Seven protesters dead in clash with the Antichrist

At least 7 dead in weekend clashes between protesters, Sadr supporters in Nasiriyah

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — At least seven people died and more than 60 were wounded on Friday and Saturday during clashes between protesters and supporters of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the southern city of Nasiriyah. 

Protesters in the city’s Habboubi Square were reportedly forced out of their tents and shot at by Sadr supporters, leaving at least seven people dead and scores wounded in a city which has significant bloodshed since demonstrations began last October. 

Sadrists armed with guns and pistols came to try to clear our tents. We fear that more violence could take place,” Mohammad al-Khayyat, a leader of the anti-government movement told AFP.

On November 28 last year, more than three dozen people died in protest-related violence at Nasiriyah’s Zeitun Bridge. 

Iraqi counter-terror services were sent to the city on the orders of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to rescue a kidnapped activist in September.

Tens of thousands of Sadr supporters took to the streets of Baghdad and Nasiriyah at the weekend to express their support for the Shiite cleric – also head of the Sairoon Coalition, the largest parliamentary bloc – ahead of next year’s elections.

Sadr called on his supporters last week to gather at Baghdad’s Tahrir square – the epicenter of Iraq’s protest movement – to perform Friday prayers, hoping that this would clean up the “atheism” that he said has taken over the city’s streets.

“After Tahrir Square became a place for infidelity and disobedience of God… it is our duty as believers to raise the name of God in the square,” Sadr wrote on Monday.

He then took to Twitter on Friday to thank his supporters for mobilizing.

“Today, you gave me hope that the upcoming elections are in good hands, and Iraq will be taken out of the hands of corrupt people from outside and inside Iraq,” Sadr tweeted.

However, the cleric later called for an end to violence, asking the people of Nasiriyah to “not fight among themselves.”

“The people need to come together for the upcoming democratic process for their rights to not be taken away from them,” he added.

This is not the first time Sadr has called on his followers to take to the streets.

The cleric previously threatened a “million person march” back in February, amid delays appointing a government cabinet.

Eleven people died and more than 200 were injured after Sadr supporters stormed a Najaf protest camp in February.

The prime minister’s office on Sunday announced the formation of a body led by National Security Advisor Qassim Al-Araji to “restore stability” in Dhi Qar province. 

The US Embassy in Baghdad also expressed concern regarding the “unjustifiable” violence. 

“The United States condemns the violence against peaceful protestors that took place in Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar today.  These unjustifiable acts of violence have no place in a democracy,” the embassy said on Saturday.

“The United States joins the international community in calling for those responsible to be held accountable, and for the government to provide protection for protestors and others engaged in the legitimate exercise of free speech,” it added.

Clashes with Antichrist’s supporters kill 5 in southern Iraq

Clashes with cleric’s supporters kill 5 in southern Iraq

Qassim Abdul-zahra, Associated Press

9:43 am EST, Saturday, November 28, 2020

Photo: Khalid Mohammed, AP

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in the posters, gather in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. Thousands took to the streets in Baghdad on Friday in a show of support for a radical … more

BAGHDAD (AP) — Supporters of a firebrand Iraqi cleric shot dead five people on Saturday, according to medical officials, in overnight clashes with anti-government protesters in southern Iraq.

The anti-government demonstrators attempted to bloc the path of a rally supporting Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr. Followers of the populist cleric also wounded 40 others in the clashes, according to two medical officials.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The anti-government protesters were camped out at a main square in the city of Nasiriya, which has been an epicenter of the youth-led protest movement that has sought to sweep aside Iraq’s ruling sectarian elite.

Following the clashes beginning on Friday, al-Sadr’s supporters stormed Haboubi square, and torched tents pitched in the square.

Al-Sadr leads a powerful political bloc in Iraqi parliament and his supporters had called for a demonstration in support of the leader’s call for mass participation in next year’s nationwide elections.

Anti-government protesters feel betrayed by al-Sadr’s flip-flop approach toward them, especially in the last few months when he withdrew support for their movement.

Dozens returned to the anti-government sit-in’s site on Saturday morning in support of those protesters killed overnight.

Three killed in clashes in Iraq after Antichrist’s followers storm protest camp

Three killed in clashes in Iraq after cleric’s followers storm protest camp

NASIRIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – Supporters of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed an anti-government protest camp in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya on Friday, and at least three people were killed and dozens wounded in the clashes, a Reuters witness and a medical source said.

Followers of Sadr carrying pictures of the cleric marched to the central al-Haboubi square, where anti-government protesters have held a sit-in since 2019, after Friday prayers.

They fired gunshots and threw petrol bombs at the protesters’ tents, leading the protesters to fight back, the Reuters witness said.

A hospital source said the protesters died from bullet wounds. The clashes were still going on on Friday evening.

