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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Iraq on Saturday registered nearly 4,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, bringing the total number of cases recorded by the country to over 200,000.
According to the Iraqi health ministry, 201,050 Iraqis have contracted the virus, including 6,353 who have died, while 143,393 are declared to have recovered since the pandemic began.
The daily increases have hovered around 4,000 for more than a week, but authorities have declined to reimpose a strict lockdown that was lifted earlier this summer.
An overnight curfew remains in place, most restaurants are closed for dine-in customers and land crossings are officially shut.
But airports, supermarkets and take-out cafes are open, with varying degrees of social distancing or mask-wearing.
Many fear yet another spike in cases is imminent, as Shiite Muslims converge on the holy city of Karbala to commemorate the beginning of the mourning month of Muharram.
Muharram, which includes the memorial of the killing of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein in 680 AD, is typically marked by mass funeral processions and self-flagellation.
It usually sees thousands of pilgrims cross the border from neighbouring Iran, which has suffered the largest mortality figure from COVID-19 infections in the Middle East, with more than 20,200 deaths officially registered.
Iraq’s hospitals have already been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages in medicines, hospital beds and even protective equipment for doctors.
On August 2, 1990, the army of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein swarmed into neighbouring Gulf emirate Kuwait, annexing the small oil-rich territory.
Seven months later, Iraq was chased out by a US-led international coalition, leaving behind a devastated and pillaged Kuwait, and 750 oil wells ablaze.
Here is a recap of the conflict and its aftermath:
– Accusations –
On July 18, 1990, tensions spiral after Iraq accuses Kuwait of stealing petrol from the Rumaila oil field and encroaching on its territory.
Saddam demands $2.4 billion from the emirate.
Kuwait counters, saying Iraq is trying to drill oil wells on its territory.
It is one of several disputes, the most complex involving their border — a bone of contention since Kuwait’s independence in 1961.
Iraq also accuses the emirate of flooding the oil market, driving down crude prices.
Attempts by the Arab League and Saudi Arabia to mediate an end to the crisis fail and talks are suspended on August 1.
– Invasion –
The next day, Iraq invades.
“Iraqi troops began at 2 a.m. local time to violate our northern borders, to enter Kuwait territory and to occupy positions within Kuwait,” Radio Kuwait announces in its first news bulletin.
It is followed by patriotic music and calls on Kuwaitis “to defend their land, their sand and their dunes”.
Violent clashes with heavy weaponry break out in Kuwait City between Kuwaiti units and the Iraqi army.
Faced with 100,000 Iraqi troops and 300 tanks, the 16,000-strong Kuwaiti army is overwhelmed.
The capital falls that morning and Kuwait’s head of state Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad Al-Sabah flees to Saudi Arabia.
His brother Fahd is killed as Iraqi troops seize the palace.
In Baghdad official radio announces the end of the “traitor regime” it accuses of being an accomplice in an “American Zionist plot”, aimed at undermining the recovery of the Iraqi economy.
– Shockwaves –
The international community condemns the invasion and oil prices soar on world markets.
At an emergency meeting, the UN Security Council demands the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Washington freezes Iraqi assets in the US and its subsidiaries abroad, along with Kuwaiti assets, to prevent them benefiting Baghdad.
The Soviet Union, Iraq’s main arms supplier, halts its deliveries.
On August 6, the UN Security Council slaps a trade, financial and military embargo on Iraq.
Two days later, the US president George H.W. Bush announces he is sending troops to Saudi Arabia.
Iraq closes its borders to foreigners. Thousands of western, Arab and Asian civilians are held against their will in Iraq or Kuwait, with some 500 people used for months as human shields at strategic sites.
– Annexation –
On August 8, Baghdad announces Kuwait’s “total and irreversible” incorporation into Iraq.
Later in the month, Iraq annexes the emirate as its 19th province.
“Kuwait is part of Iraq,” Saddam declares.
– Liberation –
On November 29, the UN Security Council authorises the use of “all necessary means” to force Iraq out of Kuwait if it has not withdrawn its troops voluntarily by January 15, 1991.
Baghdad rejects the ultimatum.
On January 17, after diplomatic initiatives fail, Operation Desert Storm is launched with intensive bombardments of Iraq and Kuwait.
On February 24, Bush announces a ground offensive.
The allied troops free the emirate in days.
Bush announces on February 27 the liberation of Kuwait and the cessation of hostilities the next day, at 0400 GMT.
Iraq accepts all UN resolutions.
The crisis divides Arab states.
Egyptian and Syrian armies take part in the coalition, but it is denounced by other Arab countries.
