Archive for March 28, 2016


March 27, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Sunday night after beginning a sit-in in Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone intended to be a show of force following his calls to combat government corruption.

Earlier in the day security forces stepped aside to allow al-Sadr to enter the Green Zone after weeks of protests in the Iraqi capital. Al-Sadr has repeatedly called on al-Abadi to enact sweeping economic and political reforms.

“I am a representative of the people and will enter the (Green Zone),” al-Sadr told hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the compound’s walls, asking his followers to stay outside and remain peaceful.

As al-Sadr walked through a checkpoint to enter the Green Zone, officials in charge of the compound’s security greeted the cleric with kisses and provided him with a chair. Al-Sadr was accompanied by his personal security detail and the leader of his Shiite militia, Sarayat al-Salam. After he began his sit-in, al-Sadr’s supporters started erecting tents and laying down mattresses.

In February, al-Sadr demanded Iraqi politicians be replaced with more technocrats and that the country’s powerful Shiite militias be incorporated into the defense and interior ministries. After weeks of growing protests in the Iraqi capital, al-Sadr repeatedly threatened to storm the compound if his demands for government overhaul were not met. Baghdad’s Green Zone, encircled by blast walls and razor wire, is closed to most Iraqis and houses the country’s political elite as well as most of the city’s foreign embassies. Al-Sadr has called it a “bastion” of corruption.

Most Iraqis blame the country’s politicians for the graft and mismanagement that are draining Iraq’s already scarce resources. Unlike the widespread, largely civic protests last summer, however, al-Sadr’s demonstrations are attended almost exclusively by his supporters, who have made few concrete policy demands.

Earlier this month, Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints in Baghdad again stepped aside to allow al-Sadr’s supporters to march up to the Green Zone’s outer walls to begin a sit-in, despite a government order deeming the gathering “unauthorized.” The move called into question Prime Minister al-Abadi’s ability to control security in the capital.

“I thank the security forces,” al-Sadr said before beginning his sit-in. “He who attacks them, attacks me,” he added. While al-Abadi proposed a reform package last August, few of his plans have been implemented as the leader has made several political missteps and struggled with the country’s increasingly sectarian politics amid the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group. Shiites dominate the central government, while the country’s Kurds in the north exercise increasing autonomy and much of the Sunni population has either been displaced by violence or continues to live under IS rule.

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Sunday, 20 March 2016

Supporters of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr on Sunday continued to demonstrate outside the gates of Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone – for the third day in a row – to demand that the government carry out a raft of promised reforms.

“We will continue our sit-ins outside the Green Zone in response to al-Sadr’s call,” Ayoub Ismail, a protester, told Anadolu Agency.

On Friday and Saturday, thousands of al-Sadr supporters staged protests and sit-ins outside the gates of Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the prime minister’s office, Iraq’s parliament and a number of foreign diplomatic missions.

Al-Sadr wants Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to reshuffle his cabinet and form a government of technocrats untainted by corruption or sectarianism – both of which, critics say, have hamstrung Iraq’s previous post-invasion governments.

According to Ismail, demonstrators are abiding by the law and cooperating with Iraqi security forces.

“We are here to demand the formation of a technocratic government, the prosecution of corrupt officials and the return of funds pilfered from the state,” he said.

Last month, al-Sadr gave al-Abadi a 45-day deadline to present a list of nominees for the sought-for technocrat government.

The Shia leader went on to warn that his followers would storm the Green Zone if the demands were not met.

On Saturday, Iraqi President Fuad Masum held a meeting with political party leaders in hopes of negotiating an end to the ongoing demonstrations.

Al-Sadr, however, refused to attend the meeting.

Last summer, Iraq’s parliament approved a sweeping raft of reforms proposed by PM al-Abadi. The reforms are intended to meet longstanding popular demands to eliminate widespread government corruption and streamline state bureaucracy.