Haboubi square, where one of the worst killings of demonstrators took place last year and the last major protest site, had been cleared on Friday night by Sadr supporters, Reuters witness said, another major blow to anti-government protests that have largely lost steam in recent months.

“Another massacre took place today… against the peaceful protesters using live ammunition. We ask the Sadrist movement and Sayyed Moqtada (al-Sadr) to stop this strife and stop their assaults against peaceful protesters,” anti-government protester Mohannad al-Mansour said.

Last month Iraqi security forces cleared out sit-in tents in Baghdad’s Tahrir square, which became a symbol of anti-government protests during months-long mass unrest last year.

Iraq’s biggest anti-government protests in decades broke out in October 2019 and continued for several months, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demanding jobs, services and the removal of the ruling elite, which they said was corrupt. Nearly 500 people were killed. The protests caused the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who took office in May, has pledged to hold a parliamentary election, in line with a demand of many pro-democracy activists.

Earlier on Friday, thousands of Sadrists gathered in Tahrir Square in Baghdad and in other southern provinces to show support for the influential cleric ahead of the election scheduled for June next year.

Sadr, who leads the largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament, said he expects his movement to win a majority of seats.

Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States, also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq.

Reporting by Reuters Baghdad newsroom; writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean

Tens of thousands of Antichrist supporters rally in Iraq

Tens of thousands of Sadr supporters rally in Iraq

Clashes between supporters of the Shia leader and anti-government protesters erupt in the southern city of Nasiriya.

Supporters of Iraq’s Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Baghdad [Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

Four people were shot dead and dozens wounded in Iraq’s south, medics said, in clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of Shia Muslim leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

The violence erupted as tens of thousands of Sadr supporters hit the streets of Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriya on Friday in a show of force rivalling the waning youth-dominated protest movement that erupted in October 2019, as preparations ramp up for June parliamentary elections.

One of the leading anti-government protesters in Nasiriya, Mohammad al-Khayyat, accused Sadrists of setting fire to tents put up by his fellow demonstrators and shooting at them.

Sadrists armed with guns and pistols came to try to clear our tents. We fear that more violence could take place,” Khayyat told AFP.

Medical sources told AFP that the violence had left four people dead and wounded 51 others, nine of them by gunfire.

Al-Sadr’s supporters also gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square – once the epicentre of mass anti-government protests – to show their support for the Shia leader whose bloc holds a considerable majority in parliament.

Iraq is facing its most dire fiscal crisis in decades following a collapse in oil prices earlier this year and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the government unable to pay public sector salaries on time.

The Sadrist movement had called for protests to back the reform of what it says is a corrupt state, but its populist chief has also been making moves ahead of next year’s federal election in June.

In a tweet this week, al-Sadr said he expected big wins for his party and would push for the next prime minister to be a member of the Sadrist movement for the first time.

His followers called for a demonstration in support of the leader’s call for mass participation in the vote.

Most supporters stood unmasked in the square, chanting: “Yes, yes for our leader,” in support of the firebrand leader as Iraq remains a high-risk country for coronavirus infection. The crowd then stood side-by-side for Friday prayers at noon.

Moqtada al-Sadr said he expected big wins for his party and would push for the next prime minister to be a member of the Sadrist movement for the first time [Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn, reporting from Baghdad, said the mass rally shows the political muscle and organisational capabilities that al-Sadr’s supporters are able to muster.

“And this stands in stark contrast to the anti-government protest movement that has been demonstrating here in Tahrir Square until just a few weeks ago,” said Foltyn, reporting from Tahrir Square.

“They have claimed that they have been infiltrated by parties like the Sadrist movement and that their movement has essentially been hijacked,” she said.

“This gathering here leaves little doubt as to who has emerged as the victor after months of anti-government protests,” she added.

Observers consider the protest as a show of mettle by al-Sadr meant to send a message to other political blocs that, on Iraq’s streets, the Muslim leader still has clout.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for elections to take place next June, a year earlier than expected.

That was a key demand of anti-government protesters who paralysed Iraq’s streets when tens of thousands demonstrated last October.

The elections will take place under a new law approved by legislators this year that will theoretically enable more independent candidates to run.

Iraq’s electoral commission has said it is prepared to hold early elections if the government allocates a budget for the vote.

Antichrist-linked Twitter account slams protesters’ slogan as unpatriotic

Sadr-linked Twitter account slams protesters’ slogan as unpatriotic | | AW

Iraqi Twitter user “@trend_althuraa” posted: “We want a homeland devoid of your political parties. We want a country free of your corruption. We want a homeland free of your militias. We want to restore the prestige of the state after you hijacked everything, including our dreams.”

While Iraqis’ reactions varied, most users criticised the political class and its management of state affairs.

Twitter user “@TISHRIN” wrote, “Do you know why the slogan # We_want_a_homeland bothers them? It is because they are fearing to lose their privileges.”

