Pope Thanks Iraqis For Visit, Saying They Deserve Peace

Pope Francis gestures aboard the aeroplane heading to Iraq on March 5, 2021. Pope Francis landed in war-battered Iraq on the first-ever papal visit, defying security fears and the pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities. Andrew Medichini / POOL / AFP

 

Pope Francis thanked the people of Iraq on Wednesday for allowing him to make his historic trip to the country, saying Iraqis deserve to live in peace.

In his weekly audience, the 84-year-old pope reflected on the packed three-day programme that saw him travel throughout Iraq last weekend, offering encouragement to persecuted Christians and extending a hand to Shiite Muslims.

“After this visit, my soul is filled with gratitude — gratitude to God and to all those who made it possible,” he said, citing political and religious leaders.

These include top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, “with whom I had an unforgettable meeting”.

He said he heard first-hand of “wounds still open” from the destruction wrought on Iraq’s Christian communities, which have been decimated after decades of conflict.

“And at the same time, I saw around me the joy of welcoming Christ’s message,” he said.

“The Iraqi people have the right to live in peace. They have the right to rediscover the dignity that belongs to them.”

He condemned the “monster” of war, adding: “I ask myself, who sells arms to terrorists? Today, who sells them to terrorists?

“They are waging wars in other places as well, in Africa, and it’s a question that I want an answer to.”

But he noted that Iraqis “are trying hard to rebuild. The Muslims are inviting the Christians to return and together they are restoring churches and mosques. Fraternity is there”.

Pope Francis Prays For ‘Victims Of War’ In Iraq’s Mosul

 

Pope Francis prayed Sunday for “victims of war” outside a centuries-old church in Iraq’s Mosul, where the Islamic State group ravaged one of the world’s oldest Christian communities until the jihadists’ defeat three years ago.

With the crumbling stone walls of the Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church behind him, Pope Francis made a plea for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.

The 84-year-old pontiff said the “tragic” exodus of Christians from war-scarred Iraq and the wider region “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind”.

The IS onslaught forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province to flee. Iraq’s Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003.

The faithful had gathered on Sunday in the courtyard of the Al-Tahera Church, whose roof collapsed during fighting against IS in 2017.

It is one of the oldest of at least 14 churches in Nineveh province that were destroyed by IS.

Boutros Chito, a Catholic priest in Mosul, said the pope’s visit could change the way people think about his city, the ancient centre of which still lies in ruins.

“Pope Francis will announce to the whole world that we are the people of peace, a civilisation of love,” Chito told AFP.

The heaviest deployment of security forces yet has been mobilised to protect Francis on what is perhaps the riskiest day of his historic trip to Iraq, where state forces are still hunting IS sleeper cells.

‘Boost our morale’

Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace” aims to reassure the country’s dwindling Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.

On Saturday, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics met Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should be able to live in “peace”.

“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Francis said at an interfaith service in the ancient site of Ur later that morning.

Watching from afar as IS swept across Nineveh in 2014, Pope Francis said at the time he was ready to come and meet the displaced and other victims of war in a show of solidarity.

Seven years later, he is visiting both Mosul and Qaraqosh, one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns whose residents still speak a dialect of Syriac, the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

It, too, was largely destroyed when IS rampaged through the area, but its residents have trickled back since 2017 and slowly worked at rebuilding their hometown.

“This very important visit will boost our morale after years of difficulties, problems and wars,” said Father George Jahoula in Qaraqosh.

To honour the pope, local artisans wove a two-metre (6.5-foot) prayer shawl, or stole, with the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” prayers carefully hand-stitched in golden thread in Syriac.

It was given to Francis on his first day in Iraq on Friday.

Holy mass in stadium

Francis landed early on Sunday at the airport in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, which was targeted just a few weeks ago by a volley of rockets that killed two people.

He held a brief meeting with regional president Nechirvan Barzani and his cousin, the prime minister Masrour Barzani.

Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has criss-crossed Iraq, taking planes, helicopters and armoured convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) in-country.

The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, with Iraq gripped by a second wave bringing around 5,000 new cases per day.

