “all agreements concluded by this illegal regime, including the relinquishment of Egypt’s historical right to territorial waters, land and airspace, along with the management of its airports and wealth and its territorial jurisdiction and national sovereignty.”

The statement was signed by former MP Tharwat Nafi; Saif Abdul Fattah, a former adviser to ex-President Mohamed Morsi (who was ousted in a 2013 military coup); journalist Abdul Rahman Yousef; former MP Gamal Heshmat; former MP Hatem Azzam; former government minister Amr Darrag; Tariq al-Zumr, head of the Building and Development Party; Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate; Ihab Shiha, head of the Asala Party; Yahiya Hamid, former assistant to ousted President Morsi; and Muhammad Mahsoub, a former government minister.

Tiran Island (80 square kilometers) lies at the entrance of the Strait of Tiran, which separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea only six kilometers from the Sinai coast. Sanafir Island (33 square kilometers) is located to the east of Tiran Island.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/24935-egypt-cedes-two-red-sea-islands-to-saudi-arabia.

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Jordan recalls Iran envoy over alleged ‘interference’

April 18, 2016

Jordan recalled its ambassador to Iran on Monday for consultations over alleged Iranian interference in Arab affairs.

Government spokesman Mohammad Momani was quoted by the official Petra news agency as saying that the move was meant to protest “Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries, particularly the Gulf states”.

Tensions have been high between Sunni Arab countries and Shia Iran since Saudi Arabia severed relations with Tehran in January after angry protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran following the execution of a prominent Shia Saudi imam.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160418-jordan-recalls-iran-envoy-over-alleged-interference/.

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