“56 deputies, 6 ministries, the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, 4 governors, more than 120 general directors, armed militia, ambassadors and agents. What reform are you talking about? Give up your self-proclaimed role in reforming people and reform yourselves,” he added.

Online campaigns targeting the Tishrinya, one of the appellations of the Iraqi protest movement, have grown on social media websites. These campaigns, aimed at dispiriting and intimidating protesters, are allegedly being conducted by Sadr’s electronic army and supported Iran-backed militias’ own online operations.

Several hashtags branding protesters as “traitors” have made the rounds in recent days.

The social media influence war is part of religious parties’ efforts to regain influence online after they were sidelined by protesters. The loss of influence threatens the rule of the turbanis or Shia clerics, who have long used social media sites to promote myths of “sanctities” and “resistance.”

The leader of the Sadrist movement allegedly ordered the formation of a group of bloggers to work as part of a “reform project” on social media.

The project, revealed in an official letter sent by Sadr’s private office, is documented proof of his official support for an “electronic army.”

Most prominent Iraqi political and religious figures deny any association with bloggers accused of leading online campaigns against their opponents.

Rifts on social media often reflect Iraq’s sectarian divide.

“The majority of social media users are young people and adolescents who were born after 2003 or a few years before it,” said Irada al-Jubouri, assistant dean of the College of Mass Communication at Baghdad University.”

“Politicians contribute to inflaming emotions to create negative judgments, taking advantage of ignorance,” she said.

“The idea to create a permanent enemy existed for decades to distract citizens from basic issues such as providing security and services and curbing corruption,” she added.

In the past, Iraqis engaged in a large-scale electronic battle against “agents of Iran” in Iraq, especially clerics, whose criticism was a taboo. Many Iraqi Twitter users believe their country has been ruled by thieves and charlatans since 2003 and claim that the only path to recovery is getting rid of Iran’s agents.

Activists’ recent bold rhetoric seems to have annoyed Sadr and his clique. In a televised interview earlier this year, Sadr said protesters had “deviated from the right path and needed an ear-tip,” which many considered a veiled admission of responsibility for violence and killings against demonstrators.

Sadr, whose public statements often draw criticism, rarely appears in popular gatherings or in the media. When he is featured on television programmes, he asks for the interview to be recorded in advance, because, as he put it, he “sifts through speech.”

Sadr resides in the Iranian city of Qom, and is viewed by Iraqis’ as the embodiment of Iranian influence in their country.

The Twitter account linked to him is a striking example of this, with its content derided by activists as exploiting religion and resistance for political gains.

Activists say the turbaned cleric’s tweets no longer fool Iraqis who now largely view him as an “Iranian pawn.”

People familiar with Sadr say he is “of a simple mentality and a limited thinking,” as the man did not complete his education and did not even pass the elementary school stage.

“He cannot formulate an understandable sentence,” one source said on condition of anonymity.

The Antichrist and Iran see Iraq’s leaders pro-US, aim to topple them

Iran sees Iraq’s leaders pro-US, aims to topple them | Hammam Latif | AW

BAGHDAD – A political source in Baghdad revealed that Iran plans to overthrow the three presidents in Iraq ahead of early parliamentary elections scheduled for the summer of 2021, but its ambitions are facing serious difficulties.

Since the ousting of Iran’s ally and former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and his government following massive and unprecedented protests that began in October 2019 and lasted for months, Iran has branded his replacements, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, President Barham Salih and Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi as allies of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The sources expect that the Iranian plan to overthrow the three presidents in Iraq will be revitalised once the results of the American presidential election are known.

The source familiar with the scenes of the political movement that has been taking place for days said “Iran is working according to the principle of ‘what cannot be fully achieved, should not be totally abandoned’, meaning that it will accept any partial victory resulting from this plan.”

Iran believes that the popular protests unfairly toppled its ally Abdul-Mahdi but ignored Salih and Halbousi; and that to add insult to injury, they put forward its old opponent, Kadhimi as the new head of government.

Iran-affiliated Iraqi politicians, analysts and writers are publicly expressing this vision in the media and on social media, and are working hard to rally Shias behind this hypothesis, but to no avail.

Sources said that Tehran was betting on the anger of some political parties for not being represented at the three highest positions in the country in order to effect major change. It is, for example, fuelling the anger of Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani against Salih, feeding the anger of the Sunni Islamic Party against Halbousi and feeding the anger of its followers within extremist Shia wings against Kadhimi.

This hypothesis developed in light of the emergence of a Sunni political movement supported by Iran and Turkey to dismiss Halbousi, who represents the second generation of Sunni politicians and is adopting a liberal model while being open to relations with Arab Gulf states, the West and the United States.

