Six Dead In Blasts In Iraqi Capital Amid Deadly Protests

An Iraqi demonstrator uses a slingshot affixed to a tuk tuk car amid clashes with security forces in the capital Baghdad’s al-Rasheed street near al-Ahrar bridge, on November 26, 2019, during ongoing anti-government demonstrations. 
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

 

Six people were killed in near-simultaneous blasts across Iraq’s capital late Tuesday, medics and a security source said, amid deadly anti-government protests that have rocked Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south for weeks.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the three explosions, which were the first such violence in the capital after months of relative calm.

The blasts were caused by two explosives-laden motorcycles and a roadside bomb and hit three Shiite neighbourhoods of Baghdad, according to medical and security sources.

Around a dozen people were wounded and taken to Baghdad hospitals already treating scores of demonstrators hurt earlier in the day in protests.

Rallies demanding deep-rooted regime change erupted in early October across Baghdad and southern Iraq, leaving more than 350 people dead and around 15,000 wounded.

In the Shiite holy city of Karbala on Tuesday, one person was killed as protests escalated into chaotic “clashes” with security forces, a medical source told AFP.

There were no immediate details about the victim’s identity or cause of death, but the medic said the toll was likely to rise further.

AFP’s correspondent saw riot police fire live rounds both into the air and directly at crowds of teenage protesters with at least one demonstrator suffering a bullet wound to the head.

In one face-off under a bridge, teenagers threw rocks at riot police trucks, bursting into song when the vehicles screeched away.

Clashes also erupted in Baghdad, where security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas to keep demonstrators away from Al-Ahrar bridge, which leads to government buildings on the west bank of the river Tigris.

One protester died after being shot by a rubber bullet and 18 were wounded, a medical source said.

A body bearing a rubber bullet wound was also found underneath Al-Ahrar on Tuesday, but it was unclear when the person had died, the medic said.

‘No family, no home’

The historic districts near Al-Ahrar have morphed into arenas for daily street battles.

Demonstrators — mostly teenagers who have been there for days or weeks — throw rocks from behind makeshift barricades at security forces firing tear gas, rubber bullets, live rounds and even machinegun fire.

“We won’t leave unless it’s in coffins,” one protester told AFP.

“Either way, I’ve got no job, no money, so whether I stay here or go home, it’s all the same,” said another.

An Iraqi tricolour tied around his shoulders, he went on bitterly: “I’ll never be able to get married without work or a salary, so I’ve got no family and no home anyway.”

Smoke bombs exploded all around the protesters, filling the colonnaded streets with puffs of orange, green and purple.

In the south, protesters burned tyres along highways outside the city of Diwaniyah, blockading bridges and one of the province’s three power stations.

In the city itself, massive crowds marched through the streets, tearing down posters of politicians and beating them with shoes to insult them.

“It’s been two months, we’re sick of your promises,” they chanted.

Schools and public buildings have been shut in Diwaniyah for the past month by strikes and road closures, but skirmishes with riot police have been rare.

In nearby Hillah, usually peaceful sit-ins took a violent turn overnight when security forces fired tear gas grenades at protesters, wounding around 60, medics said.

Demonstrators and security forces in Karbala lobbed Molotov cocktails at each another.

Night-time skirmishes have become routine in the city.

Glimpses of looming crisis

In Dhi Qar, arterial routes linking key cities and the three oilfields of Garraf, Nasiriyah and Subba were shut.

Clashes with police guarding the fields wounded 13 officers.

Together, the three oilfields produce around 200,000 of Iraq’s roughly 3.6 million barrels a day.

Iraq is ranked OPEC’s second-biggest crude producer and, according to Transparency International, the world’s 12th most corrupt country.

The turmoil since the start of October has not significantly impacted oil production or exports, which fund virtually the entire state budget.

Iraq’s cabinet is currently discussing the 2020 budget before it is submitted to parliament, and government sources say it is expected to be one of the largest yet.

That is mostly because of the enormous public sector, which has ballooned in recent years as the government has hired tens of thousands of new graduates in a country with a severely under-developed private sector.

But experts say that model is unsustainable for a country of nearly 40 million people, set to grow by another 10 million in the next decade.

Public anger over a lack of jobs fuelled the latest grassroots protests, Iraq’s most widespread and deadly in decades.

