France Adopting Biased Stance on Regional Crises: Iran

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TASNIM NEWS AGENCY OF IRAN)

 

France Adopting Biased Stance on Regional Crises: Iran

News ID: 1576462 Service: Politics

بهرام قاسمی

TEHRAN (Tasnim) – Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi slammed French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian for his recent anti-Tehran remarks and said the western European country has a “one-sided and biased” stance on crises facing the Middle East region.

Qassemi made the remarks on Thursday in response to comments made by Le Drian, who earlier in the day expressed concern about what he called Iran’s “hegemonic” intentions in the Middle East.

At a joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir during a trip to Saudi Arabia, Le Drian said, “I’m thinking specifically about Iran’s ballistic program.”

In reply, Qassemi said, “Unfortunately, it seems that France has a one-sided and biased view of the crises and humanitarian catastrophes in the Middle East.”

This view only exacerbates regional conflicts, “whether intentionally or unintentionally,” he added.

The Iranian spokesman also stressed the need for stability and security in the region and advised leaders of France and other nations to take a “realistic and responsible” stance on the conflicts.

Qassemi also pointed to arms sales by “trans-regional countries” to Middle Eastern governments, including those used in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military aggression against Yemen and said the western support has only led to “more instability and insecurity” in the region.

Yemen’s defenseless people have been under massive attacks by the coalition for more than two years but Riyadh has reached none of its objectives in Yemen so far.

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and some of its Arab allies have been carrying out deadly airstrikes against the Houthi Ansarullah movement in an attempt to restore power to fugitive former President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, a close ally of Riyadh.

Over 14,000 Yemenis, including thousands of women and children, have lost their lives in the deadly military campaign.

Iran Recruits Afghans to Defend Assad, their Numbers Are a ‘Military Secret’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

 

Iran Recruits Afghans to Defend Assad, their Numbers is a ‘Military Secret’

Wednesday, 25 October, 2017 – 08:15
Syrian pro-regime forces hold a position in Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed district, on December 12, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN)
Kabul – London – Asharq Al-Awsat

Fleeing grinding poverty and unemployment, thousands of Afghan Shi’ites have been recruited by Iran to defend the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.

“For me it was just about money,” Shams, a former fighter, told Agence France Presse.

Hurman Rights Watch says the Iranians refuse to provide accurate figures, but estimates there are nearly 15,000 Afghans fighting for Fatemiyoun.

Shams, a 25-year-old member of the Hazara ethnic group, went to Syria twice in 2016 to fight in a conflict that has now been raging for more than six years.

“I went there (Iran) because I was jobless and it was a way to get money for my family,” said Shams.

“My idea was to find a job in Iran. I had no plan to go to fight in Syria but after a month of being jobless I decided to go.

“They were encouraging us saying ‘you will be a freedom fighter and if you return to Iran alive you can stay with a 10-year residence permit’.”

Afghan Shi’ites are given 1.5 million toman (about $450) to register at a recruitment center for the Fatemiyoun, Shams said. Once they have signed up they receive three million toman a month, a fortune for many poor Afghans.

Shams’ first mission was in June 2016 in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he was assigned to protect a barracks for two months.

He went back to the country in September and was deployed to Aleppo, where he was given his first AK-47 after receiving rudimentary weapons training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

On the front line of the battle between ISIS militants and Al-Nusra Front group, Shams said he found himself caught up in an intense and deadly battle.

“In Aleppo we faced an ambush — out of 100 fighters we lost almost all of them. There were 15 of us left alive,” Shams said.

“The bodies were sent back to Iran and the families in Afghanistan held funeral ceremonies in mosques without a coffin or grave.”

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, estimates more than 760 Afghans have been killed in Syria since September 2013.

The number of Afghans fighting for the Fatemiyoun is a “military secret,” said Ramazan Bashardost, a Hazara member of parliament in Kabul.

“They are used by the Iranian government, which treats them like slaves,” he said.

“The sorrow, pain and hunger of the people is not a major concern of the Afghan government,” he added.