Authorities have imposed a nationwide lockdown — ostensibly to keep cases down but also to help control movements of crowds during the pope’s high-profile visit.

While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has only just begun a modest inoculation campaign and there are fears that the crowds gathering to see him could lead to super-spreader events.

The biggest event yet will be on Sunday afternoon, when several thousand people will gather at Arbil’s Franso Hariri stadium for the Pope’s last mass in Iraq.

Arbil has been a relative haven of stability and a place of refuge for many Christians who fled IS.

Christian Exodus Does ‘Incalculable Harm’ To Mideast, Says Pope Francis

Pope Francis, accompanied by bodyguards, leaves the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat al-Najat) in Baghdad at the start of the first ever papal visit to Iraq on March 5, 2021. In an address to the faithful in Baghdad, Pope Francis expressed his gratitude to his fellow clergy for supporting Iraq's Christians, whose population has dwindled due to conflict. Ayman HENNA / AFP
Pope Francis, accompanied by bodyguards, leaves the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat al-Najat) in Baghdad at the start of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on March 5, 2021. Ayman HENNA / AFP

 

Pope Francis prayed on Sunday for “victims of war” outside a centuries-old church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, heavily damaged by the Islamic State group ravaged one of the world’s oldest Christian communities until the jihadists’ defeat three years ago.

The 84-year-old said the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind.”

With the crumbling stone walls of the Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church behind him, Pope Francis made a plea for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.

The pontiff said the “tragic” exodus of Christians from war-scarred Iraq and the wider region “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind”.

The IS onslaught forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province to flee. Iraq’s Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003.

The faithful had gathered on Sunday in the courtyard of the Al-Tahera Church, whose roof collapsed during fighting against IS in 2017.

It is one of the oldest of at least 14 churches in Nineveh province that were destroyed by IS.

Boutros Chito, a Catholic priest in Mosul, said the pope’s visit could change the way people think about his city, the ancient centre of which still lies in ruins.

“Pope Francis will announce to the whole world that we are the people of peace, a civilisation of love,” Chito told AFP.

The heaviest deployment of security forces yet has been mobilised to protect Francis on what is perhaps the riskiest day of his historic trip to Iraq, where state forces are still hunting IS sleeper cells.

‘Boost our morale’

Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace” aims to reassure the country’s dwindling Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.

On Saturday, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics met Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should be able to live in “peace”.

“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Francis said at an interfaith service in the ancient site of Ur later that morning.

Watching from afar as IS swept across Nineveh in 2014, Pope Francis said at the time he was ready to come and meet the displaced and other victims of war in a show of solidarity.

Seven years later, he is visiting both Mosul and Qaraqosh, one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns whose residents still speak a dialect of Syriac, the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

It, too, was largely destroyed when IS rampaged through the area, but its residents have trickled back since 2017 and slowly worked at rebuilding their hometown.

“This very important visit will boost our morale after years of difficulties, problems and wars,” said Father George Jahoula in Qaraqosh.

To honour the pope, local artisans wove a two-metre (6.5-foot) prayer shawl, or stole, with the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” prayers carefully hand-stitched in golden thread in Syriac.

It was given to Francis on his first day in Iraq on Friday.

Holy mass in stadium

Francis landed early on Sunday at the airport in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, which was targeted just a few weeks ago by a volley of rockets that killed two people.

He held a brief meeting with regional president Nechirvan Barzani and his cousin, the prime minister Masrour Barzani.

Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has criss-crossed Iraq, taking planes, helicopters and armoured convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) in-country.

The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, with Iraq gripped by a second wave bringing around 5,000 new cases per day.

Authorities have imposed a nationwide lockdown — ostensibly to keep cases down but also to help control movements of crowds during the pope’s high-profile visit.

While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has only just begun a modest inoculation campaign and there are fears that the crowds gathering to see him could lead to super-spreader events.

The biggest event yet will be on Sunday afternoon, when several thousand people will gather at Arbil’s Franso Hariri stadium for the Pope’s last mass in Iraq.

Arbil has been a relative haven of stability and a place of refuge for many Christians who fled IS.