More than a decade later, in 2003, Kuwait serves as a bridgehead for the US-led invasion of Iraq, which leads to the overthrow of Saddam.
The Iraqi army said Monday a rocket had struck within the grounds of Baghdad airport, where US forces are deployed, in another attack against American interests in Iraq.
While a wave of similar attacks that began in October has since eased, the latest strike came three days ahead of US-Iraqi talks as part of a “strategic dialogue” including on future military cooperation.
A security official told AFP that the attack caused “no casualties or damage”.
Baghdad International Airport is closed under coronavirus lockdown measures in Iraq, which has reported some 13,000 cases including 400 deaths from the disease.
Monday’s rocket fire was the 29th such attack against American troops or diplomats since October.
None of the attacks have been claimed, but Washington has accused armed groups backed by its arch-enemy and Iraq’s neighbour, Iran.
The US withdrew its forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after leading the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and set off a bitter sectarian conflict.
Thousands of American soldiers were redeployed to the country from 2014 onwards as part of a coalition battling the Islamic State group.
In January a US drone killed Iran’s powerful military commander Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad airport, sparking a new escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran.
In response, Baghdad’s parliament voted to expel all foreign soldiers from Iraqi territory, but the decision was never implemented.
Iraq on Sunday imposed a total nationwide lockdown until March 28 to fight the novel coronavirus, as the number of cases grew and the death toll climbed to 20.
Most of Iraq’s 18 provinces had so far imposed their own local curfews but the new measures would include the whole of the country, according to a new decision by the government’s crisis cell.
Schools, universities and other gathering places would remain closed, as would the country’s multiple international airports, it said in a statement seen by AFP.
Many had feared a potential influx of cases from neighbouring Iran, where 1,685 people have died after contracting the COVID-19 respiratory illness, according to the latest official toll Sunday.
Iraq first shut its 1,500-kilometre border with Iran about a month ago and deployed troops to enforce the decision.
It has logged a total of 233 coronavirus cases and recorded 20 deaths, but there are concerns that many more are going undetected as only 2,000 people of the country’s 40-million population have been tested so far.
Authorities have struggled to enforce previous curfews.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims turned out in Baghdad and other cities in the south of the country to commemorate the death of a revered Muslim imam.
And Moqtada Sadr, a populist cleric with a cult-like following, has continued to hold mass prayers in his hometown of Kufa south of Baghdad and in the capital’s densely-populated Sadr City.
Health Minister Jaafar Allawi sent Sadr a personal letter in a bid to convince him to call off his weekly prayers, which present an enormous contamination risk.
Allawi has expressed fears that a wider outbreak would overwhelm the country’s health system, which already faces shortages in equipment, medicine and staff after decades of conflict and little investment by national authorities.
Last week, he said he had not been granted his request for $5 million in emergency funds from the federal government.
Iraq is OPEC’s second-biggest crude producer, and falling oil prices have put the country in a bind as more than 90 percent of its state budget is funded by oil revenues.
A fresh spate of rockets targeted an Iraqi base north of Baghdad on Saturday where foreign troops are deployed, Iraqi and US security sources told AFP, in a rare daytime attack.
It was the 23rd such attack since late October on installations across Iraq where American troops and diplomats are based, with the latest rounds growing deadlier.
None of the attacks has ever been claimed but the US has blamed hardline elements of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of armed groups incorporated into the Iraqi state.
Several Katyusha rockets were fired at the Taji airbase on Saturday, Iraqi and US military officials said.
There was no immediate information on casualties.
The US-led coalition’s surveillance capabilities have been impaired by cloudy weather in recent days, which the US official said may have contributed to the attackers’ readiness to launch the rockets during the day instead of under the cover of night.
Taji is overcrowded with members of the US-led coalition helping Iraq fight jihadist remnants, after units were moved to the air base from other installations.
It came three days after a similar attack on the base killed two American military personnel and a British soldier — the deadliest such incident at an Iraqi base in years.
The US responded Friday with air strikes on arms depots it said were used by Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-aligned faction within the Hashed.
At least five members of Iraq’s security forces and one civilian were killed, none of them members of the Hashed, according to Iraq’s military.
Iraq has long feared it would get caught in the spiralling tensions between Iran and the US, its two main allies.
They dramatically spiked in late 2019 when a US contractor was killed in a rocket attack on a separate base in northern Iraq, leading to retaliatory American strikes on Kataeb Hezbollah.
Days later, a US drone strike killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Hashed deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iraq’s parliament then voted to oust all foreign troops from the country, but the decision has not yet been implemented.