Suicide Bombing Strikes NATO Convoy in Afghanistan

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM NEWS AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

 

7:42 AM ET

Suicide Bombing Strikes NATO Convoy in Afghanistan

(KANDAHAR, Afghanistan) — A suicide bomber struck a NATO convoy near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Wednesday, causing casualties, the U.S. military said.

Lt. Damien E. Horvath, a military spokesman, could not say how many casualties there were, or provide their nationalities. The NATO mission, known as Resolute Support, “can confirm that a NATO convoy was attacked in Kandahar. The attack did cause casualties,” he said.

Kandahar police spokesman Zia Durrani also confirmed the attack and the area on the edge Kandahar was quickly cordoned off.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Eyewitness Ghulam Ali, who runs a mechanics shop near the attack site, said the intensity of the blast knocked him out. When he came to he saw one military vehicle ablaze on the road. He stepped out of his shop but a sudden burst of gunfire drove him back inside.

He heard helicopters arriving and saw soldiers being taken away from the scene but could not determine the extent of their injuries.

Shah Agha Popal, who runs a vehicle parts shop also nearby, said he also saw soldiers being taken away by two helicopters. “But I couldn’t tell if they were wounded or if they were dead,” he said.

The combined U.S. and NATO troop contingent currently in Afghanistan is about 13,500. The Trump administration is deciding whether to send about 4,000 or more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan in an attempt to stem Taliban gains.

The attack came as Afghan authorities in western Herat province tightened security ahead of a mass funeral for the victims there of an attack the previous evening that killed 29.

A suicide attacker opened fire inside a mosque packed with worshippers at evening prayers, before detonating his explosives. A second explosion came 10 minutes later.

No one has claimed responsibility for that attack either, but it came a day after the Islamic State group warned it would strike Shiites. The Sunni militant group considers Shiite Muslims as apostates.

Herat provincial spokesman Jilani Farhad said that to reduce the possibility of more attacks, a planned Shiite protest against the attack was to be held just before the burial on Wednesday afternoon, rather than at a separate time and location.

Along with the 29 killed, 64 people were wounded, 10 of them critically.

Is Iran is moving toward moderation?

 

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

Iran is moving toward moderation

May 28 at 7:11 PM
Charles Krauthammer’s May 26 op-ed, “Why Middle East peace starts in Saudi Arabia,” omitted a crucial detail: the recent elections in Iran. By entrusting President Hassan Rouhani with another four-year term, the Iranian people soundly rejected extremist alternatives. By demonizing the Iranian people in order to take a shot at the Obama administration, Mr. Krauthammer seated himself firmly in the camp known as “part of the problem.” The elections in Austria, the Netherlands, France and now Iran showed that the people of the world are rejecting Mr. Krauthammer’s worldview and are instead reaching toward peace, with or without the catastrophe that is today’s so-called American foreign policy.Ben Hayes, Washington

Charles Krauthammer’s assertion that the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran amounted to “appeasement” was a gross misrepresentation. The policy’s primary objective was to block Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. It was Iran that conceded ground on this, not the United States.

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Mr. Krauthammer also was wrong to claim that this agreement has failed to encourage more moderate Iranian behavior. In the recent presidential election, the Iranian people overwhelmingly rejected the conservative candidate. And the moderate victor immediately reached out to the West.

Mr. Krauthammer accused Iran of “worldwide support for terrorism.” However, as Fareed Zakaria reported the same day, Saudi-inspired Sunni jihadists are responsible for more than 94 percent of the deaths caused by Islamic terrorism since 2001.

Robin Broadfield, Washington

This Is A Re-blog Of A Very Serious Article; Everyone Needs To Understand Their Reality, Both Sides

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Final Chapter of Dialogue with Iran

While Iran is fighting Saudi Arabia and Gulf states through its militias in Yemen and directly in Bahrain, and combats for its interests in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, reconciliation and peacemaking attempts continued between Iran and the Gulf States, prominently Saudi Arabia.

