Iraq’s parliament gives PM Abadi until Thursday on new cabinet amid Sadr sit-in

Iraq’s parliament on Monday gave Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi three days to present a new non-party cabinet to fight corruption or potentially face a no-confidence vote amid street protests piling on the pressure for action.

A flash on state television called Thursday the “final deadline” for Abadi, who said more than six weeks ago that he would replace ministers with technocrats unaffiliated with political parties.

Yet other politicians, including some within his own party, have pushed back against a reshuffle, fearing it could weaken the political patronage networks that have sustained their wealth and influence for more than a decade.

Powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Sunday launched a personal sit-in inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses embassies and government offices.

His supporters extended a week-old sit-in just outside the district’s gates, huddling in tents and under umbrellas in heavy rain. They also demonstrated in the southern city of Basra.

Sadr, who commands the loyalty of tens of thousands of supporters, including Shi’ite fighters who helped defend Baghdad against Sunni Islamic State militants in 2014, has re-emerged as a leader in matters of state in recent months.

“If Abadi does not present his new government by Thursday, then he will be questioned in Saturday’s (parliamentary session),” said Sadr bloc MP Yasir al-Husseini. “This will be the start of a number of steps leading to a no-confidence vote.”

Failing to deliver on long-promised anti-corruption measures could weaken Abadi’s government just as Iraqi forces are gearing up to try and recapture the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State.

Academics and bureaucrats

Support in parliament for withdrawing confidence from Abadi did not appear unanimous on Monday.

Abbas al-Bayati, an MP from Abadi’s ruling National Alliance coalition, said lawmakers would want an explanation for any further delay of reform steps but had not agreed to pursue a no confidence vote.

“Between now and Thursday is sufficient and if he cannot do it by then, he should come and clarify why in order to convince the blocs and the street,” Bayati told Reuters.

He said Abadi had composed a preliminary roster of candidates for the new cabinet and coalition leaders were consulting with Sunni, Kurdish and other Shi’ite politicians “to create a balanced list that has the standards of professionalism and technocratic experience”.

It was not clear which ministers were likely to be replaced but analysts doubted that substantive change was in the works.

An U.S.-based Iraqi academic, Abbas Kadhim, tweeted last week that he had been short-listed for foreign minister, and a government source said senior ministry civil servants might be elevated to fill some positions.

Political analyst Fadhil Abu Ragheef said new technocrat ministers would likely come from Iraq’s existing parties and blocs. “They will not bring anything new,” he said. “This is about changing the facade only; the core will remain the same.”

Moqtada al-Sadr stages sit-in inside Green Zone to push for reforms

Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr entered Baghdad’s Green Zone on Sunday, the heavily-fortified center of the capital housing government buildings and embassies, on Sunday to keep up pressure on the government to enact reforms.

Thousands of Sadr’s supporters began a sit-in at the district’s gates more than a week ago and continued to camp out despite heavy rains earlier in the day, but Sadr took the protest forward by entering the zone itself.

“Beloved protesters, I will enter the Green Zone by myself and (my escorts) only. I sit in inside the Green Zone and you sit in at its gates. None of you move,” he told them before walking past a security checkpoint near parliament and the upscale Rashid Hotel into the Green Zone.

Sadr is urging Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to move ahead with a plan announced more than six weeks ago to replace current ministers with unaffiliated technocrats in a bid to tackle systemic political patronage that has abetted graft.

Television channels affiliated with Sadr’s political party showed him greeting guards as he entered the district with armed guards, then sit down on a white plastic chair beside concrete barriers. He sipped on bottled water before sitting on the ground inside a green tent his aides had erected.

Protesters waving Iraqi flags outside expressed support for the move by Sadr, one of the country’s most savvy political operators who commands the loyalty of millions of Iraqis and has at times appeared very close to neighboring Shi’ite power Iran.

One supporter held a sign reading: “No retreat, no blood, no surrender.”

Open sit-in

It was not immediately clear how long Sadr, the 42-year-old who rose to prominence when his Mahdi Army battled U.S. troops following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, planned to continue his personal demonstration.

Along with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Sadr has re-emerged as a leader in matters of state in recent months after a period of relative quietude.

Abadi, who has been slow to deliver reforms but pledged to reveal a cabinet reshuffle this week, has voiced concern that Shi’ite street protests could spin out of control and endanger Iraq’s security when it needs to focus on fighting Islamic State.