AFP

Pope Francis Meets Top Iraq Shiite Cleric Grand Ayatollah Sistani

A handout picture provided by Vatican News shows Pope Francis meeting top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the Irqi shine city of Najaf,on March 6, 2021.
STRINGER / VATICAN NEWS / AFP

 

Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top religious authority for most Shiite Muslims, hosted the head of the world’s Catholics, Pope Francis, on Saturday in the shrine city of Najaf.

Sistani, 90, almost never holds meetings but made an exception for 84-year-old Francis, who is making the first-ever papal trip to Iraq to encourage dwindling Christians and extend his hand to Shiite Muslims.

One Militant Killed In US Bombing In Iraq – Pentagon

Iraqi Flag

 

The US Defense Department said Monday that one member of a pro-Iran militia was killed and two were injured in last week’s bombing of a border station inside Syria.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby made no mention of possible civilian casualties, but said than nine buildings were destroyed in the pinpoint strike on the outpost near Albu Kamal.

The US military said was used by Iran-supported Iraqi armed groups.

“We believe right now there was likely one militia member killed and two militia members wounded,” Kirby said.

“We’ll continue to assess … and if that changes we will certainly let you know,” he added.

Shortly after the early Friday attack, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 22 fighters from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force were killed.

READ ALSO: Myanmar’s Suu Kyi Hit With Two New Criminal Charges

The strike was in retaliation for three recent missile attacks on installations used by US and coalition forces in Iraq.

Those were believed launched by Iran-backed militias that operate under the umbrella of Hashed al-Shaabi.

It was the first military strike by the administration of Joe Biden in the region and came as Biden seeks to resume negotiations with Tehran over limiting its nuclear program.

Iraqi map.

 

Biden was “sending an unambiguous message that he’s going to act to protect Americans,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Friday.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said they were confident the target was being used by “the same Shia militia that conducted the strikes” in Iraq against US-used facilities.

The administration has stressed that the action was meant as a warning and to avoid further escalation of tensions between Tehran and Washington.

“This was really designed to do two things: to remove that compound from their utilization of it as an entry control point from Syria into Iraq,” Kirby said.

“And, two, to send a very strong signal that we’re not going to tolerate attacks on our people and our Iraqi partners.”

AFP

Pope Francis Plans Historic Iraq Trip In March

Pope Francis delivers a homily during Palm Sunday mass behind closed doors at St. Peter’s Basilica mass on April 5, 2020 in The Vatican, during the lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. Alberto PIZZOLI / POOL / AFP.

 

Pope Francis will make a historic visit to Iraq in March, the Vatican said Monday, the first ever by a pontiff and which will include a trip to Mosul.

The 83-year-old has long spoken of his desire to visit the Middle Eastern country, although the Vatican said the programme would “take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency”.

Francis will be the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Iraq, where the number of Christians has dropped dramatically over the past two decades.

“He will visit Baghdad, the plain of Ur… the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh,” spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement, during a trip planned from March 5 to 8, 2021.

There were more than one million Christians in Iraq but just a few hundred thousand are left following sectarian warfare after the 2003 US-led invasion and the Islamic State group’s sweep through a third of the country in 2014.

The pope’s visit to Mosul will be particularly significant, given that it was a former stronghold of the Islamic State group.

Francis was forced to cancel all foreign trips in June after it became clear that coronavirus, which hit Italy in early March, would make travel for the elderly pontiff too dangerous.

He said last year that Iraq was on his list for 2020 trips.

At the time he said he hoped Iraq could “face the future through the peaceful and shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious, and not fall back into hostilities sparked by the simmering conflicts of the regional powers.”.

READ ALSO: UNICEF Seeks $2.5bn For Mideast Children As COVID-19 Deepens Poverty

“The pope’s visit will come as the realisation of a dream of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II,” the Vatican’s news portal said.

“The Polish pope had planned to travel to Iraq at the end of 1999, but was prevented by Saddam Hussein,” it added.

The Iraqi government welcomed news of Francis’ visit, with the foreign ministry saying: “It symbolises a message of peace to Iraq and the whole region.”