One in five people lives below the poverty line and youth unemployment hovers at a staggering 25 percent, the World Bank says.

Iraqi Protesters Rally As UN Steps Up Mediation Efforts

An Iraqi protester wearing a gas mask takes part in ongoing anti-government demonstrations at Baghdad’s Khallani square on November 12, 2019./ AFP

 

Iraqi protesters shut down state institutions Tuesday as the United Nations stepped up pressure on the government to enact a raft of reforms in response to anti-government rallies.

Backed by the country’s top Shiite authority, the UN’s phased plan demands an immediate end to the violence that has killed more than 300 people since protests erupted in October.

It comes just days after Iraq’s influential neighbour to east Iran brokered an agreement among Iraq’s main political forces to close ranks around the government.

As night fell on Tuesday in Baghdad, security forces fired live rounds, tear gas canisters and stun grenades from behind concrete barriers to disperse demonstrators near their main gathering place in Tahrir Square.

The mostly young demonstrators scattered briefly then defiantly regrouped, some using slingshots to fire rocks or Molotov cocktails at security forces.

An AFP reporter and a security source said some two dozen people were wounded in the skirmishes, which have persisted in recent weeks as demonstrators resist efforts to snuff out their movement.

They were bolstered by a meeting Monday between the UN’s top Iraq official Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

“We’re optimistic about the UN and I respect her visit to Sistani,” said one demonstrator, Ali Kadhem, 33, at the main protest site of Tahrir Square.

“Let them intervene more in Iraq. We want them here. Our people were starved, killed. We’ve been through everything.”

– School strikes –
Across the country’s south, demonstrators shut down schools, government buildings and even state media offices.

In Amarah, crowds closed the local branch of Iraqi state television, accusing it of unfairly covering the demonstrations.

Schools closed in the towns of Hillah and Kut, where hundreds hit the streets, as well as in the protest hotspots of Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah.

Young people make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population of nearly 40 million, and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, according to the World Bank.

The lack of employment is a key driving force behind the popular anger.

Demonstrators accuse the government, by far the country’s biggest employer, of handing out jobs based on bribes or nepotism instead of merit.

Since the protests started in early October, they have swiftly escalated into demands for a sweeping overhaul of the entire system.

But political parties appear to have rallied around the government after a series of meetings led by Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations arm.

Soleimani, who often appears in Baghdad at times of political crisis, brokered a deal to keep the ruling system intact, keeping Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi at its head.

But the UN has also upped its mediation with Iraqi actors, and Hennis-Plasschaert has proposed a phased roadmap — starting with an immediate halt to the use of force.

It also calls for electoral reforms and anti-graft measures in the next two weeks, followed by constitutional amendments and major legislation on infrastructure within three months.

– Pompeo calls premier –
Sistani met with Hennis-Plasschaert on Monday and welcomed the plan, a vital endorsement in a country where the Shiite religious authority holds tremendous sway.

But he said he feared authorities were not “serious” about enacting the required reforms.

Sistani, who never appears in public, has described the protesters’ demands as “legitimate” in his weekly Friday sermons, delivered through a representative.

His office has also denied being a party to any agreement brokered by Soleimani to keep the government in place.

Iraqi authorities have faced widespread international criticism for the mounting death toll from protest-related violence, which has exceeded 300 in six weeks.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he spoke to Abdel Mahdi by phone.

“I called on him to protect the protesters and to address their legitimate grievances,” Pompeo said.

Rights defenders also have complained that the government has stopped providing updated casualty figures and has severely restricted access to the internet.

Volunteer medics and activists, meanwhile, have spoken of a campaign of kidnappings, killings and intimidation they say is aimed at scaring them into stopping their work.

The Iraqi parliament’s human rights committee met Tuesday to discuss a report for submission to the legislature the following day.

Hennis-Plasschaert is also due to attend the session, scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Renewed Violence In Iraq Protests Kills Six

Iraqi protesters gather near the capital Baghdad’s Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge on October 26, 2019, during an anti-government rally. AFP

 

Six people were killed in the Iraqi capital and a southern city on Saturday, officials said, pushing the overall death toll in this month’s anti-government protests to more than 200.