Occasionally, calls for negotiations would come from former US President Barack Obama, or through European foreign ministers, and sometimes – shockingly – through Gulf countries’ efforts.

Each party credits itself for strengthening their positions even if it came on the expenses of Arab and Gulf states, though these calls would benefit Iran.

Everyone knows that Iran can’t go on with a reasonable dialogue while executing its expansion and interference in internal affairs policy.

Yet, it seems that the final chapter of these callings is irreversibly over after Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman explained his country’s position saying it is impossible to reach mutual understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran: “There is no common ground between us and the Iranian regime.”

So, it is rather impossible to hold negotiations with Iran which Prince Mohammed said was busy with its “extremist ideology” and ambitions to “control the Islamic world.”

The more important and clearer message here is that the battle will be in Iran and not Saudi Arabia.

Why the final chapter?

Precisely because Gulf efforts should be exerted to stop Iran’s expansions rather than being occupied with mediations that are only exhausting and offer the Iranian regime with an opportunity to catch its breath and promote its revolution before western state, and not country, as a peace agent.

It is about time things are set straight and positions are made based on facts, reality and the consequences the area will face because of Iran’s sabotage project. It is no longer useful for the collective Gulf official statements to follow a hostile policy towards Iranian extremism, and then it all changes once the meetings are over.

Iran’s position towards Arab interests became unprecedentedly hostile that it exceeds its eight years’ war on Iraq during the eighties of the last century. Tehran’s main goal is to reach Muslims’ Qiblah, as the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince said in his televised interview.

After all the one-way hostility that spreads from the east to the west of the Gulf, is it right to accept the requests for dialogue and mediation which occupy the region rather than focusing on the real battle?

Surely it is understandable for every country to run its policies based on its own interests. It is also clear that no state can force its own statements on another that doesn’t share the same ideas. But, it is important that the old tools of diplomatic exploitation be stopped, like this endless boring tale of dialogue. It is also crucial to end Iranian regime’s penetration of the Gulf system in a way that helps Tehran proceed with its extreme strategies.

It is about time policies match the reality of the stances given that Iran is literally waging wars on its neighbors via sending weapons and training militias.

Those who believe that their interest doesn’t include collectively fighting the Iranian regime should at least let someone else do this mission in a way that doesn’t complicate the decisive confrontation and thus lessen its strategic success once in a while.

No one wants to go into war with Iran or any other for that matter. Stopping Iran’s extremist project surely doesn’t mean anyone is banging the drums for war. But at the same time, an easy policy is never productive with a state like Iran. The administration of former US President Obama followed that policy for eight years and failed catastrophically.

The issue is now clearer to end Iran’s expansion. Offense is the best defense. It began with putting an end to Iran’s external interventions and exposing the Tehran regime for its domestic reality after it had deprived its people of development for over thirty years. Or, as the Saudi Crown Prince said: “We know we are a main target of Iran. We are not waiting until there becomes a battle in Saudi Arabia, so we will work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Aldosary is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

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Coexistence In The Middle-East (And Every Where else On Earth): Or Self Inflected Armageddon?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY  ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Coexistence Is the Last Chance to Avoid the Precipice

Last week, Egypt’s Coptic Christians cancelled Easter celebrations in mourning for those who were killed in two separate terrorist explosions targeting churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

In Iraq too, new maps are being drawn by sectarianism, while minorities shrink and ethno-religious fabric change under the violence perpetrated by Iran on one side and ISIS on another.

Likewise, we openly witness how shredded Syria has become, and under the eyes of the international community, it is well on the road of partition and population exchange– finally, the less said the better it is when the subject matter is ongoing events in occupied Palestinian territories.

Given this painful regional climate, the ongoing arguments about Lebanon’s future electoral system become a travesty, not much different from the ‘crowded’ field of Iran’s presidential elections where neither votes nor abundance of candidates mean a thing against what the Supreme Leader utters and the elitist Revolutionary Gaurd the (IRGC) dictates.

