Iraqis go to the polls in first general election since defeating Daesh

Iraqis have started voting on Saturday in country’s first parliamentary polls since Baghdad declared the routing of Daesh in a devastating campaign five months ago. Nearly 7,000 candidates, including 2,011 women, are vying for seats in the 329-strong parliament, which will elect Iraq’s president and prime minister.

Many contenders are outgoing lawmakers and politicians, seen as having done little to fight corruption and improve services in the OPEC member country. Incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, credited with the victory over Daesh, is eyeing a second term in office. He is competing on the cross-sectarian Victory Alliance list. However, splits among leaders of the country’s Shiite majority make it unlikely for a single electoral alliance to secure enough seats to form the government on its own.

Some 22.5 million Iraqis are eligible voters, according to official figures. Polls have opened at 7am (0400 GMT) and will close at 6pm. Official results are expected to be announced on Sunday due to the introduction of an electronic voting system.

Iraqi authorities have tightened security for the election, amid fears of attacks by Islamic State remnants. The country’s border crossings and airports were closed on Friday at midnight until the end of the one-day balloting. Last month, Daesh threatened to attack Iraq’s polling stations, saying any participant in the vote would be targeted. Cells thought to be linked to the terrorist group have mounted scattered attacks across Iraq since al-Abadi declared in December the recapture all the territory seized by Daesh in the country.

The country has struggled to find a formula for stability since a U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, and many Iraqis have lost faith in their politicians. Whoever the new parliament chooses as prime minister will face an array of challenges after a three-year war against Islamic State which cost the country about $100 billion.

“I will participate but I will mark an ‘X’ on my ballot. There is no security, no jobs, no services. Candidates are just looking to line up their pockets, not to help people,” said Jamal Mowasawi, a 61-year-old butcher. The three main candidates for prime minister, incumbent Haider al-Abadi, his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Shi’ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri all need the support of Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal will prompt Iran to maintain its vast political and military influence in Iraq, the most important Arab state for Tehran.

Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead, but victory is far from certain for the man who raised hopes that he could forge unity when he came to office. But while he reached out to minority Sunnis he alienated Kurds after crushing their bid for independence. He improved his standing with the victory against Daesh, which had occupied a third of Iraq. But Abadi lacks charisma and has failed to improve the economy and tackle corruption. He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the Shi’ite voter base is unusually split this year. Instead, he is looking to draw support from other groups. Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats, he still has to negotiate the formation of a coalition government, which must be concluded within 90 days of the election. “It’s the same faces and same programs. Abadi is the best of the worst; at least under his rule we had the liberation (from Daesh),” said Hazem al-Hassan, 50-year-old fishmonger in Baghdad.

Amiri spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran. The 63-year-old leads the Badr Organisation, which was the backbone of the volunteer forces that fought Daesh. He hopes to capitalize on his battlefield successes. Victory for Amiri would be a win for Iran, which is locked in proxy wars for influence across the Middle East.

Disillusion

But many Iraqis are disillusioned with war heroes and politicians who have failed to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services. “There is no trust between the people and the governing class,” said Hussein Fadel, a 42-year-old supermarket cashier in the capital. “All sides are terrible. I will not vote.” Critics say Maliki’s sectarian policies created an atmosphere that enabled Islamic State to gain sympathy among some Sunnis as it swept across Iraq in 2014. Maliki was sidelined soon afterward, having been in office for eight years, but he is now trying to make a comeback. In contrast to Abadi, with his cross-sectarian message, Maliki is again posing as Iraq’s Shi’ite champion, and has proposed doing away with the unofficial power-sharing model under which all main parties have cabinet representatives.

Iraq’s Sunni minority had dominated key positions in government during Saddam’s brutal rule, whereas majority Shi’ites have held sway since a U.S-led invasion toppled the dictator in 2003. Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals, and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam’s time, are both seen as much closer to Tehran than Abadi. The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’ite, the speaker is a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – all three chosen by parliament.