President Barham Saleh officially invited the pope to visit Iraq in July 2019, hoping it would help the country “heal” after years of strife.

AFP

US Extends Iraq Sanctions Waiver Until Before Biden Inauguration

US President-elect Joe Biden answers questions from the press at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware on November 16, 2020. ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP
US President-elect Joe Biden answers questions from the press at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware on November 16, 2020. ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP

 

Washington has granted Iraq a shortened 45-day sanctions waiver to import Iranian gas that will expire days before US President Donald Trump’s term ends, an Iraqi official said Saturday.

Baghdad buys gas and electricity from its neighbour Tehran to supply about a third of its power sector, worn down by years of conflict and poor maintenance.

The US blacklisted Iran’s energy industry in late 2018 but granted Baghdad a series of temporary waivers, hoping Iraq would wean itself off Iranian energy by partnering with US firms.

The lengths of the exemptions have become a key tool in US policy towards Iraq, demonstrating the level of satisfaction or frustration with Baghdad.

In May, Washington granted Iraq a four-month extension as a gesture of goodwill towards Mustafa al-Kadhemi, who had just formed a cabinet seen as US-friendly.

But when it renewed the waiver in late September, the Trump administration gave Iraq just 60 days.

This time, it went even shorter: 45 days, a top Iraqi official told AFP, expiring around a week before Trump is set to hand over the White House to President-elect Joe Biden.

“They (the Trump administration) wanted the last opportunity to have a say,” the official said.

The shorter waiver comes amid concern by Iraqi and Western officials that Trump could use his final days in office to strike at Iran and its allies in Iraq.

The State Department is drawing up plans for a possible closure of the American embassy in Baghdad, which has been targeted by dozens of rocket attacks in the last year.

And two Iraqi officials have said they expect a “bucket list of sanctions” against Iranian interests in Iraq ahead of the White House handover.

UN Experts Seek End To Mass Executions In Iraq

(FILES) In this file photograph taken on September 5, 2018, Palestinian school children raise the victory gesture over a UN flag during a protest at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)

 

UN human rights experts on Friday voiced alarm at reports that a further 50 terror convicts were facing execution in Iraq on Monday, as they urged Baghdad to halt all “mass executions”.

Some 4,000 prisoners, most of them charged with terror-related offences, are reportedly on death row in Iraq, said a trio of experts who do not speak for the United Nations but report their findings to it.

Hundreds of deaths are imminent after the signing of execution orders, according to the UN special rapporteurs Nils Melzer (torture and other cruel punishment), Fionnuala Ni Aolain (protecting human rights while countering terrorism) and Agnes Callamard (extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions).

Iraq executed 21 men convicted of “terrorism” last Monday at the notorious Nasiriyah prison in the country’s south, medical and police sources said.

They had all been convicted under a 2005 anti-terrorism law, which carries the death penalty.

Since declaring the Islamic State group defeated in late 2017, Iraq has condemned hundreds of its own citizens to death for membership of the jihadist faction.

The UN experts said in a joint statement that they had “serious concerns about the conduct of the trials and the extraction of confessions under torture”.

“We strongly urge the Iraqi government to respect its international legal obligations and to immediately halt further plans to execute prisoners,” said the special rapporteurs.

“When carried out on a widespread and systematic basis, arbitrary executions may well amount to crimes against humanity and may entail universal criminal responsibility for any official involved in such acts.”

 

AFP

Iraq Government Wants Continuing US Presence – US General

Troops Take Selfies With Trump, Melania In Unannounced Iraq Visit
File photo: US President Donald Trump takes a photo as he greets members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. SAUL LOEB / AFP

 

The US Middle East commander said Thursday that troops in Iraq will be cut to 2,500 on President Donald Trump’s order, but that Baghdad wants a continued US presence to fight the Islamic State group.

Central Command Commander General Kenneth McKenzie told a conference that the continuing US presence has successfully limited the activities of Iran and the Islamic State.

Iran has recently curtailed attacks, McKenzie said, “based on the hope that we would be asked to leave Iraq through the government of Iraq’s political processes.”