In Lebanon, the Middle East’s ‘democratic’ soft belly, the Lebanese’ daily bread and butter is endless and absurd arguments and counter-arguments about what the most appropriate electoral system should look like in upcoming parliamentary elections. This is not actually new. Moreover, true intentions behind what is going on have nothing to do with what is being said, whether the intention is escalation or hypocrisy.

The real problem is that the Lebanese are acutely divided on several basic issues regarding conditions of coexistence, political representation and even the meaning of democracy.

For a start, one must ask oneself whether the next elections – regardless of what system is adopted – are going to produce any change in the status quo? Is there any common Lebanese vision as to what the country’s identity is among the ostensible ‘allies’, let alone political adversaries and those dependent on foreign backing and sectarian hegemony?

Then, one may also ask – given defective mechanisms of governance – would ‘state institutions’ still be relevant and meaningful? Would any electoral law be effective in the light of accelerating disproportionate sectarian demographics, and the fact that one large religious sect enjoys a monopoly of military might outside the state’s umbrella, while still sharing what is underneath that umbrella?

The other day in his Easter sermon the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Ra’i said “the (Lebanese) Christians are nobody’s bullied weaklings, but are rather indispensable (!)…”. This is tough talk indeed, but it too is not new.

From what is widely known about Cardinal Ra’i, even before assuming the Patriarchate, is that he is highly interested in politics, and that political views are as candid as they are decisive. On Syria, in particular, he has been among the first to warn the West against and dissuade its leaders from supporting the Syrian uprising; when he claimed during his visits – beginning with France – that any regime that may replace Bashar Al-Assad’s may be worse, and thus it would better to keep him in power.

The same path has been followed by current Lebanese president Michel Aoun, who was strongly backed by Hezbollah, to the extent that the latter forced a political vacuum on Lebanon lasting for over two years.

Of course, Hezbollah, in the meantime, had been imposing its hegemony over Lebanon, fighting for Al-Assad in Syria, and training the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of Iran’s project of regional dominance. In promoting this ‘project’ globally, but particularly in the West, Iran has given it the themes of ‘fighting terrorism’ – meaning ‘Sunni Muslim terrorism’- and ‘protection of minorities’ within the framework of a tactical ‘coalition of the minorities’.

A few days ago Aoun said during an interview that “the aim behind what is taking place in the Orient is to empty it of Christians and partition the region into several states”. Again, this is not something new, as it used to be said on the murder and kidnapping road blocks during the dark days of the Lebanese War between 1975 and 1990. Those days the fears of uprooting were common and widespread; reaching the climax within the Christian community with rumors that the mission of American diplomat Dean Brown was to evacuate Lebanon’s Christians to Canada, and within the Druze community during ‘the Mountain War’ (1983-1984) that they would be expelled to southern Syria.

However, Aoun, as it seems, has not been quite aware of who was applying the final touches on population exchange, and drawing the map for the ‘future’ states he has been warning against. He has simply ignored the full picture, turning instead, to repeat old talk in order to justify temporary interests that are harmful if not fatal to minorities, rather than being beneficial and protective.

In this context, come the ‘try-to-be-smart’ attempts to impose a new electoral law in Lebanon as a means of blackmail, as if the country’s sectarian ‘tribal chieftains’ are naïve or debutants in the arena of sectarian politics. The latest has come from Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and President Aoun’s son-in-law, when he expressed his “willingness to entertain the idea of a Senate, on the condition that it is headed by a Christian!”. This pre-condition was quickly rejected by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on the basis that the presidency of a Senate, as approved in “Taif Agreement” – which is now part of Lebanon’s Constitution – was allocated to the Druze; and thus, what Bassil had suggested was unconstitutional.

It is worth mentioning here that all suggestions regarding the future electoral law have ignored the issue of a Senate. It was has also been obvious that another item in the “Taif Agreement” was being intentionally ignored too, which is adopting ‘Administrative De-Centralization’.