More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats. In Kirkuk, the main oil city disputed by Iraq’s Kurds and the Baghdad government, 90-year-old Najm al-Azzawi has witnessed Iraq’s upheaval over many years: Saddam Hussein’s military adventures and the crippling international sanctions that followed, the U.S. occupation, sectarian bloodshed and Daesh’s reign of terror. But he has not lost hope. “God save Iraqis from the darkness they have been in,” he said. “It is the most joyful thing to vote.”

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/dpa/Reuters

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Last batch of insurgents leaves Beit Sahm, Babila, and Yalda in South Damascus

Insurgents left an enclave in south Damascus on Thursday, state media said, the last in a string of rebel towns that have surrendered around the capital in recent weeks. State television said 15 buses shuttled fighters out of Beit Sahm, Babila, and Yalda south of the capital. “The towns have become empty of terrorist presence,” a state TV correspondent said from the outskirts of Beit Sahm.

Hundreds of people have left since last week. Under the deal, the buses take fighters and civilians who refuse the return of state rule to insurgent territory in Afrin.

Government forces pounded jihadists in a small adjacent zone also south of Damascus, state news agency SANA said. Daesh terrorists have been holed up there after weeks of intense bombardment on the Hajar al-Aswad district and Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.

Sources: SANA/Syria & Iraq News

Al-Abadi tries to break sectarian barriers in Iraqi elections

In advance of national elections next weekend, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is the front-runner here, and if he ultimately prevails, he will make political history as a Shiite politician in this overwhelmingly Sunni city. The electoral strength of Abadi and his ticket in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, underscores his nationwide popularity and bodes well for his reelection, which U.S. officials have repeatedly indicated they would like to see. But beyond that, Abadi’s success in a place that had been the jewel of Daesh would represent an opening for cooperation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in a country long bedeviled by sectarian grievance and violence.

When campaigning officially kicked off last month for the May 12 elections, the boulevards of this city were instantly lined with candidate posters. But it was Abadi’s face, smiling softly and ubiquitous on the vehicle-jammed streets, that stood out as both familiar and entirely unexpected. For the first time since Iraq began electing a legislature in 2006, a Shiite politician is headlining an electoral ticket in Mosul. Abadi’s list is named “Nasr,” or “Victory,” a reference in part to his role in ending the city’s Daesh trauma by orchestrating the military campaign that liberated the city last year. Mosul may now be the ultimate proving ground for Abadi’s message of nationalism over sect. “Abadi is a symbol of shedding sectarianism,” said Rana al-Naemi, 44, an English teacher from Mosul running on the prime minister’s list. “The people of Iraq are ready for this.” Alluding to the traditional colors worn by Sunni and Shiite clerics, she added, “Sectarianism is what destroyed us — whether it was a white turban or a black turban.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) stands with candidates from his Nasr coalition during a campaign gathering in Kirkuk on April 28, 2018. [Photo: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP]

Once considered a weak and unremarkable leader who stumbled into power in the midst of the Daesh blitz that conquered about one-third of Iraq, Abadi has been campaigning on a message of national unity in hopes of breaking the cycle of sectarian fighting that has marked Iraq’s politics since the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Abadi’s popularity has soared since he managed the successful military campaign to claw back Iraqi cities from Daesh while artfully juggling the interests of the United States and Iran. He also won plaudits from many Iraqis when he dispatched troops to block an attempted secession by Kurds in the north late last year. “One thing that we see consistently is that Prime Minister Abadi has a more balanced degree of support across all regions and across all ethnic and sectarian religious groups,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Iraq’s internal politics. For the United States, Abadi’s presence in Mosul and other Sunni areas, such as Fallujah, is reassuring. He has worked closely with Washington in the fight against the Islamic State while maintaining cordial ties with Iran and reestablishing relations with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.