However, he said, “the government of Iraq has clearly indicated it wants to maintain its partnership with the United States and coalition forces as we continue to finish the fight against ISIS.”

Speaking to an online conference held by the National Council on US-Arab Relations, McKenzie cited estimates that the Islamic State still has a body of 10,000 supporters in the Iraq-Syria region and remains a real threat.

“The progress of the Iraqi Security Forces has allowed has allowed the United States to reduce force posture in Iraq,” he said.

But US and coalition forces have to be there to help prevent Islamic State from reconstituting as a cohesive group able to plot major attacks, he said.

“When you’re running for your life up and down the Euphrates River Valley, listening to the noise of an armed MQ-9 drone overhead, it’s hard to think about conducting attack planning against Detroit.”

McKenzie said the US presence and measured retaliations had also successfully deterred Iran from persisting in attacks on Gulf shipping and limited its proxy attacks in Iraq.

“Today I believe Iran has been largely deterred because the regime now understands we possess both the capability and the will to respond,” he said.

AFP

Iraq, Saudi Reopen Land Border After 30 Years

A handout picture released by the Iraqi Border Crossing Commission on November 18, 2020 shows the Arar border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. (Photo by – / Iraq Border Authority / AFP)

 

Iraq and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday reopened their land border for the first time in 30 years, with closer trade ties between the two countries irking allies of Riyadh’s rival, Tehran.

Top officials including Iraq’s interior minister and the head of its border commission travelled from Baghdad to formally open the Arar crossing.

They met up with a delegation who had joined them from Riyadh, all in masks, and cut a red ribbon at the border crossing as a line of cargo trucks waited behind them.

Arar will be open to both goods and people for the first time since Riyadh cut off its diplomatic relationship with Baghdad in 1990, following Iraqi ex-dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Ties have remained rocky ever since, but current Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi has a close personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Kadhemi was to travel to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as prime minister in May, but the visit was cancelled at the last minute when Saudi King Salman was hospitalised.

He has yet to make the trip, although Iraqi ministers have visited Riyadh to meet with their counterparts and a top-level Saudi delegation travelled to Baghdad last week.

Baghdad sees Arar as a potential alternative to its crossings with eastern neighbour Iran, through which Iraq brings in a large share of its imports.

The two Arab states are also exploring the reopening of a second border point at Al-Jumayma, along Iraq’s southern border with the Saudi kingdom.

– ‘Let them invest’ –

But pro-Iran factions in Iraq, which call themselves the “Islamic Resistance,” have stood firmly against closer ties with Saudi Arabia.

Ahead of Arar’s opening, one such group identifying itself as Ashab al-Kahf published a statement announcing its “rejection of the Saudi project in Iraq”.

“The intelligence cadres of the Islamic Resistance are following all the details of the Saudi enemy’s activities on the Iraqi border,” it warned.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday evening, Kadhemi fired back against those describing the rapprochement as Saudi “colonialism”.

“This is a lie. It’s shameful,” he said.

“Let them invest. Welcome to Iraq,” Kadhemi added, saying Saudi investment could bring in a flood of new jobs to Iraq where more than one-third of youth are unemployed.

The closer ties have been a long time coming.

They did not improve much after Saddam’s toppling in the 2003 US-led invasion, as Riyadh looked at the new Shiite-dominated political class with suspicion due to their ties to Iran.

A thaw began in 2017 when then Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir travelled to Baghdad — the first such visit in decades — followed by a Riyadh trip by Iraqi premier Haider al-Abadi.

The first commercial flights resumed between the two countries and officials began discussing Arar, with high-profile US diplomat Brett McGurk even visiting the crossing in 2017 to support its reopening.

But those plans were repeatedly delayed, with Arar only opened on rare occasions to allow through Iraqi religious pilgrims on their way to Mecca for the hajj.

– More in the works? –

Iraq is the second-largest producer in the OPEC oil cartel, outranked only by Saudi Arabia.

Its oil, gas and electricity infrastructure is severely outdated and inefficient but low oil prices this year have stymied efforts to revamp it.