However, if some Lebanese parties feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘De-Centralization’, more so as both Iraq and Syria seem to be on their way to actual partition, it is not possible anymore to separate Lebanon’s politics from its demographics.

The latter are now being affected by radical and everlasting demographic changes occurring across the country’s disintegrating eastern borders with Syria. These include what is being reported – without being refuted – about widespread settlement and naturalization activities in Damascus and its countryside. Furthermore, once the population exchange between Shi’ite ‘pockets’ of northern Syria and the Sunni majority population of the Barada River valley is completed, the new sectarian and demographic fabric of Damascus and its countryside would gain a strategic depth and merge with a similar fabric in eastern Lebanon.

This is a danger that Lebanese Christians, indeed, all Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and all Arabs, must be aware of and sincere about. The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic, as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.

Nation-building is impossible in the absence of a free will to live together. It is impossible in a climate of lies, while those who think they are smart gamble on shifting regional and global balances of power.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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Should The World Bank Finance A Bounty On The Heads Of All Earths Dictators?

 

I know that this is something that will never happen, so it is just a query to each of you. This post today is like almost all of the articles that I write to you, it is an attempt to get you to think out of your minds personal comfort zone, outside of ‘the box’ we wrap around ourselves. Those of you who know me know that I am a person who is anti violence, I wish that there was only kind people on this planet, but we all know that such a thing is just a unfillable dream. I believe that no one has the ‘right’ to be an aggressor toward another. But I do believe that everyone has the right and the duty to protect themselves, their families and even total strangers when they are being attacked. Attacks come in more venues than just the physical abuse they also come in the forms of psychological abuse and abuse by authorities. Also as I am rather sure of, you know that in a lot of cases aggression comes upon many of the innocent and the poor all at one time. This can come from a parent, a guardian, the police, the military or from politicians. Today’s article is about when those who have control of a government decide to make themselves ‘The Supreme Ruler/Leader’ of all the people in a country, in other words, Dictators.

 

Many countries have ‘Presidents’ who come to power in democratic elections but when it comes time for them to step down at the end of their term, they refuse to. There are many examples of this around the world of which most are in Africa or the Middle-East. I am also thinking of people whom have taken control of a country then have farce elections so that they can say they to the world that they are a democracy. There are examples like Mugabe, Assad, Saddam, Putin, Erdogan and whom ever Iran’s “Supreme Leader” decides whom he wants for president. This is just a small handful of the Earths wicked rulers, there are many more. What constitutes being a Dictator in your eyes? Are Kings and Queens all Dictators like they were 500 years ago? In today’s world I would have to say no. The reason for the no is because of examples like in England, Spain and Norway where the ‘Royal Family’ are more Figure Heads than Rulers.

 

The type of Dictators I am speaking of are ones that are also Tyrants and murderers of their own people. The reason I have thought of this article’s subject matter today is the ‘vote’ going on in the beautiful nation of Turkey. Their ‘President’ Mr. Erdogan has been taking all of the power within Turkey unto himself for a few years now but today’s election will finish giving him absolute authority within that country. Elections in countries like Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Russia have been nothing but a joke for a long time now. After today’s ‘vote’ in Turkey they will be joining this list of farces.

 

I have to put the ‘thought of’ a disclaimer regarding this issue though. I call it the George Bush disclaimer, one for the wisdom of Papa Bush and for the ignorance of Baby Bush. The example here is the nation of Iraq. A lot of people here in the U.S. were upset that in the first ‘Gulf War’ that we did not continue the march toward Baghdad and that we did not remove Saddam from power then. Old man Bush had the knowledge and the fore site about removing Dictators of Islamic countries. Baby Bush either didn’t learn anything from his daddy or the chance to show his dad up, that he could do what his dad couldn’t (wouldn’t) was to great a temptation for him. Then of course there is the situation in Syria that the whole world is suffering from because of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s belief that Assad should be removed in the ‘Arab Spring’.  Old man Bush knew a simple fact his son nor Hillary seemed to understand. In countries with mostly Islamic populations that having a strong Dictator who can control the actions of the members of the Islamic Civil War (Sunni against Shiite) then you will have situations like we have today in Libya and Syria.