Three protesters were killed in Baghdad and another three people died in the southern city of Nasiriyah, according to Ali Bayati of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.

Those in Nasiriyah were shot dead while torching a local official’s home, a police source told AFP.

AFP

Trump’s Comments Spark Iraqi Demands For US Exist

US President Donald Trump…. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

Iraqi politicians on Monday hit back at Donald Trump after the US president said he plans to keep American forces in the country to spy on Iran.

In an interview with CBS television, Trump reaffirmed his determination to pull the United States out of “endless wars” in Syria and Afghanistan but said American troops would stay on in Iraq, partly “to be looking a little bit at Iran”.

“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it,” he said, referring to Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq that he visited in December.

“If somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do,” he said in the interview aired on Sunday.

His comments sparked a new round of demands in Baghdad for US forces to leave the country.

“The Iraqi constitution rejects the use of Iraq as a base for hitting or attacking a neighbouring country,” President Barham Saleh said.

Saleh said US forces were in the country legally under an agreement between the two countries, but that “any action taken outside this framework is unacceptable”.

Iraq’s government plays a delicate balancing act between its two main allies, Washington and Tehran, which are bitter enemies.

The US has been leading a coalition to crush the Islamic State group which grabbed swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, and multiple offensives have since ousted the jihadists from all but a sliver of territory in eastern Syria.

Baghdad’s position has also been complicated by Trump’s shock December decision to pull troops out of neighbouring Syria, prompting pro-Iran factions to step up calls for an accelerated US withdrawal from Iraq.

Sabah al-Saadi, a member of parliament in the bloc led by influential anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, has proposed a bill demanding a US pullout.

Trump’s latest remarks had made passing such a law “a national duty”.

Deputy speaker of parliament Hassan Karim al-Kaabi, also close to Sadr, said they were a “new provocation”, weeks after the US president sparked outrage in Iraq by visiting US troops at Ain al-Asad without meeting a single Iraqi official.

Officially, Iraq says there are no American bases on its soil — only instructors deployed at Iraqi bases.

Kurdish MP Sarkawt Shams tweeted that the mission of US troops in Iraq was “to help Iraqi security forces against terrorism, not ‘watching’ others”.

“We are expecting the United States to respect Our mutual interests and avoid pushing Iraq into a regional conflict,” he said.

Washington has had troops in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. At the height of its fight against insurgents, it had up to 170,000 US troops in the country, before a partial withdrawal starting in late 2011.

Islamic State Kills 27 Iraqi Militiamen Near Kirkuk

Islamic State militants ambushed a convoy of pro-government militia fighters near the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk late on Sunday, killing at least 27 of them, the government-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces said on Monday.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

A security official said Iraqi forces were pursuing the militants, who had disguised themselves in police uniforms to carry out the ambush.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi offered condolences to the families of the dead and ordered security forces to bring those responsible to justice, his office said in a statement.

Iraqi forces launched an operation this month to consolidate control of a mountainous area near Kirkuk that is intended to be used as a transit route for Iraqi oil trucks heading for Iran. Two armed groups are active in the area.

Iraq declared victory in December over Islamic State, which had seized control of nearly a third of the country in 2014. However, the group continues to carry out attacks and bombings in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

 

Iraqi, Kurdish PMs Try To Resolve Bitter Dispute

Iraqi, Kurdish PMs Try To Resolve Bitter Dispute
A handout picture released by the Iraqi prime minister’s office on January 20, 2018, shows Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) meeting with Nechirvan Barzani (2nd from L), prime minister of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), at his Baghdad office. Handout / IRAQI PRIME MINISTER’S PRESS OFFICE / AFP

 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met Kurdish regional government counterpart Nechirvan Barzani for the first time on Saturday since the autonomous northern region’s failed attempt to secede.

Since Kurdish voters returned a resounding “yes” in a referendum on independence last September 25, the federal government in Baghdad has taken retaliatory measures.

These include an air blockade of international flights to the Kurdish region’s two main airports, to remain in effect until the end of February.

Abadi has also sent Iraqi troops to retake areas disputed between Baghdad and Kurdish regional capital Arbil, including oilfields from which the Kurds derived the bulk of their revenue.

After a months-long frosty standoff, the two sides are now talking again and Kurdish officials including a minister have visited Baghdad.