Corruption and the U.S.-backed war against the ultra-hardline Sunni militants are depleting the government’s finances as revenues are declining due to lower oil prices.

If Abadi fails to deliver long-promised anti-corruption measures, his government may be weakened just as Iraqi forces are gearing up to try and recapture the northern city of Mosul.

The Green Zone, originally set up to protect U.S. occupation forces from suicide bombings, has been kept in place by successor Iraqi authorities for security reasons.

Roads and bridges over the Tigris River leading to the district were closed on Sunday, shutting down movement in central Baghdad as night fell.

Source: Reuters




Palmyra fully liberated by the Syrian army and their allies

Syrian government forces recaptured Palmyra on Sunday, state media and a monitoring group said, inflicting a significant defeat on Daesh which had controlled the desert city since May last year.

Syrian television quoted a military source saying the army and its militia allies took “complete control over the city of Palmyra”.

Palmyra's archaeological site [photo by Alessandra Kocman/Flickr]
Palmyra’s archaeological site [photo by Alessandra Kocman/Flickr]

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there was still gunfire in the eastern part of the city on Sunday morning but the bulk of the Daesh force had pulled out and retreated east, leaving Palmyra under President Bashar al-Assad’s control.

For government forces, the recapture of Palmyra, following a three-week campaign by Syrian government forces backed by intensive Russian air strikes, opens up much of Syria’s eastern desert stretching to the Iraqi border to the south and Islamic State heartland of Deir al-Zor and Raqqa to the east.

Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said 400 Daesh fighters died in the battle for Palmyra, which he described as the biggest single defeat for the group since it declared a caliphate in areas of Syria and Iraq under its control in 2014.

According to Syrian military officials, Daesh fighters abandoned their positions in the city in the early morning hours of Sunday heading east.

Sources: Reuters, Syria & Iraq News

Muqtada al-Sadr calls for new Iraqi government members

Thousands of supporters of Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held what they billed as a “joint” Sunni-Shi’ite prayer service Friday outside the main entrances to the government-controlled “Green Zone.”  Sadr has given Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a Saturday deadline to carry out governmental “reform” and install a new Cabinet composed of technocrats instead of political loyalists.

Muqtada al-Sadr
Muqtada al-Sadr

It was the sixth consecutive Friday that supporters of Iraq’s mercurial Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr protested in central Baghdad to demand government reform.  The mostly Shi’ite crowd chanted slogans and listened to a sermon by Sadr ally Sheikh Asad al-Nasiri.

Nasiri repeated a Sadr ultimatum to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the Iraqi leader has until Saturday to present a new government to parliament.  Nasiri also threatened to raise the stakes against lawmakers.

He says his supporters want to see the prime minister come up with convincing, new reforms, including an independent government of technocrats, with new ministers loyal to the people and not to the political parties which are battling to dominate the political arena.

Nasiri pledged to support Prime Minister Abadi if he goes ahead and presents the new government to parliament, but warned of the potential wrath of demonstrators if the legislators vote down the new administration.

A member of the parliamentary committee vetting potential candidates for the government positions told Iraqi state TV that ministers will be required to have strong experience:

He says the committee is requiring ministerial candidates to have a higher degree in their field of specialization and at least 15 years of experience, as well as a plan of action.

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, tells VOA that he thinks authentic reform will require more than a new government of technocrats.

“The new Iraqi political system was modeled after Lebanon’s.  That is: a confessional political system, based on sectarian and ethnic accommodation.  The political system in itself invites corruption.  So, unless we deal with the political question and the future of Iraq as a nation-state, dealing with corruption is a waste of time,” said Khashan.

Iraqi TV indicated that Prime Minister Abadi has spent the past 24 hours meeting with the country’s top political leaders to win their approval for his new government.

Source: VOA

Daesh suicide bomber kills 26, wounds 71 in Iskandariya

A suicide attacker detonated an explosive belt in a park outside Baghdad on Friday, killing 26 people and wounding 71, said the security head in Babel province where the bomb – claimed by Islamic State – went off.

The blast in Iskandariya, a mixed Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim town 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the capital, happened around 7:15 p.m. (1615 GMT) at the end of an amateur soccer game, said Falah al-Khafaji.