A coalition front made up of the Turkey-backed Arab Project Party led by Khamis al-Khanjar and the Salvation Front led by Osama al-Nujaifi, in addition to the Masses Party led by Ahmed al-Jubouri “Abu Mazen” and supported by Nuri al-Maliki, one of Iran’s most prominent men in Iraq, have joined the efforts of the Islamic Party led by Rashid al-Azzawi, to remove Halbousi, in conjunction with a green light from Kurdish leader Barzani and Shia leaders to replace Salih and Kadhimi.

The Islamic Party, the arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq, has become a reliable ally of Iran ever since Azzawi became its top man.

Azzawi, a Sunni, spent nearly half his life as a refugee in Iran, got married there and built extensive relationships with Iranian political and military leaders before returning to Iraq after 2003.

The sources said that the leader of the Badr Organisation, Hadi al-Amiri, and the leader of the State of Law coalition, Nuri al-Maliki, share roles within the Iranian plan. The first takes the role of the “good cop” in the game, appearing cool and wise, while the second plays the role of the “bad cop,” leading sustained political pressure operations through the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) to mobilise the crowd with the aim of toppling Halbousi first, and Kadhimi and Salih if possible.

Maliki cannot forget that Halbousi insisted on passing the election law in a multi-district formula that lies at the heart of the demands of the October protesters.

Maliki wants every Iraqi governorate to be a single district so that it will be easy for him to obtain seats in central and southern governorates, where most of his supporters are, but difficult for him to compete if they are divided in many smaller districts.

Maliki is seeking to appease his fierce Shia opponent, Muqtada al-Sadr, in order to unify Shia efforts against Halbousi, Kadhimi and Salih, but Sadr prefers to “stay on top of the hill” for the time being, according to observers.

For the first time in years, Maliki announced that he did not object to coordinating political efforts with Sadr, who sponsors a parliamentary bloc of 52 MPs, which was considered by many as an indication of the intentions of the leader of the State of Law Coalition to make concessions in exchange for building an alliance against the heads of arliament, the government and the republic.

Observers say that Iran prefers to overthrow the three presidents months before the date of early elections so that its allies can arrange their cards and regain absolute control over political life in the country.

But achieving this goal seems very difficult given the complex intertwining of internal and external lines.

While Barzani seems to want to take the presidency from Salih because he thinks it is a personal right for his family, the veteran Kurdish leader still remains a prominent ally and personal friend of Kadhimi.

Given Sadr’s unclear stance towards Kadhimi, achieving a Shia consensus to overthrow him does not seem easy, and Halbousi’s close relationship with many Shia and Kurdish political parties also makes it difficult to come to an understanding on his removal.

Antichrist Sadr cannot resist temptation to exploit cartoon outcry

Sadr cannot resist temptation to exploit cartoon outcry

BAGHDAD –Iraqi powerful Shia cleric and leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr joined this week the ranks of Islamist politicians who have been using the campaign of support for Islam’s Prophet Mohammed to score political gains and win new supporters.

Sadr on Thursday called on Muslims around the world to travel to Saudi Arabia, at a time when the MENA region is facing a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic which is proving more dangerous than the first one, with countries announcing closures to contain a much-feared health disaster.

Sadr’s supporters launched the hashtag #Invitation_to_Saudi Arabia, based on a statement published by the Shia cleric on his Twitter account, in which he said, “From the standpoint of unity and strength, I call for the support of the Messenger of humanity through several actions. First and foremost, I call on Saudi Arabia to allow visitors from all over the world to flock to the shrine of the Prophet in Medina.”

In the statement published on Thursday, Sadr also called on Muslims to visit the grave of the Prophet during the week of birth (Mawlid) from 12 to 17 Rabi` al-Awwal of this year and every year.

Many Iraqis responded to Sadr’s statement with sarcasm and mockery, considering that the Shia cleric’s call showed he was clueless and out of his mind.

They considered that Sadr, like other Islamist politicians, was trying to take advantage of the latest controversy to promote his image and win new supporters, even if that meant causing new chaos and trouble for the country.

“He calls for peace but he has an armed militia,” a Twitter user reacted sarcastically to Sadr’s statements.

Another user tweeted, “Saudi Arabia and its people should ignore these statements because, my dears, this is nonsense and foolery.”

Many other activists on social media said that Sadr’s so-called appeal for love and humanity was but a new incitement against Saudi Arabia that prevented the entry of foreign pilgrims to perform hajj and Umrah in an attempt to contain the pandemic.

On the other hand, many Shia clerics, the activists added, had rallied supporters to visit shrines, unconcerned with the health repercussions of massive gatherings. This, according to the activists, has caused the coronavirus pandemic to spread and threaten many lives in Iraq and elsewhere.

Other Iraqis on social media warned that whoever caused the killing of demonstrators and young activists in Iraq, cannot be trusted.