 

In the title I used the example of the ‘World Bank’ because it is supposed to be independent of the worlds governments thus making them a logical choice to offer multi million dollar rewards to anyone who could/wood kill the Dictators. Plus the obvious reality that it would take a person or an organization with very large bank accounts to pay out those bounties. I realize that North Korea has nothing to do with having the people vote for their Leader but the idea that if the World Bank, or someone else with that kind of money was to put a 50 million dollar reward for the head of the little fat boy with the bad hair cut it honestly wouldn’t bother me. This whole article is just conjecture, an attempt to get people to think. Is killing anyone ever a good idea? If you could go back in time and kill Stalin before he murdered the Czars whole family back in 1917, would you? If you could have killed Hitler as a baby would you? If killing one literally could save the lives of millions, would you? This article is intended for the sole purpose of giving you fodder for the brain as even our brains need food or they will die just like the body without food will die.

Aleppo Syria: Car Bomb Kills Dozens Of Shiite Waiting Outside Buses Trying To Evacuate

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

By John Davison | BEIRUT

A bomb blast hit a bus convoy waiting to cross into government-held Aleppo in Syria on Saturday, killing and wounding dozens of people evacuated from two Shi’ite villages the day before in a deal between warring sides.

The agreement had stalled, leaving thousands of people from both government-besieged and rebel-besieged areas stranded at two transit points on the city’s outskirts, before the explosion occurred.

Pro-Damascus media outlets said a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb and killed at least 22 people. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll was at least 24.

Footage on state TV showed bodies lying next to charred buses with their windows blown out, and vehicles in flames.

The blast hit buses in the Rashidin area on Aleppo’s outskirts. The vehicles had been waiting since Friday to cross from rebel-held territory into the government-controlled city itself.

The convoy was carrying residents and pro-government fighters from the rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in nearby Idlib province.

They had left under a deal where, in exchange, hundreds of Sunni insurgents and their families were granted safe passage from Madaya, a government-besieged town near Damascus.

But a delay in the agreement had left all those evacuated stuck at transit points on Aleppo’s outskirts since late on Friday.

Residents of al-Foua and Kefraya were waiting in the Rashidin area.

The rebels and residents of Madaya, near Damascus, were waiting at the government-held Ramousah bus garage, a few miles away. They were to be transported to the opposition stronghold of Idlib province.

Still image shows a cloud of black smoke rising from vehicles in the distance in what is said to be Aleppo’s outskirts, Syria April 15, 2017. Social Media Website via Reuters TV

People waiting in the Ramousah garage heard the blast, and said they feared revenge attacks by pro-government forces. They circulated a statement on social media imploring “international organizations” to intervene so the situation did not escalate.

The evacuation deal is one of several over recent months that has seen President Bashar al-Assad’s government take back control of areas long besieged by his forces and their allies.

The deals are unpopular with the Syrian opposition, who say they amount to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centers in the west of the country.

They are also causing demographic changes because those who are displaced are usually Sunni Muslims, like most of the opposition. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect and is supported by Shi’ite regional allies.

It was unclear who carried out Saturday’s bombing attack.

The exact reasons for the delay in completing the evacuation deal were also unclear.

The Observatory said the delay was caused by the fact that rebels from Zabadani, another town near Damascus included in the deal, had not yet been granted safe passage out.

‘FORCED DISPLACEMENT’

A pro-opposition activist said insurgents blamed the delay partly on the fact that a smaller number of pro-government fighters had left the Shi’ite villages than was agreed.

Earlier on Saturday, at the transit point where the buses from al-Foua and Kefraya were waiting, one resident said he was not yet sure where he would live.

“After Aleppo I’ll see what the rest of the group is doing, if there are any preparations. My house, land and belongings are all in al-Foua,” Mehdi Tahhan said.

A Madaya resident, speaking from the bus garage inside Aleppo, said people had been waiting there since late on Friday, and were not being allowed to leave.