The war against Daesh has significantly altered the political map in Iraq, where Shiites are the majority. In previous elections, one or two major Shiite coalitions dominated the vote and subsequently the formation of the government. This year, the support of the Shiite political establishment is fragmented among Abadi and challengers old and new. His predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, though severely diminished because of losses to Daesh, is headlining a ticket that is running on a traditional platform of Shiite supremacy. Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the powerful Badr Organization, is the face of a new coalition called “Fatah,” or “Conquest,” which represents Shiite militias that helped defeat the Islamic State, earning much public support. Many of those militias, including Badr, are backed by Iran, and a key element of their campaign has been urging the expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq. In a sign of confidence, a number of the militias are running candidates in Mosul even though Abadi kept many of them out of the city during the battle because of their ultra-sectarian leanings.

With those major blocs essentially splitting the vote in Iraq’s Shiite heartland, any candidate hoping to become prime minister must run well in Mosul and other Sunni areas. The province of Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, is quickly emerging as one of the hottest contests in the election. This year, 940 candidates have been registered, compared with just 455 in 2014. Nineveh holds 31 seats in Iraq’s upcoming 329-member parliament, second only to Baghdad’s 69. Iraq’s parliament elects the prime minister and president, and those 31 votes could prove critical to Abadi winning a second term. His Nasr coalition is the only one fielding candidates in all 18 provinces, and many observers have concluded that he is the only candidate who can credibly claim to be a genuine centrist leader — even though his rhetoric of making a fresh, nonsectarian start has also been embraced by many of his opponents. “His attitude is one that he will be more successful with a larger variety of constituencies than many of his opponents,” the U.S. official said.

Rasha Al Aqeedi, a political researcher at the Dubai-based al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center and a Mosul native, said that Iraq’s minorities are unlikely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of another Shiite head of government but that Abadi remains the only candidate with the credentials to garner votes among Sunnis. “If you compare him to everyone else, he does stand out for sure,” she said. But there are major roadblocks Abadi must overcome in Mosul. Voter apathy runs deep among the population after the grueling nine-month battle against Daesh. In western Mosul, the situation is dire. The Old City neighborhood, where some of the most intense fighting took place, remains largely leveled, with some families living in the skeletons of what used to be their homes. On one street, a single election poster was hung next to a sign warning of unexploded ordnance in the area — drawing a scornful smile from a police officer stationed at the corner. “These politicians have no shame,” he said. Across the Tigris River in eastern Mosul, there are barely any reminders of the fight. New markets have popped up at a startling pace, and cratered roads and bullet-pocked buildings have been repaired. But the restoration has been largely self-financed by the city’s residents, who are becoming impatient with the central government’s slow response. “There will be no change — if there was going to be any change, it would have happened already,” said Bilal Mohamed, a 41-year-old restaurant owner who said he will abstain from voting. “These candidates are paying attention to Mosul now, but I’m certain once they get elected, they will forget about us.” But he said that if Abadi wins, it “will be the best possible outcome in a bad overall scenario.” Saleh Elias, a 34-year-old journalist, said he does not expect much to change after the elections but will vote in the hopes of registering his voice. Not doing so has been disastrous in the past, he said. “This city has always rejected the political process, and what we ended up with was Daesh,” Elias said.

Abadi has stocked his ticket in Mosul with both new and old faces. Most notable is Khaled al-Obeidi, a career politician whom Abadi named as his first defense minister in 2014. Obeidi is a Mosul native widely respected for his role in the battle against Daesh. He retains his popularity despite being ousted by parliament in 2016 during a corruption probe in which he was never formally charged. Mohsen Abdelkader, 37, a law professor also running on the ticket, said Abadi and Obeidi had inherited a “military that was in shambles” and restored it so it could eventually liberate Mosul. Abdelkader added that they had treated all Iraqis as equal under the law. “People in Mosul are starting to feel like they are citizens just like the people of Baghdad, and this is because of the leadership of Abadi and Obeidi,” he said. Abadi has also recruited local officials who gained prominence during the battle against the Islamic State. Basma Baseem, the head of the Mosul local council, was vocal during the conflict, drawing attention to the plight of civilians in the crossfire. “Nasr is not just an election coalition. It’s an ambitious project that will start after the elections,” she said.