Islamic State militants, who control swathes of territory in Iraq’s north and west, were behind the attack, according to Amaq news agency, which is affiliated with the group.

At least 60 people were killed earlier this month in an attack claimed by Islamic State 80 km further south, in Hilla, when an explosives-laden fuel tanker slammed into an Iraqi security checkpoint.

An apparent escalation of large bombings targeting areas outside Islamic State’s primary control suggests that Iraqi government forces may be stretched thin after recent gains against the group in the western and northern provinces.

Source: Reuters

Syrian army advances in Palmyra

Syrian soldiers advanced slowly in heavy fighting with Islamic State fighters near Palmyra’s ancient ruins on Thursday, state media and a monitoring group said, in an offensive which could open up swathes of eastern Syria to government forces.

The recapture of Palmyra, which the Islamist militants seized in May 2015, would mark the biggest single gain for President Bashar al-Assad since Russia intervened in September and turned the tide of the five-year conflict in his favor.

Russian jets have continued to support the Syrian army and its allies as they push their offensive on the desert city, despite Moscow’s recent announcement that it was withdrawing the bulk of its military forces.

A Russian special forces officer was killed in combat near Palmyra in the last week, Interfax said, suggesting the Kremlin has been more deeply engaged in the Syrian conflict than it has acknowledged.

Syria’s SANA news agency said that the army and an allied militia took more high ground overlooking the city, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported advances by the army amid what it said were heavy clashes. Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said the fighting had reached Palmyra’s Roman-era ruins, located in the southwest of the city, where he said the army could not rely on air cover because of the risk of further damage to the ancient site.

Islamic State has blown up ancient temples and tombs since capturing Palmyra, something the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO has called a war crime.

The agency welcomed the prospect of Palmyra’s recapture, saying it “carries the memory of the Syrian people, and the values of cultural diversity, tolerance and openness that have made this region a cradle of civilization. “For one year, Palmyra has been a symbol of the cultural cleansing plaguing the Middle East,” UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement.

Al-Manar, the television station of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, broadcasting live from the outskirts of Palmyra on Friday, showed footage of the ancient city and reported that the Syrian forces had captured the strategic Tar Hill at the western side of Palmyra. It was not possible to assess from the long-range shots what damage had been inflicted, but colonnades and several structures appeared to be still standing.

Sources: SANA, Reuters, Al-Manar

No mention of Assad’s fate in De Mistura’s ‘basic principles’ for Syria solution ~report

A 12-point paper on the Syrian crisis settlement forwarded by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura does not mention the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, according to journalists who have seen the document.

De Mistura’s “Essential Principles of a Political Solution in Syria” has yet to be approved by all the parties to the peace talks or be accepted as the basis for the next round of talks scheduled for April 9.

Staffan de Mistura
Staffan de Mistura

“I am expecting and hoping… that the next round of talks will not be focusing on principles again – we have had enough of that – there are many valid points there, but we have to start focusing on the political process,” the UN envoy told journalists.

The paper, summarizing the negotiations’ results so far, calls for all “parties” to respect “the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria,” reports Sputnik, which has seen the document. It also states that Syria should be recognized as “a democratic, multi-confessional” state.

One of the 12 proposals outlined calls for the armed groups supporting the peace process to become part of the country’s “unified national army.”

“The state and its reformed institutions will exercise the exclusive right of controlling weapons of war,” it also says, according to Sputnik.

The paper allegedly also contains a call to “prevent terrorist groups from being supplied with weapons, money, training, shelter or intelligence and to refrain from inciting acts of terrorism” in accordance with the UNSC resolutions. It also stipulates that foreign fighters can play no role in Syria.

The document is described as taking into account suggestions made by the Syrian government and the opposition’s “Riyadh group” and “Moscow-Cairo group.”

The Syria talks are taking place amid a ceasefire sponsored by Moscow and Washington that came into force in February, leading to a sharp reduction in hostilities over the past two weeks.

The truce has saved 3,000 lives, De Mistura told journalists on Monday.

The ceasefire was implemented in compliance with the Joint Statement advanced by the Russian Federation and United States, which are co-chairs of the ISSG (the International Syrian Support Group). The Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front terrorist groups, as well as other parties that rejected the agreement, are not subject to the ceasefire.

Source: Russia Today