“To our people in # Saudi Arabia, this call was raised by the supporters of the Sadrist movement who killed protesters in the October Revolution. You and the whole world were witness to that… You are the decision-makers. Do not give them a way to communicate with you… These are the leaders of the terrorist Khamenei militia,” an Iraqi Twitter user warned.

The Sadrists’ hashtag was not without misinformation, rumours and fake news, as some of supporters of the Shia movement claimed that Saudi Arabia had agreed to Sadr’s call to allow the visit of foreign pilgrims.

The claim was of course groundless because the Saudi authorities had already announced on Thursday  a new plan to receive visiting pilgrims, taking into account social distancing and required measures to contain the virus.

Saudi efforts 

Saudi media had earlier reported that the kingdom will open the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims from other countries from November 1 as part of the third phase of gradually allowing the pilgrimage amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Kingdom reopened the Holy sites on October 4, first for Saudi citizens and expatriates living inside the country with a 30 percent capacity. It then expanded the capacity to 75 percent on October 18.

“The Umrah pilgrimage is allowed for Muslims from across the world,” Saudi state TV said, citing a statement from the Ministry of Pilgrimage.

In the third phase, Umrah pilgrimage will be allowed with 100 percent capacity limit that ensures adherence to coronavirus precautionary measures, which translates to 20,000 Umrah pilgrims per day and 60,000 worshippers per day, the ministry said.

The same capacity limit will be enforced in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

“The arrival of pilgrims and visitors from outside the Kingdom will be gradual, and from countries that the Ministry of Health determines as posing no health risk with regards to the coronavirus,” the statement of the ministry added.

Worshipers perform the prayers with full commitment to preventive measures, and the paths designated for worshipers to enter the Grand Mosque have been facilitated by the authorities who have specified areas for performing prayers.

In the fourth phase, the kingdom will allow citizens and nationals inside and outside the Kingdom to perform Umrah pilgrimage, visit the Rawdah in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, and pray in Two Holy Mosques, with 100 percent of the natural capacity of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque.

The fourth phase, however, will only begin once the Saudi authorities decide that the pandemic’s risks are neutralised.

In media statements, Amr Al-Maddah, chief planning and strategy officer at the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, said that the mechanism for organising Umrah of foreign pilgrims requires specific procedures, including submitting a request to perform Umrah with all personal and health data, with a maximum of 50 people per group from the permitted countries, and the need for a foreign Umrah agent.

Under the mechanism, there is a need for high-quality integrated Umrah packages and flight reservations will be based on supply and demand from each country, in addition to strengthening the marketing platforms for the purchase of services.

The countries, which are sending pilgrims, will be classified on the basis of periodic review of the latest developments with regard to the coronavirus situation in those countries.

Maddah stated that the protocols issued by the ministry for the foreign pilgrims include that their age shall be between 18 and 50 years and that they must remain three days in quarantine upon their arrival in the Kingdom.

According to the regulations, pilgrims must have a PCR medical test certificate showing that they are free from coronavirus, issued by a reliable laboratory in their country, not more than 72 hours from the time of taking a sample until the time of departure to the kingdom.

The Clout of the Antichrist’s Men Grows

One year after Iraqi protests, pro-Iran militias’ clout is growing | Hammam Latif | AW

BAGHDAD – An Iraqi politician opposed to Iran’s presence in his country spoke of how hard it will be for the popular protests, which have returned to public squares in Baghdad and other provinces, to achieve what he referred to as liberating “kidnapped Iraq” from its Iranian abductors.

Popular protests demanding the restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty  have returned to Iraqi streets on the first anniversary of the largest wave of protests that erupted in various parts of Iraq on October 25 last year.

In this context, the Iraqi politician told The Arab Weekly that “the kidnapped will eventually be freed from the kidnapper, but I do not expect that the current uprising will be able to do that just now. It will be the blood already spilled and which is going to be spilled in the future that will pave the way for the next wave of anger that will free the kidnapped from the kidnapper’s grip.”

The politician, who heads a parliamentary bloc, wondered aloud: “When and how kidnapped Iraq will be freed” and then answered wishfully, “it won’t be long.”

On Sunday, Tahrir Square in the Iraqi capital filled up once again with demonstrators who flocked from different parts of the capital and other  provinces from the early hours of the morning. Minor skirmishes took place between protesters and security forces in two secondary sites where demonstrators had gathered, near Allawi Garage and al-Sinak Bridge in central Baghdad.

The protest sites were filled with pictures of many politicians, with an “X” mark plastered on them to mark protesters’ opposition to them continuing to be at the forefront of the Iraqi scene. Groups of students flocked to Tahrir Square, in scenes reminiscent of a year ago when thousands of youth in university uniforms marched demanding the return of their homeland.