“There’s no drinking water or food. The bus garage is small so there’s not much space to move around,” Ahmed, 24, said.

“We’re sad and angry about what has happened,” he said. Many people felt that they had been forced to leave,” he said.

“There was no other choice in the end – we were besieged inside a small area in Madaya.”

Other evacuation deals in recent months have included areas of Aleppo and a district in the city of Homs.

Syria’s population is mostly Sunni. Assad’s Alawite religious minority is often considered an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

He has been backed militarily by Russia, and by Shi’ite fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group in Syria’s six-year-old conflict.

Assad has the military advantage over rebels in the west thanks to Russia’s intervention in 2015, although the insurgents are still fighting back and have made gains in some areas.

(Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Iraqi Christians Return To Ransacked Town With Fear And Hope

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Iraqi Christians return to ransacked town with fear and hope

A damaged statue of Jesus Christ is seen inside a church in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq, April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica SEARCH
By Ulf Laessing | QARAQOSH, IRAQ

With Islamic State expelled, Iraqi Christians are trickling back to the ransacked town of Qaraqosh, beset by anxiety for their security and yet hopeful they can live in friendship with Muslims of all persuasions.

The town, about 20 km (12 miles) from the battlefront with Islamic State in the northern city of Mosul, shows why Christians have mixed feelings about the future of their ancient community.

In the desecrated churches of Qaraqosh, Christians are busy removing graffiti daubed by the Sunni Muslim militants during two and a half years of control – only for new slogans to have appeared, scrawled by Shi’ite members of the Iraqi forces fighting street to street with the jihadists in Mosul.

But nearby a shopkeeper is doing a brisk trade selling Dutch beer, Greek ouzo and several whisky brands to Christians, Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds alike, with this kind of commerce perhaps offering a glimpse of how Iraq’s fractured communities could again live together peacefully.

Encouraged by security checkpoints and patrols by a volunteer force, up to 10 Christian families have returned to what used to be the minority’s biggest community in Iraq until Islamic State seized it in 2014.

Iraqi forces pushed the group out of Qaraqosh in October, part of a six-month offensive to retake Mosul. But residents are worried that the Shi’ite slogans signal a new kind of sectarian division.

“Oh Hussein” is daubed in red on the wall of a church torched earlier by Islamic State, praising the hero of Shi’ite Muslims who was martyred 1,300 years ago.

“We are afraid of this, of tensions,” said Girgis Youssif, a church worker. “We want to live in peace and demand security,” said Youssif, who returned after fleeing to Erbil, about 60 km away in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Shi’ites in the Iraqi government forces and paramilitary groups, mostly from further south in the country, have scribbled such slogans on buildings all over Mosul too.

Soldiers have also hoisted the flag of Ali in the city and on their on military vehicles. Shi’ites regard Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, and the prophet’s grandson Hussein as his true successors.

Two Shi’ite flags also fly over Qaraqosh.

Most Sunnis, who are the dominant community in Mosul, have shrugged off the Shi’ite slogans as the work of a handful of religious zealots but Christians take them as a signal that their future remains uncertain.

“Of course we are afraid of such signs,” said Matti Yashou Hatti, a photographer who still lives in Erbil with his family. “We need international protection.”

Those families who have returned to Qaraqosh – once home to 50,000 people – are trying to revive Christian life dating back two millennia. However, most stay only two or three days at a time to refurbish their looted and burnt homes.

“We want to come back but there is no water and power,” said Mazam Nesin, a Christian who works for a volunteer force based in Qaraqosh but has left his family behind in Erbil.

By contrast, displaced Muslims have been flocking back to markets in eastern Mosul since Islamic State’s ejection from that part of the city, despite the battle raging in the Old City across the Tigris river which is the militants’ last stronghold.

ALCOHOL SHOP

Numbers of Christians in Iraq have fallen from 1.5 million to a few hundred thousand since the violence which followed the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein. Many Baghdad residents who could not afford to go abroad went to Qaraqosh and other northern towns where security used to be better than in the capital, rocked by sectarian warfare after the U.S.-led invasion.