But Abadi’s popularity has also made him a prime target for his opponents. Wissal Ali, a former member of parliament, is running on a purely Sunni ticket led by Osama al-Nujaifi — one of Iraq’s current vice presidents and a former speaker of parliament from Mosul. On the campaign trail, Ali has accused Abadi’s coalition of being no different from that of the Shiite militias: outsiders interested only in votes and not in Mosul’s well-being. She said the legacy of the Islamic State, often known in Arabic as Daesh, has left the city politically vulnerable. “People understand that the gangs of Daesh destroyed the city but also gave a chance for parties with outside agendas to gain a foothold in the city,” she said.

Sources: The Washington Post/Syria & Iraq News

Heavy bombardment of SAA bases in Hama and Aleppo

An unidentified force, probably Israel, has struck SAA army bases in rural Hama and Aleppo provinces on Sunday night causing dozens of casualties among SAA and allied forces.

Damascus confirmed rocket attacks on military bases in central Syria to state-run media early Monday, but did not say who was responsible.The Syrian news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying military positions in the provinces of Hama and Aleppo had been “subjected to a new aggression with hostile missiles at about 10:30 pm (19:30 GMT),” on Sunday. Syrian television aired images of what it said was the explosions. It had earlier reported loud blasts heard in rural areas of Hama. Some media loyal to the Syrian government suggested Israel was behind the attacks. Israel does not usually comment on such cases.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shelling targeted a Syrian army base, home to the 47th Brigade, near the city of Salhab, west of Hama, where Iranian forces are also stationed. Syrian opposition sources said the attack inflicted heavy casualties on the Syrian army and their allies the Iranians, without giving a specific number. The Observatory said rockets also hit Syrian government bases in the region surrounding Nairab military airport, which is close to Aleppo International Airport.

Sources close to the Syrian government told dpa loud explosions were also heard from Iran’s Nahar al-Bard base, 60 kilometres north-west of Hama. Earlier Sunday Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman vowed to maintain freedom of operation in Syria. “We have no intention to attack Russia or to interfere in domestic Syrian issues,” Lieberman said at a conference, according to the newspaper Haaretz. “But if somebody thinks that it is possible to launch missiles or to attack Israel or even our aircraft, no doubt we will respond and we will respond very forcefully,” Lieberman said. Israel had three problems, he added: “Iran, Iran, Iran.” “Iran is trying to destabilize the whole region, not only in Israel. Look at what is happening in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria,” the defence minister said. “Iran supports and creates proxies around Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad would not survive one week without Iranian support.”

SANA reported that Sunday’s attack came as an agreement was reached to evacuate opposition rebels from areas south of the capital Damascus, specifically from Yelda, Beit Saham and al-Yarmouk camp, home to Palestinian refugees.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/dpa

OPCW mission reached Douma, collected samples for analysis ~statement

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has issued a statement saying that the Fact-Finding Mission in Syria has reached one of the sites in Douma where a suspected chemical weapons attack occured on April 7 and has collected samples for analysis.

The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) visited one of the sites in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic today to collect samples for analysis in connection with allegations of chemical weapons use on 7 April 2018. The OPCW will evaluate the situation and consider future steps including another possible visit to Douma.

The samples collected will be transported to the OPCW Laboratory in Rijswijk and then dispatched for analysis to the OPCW’s designated labs. Based on the analysis of the sample results as well other information and materials collected by the team, the FFM will compile their report for submission to the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention for their consideration.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Rebels withdraw from Qalamoun

Rebels began withdrawing from Qalamoun on Saturday and will go to northern Syria, state TV and a rebel official said, in a surrender agreement that marks another victory for President Bashar al-Assad. The withdrawal will restore state control over the eastern Qalamoun enclave, some 40 km from Damascus.