Baghdad is also notoriously slow to activate external investment, with international firms and foreign countries complaining that rampant corruption hamstrings more investment.

Kadhemi’s government has sought to fast-track foreign investment including Saudi support for energy and agriculture.

On his trip to Washington this summer, he agreed to a half-dozen projects that would use Saudi funding to finance US energy firms.

Last year, Iraq signed a deal to plug into the Gulf Cooperation Council’s power grid and add up to 500 MW of electricity to its dilapidated electricity sector.

Those deals too have been criticised by pro-Iran factions in Iraq.

AFP

US To Slash Troop Levels In Afghanistan, Iraq

In this file photo US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. Olivier Douliery / AFP
In this file photo US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. Olivier Douliery / AFP

 

The US will slash troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to their lowest levels in nearly 20 years of war after President Donald Trump pledged to end conflicts abroad, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

Rejecting concerns that precipitous drawdowns could give up all the US has fought for, Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said around 2,000 troops would be pulled from Afghanistan by January 15.

Five hundred more would come back from Iraq by the same date, leaving 2,500 in each country.

The moves reflect Trump’s policy “to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion and to bring our brave service members home,” Miller said.

Miller said the US had met its goals, set in 2001 after the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States, to defeat Islamist extremists and to help “local partners and allies to take the lead in the fight.”

“With the blessings of providence in the coming year, we will finish this generational war and bring our men and women home,” he said.

Ending ‘endless wars’

The moves took the United States closer to disengaging from conflicts that have blazed and smouldered through three presidencies with no end in sight since 2001.

But critics said they risk appearing like a humiliating defeat, leaving the original threat of Islamic extremist attacks intact.

The announcement came just weeks before Trump cedes the White House in the wake of his November 3 reelection loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

A file photo of US President, Donald Trump. JIM WATSON / AFP

 

Amid criticism that Trump was acting abruptly since his defeat, White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said the troop cuts have been in the works for some time.

“Four years ago President Trump ran on a promise to put a stop to America’s endless wars. Today it was just announced at the Pentagon that President Trump is keeping that promise to the American people.”

“By May it is President Trump’s hope that they will come home safely and in their entirety.”

Baghdad rockets

Despite the risk of the moves and their impact on allies, neither Miller nor O’Brien would take questions on the announcement.

It came 10 days after Trump fired defense secretary Mark Esper, who had insisted on keeping 4,500 troops in Afghanistan to support the Kabul government.

Esper had reduced US forces from about 13,000 following the February 29 peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban insurgents.

The two sides agreed that the Taliban would then negotiate a power-sharing pact with the Afghan government, so that US troops would be gone by May 2021.

But until Esper’s removal, the Pentagon had argued that the Taliban had not met pledges to reduce violent attacks on government forces, and that further troop reductions would take pressure off them to do so.

In Iraq, Trump has also pulled back US forces amid dozens of rocket attacks by Iran-allied groups on the US embassy and bases housing American troops.

On Tuesday, a volley of rockets slammed into Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the US embassy sits, breaking a month-long truce on attacks against the US embassy.

Speaking on grounds of anonymity, a senior US defense official dismissed concerns over the risk of resurgences by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“The professionals in the military service have agreed that this is the right move,” the official said.

“Al Qaeda has been in Afghanistan for decades and the reality is, we’d be fools to say they are going to leave tomorrow.”

‘Humiliating departure’

Allies and senior US politicians though saw US troop cuts as dangerous.

On Monday US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned the Afghan cuts could lead to a debacle like the “humiliating American departure from Vietnam” in 1975, and be a propaganda victory for Islamic extremists.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned Tuesday that Afghanistan could return to being “a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands.”

Democratic Senator Jack Reed, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused Trump of a “cynical, chaotic approach” designed to burnish his own legacy while leaving a mess to successor Biden.

But another senior Democrat, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, said that after speaking with Miller, he saw the move as “the right policy decision.”

“At the same time, this reduction must be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region,” he said in a statement.