But with the arrival of Islamic State, residents abandoned their homes with some applying for asylum in Europe. Germany alone took in 130,000 Iraqis, among them many Christians, in 2015 and 2016. But most ended up in Erbil with relatives or in homes paid for by aid agencies.

Supermarkets and restaurants remain closed in Qaraqosh, with windows smashed and burnt furniture strewn across floors.

One of the few businesses to have reopened is Steve Ibrahim’s alcohol shop in the town center; in the absence of cafes it has become a meeting point for local people. “Business has been good so far. Everybody comes here to stock up,” said Ibrahim, who has just reopened the store with his father.

They lost everything when Islamic State, known by its enemies as Daesh, wrecked their business. Now they have invested about $400 to refurbish the shop – new tiles shine on the walls – and customers are coming from beyond the town and from across the communities.

“I sell drinks to Christians and Muslims alike,” he said. “Many people come from Mosul or other towns.”

Many of Ibrahim’s customers ignore Islam’s forbidding of alcohol consumption. While he was talking, a Sunni Muslim from eastern Mosul drove up to buy a bottle of whisky and four cans of beer, packed in a black plastic bag to hide his purchase from the eyes of more religiously observant Muslims.

“You couldn’t drink during Daesh. I am glad this shop is open again,” said the man who gave his name only as Mohammed, shaking hands with Christians enjoying an afternoon beer. “I still only drink at home.”

Later a Shi’ite from a village south of Mosul arrived to pick up drinks. “I come here twice a week. It’s the only shop in the area,” he said, asking not to be named, before driving off.

Even Ibrahim comes every day from Erbil, bringing by car supplies and fuel for the generator to power the fridges filled with cold beer. Then he drives back at night.

Whether more Christians can live permanently in Qaraqosh depends on whether the security forces win their trust.

Army and police have tried to ease fears by stationing soldiers in front of churches, and even helping Christian volunteers to set up a massive cross at the town’s entrance.

On Palm Sunday last weekend, soldiers escorted a procession in preparation for Easter, Christianity’s most important festival, and provided chairs for worshippers during Mass.

Some Christian policemen joined in, singing “Hallelujah” with civilians. But walking along rows of burnt out homes and supermarkets, others were still afraid.

“The security measures are not sufficient,” said Hatti, the photographer. “We want security to surround the town.”

(Click here, reut.rs/2ordbfj for a Photo essay on this story)

(Editing by David Stamp)

Sadr becomes first Iraqi Shi’ite leader to urge Assad to step down

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Sadr becomes first Iraqi Shi’ite leader to urge Assad to step down

Iraq’s influential Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “take a historic heroic decision” and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed.

Sadr, who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and the southern cities, is the first Iraqi Shi’ite political leader to urge Assad to step down.

But his call was wrapped in kind words about the Syrian president and condemnation of the U.S. strikes carried out on a Syrian airbase on Friday, in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians in a rebel-held area of Syria.

Sadr said the U.S. strikes would “drag the region to war” and could help “the expansion of Daesh,” the militant Islamic State group, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria.

Iraq’s Shi’ite-led governments have maintained good relations with the Syrian government throughout the six-year Syrian civil war. Sadr is the only Iraqi Shi’ite leader to keep some distance from Iran, a main backer of Assad along with Russia.

“I think it would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism …and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late,” Sadr said in a statement.

The Shi’ite-led Iraqi government issued a statement on Friday that reflected the difficult balancing act it maintains between its alliance with the United States and with Shi’ite Iran. It condemned the chemical attack, without naming Assad, calling instead for an international investigation to identify the perpetrator.

The statement also criticized “the hasty interventions” that followed the chemical attack, in an apparent reference to the U.S. strikes.

A U.S.-led coalition has been providing air and ground support to Iraqi forces battling Islamic State, allowing them to recapture most of the cities they had overrun in 2014 in Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, editing by Larry King)

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