On Saturday Barzani, accompanied by his deputy premier and the chief of staff of the Kurds’ former president Massud Barzani, “discussed the political and security situation and ways of settling disputes” with Abadi, the Iraqi premier’s office said.

Abadi had strongly opposed the Kurdish referendum, insisting on Iraqi unity and government control of airports and border posts in Kurdistan.

Baghdad wants to regain control of the area’s three border posts between Iraq and Iran, as well as Fishkhabur on the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, through which Iraqi oil flows to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

Later on Saturday, Barzani will visit Iran, which also opposed the independence referendum given its own Kurdish minority.

Iraq Launches Final Sweep To Flush Out IS

Iraqi forces launched a sweep through the western desert to flush out remaining Islamic State group fighters on Thursday, an operation the prime minister has said will spell the jihadists’ “final defeat” in the country.

The arid, sparsely populated wastelands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are the last refuge of the jihadists in Iraq after troops and paramilitaries ousted them from both valleys and all urban areas.

“The Iraqi army, the federal police and the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation paramilitary units) this morning began clearing the Al-Jazeera region straddling Salaheddin, Nineveh and Anbar provinces,” the head of Joint Operations Command, General Abdelamir Yarallah, said in a statement.

The Hashed al-Shaabi released live footage from Siniyah in Saleheddin province of bulldozers clearing an earthen barrier to allow heavy armour to advance into the desert.

The tanks bore both the Iraq national flag and that of the paramilitary force, which is made up largely of Shiite militias — a black standard bearing the name of Imam Hussein, one of the faith’s most revered figures.

Long lines of pickup trucks waited to follow.

The Hashed said its forces had already taken control of a dozen villages, destroying a car bomb and defusing dozens of booby-traps planted by the jihadists.

The Al-Jazeera region is where IS fighters took refuge when Iraqi forces recaptured the last towns they still held in a successful drive up the Euphrates Valley to the Syrian border earlier this month.

That offensive culminated in the lightning recapture of the town of Rawa last Friday and saw Iraqi forces meet up with Syrian forces at the border.

“This operation is aimed at clearing the desert of the pockets where the jihadists took refuge when the towns that they had held were recently liberated,” a senior officer in Anbar province told AFP.

– ‘Final defeat’ –

The region’s dry valleys, oases, and steppes make up around four percent of the national territory, Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on IS, told AFP last week.

It has been known as a hotbed of jihadist insurgency and smuggling since the US-led invasion of Iraq ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, long before the arrival of IS in 2014.

“There are some desert areas which Iraqi government forces have not entered since 2003 and the operation is aimed at securing these areas 100 percent,” security analyst Said al-Jayyashi told AFP.

“Once the clearance operations have been completed right up to the Iraq-Syria border, forces will redeploy and fortify the frontier,” he said.

Iraq’s close ally Iran has already declared victory over IS but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday that he would not follow suit until the desert had been cleared of remaining jihadists.

“After the operation has ended, we will announce the final defeat of Daesh in Iraq,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

It is a massive turnaround for an organisation that in 2014 ruled over seven million people in a territory as large as Italy encompassing large parts of Syria and nearly a third of Iraq.

On the Syrian side of the border, IS is under massive pressure too.

In the border region, pro-government forces and US-backed Kurdish-led forces are conducting similar operations to clear IS fighters from the countryside north of the Euphrates valley after ousting them from all Syrian towns.

Elsewhere, IS retains a presence in the Yarmuk refugee camp and the Hajar Aswad district just south of the capital Damascus, where the group is battling other jihadists and pro-government forces.

In the central province of Homs, it is being squeezed by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and their Russian backers as it struggles to maintain a grip on a few small areas.

To the south, in Daraa province on the border with Jordan, an affiliated group called Jaish Khaled Bin Walid is mainly battling other rebel groups.

AFP

Ex-Iraqi President And Kurdish Leader Jalal Talabani Dies – Report

Iraq ex-president and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. STAN HONDA / AFP

Ex-Iraqi president and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani died on Tuesday in Germany, officials in his party told AFP.

Talabani, 83, was Iraq’s president from 2005 to 2014 and a key figure in Iraqi Kurdistan, where voters last week overwhelmingly backed independence in a referendum.