 

AFP

Iraqis Dig Up COVID-19 Dead To Rebury In Family Graves

A member of the Iraqi civil defense sprays disinfectant on and around a building where Islamic students are quarantined for having had contact with Iraq’s first confirmed case of novel coronavirus infection, in the central holy city of Najaf, on February 26, 2020. Haidar HAMDANI / AFP


 

Mohammad al-Bahadli dug into Iraq’s hot desert sand with bare hands to reach his father’s corpse.

“Now he can finally be with our people, our family, in the old cemetery,” 49-year-old Bahadli said, as relatives sobbed over the body, wrapped in a shroud.

After restrictions were eased for the burying of those who died of the novel coronavirus, Iraqis are exhuming the victims to rebury them in their rightful place in family cemeteries.

For months, families of those who died after contracting Covid-19 were barred from taking the body back to bury in family tombs, for fear the corpses could still spread the virus.

Instead, the authorities established a “coronavirus cemetery” in a plot of desert outside the shrine city of Najaf, where volunteers in protective gear carefully buried victims spaced five metres (16 feet) apart.

Only one relative was permitted to attend the speedy burials, which often happened in the middle of the night.

Victims from all religious sects — both Shiite and Sunni Muslims, as well as Christians — were buried there.

But on September 7, Iraqi authorities announced they would permit those who died after contracting Covid-19 to be relocated to the cemetery of their family’s choice.

Many of those buried under the emergency rules came from other parts of the country.

“The first time, he was buried so far away,” Bahadli said of his 80-year-old father’s funeral rites.

“I’m not sure it was done in the proper religious way.”

– Grave mix-up –

Iraq has been one of the hardest-hit countries in the Middle East by Covid-19, with more than 280,000 infections and nearly 8,000 deaths.

On September 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) said: “the likelihood of transmission when handling human remains is low.”

 

This picture taken on April 24, 2020 shows a sign of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva next to their headquarters, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
This picture taken on April 24, 2020, shows a sign of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva next to their headquarters, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus.
Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

 

Days later, after pressure from families, Iraqi authorities announced they would permit bodies to be transferred only by “specialised health teams.”

But the first re-burials proved chaotic.

At the “coronavirus cemetery” in the desert outside Najaf, hundreds of families began arriving late Thursday to dig up their family member and carry the body home.

They brought their own shovels, baskets to scoop away the sand, and new wooden coffins to carry the dead.

The sounds of fierce sobbing and mourning prayers mixed with the clinks of pickaxes echoed across the sand.

There were no medical professionals or cemetery guides on site to help families locate or properly excavate the bodies, an AFP correspondent said.

In some cases, families dug into a grave site marked with a relative’s name, only to find an empty coffin, or to uncover the body of a young man when they were expecting to find the corpse of their elderly mother.

Other bodies were not wrapped in burial shrouds, required by Islam as a sign of respect.

The findings sparked outraged criticism of the state-sponsored armed group that had taken charge of the burials in recent months, with some angry relatives setting fire to the faction’s base nearby.

– ‘Haunting’ –

“The grave-diggers don’t have expertise or the right materials,” said Abdallah Kareem, whose brother Ahmed died of complications from Covid-19.

“They don’t even know how to locate the graves,” he told AFP while tending to the grave.

Kareem, who comes from some 230 kilometres (140 miles) to the south in Iraq’s Muthanna province, opted not to rebury his brother in case it violated religious edicts.

In Islam, the deceased must be buried as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours.

Cremation is strictly prohibited and reburials are virtually unheard of — although not necessarily outlawed if the body is kept intact, a Najaf cleric told AFP.

Despite the complications, families were nevertheless relieved to have the closure that a traditional burial brought.

“Since my father was buried here, I keep replaying his words in my head before he died: ‘My son, try to bury me in the family cemetery, don’t let me be too far from my relatives,'” Hussein, another mourner who gave only his first name, told AFP.

The 53-year old dug up his father’s body by hand to transfer him to the vast Wadi al-Salam cemetery, where millions of Shiite Muslims are buried.

“The dream that had been haunting me for these last few months has been realised,” Hussein said.

AFP