Iraqi parliament approves $88bn budget, Kurdish MPs boycott vote

Iraq’s parliament approved a long-delayed budget on Saturday, the first since declaring victory over Islamic State after three years of war, but Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the vote over their region’s diminished allocation. The budget of 104 trillion Iraqi dinars ($88 billion) is based on projected oil exports of 3.8 million barrels per day (bpd) at a price of $46, a copy of the final bill showed. It envisions government revenues of 91.64 trillion dinars ($77.6 billion) with a deficit of 12.5 trillion dinars ($10.58 billion).

Parliament was meant to pass the budget before the start of the 2018 financial year in January but all three main blocs, Shi’ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds, had serious issues with the government’s proposal. “We boycotted the vote and there are proposals for Kurdistan to withdraw from the entire political process in Iraq over the unfair treatment we have received,” said Kurdish MP Ashwaq Jaff. The budget cut the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) share from the 17 percent the region has traditionally received since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It did not specify a percentage to be allocated to the KRG, instead stipulating it would receive funds proportional to its share of the population. In a previous draft the KRG portion was set at 12.67 percent, which is how much of Iraq’s population Baghdad says the provinces in Kurdistan make up. The KRG disputes that estimation.

The government said on Tuesday it had reached an agreement with the Kurds to resume Kirkuk oil exports through Turkey’s Ceyhan port but gave no precise timeline. The projected 3.8 million bpd exports in the budget includes a 250,000 bpd contribution from the Kurdistan region, lawmakers said on Saturday. It was not immediately clear what effect the Kurdish boycott of the vote would have on that.

Competing interests

Shi’ite lawmakers wanted more spending allocated to the southern oil-producing, predominantly Shi’ite, provinces as well as greater salaries and benefits for the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias known as Popular Mobilisation Forces, who helped Iraq’s security forces defeat Islamic State. Sunni lawmakers wanted more allocated toward reconstructing areas retaken from the militants, which were predominantly Sunni. The areas include Iraq’s second city Mosul. On Thursday the“three presidencies” of Iraq, its Shi’ite prime minister, Sunni parliament speaker, and Kurdish president, had met to discuss how to push the budget through.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi congratulated Iraqis over the passing of the budget on Saturday and said it was the result of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches. Speaker Salim al-Jabouri said the budget addressed Kurdish concerns and that the federal government would pay the salaries of Kurdish civil servants and Peshmerga fighters, as well as welfare entitlements. Baghdad had stopped paying salaries or making budget transfers to the Kurdish regional capital Erbil in 2014 when the Kurds started independently selling oil. Oil exports, Iraq’s main source of revenue, have risen above 3.4 million barrels per day this year but a global slump in prices for crude, compounded by the costs of rebuilding an infrastructure damaged by the war against Islamic State, have battered the country’s finances.


Syria downs Israeli F-16 after IDF down Iranian UAV; Moscow ‘concerned’

Syrian anti-aircraft fire shot down an Israeli F-16 jet on Saturday, the military said, after Israel intercepted an Iranian drone launched from Syria and struck an Iranian target there. The F-16 jet crashed in northern Israel, near the village of Harduf.

Israeli security forces walk next to the remains of an F-16 Israeli war plane near the Israeli village of Harduf, Israel, February 10, 2018. [Reuters/Herzie Shapira]

It was one of the most serious incidents involving Israel, Iran and Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war almost eight years ago. “A combat helicopter successfully intercepted an Iranian UAV that was launched from Syria and infiltrated Israel,” the Israeli military said in a statement. “IDF (Israel Defence Forces) has targeted the Iranian control systems in Syria that sent the #UAV into Israeli airspace. Massive Syrian Anti-Air fire, one F16 crashed in Israel, pilots safe,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said on Twitter.

SAA says air defenses addressed Israeli enemy and hit more than one aircraft

Syria’s SANA state media cited a military source as saying Syrian air defences had opened fire in response to an Israeli act of “aggression” against a military base and hit “more than one plane”. “The Israeli enemy entity at dawn today conducted a new aggression against one of the military bases in the central region. Our air defences confronted it and hit more than one plane,” the unidentified military source said.

