Ali Choukeir – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 12 Mar 2019 04:13:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Iran’s Rouhani outflanks Trump in Baghdad, Slams US for “Bombs dropped on People” Tue, 12 Mar 2019 04:06:20 +0000 By Ali Choukeir | –

Baghdad (AFP) – Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani hit back Monday against pressure from the “aggressor” United States on Iraq to limit ties with its neighbour, during his first official visit to Baghdad.

Shiite-majority Iraq is walking a fine line to maintain good relations with its key partners Iran and the United States which themselves are arch-foes.

It has been under pressure from Washington not to get too close to the Islamic republic next door, particularly after the United States last year withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and hit Tehran with sanctions.

Baghdad was given limited waivers to continue buying electricity and natural gas from Iran, but Washington has urged Iraq to partner with US companies to become energy independent.

Rouhani, who is on his first trip to Iraq since becoming president in 2013, hailed his country’s “special” ties with its neighbour.

These relations could not be compared to Iraq’s ties “with an aggressor country like America”, he said before flying Monday to Baghdad for the three-day visit.

“America is despised in the region. The bombs that the Americans dropped on Iraqis, Syrian people and other countries cannot be forgotten,” he added.

Iran is always ready to help its neighbours, he said, in a nod to the role Tehran played to help Iraq battle the Islamic State group (IS).

Iraq’s President Barham Saleh, at a joint news conference with Rouhani in Baghdad, thanked Iran for its “support” and said he was “lucky” to have it as a neighbour, without making any reference to the US.

Rouhani, who is heading a large political and economic delegation, said relations between the two countries should be further “reinforced and developed”.

The Iranian president later had a meeting with Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, during which he highlighted the political, trade and energy links between the two neighbours.

After Turkey, Iran is the top supplier of imported goods to Iraq, including cars, gas, home appliances and vegetables.

– Shiite bonds –

Iran was the first country to respond to Iraqi calls for help after IS jihadists in June 2014 captured the main northern city of Mosul as they threatened to overrun the capital Baghdad and the oil-rich region of Kirkuk.

It dispatched “military advisors” and equipment along with the famous Revolutionary Guards elite Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani.

Rouhani on Monday said Iran has supported the Iraqi people “during difficult times” and would continue to back them “through times of peace and security”.

Relations between the two countries were not always close — they fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988.

Tehran’s influence in Baghdad grew after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled the government of Saddam Hussein.

Iran now has significant leverage over Iraq’s Shiite political groups.

Rouhani is also set to meet Iraq’s chief Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is revered by many Iranians.

The meeting in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf will be the first between the top cleric and an Iranian president. In 2013 the grand ayatollah refused to receive Rouhani’s controversial predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

– Warming Saudi ties –

Analysts say talks between Sistani and Rouhani are aimed at bolstering the ranks of Shiite Muslims in the face of Iraq’s warming ties with Iran’s Sunni-ruled rival Saudi Arabia.

The meeting could “prevent Saudi Arabia and its allies from sowing discord” between Iran and Iraq, a Shiite cleric from the Iranian holy city of Qom was recently quoted as saying in Iran’s Ebtekar newspaper.

Saudi Arabia is keen to develop relations with Baghdad to counter the influence of Iran in Iraq, which is seeking economic benefits to rebuild after the defeat of IS.

Iraqi political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi said Rouhani is seeking to bolster trade with Baghdad and discuss ways “to circumvent US sanctions”.

“In addition, there are electricity, water and other files,” he said.

Trade between Iran and Iraq now stands at around $12 billion a year — tilted toward Iran with gas and energy exports — and Rouhani has said he would like to see it rise to $20 billion.

© Agence France-Presse

Featured Photo: Iraq rolled out the red carpet for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (AFP Photo/SABAH ARAR).”

Protest Wave: ‘Explosion of Rage at System that has Robbed Iraqis of’ Hope Thu, 19 Jul 2018 04:17:35 +0000 Baghdad (AFP) – In the heat of battle against the Islamic State group, Iraqis united against a common enemy.

But just a few months after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the jihadists, social grievances that once simmered on the back burner have boiled over in a series of protests that have spread to several cities.

After erupting in oil-rich Basra province on July 8, unrest has quickly spread, as people have vented their anger over unemployment, high prices, power cuts and a lack of usable water.

From Basra to the capital Baghdad, the question on people’s lips has been: “Where is the government?”

That query is made all the more pertinent by the failure of May’s elections — thus far — to produce a new administration, as a record abstention rate highlighted Iraqis’ contempt for their political leaders.

Eight people have been killed during the demonstrations so far, multiple sources say, while there has been a brief internet blackout and the authorities claim over 260 security personnel have been wounded.

– ‘Explosion of rage’ –

The protests represent “an explosion of rage at an entire system that has brazenly robbed Iraqis of the chance for a better life,” says Iraq expert Fanar Haddad.

AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE. Members of the Iraqi security forces deployed in the capital Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during demonstrations against unemployment on July 16, 2018.

With the jihadists in retreat, “the failings of the Iraqi political classes in all aspects of governance and economic management come into sharper relief,” adds Haddad.

For more than a week protesters have taken to the streets, questioning how a country that is the second largest producer in the OPEC oil cartel can leave its 38 million citizens so bereft of basic services.

In some cases security forces have fired live rounds into the air, including to deter protesters who set fire to public property and political parties’ headquarters.

The authorities say troublemakers have turned peaceful protests violent.

In an effort to restore calm, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi flew to Basra last week from Brussels, after a NATO meeting where the continued threat of IS was on the agenda.

The premier announced investments of $3 billion (2.6 billion euros) for Basra province and pledged additional spending on housing, schools and services.

And several cabinet minsters summoned powerful tribal chiefs in southern Iraq, urging them to use their clout to restore order in their provinces.

When Abadi was elected in 2014, the prime minister pledged to tackle endemic corruption and vowed to rid Iraq of the jihadists, who at that stage held a third of the country.

He has won plaudits for overseeing the war effort — but the battle against corruption will take time, his supporters say.

Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

– ‘Cosmetic concessions’ –

The promises of investment for Basra will fail to satisfy the demonstrators who know Abadi may well not lead the next government, political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi says.

The elections placed the premier’s Victory Alliance third.

And while his bloc tentatively allied itself with nationalist cleric Moqtada Sadr in June, the combined forces would still take only 96 out of 329 parliamentary seats.

AFP / Haidar HAMDANI. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (R) attends a press conference with Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf on June 23, 2018.

But despite the political chaos — two months after the elections, even the fragmented results are subject to a recount in some areas — Hashemi expects the protest movement to fizzle out.

“They don’t have a leadership, a political identity or media support (to further their) legitimate demands,” he says.

And alongside the offer of carrots, sticks are being deployed.

The authorities have ordered the arrest of dozens of activists who encouraged others to take to the streets by posting pictures of the protests online.

On Saturday, the internet was cut across the country, as demonstrations threatened to spread.

Authorities said the shutdown was due to maintenance work and Iraq was largely back online Monday.

But Iraqis were still unable to connect on social networks.

An end to the protests could lie in offering temporary solutions until political and meteorological temperates cool, Haddad says, noting that anger over public services has historically tended to boil over during the summer.

It is “likely that the Iraqi political classes will bunker down and wait for the storm to pass while offering cosmetic concessions and promises of reform,” he says.

But the problems facing the country are long-term ones “that require far more than Iraq’s self-interested political classes are likely to be able to offer”.

Featured Photo: AFP / Haidar MOHAMMED ALI. A demonstrator burns tyres during a protest against unemployment and high prices in the southern Iraqi city of Basra during the night of July 12, 2018.