AFP

U.S. Defense Secretary Meets His Iraqi Counterpart In Baghdad

Mattis shaking hands with Iraqi officials

United State Defence Secretary Jim Mattis met with his Iraqi counterpart Arfan al-Hayali on Tuesday at Iraq’s Ministry of Defence to discuss the role of U.S. forces in Iraq after the recapture of the remaining cities under Islamic State.

Mattis who arrived in Iraq just days after the start of an offensive to oust Islamic State from the city of Tal Afar said the U.S. will continue its support of the Iraqi forces in the fight against Islamic State.

”Right now we see an Iraqi army that has restored Iraqi pride. It has taken back from Daesh (Islamic State) so many cities, so much land, it has freed so many members of Iraqi public from the enemy and we are going to be with you as you go forward.” Mattis said.

Iraqi Forces Battle Towards Heart Of Mosul’s Old City

Iraqi forces battled their way along two streets that meet in the heart of Mosul’s Old City on Friday and said they aimed to open routes for civilians to flee Islamic State’s last stand there.

U.S.-trained urban warfare units are leading the fight in the maze of narrow alleyways of the Old City, the last district in the hands of the Sunni Islamist insurgents.

Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory in the northern Iraqi city in the Muslim Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, during the next few days.

Military analysts say government troops’ advance will gather pace after Islamic State fighters blew up the 850-year-old al-Nuri mosque and its famous leaning minaret on Wednesday.

 

There was a steady trickle of fleeing families on Saturday, some with injured and malnourished children.

At least 100 civilians reached the safety of a government-held area west of the Old City in one 20-minute period, tired, scared and hungry. Soldiers gave them food and water.

More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are believed to be children, remain trapped in the crumbling old houses of the Old City, with little food, water or medical treatment.

The urban-warfare forces were leading the campaign to clear the Sunni Islamist militants from the maze of Old City alleyways, moving on foot house-to-house in locations too cramped for the use of armoured combat vehicles.

Iraqi Migrant Trains At U.S. Border Patrol Academy

At a training facility in the middle of a desert in New Mexico, aspiring border patrol agent Stevany Shakare sprinted laps in 103-degree Fahrenheit weather as her instructors shouted at her to run faster.

Shakare, a 23-year-old from Iraq, is one of three women in a class of 20 at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico. They are powering through an intensive 112-day training program, in which agents must master firearms, high-speed, off-road vehicle chases, immigration law, conversational Spanish and grueling physical tests.

They are preparing to track, apprehend and arrest immigrants and drug traffickers attempting to enter the United States illegally.

“I am obviously very short and tiny,” said the petite Shakare, surrounded by men who appeared twice her size. “But I’m trying and giving it my all – that’s all that matters.”

In 2004, at the age of 10, she fled her home after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Her family settled in Michigan where she graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in criminal justice.

“Had I stayed in Iraq, I probably wouldn’t have ended up to where I am today,” said Shakare, who said she learned English watching “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” on television.

“Probably wouldn’t have gone to college, wouldn’t have gotten a degree. I feel like I owe my life to this country,” she said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to crackdown on illegal immigration and strengthen security along U.S. borders, particularly with Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security in February announced plans to add more than 5,000 border enforcement agents to the current force.

Chief Patrol Agent Dan Harris, who runs the academy, said a major increase in violent crime along the southern border in the past year encouraged many to become border patrol agents.

“When I talk to people, I say: ‘All of us know someone whose life has been destroyed by drugs – a family member, a friend, a neighbor,'” Harris said. “Every day, men and women want to get out there.”

Syrian Army, Allies In Southeast Syria Reach Iraqi Border

Syrian troops and allied militia in the south-east Syrian desert were seen securing their positions near the Tanf base, at Iraqi-Syrian border on Saturday (June 10), Syrian army handout video showed.

The first units of pro-Assad alliance reached the Iraqi border on Friday (June 9), near the base where U.S. special forces train local rebels to fight Islamic State, a pro-government commander said.

The advance follows an escalation of tensions between the United States and the Syrian government with its backers over control of the southeastern frontier with Iraq.

The area is seen as crucial to Assad’s Iranian allies and could open an overland supply route from Tehran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – a major concern to U.S. allies in the region.