Although the October protests toppled the government of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and forced the pro-Iranian Shia political forces to let go of their traditional control over appointing the prime minister, allowing Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a non-partisan figure, to head the government, the resulting vacuum turned into an opportunity for new Iranian hegemony over Iraq, represented this time by the growing influence of militia leaders, most of which came under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

At some point, the October 2019 protests seemed to have forced the leaders of the pro-Iranian militias providing a safety belt for Abdul-Mahdi’s government to take one step back. This was confirmed by the emergence of Kadhimi, a person from outside the circles of the political class, which is accused of corruption, mismanagement and embezzlement of public money, as a candidate for the most important position in the country.

Although Kadhimi’s appointment raised hope for change, his experience at the helm of the government has so far proven that change in Iraq is difficult to achieve. Events during his term have revealed the scope of pro-Iranian militias’ influence and the grave dangers involving open confrontation with them.

Since the formation of the Kadhimi government last May, Iraqis have been waiting for action to be taken against the militias allied with the most corrupt leaders in order to restore the country’s sovereignty, but this has yet to happen.

The problem is that pro-Iranian militia leaders, such as Qais Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, Abu Ali al-Askari, leader of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, Akram al-Kaabi, leader of the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia and Abu al-Wala’i, leader of the militia of the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades, have succeeded in filling the vacuum left by the departure of the traditional Shia political figures, such as Nuri al-Maliki, Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, who faded into the background ounder pressure from the October protests.

A female Iraqi demonstrator takes part in  a gathering to mark the first anniversary of the anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, October 25. (REUTERS)

When Kadhimi tried to act in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and deal militarily with the militia groups that were firing Katyusha rockets at foreign missions, airports and army camps in various parts of Iraq, Khazali advised him to “look the other way,” in a clear indication that the chief executive in Iraq must know his limits.

But Kadhimi ignored Khazali’s advice and ordered a counterterrorism force to raid a militia headquarters near Baghdad Airport used for launching Katyusha rockets, where they caught a group of militia members planning to attack the US Embassy red-handed.

This operation was an indication of Kadhimi’s defiant approach but it was a short-lived victory. In an impressive show of force, the militias threatened to liquidate the families of the officers and investigators who were dealing with the case, and the arrested individuals eventually walked free.

The whole incident was a telling example of the growing influence and power of the pro-Iranian militias and of the impossibility of dealing with them with the tools at the government’s disposal.

Those events occurred during the first few weeks of Kadhimi’s premiership, and since then all hope for profound change in Iraqi politics has gradually faded, in parallel with militias’ transformation into the most powerful representative of political Shi’ism in Iraq, supported by Iranian momentum fuelled by Tehran’s need for a violent ally in Baghdad to serve the purposes of its showdown with the United States.

Analysts believe that the current real confrontation in Baghdad is not between the demonstrators and the government, against which they are supposed to protest, but between the government and the militias that insist on keeping their weapons outside the framework of the state, threatening diplomatic missions, controlling government projects and the allocation of their related contracts and implementing demographic change projects in many regions of the country.

In the protest squares now, confusion prevails regarding the nature of the demands that the renewed protest movement must adopt.

Over the past year, it has become clear that a change from within the regime will not be the solution to Iraq’s piled up crises, making the protesters certain they were right to have demanded the end of the whole regime. All Iraqis agree that their country is under Iranian domination. Iran, for its part, has dealt with the Kadhimi government as a front to move to a new stage of its hegemony, which ushers in the rise to power of militias as a substitute for political parties.

Observers considered that the truce between the Kadhimi government and the militias reflects the prime minister and his government’s acknowledgement that they operate in one space while the militias have the right to move freely in another space, which is the state and all of its institutions. The upshot of this arrangement is that the government is effectively stripped of its ability to run the state and driven by fear of being overtly overthrown by the militias

Iraqi leader battles pressure from the Antichrist

Iraqi leader battles pressure from friends and foes in security crackdown

Syndicated ContentOct 21, 2020 6:18 AM

Oct 21, 2020 6:18 AM

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – It was a series of intercepted phone calls on a tense night in June that made Iraq’s new prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi fully realise how few friends he had.

During one call, a senior Iraqi leader with strong ties to Iran instructed the security chief for Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which hosts government buildings and foreign embassies, not to stand in the way of militiamen who were storming the area, two Iraqi security officials said.

The militiamen were angry at the arrest of comrades accused of firing anti-U.S. rockets. During the hours-long standoff, the militia detained several members of a U.S.-trained counter-terrorism force, according to the security officials and two militia sources.

On the June 25 call, the leader with ties to Iran warned the Green Zone security chief, Shihab al-Khiqani, that “a clash would open the gates of hell” between the militias and the forces guarding the area, according to one of the security officials, who viewed a transcript of the call. The second security official and the two militia sources corroborated that call and said Khiqani was told by militia commanders in other phone conversations that night to avoid any standoff with the paramilitaries.

Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief and U.S. ally who had been in the Green Zone that night, learned of the conversations around a week later, after launching an investigation into the events, the two security officials said. They said it shook him, serving as a stark lesson about his enemies’ power.

Kadhimi fired Khiqani immediately after the investigation and embarked on a wide-ranging purge of top state security posts that he presses on with – now under renewed U.S. pressure.

The communications intercepted by Iraqi security services on the night of June 25 brought home the stark reality for Kadhimi that despite being backed by Washington, he could not even trust Iraqi government forces to stop Iran-backed militias running rampant outside his offices.

It set the tone for Kadhimi’s premiership, which has been marked by attempts to exert control over a fractious Iraqi state while placating both an unpredictable White House and the anti-U.S., Iran-aligned groups that want him to fail.

Since taking office in May after being Iraq’s third prime minister-designate in 10 weeks, a key part of Kadhimi’s policy is to reduce the stranglehold Iran-backed militias have developed on large parts of Iraq’s security forces since the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

But he operates in a complicated political reality that limits his ability to make changes, say security officials, militia leaders, senior politicians and Western diplomats.

They say Kadhimi’s approach might work but question whether his interim cabinet can make a difference before a general election expected as early as June.

The prime minister has recently had to contend with a threat from Washington to close its embassy if he cannot stop anti-U.S. rocket attacks by pro-Iran militias, and demands from the militias that he boot out American troops or they will escalate attacks on Western targets.

“The Americans want Kadhimi to go further and faster. He’s saying I can’t without toppling my government or starting a civil war,” one Western diplomat said.

Iraqi government spokesman Ahmed Mulla Talal said the prime minister had implemented many changes in the leadership of the security forces but that it was unrealistic to expect total reform within five months. “You can’t describe the big changes Kadhimi has made as being slow” because of the mismanagement of the security system by previous governments over the past 17 years, he said.

He described the U.S. talk of closing its embassy as “a worrying step for the Iraqi government” but said “there is no pressure from any side to move faster on any step.”

The spokesman didn’t respond to specific questions about the June 25 call or Kadhimi’s response to it.

Kadhimi, a former journalist who regularly removes his tie to jump into helicopters and tour different provinces, has talked candidly about many challenges facing his government but has avoided mentioning specific militias that stand in his way. “I will not tolerate rogue groups hijacking our homeland to create chaos,” he tweeted days before the Green Zone incident.

In response to questions about U.S. pressure and Kadhimi’s record, a U.S. embassy official said Iraq had a “duty to protect diplomatic premises … but overall we are pleased that Iraq is taking steps to strengthen security for diplomatic missions in Baghdad.”

BOLD MOVE

Iraqi lawmakers chose Kadhimi as prime minister, with nods from both Iran and the United States – two countries that have repeatedly clashed in Iraq. His predecessor resigned last year as anti-government protesters took to the streets in their thousands, demanding jobs and the departure of Iraq’s ruling elite. Protesters blame many of Iraq’s ills on Iran-aligned militias and parties.

Kadhimi’s team, through frequent social media messaging, portray him as an uncompromising leader who will stop at nothing to wipe out rogue groups.

It was his first bold move against the militias that triggered that tense night in June. He ordered the U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) to detain 14 members of the most powerful Iran-aligned faction, Kataib Hezbollah, in response to rocket attacks on U.S. targets.

Militiamen led by Kataib Hezbollah’s top commander circled the Green Zone with guns in pick-up trucks and detained the CTS members. To pull the paramilitaries off, Kadhimi had to turn to his rivals, calling the same commanders and senior Iraqi leader tied to Iran who he later learned had told Khiqani to stand down that night.

The militiamen left, but not before getting guarantees their comrades would be let go. Over the coming days, they were.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asked Reuters not to name the senior Iraqi leader and commanders because it would also identify them. Their accounts were corroborated by the five militia sources and political insiders with knowledge of the incident.

A Kataib Hezbollah spokesman denied involvement in any recent rocket attacks against Western targets. He said the group was not directly involved in the Green Zone storming, and that it was carried out by supporters of Iraq’s state paramilitary forces.

Khiqani could not immediately be reached for comment.

APPOINTMENTS AND APPEASEMENT

Kadhimi has in recent months announced a raft of new military and security appointments.

His pick to succeed Khiqani as chief of Green Zone security, appointed last month, is an officer trained at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy.

Other key appointments by Kadhimi include the reinstated and popular CTS commander Abdul Wahab al-Saidi and Interior Minister Uthman al-Ghanimi, both viewed by the West as competent and free of party political ties.

But some appointments have appeased political parties, including groups Kadhimi needs to counterweight the pro-Iran camp, and even some Iran-aligned figures, Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats say.

Interior Minister Ghanimi’s new deputy, Hussein Dhaif, belongs to the party of populist and unpredictable cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who generally opposes Iranian influence but acts in his own interest and has sided with Iran when it has suited him.