Al-Sadr’s Ahrar bloc in parliament holds 34 seats in the 328-seat assembly and three ministerial portfolios in Iraq’s current government.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24585-for-3rd-day-sadrists-rally-near-baghdads-green-zone.

March 27, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — A look at Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Syrian troops took back from Islamic State fighters.

LOCATION

A desert oasis surrounded by palm trees in central Syria, Palmyra is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country’s east and neighboring Iraq. Home to 65,000 people before the latest fighting, the town is located 155 miles (215 kilometers) east of Damascus.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE

A UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. Syrians affectionately refer to it as the “Bride of the Desert.”

Palmyra was the capital of an Arab client state of the Roman Empire that briefly rebelled and carved out its own kingdom in the 3rd Century, led by Queen Zenobia. Before the war, it was Syria’s top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Palmyra was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium B.C., according to UNICEF’s website. The town was the hub of a network of caravan trails that carried silks and spices from eastern Asia to the Mediterranean.

Palmyra became a prosperous region during the Hellenistic period and later became part of the Roman Empire. But its rebellious Queen Zenobia challenged Rome’s authority. The city was plundered in A.D. 272 after she was captured during a long siege.

In more recent times, Palmyra has had darker associations for Syrians. It was home to the Tadmur prison, a notorious facility where thousands of opponents of President Bashar Assad’s government were reportedly tortured. IS demolished the prison after capturing the town.

DESTRUCTION

Last year, IS destroyed the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin, a structure of stone blocks several stories high fronted by six towering columns. The militants also blew up the Arch of Triumph, which had been built under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus between A.D. 193 and A.D. 211.

The extremists have destroyed ancient sites across their self-styled Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, viewing them as monuments to idolatry. In August, IS militants beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who had devoted his life to studying Palmyra. His body was later hung from a Roman column.

A video circulated online purportedly showed IS fighters shooting dead some 25 captured Syrian soldiers in a Palmyra amphitheater. The killings are believed to have taken place in May, shortly after the extremists captured the town. Another video showed militants killing three captives by tying them to Roman columns and blowing them up.

It’s not yet clear whether the ruins were damaged when Syrian forces retook the town. The Antiquities Ministry said ahead of the town’s fall that the remaining ruins are in good condition. It has vowed to restore the site.

STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE

The loss of Palmyra marks a major setback for IS, which has been losing ground for months in both Iraq and Syria. The capture of the town brings Syrian forces closer to Raqqa, the IS group’s de facto capital, and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, which is almost entirely held by the extremists.

Despite its battlefield losses, IS retains the ability to carry out large attacks in the Middle East and further afield, such as the bombings in Brussels last week, which killed 31 people.

March 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Several hundred Iraqis and Syrians in the Idomeni border camp stood between protesters and police on Sunday, thwarting the protesters’ efforts to march toward the fence separating Greece from Macedonia. Scuffles broke out between the two groups.

The protesters twice broke through the barrier the Iraqis and Syrians have formed, only to be pushed back by Greek riot police who used only their shields. People speaking for the Iraqis and Syrians, including Kurds from both countries, have told police that they are not taking part in Sunday’s protest and that the protesters are from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also say that activists were circulating at the camp Saturday, urging people to join the

“There were people, whom we do not know, telling us that they would help us open the border at noon today, but obviously this was not true,” Syrian refugee Hassan Fatuhlla told The Associated Press. Fatuhlla, one of those who have formed a chain around the police, has been at the camp for 37 days. His child was born in a tent 10 days ago, he said.

Iraqis and Syrians are allowed into the European Union as war refugees, although the route through the Balkans is now closed and refugees discouraged from taking the perilous sea journey to Greek islands from Turkey.

Leftist activists from Greece and other European countries have staged protests outside the transit centers and appear determined to sabotage the deal. The rumors spread by them that the border would open Sunday led some people who had gone to the centers to return to Idomeni. These people then protesting that the border has not opened.

Greek police said they stopped two buses and 10 cars carrying Italian activists slightly over 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the border protest.