Screenshot from SANA showing buses waiting to board rebels and their families from al-Ruhaiba [21/4/2018]

State TV said rebel fighters and their families would be transported from eastern Qalamoun to Idlib and Jarablus, with 3,200 militants and their families expected to leave on Saturday. The spokesman for one of the rebel groups in eastern Qalamoun said the insurgents had agreed to the deal after intensified Russian shelling killed six people in areas near the town of al-Ruhaiba earlier this week. “This made the Free (Syrian) Army factions sit at the negotiating table with the Russian side and an agreement was reached the most important articles of which are the surrender of heavy weapons and the departure of fighters to the north,” Said Seif of the Ahmad Abdo Martyr brigade said. A first convoy of 10 buses had left al-Ruhaiba and was being searched in a nearby area before continuing to the north.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/SANA/Reuters

US, UK and France launch ‘limited’ strikes in Syria on targets associated with chemical weapons

U.S., British and French forces struck Syria with more than 100 missiles on Saturday in the first coordinated Western strikes against the Damascus government, targeting what they called chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a poison gas attack. U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”. As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus.

Damascus sky lights up with surface-to-air missile fire as the U.S., Britain and France launch attack

The bombing represents a major escalation putting the West in direct confrontation with Assad’s superpower ally Russia, but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war which has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years. That in turn raises the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as both reckless and pointless. By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of President Bashar al-Assad, whose Russian- and Iranian-backed forces have already driven his enemies from Syria’s major towns and cities, arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience”.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”. She said she had authorized the British action after intelligence indicated Assad’s government was responsible for the attack using chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago. French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.

With more than 100 missiles fired from ships and manned aircraft, the allies struck three of Syria’s main chemical weapons facilities, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford said. The targets included a Syrian center in the greater Damascus area for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weaponry as well as a chemical weapons storage facility near the city of Homs. A third target, also near Homs, contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a command post. Mattis called the strikes a “one time shot”, although Trump raised the prospect of further strikes if Assad’s government again used chemical weapons. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.

The Syrian conflict pits a complex myriad of parties against each other, with Russia and Iran giving Assad military and political help that has largely proven decisive over the past three years in crushing any rebel threat to topple him. Fractured opposition forces have had varying levels of support from the West, Arab states and Turkey. The United States, Britain and France have all bombed the Islamic State group in Syria for years and had troops on the ground to fight them, but refrained from targeting Assad’s government apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year. Although the Western countries have all said for seven years that Assad must leave power, they held back in the past from striking his government with no wider strategy to defeat him.

Assad’s government and allies responded outwardly with fury, although there were also clear suggestions that they considered the attack a one-off, unlikely to harm Assad. A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the Syrian government and its allies had “absorbed” the attack. The sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia, the official said. “If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said. Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said on Twitter: “Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.” Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.” An official in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said it would cause consequences that were against U.S. Interests. French Defence Minister Florence Parly said the Russians “were warned beforehand” to avoid inadvertant escalation.

Absorbed the strike”

At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke was seen rising over the city, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus had been hit in the strikes. Barzah is the location of a major Syrian scientific research center. Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the U.S.-led attacks and said Washington and its allies would bear responsibility for the consequences in the region and beyond, state media reported. State-controlled Syrian TV said Syrian air defenses shot down 13 missiles fired in the attack. The Russian defense ministry said none of the rockets launched had entered zones where Russian air defense systems are protecting military facilities in Tartus and Hmeimim.

The combined U.S., British and French assault appeared more intense than a similar strike Trump ordered almost exactly a year ago against a Syrian air base in retaliation for an earlier chemical weapons attack that Washington attributed to Assad. Mattis said the United States conducted the air strikes with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas was used in the April 7 attack in Syria. Evidence that the nerve agent sarin also was used was inconclusive, he said.

Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use are frequent in Syria’s conflict, raising questions about whether Washington had lowered the threshold for military action in Syria by deciding to strike after a chlorine attack. Syria agreed in 2013 to give up its chemical weapons. It is still permitted to have chlorine for civilian use, although its use as a weapon is banned. Mattis, who U.S. officials said had earlier warned in internal debates that too large an attack would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a one-off to dissuade Assad from “doing this again”. But a U.S. official familiar with the military planning said there could be more air strikes if the intelligence indicates Assad has not stopped making, importing, storing or using chemical weapons including chlorine. The official said this could require a more sustained U.S. air and naval presence in the region, as well as more surveillance.