National Security Adviser Qasim al-Araji, a former interior minister, is a member of the Iran-aligned Badr Organization that has long dominated the interior ministry.

Kadhimi is under enormous pressure from all political blocs which keep insisting on certain jobs. He’s trying to push back but can’t ignore them completely, so he’s had to take on appointments he perhaps wouldn’t have chosen,” the Western diplomat said.

BALANCING ACT

Kadhimi has had to play a similar balancing act abroad.

During his first foreign trip to Tehran in July, Kadhimi pledged not to let Iraq be used as a launch pad for aggression against its neighbour Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pressed the Iranian demand that U.S. troops leave Iraq.

On a visit to Washington the following month Kadhimi stressed that U.S. troops would long be needed to train Iraqi forces – a response to President Donald Trump’s assertion that America would eventually “obviously … be gone” and that the United States would continue to reduce the presence of its 5,000 remaining troops.

A key U.S. demand is for Kadhimi to force militias out of the Green Zone and stop rockets and roadside bomb attacks against diplomats and troops. Washington’s threat last month to close its embassy in Baghdad if attacks continued was a move Western diplomats said could pave the way for U.S. air strikes. A U.S. strike killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad in January pushing the region to the brink of conflict.

Iran-backed militias who are still spoiling for revenge for those deaths have paused attacks for now – partly thanks to the U.S. embassy threat – but are asking Kadhimi to make U.S. forces leave, or they will resume fire.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Iraq was doing more to protect diplomats in the Green Zone but declined to comment on whether Washington was still considering shutting its embassy.

The Kataib Hezbollah commander who led his men through the Green Zone in June, Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi, alias Abu Fadak, still occupies the office inside the zone of his slain superior Muhandis, according to militia officials, creating an uneasy presence of both his fighters and the U.S.-trained CTS counter-terror force.

No successful prosecutions over rocket attacks or killings of pro-democracy activists, a key promise by Kadhimi, have been made since he took office.

(Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low)

Antichrist’s men defy government, expand networks and pressure

Iraqi militias defy government, expand networks and pressure

Militias in Iraq are increasing their activities in response to the government’s efforts to rein them in.

Ali Mamouri

The social pressure on the outlawed militias within the PMU has been extensive since the eruption of the protests in Iraq in October 2019. The militias have since formed pressure groups to silence any critical voices against them.

Following the protests, the militias have started several groups on social networks such as Telegram and WhatsApp, recruiting supporters and promoting their agendas against the United States and its allies in Iraq, and also against the current government headed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as the militias view him as an American and his government as a pro-US agent.

Following the attack on the KDP headquarters, the Iraqi security forces arrested some of the attackers. However, Rab Allah has threatened Kadhimi with the burning of the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in Baghdad’s Mansour area if their people are not released. The intelligence service is headed by the prime minister directly.

Kadhimi is expected to release those arrested under the militias pressure, as happened following the counterterrorism raid on the Kataib Hezbollah base in southern Baghdad in June.

However, the Iraqi political forces and international community have voiced serious criticism. The Iraqi president, prime minister, parliament speaker, Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraqioun Movement leader Ammar al-Hakim and the Kurdistan Regional Government, among many other Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups and leaders, condemned the incident and called upon the government to take action against the militias and affiliated groups.

The United States and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq condemned the incident in separate statements, too.

Following the assassination in January of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani and his right-hand man in Iraq Abu Mahdi Muhandis, who had an extensive influence among the militias, the militias’ network in Iraq has been affected badly.

In order to repair the damage, it seems that Kataib Hezbollah is taking the lead among the militias, reorganizing them by forming several new groups and connecting them through a number of social networking platforms.

The new militias formed after the killing of Soleimani — such as Ashab al-Kahf and Osba al-Thaerin — are affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah, and could even be new names for the exact same group.

In addition, the social pressure groups affiliated with the militias all appear connected to Kataib Hezbollah.

At the same time as these latest developments, the assassinations and abductions of activists, journalists and others opposing the militias are continuing. Most recently, on Oct. 17, eight members of a Sunni family near Balad, in Salahuddin province to the north of Baghdad, were killed.

A high-ranking official in the province told Al-Monitor that Asaib Ahl al-Haq was responsible for the murders. “These people were abducted by Asaib Ahl al-Haq members in the early morning and their bodies were found in the area a few hours later,” the official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. A day prior, a shooting had taken place in the area aimed at an Asaib Ahl al-Haq patrol. So, it seems that the massacre is a retaliatory reaction. 

A day after the killings, on Oct. 18, Kadhimi visited the area promising to bring justice to the victims.

With the US elections approaching, it seems that the militias’ activities are increasing. Chaos in Iraq could provide a useful pressure tactic that Iran could use in any upcoming negotiations with the United States, which would certainly include Iran’s activities in the region and in Iraq in particular.