Russia says is concerned with escalation of tensions

The Russian government said on Saturday that it is “concerned” with escalation of tensions between Israel and Syria.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters/Sputnik

Double suicide bombing kills at least 26 in Baghdad

A double suicide bombing killed 26 people in Baghdad on Monday, officials said, the second such attack in the Iraqi capital in three days. Dr Abdel Ghani al-Saadi, health chief for east Baghdad, reported “26 dead and 90 wounded”. “Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Tayyaran Square in central Baghdad,” said General Saad Maan, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, which includes the army and the police. Tayyaran Square is a bustling centre of commerce and a place where day labourers gather in the early morning waiting for jobs. It has been the site of deadly attacks in the past. An AFP photographer at the site of the bombing said many ambulances had gathered and security forces had been deployed in large numbers.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Sources: AFP/Syria & Iraq News


Medical evacuations from Eastern Ghouta have begun: Red Crescent and ICRC

The Syrian branches of the Red Crescent and the International Red Cross have said on late Tuesday on their Twitter accounts. According to the medical organizations some “critical medical cases” were transported from Eastern Ghouta to Damascus hospitals following intense negotiations between Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s president Khaled Hboubati and IFRC president Francesco Rocca.


FSA rebel groups reject Sochi conference

Around 40 FSA rebel groups on Monday rejected Russia’s planned Sochi conference on Syria, saying Moscow was seeking to bypass a U.N.-based Geneva peace process and blaming Russia for committing war crimes in the war-torn country. Russia received backing from Turkey and Iran for holding a Syrian national dialogue congress in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.

In a statement by around 40 rebel groups who include some of the military factions who participated in earlier rounds of Geneva peace talks, they said Moscow had not put pressure on the Syrian government to reach a political settlement. “Russia has not contributed one step to easing the suffering of Syrians and has not pressured the regime that it claims it is a guarantor by move in any real path towards a solution,” the rebel statement said. “Russia is an aggressor country that has committed war crimes against Syrians… It stood with the regime militarily and defended its politically and over seven years preventing U.N. condemnation of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s regime,” the statement said.

Moscow says it targets militants but rebels and residents say the Russian air strikes conducted since a major aerial campaign over two years ago has caused hundreds of civilian casualties in indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas away from the frontline.


Some rebels said they had not yet made up their mind and U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said that Russia’s plan to convene the congress should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the U.N.-led Geneva talks on ending the war in Syria.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters


Masoud Barzani will hand over presidential powers on November 1

Kurdistan Region’s veteran leader Masoud Barzani will not extend his presidential term beyond November 1, a Kurdish government official said on Saturday.

His decision came just weeks after a referendum on Kurdish independence backfired and triggered a crisis for Iraq’s Kurds who had been enjoying a period of unprecedented autonomy. A plan to divide up the president’s powers was outlined in a letter Barzani sent to the Kurdish parliament on Saturday, the official told Reuters. The plan asks parliament to distribute the president’s powers among the government, parliament and judiciary. Barzani’s current term was set to expire in four days, the same date that presidential and parliamentary elections were due to be held. However, those elections were delayed indefinitely last week, amidst an escalating regional crisis.

Critics say the Sept. 25 independence referendum, orchestrated and championed by the 71-year-old Barzani, has left a bleak outlook for Iraq’s Kurds. Less than four weeks after Kurds in the region voted overwhelmingly to break away from Iraq, the central government launched a military offensive to wrest back the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds regard as both their spiritual homeland, and a key source of revenue for their would-be independent state. It was one of several retaliatory measures taken by Baghdad, which vehemently opposed the referendum. In a matter of days the Iraqi government has transformed the balance of power in the north of the country, exerting tremendous pressure on Barzani to step aside and wrecking decades-old dreams of Kurdish independence. Iraqi forces have continued to advance on all Kurdish-held territory outside the autonomous region’s borders.

Iraq’s prime minister demanded on Thursday that Kurds declare their independence referendum void, rejecting the Kurdish autonomous region’s offer to suspend its independence push to resolve a crisis through talks. Earlier this year, Barzani said he did not intend to stand in the November elections. However, prior to the referendum, few expected he would stick to his promise. Barzani has held the office of the presidency since 2005. The region last held a presidential election in 2009, in which Barzani won. His term of office expired in 2013 and was extended twice. The president is expected to address his people before his term formally expires, marking the end of a storied career.

Barzani was born in 1946, soon after his legendary father, Mulla Mustafa, founded a party to fight for the rights of Iraq’s Kurds. After decades spent fighting with the Peshmerga, Barzani became a central figure in the drive to create an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq, after Saddam Hussein was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Barzani’s letter will be discussed by parliament on Sunday, though the government official said it was unclear whether ministers would need to vote the plan into action during the session.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters


Daesh is prepared for the collapse of its ‘caliphate’

Daesh is prepared for the eventual collapse of its so-called ‘caliphate’ and has developed contingency plans for this event, according to analysts and former commanders of the jihadist organization.

Source: Syria and Iraq News/CNN