Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises
By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric said that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence as gunmen killed at least eight people near a Baghdad protest site on Friday.

More than 20 others were wounded near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said, a week after Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shi’ite Iran’s interests.

Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.

Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.

He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.

“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalized in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.

The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.

Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.

More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.

Washington on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders who it accused of directing the killing of Iraqi protesters. A senior U.S. Treasury official suggested the sanctions were timed to distance those figures from any role in forming a new government.

Iraq’s two main allies, the United States and Iran, have acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, although Tehran’s allies have mostly dominated state institutions since then.

Iranian officials including the powerful commander of its Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, stepped in to prevent Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in October, Reuters reported.

Soleimani was reported to be in Baghdad this week.

Abdul Mahdi’s government, including himself, will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be chosen, the prime minister said last week.

President Barham Salih officially has 15 days – until Dec. 16 – to name a new premier tasked with forming a government that would be approved by parliament up to a month later.

Iraqi lawmakers say they will then move to hold a general election next year but protesters say that without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will keep corrupt politicians in power.

(Reporting by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Alexander Smith)

U.S. Navy chief fired over handling of SEAL saga involving Trump

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper fired the Navy’s top civilian on Sunday over his handling of the case of a Navy SEAL who was convicted of battlefield misconduct in Iraq and later won the support of President Donald Trump.

Esper also determined that the sailor in question, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, should be allowed to retain his Trident pin designating him as a SEAL – effectively ending the Navy’s efforts to carry out a peer review that could have ousted him from the elite force.

Trump, who publicly opposed taking away Gallagher’s Trident pin and had intervened in the case to restore his rank, cheered the moves.

“Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin,” Trump said on Twitter.

The fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer last week suggested a possible split with Trump by telling Reuters that Gallagher should still face a peer review board.

The SEAL was acquitted by a military jury in July of murdering a captured and wounded Islamic State fighter in Iraq by stabbing him in the neck, but it convicted him of illegally posing with the detainee’s corpse. That had led to his rank being reduced.

The White House said in November that Trump had restored Gallagher’s rank and had pardoned two Army officers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Critics had said such actions would undermine military justice and send a message that battlefield atrocities will be tolerated.

In a letter acknowledging his termination, and seen by Reuters, Spencer took parting shots at Trump and defended the need to preserve “good order and discipline throughout the ranks” — something Navy officials had believed the peer review board would help ensure.

“The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” Spencer wrote.

“Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me.”

Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, commended Spencer for “standing up to President Trump when he was wrong, something too many in this administration and the Republican Party are scared to do.”

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman offered a different version of events leading up to Spencer’s dismissal, saying Spencer also had a private line of communications with the White House.

“Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House – contrary to Spencer’s public position – to restore Gallagher’s rank and allow him to retire with his Trident pin,” Hoffman said.

Spencer never informed Esper of his private proposal, Hoffman said.

Esper decided to ask for Spencer’s resignation after “losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House,” Hoffman said.

Esper had favored letting the review process “play itself out objectively and deliberately, in fairness to all parties,” Hoffman said. But that now appeared impossible.

“At this point, given the events of the last few days, Secretary Esper has directed that Gallagher retain his Trident pin,” Hoffman said.

Trump said he would nominate the U.S. envoy to Norway, Ken Braithwaite, to replace Spencer as Navy Secretary.

In an appearance on Fox News Channel on Sunday, Gallagher indicated that he hoped to retire next Saturday, “without the board” convening to decide whether he could continue to be a SEAL, considered among the most elite of U.S. fighting forces.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle and Howard Schneider, additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Editing by Peter Cooney, Alistair Bell and Toby Chopra)

Iraq’s elite rallies around Iran-backed plan to hang on to power

Iraq’s elite rallies around Iran-backed plan to hang on to power
By Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s ruling parties appear to have rallied behind a strategy, blessed by Iran, to try to survive a mass anti-government uprising by containing protests on the streets of Baghdad while offering a package of political reforms and elections next year.

But the proposed solution involves keeping in power a ruling elite that Iran has cultivated for years – unlikely to placate protesters who have been demanding the entire caste of politicians be swept aside.

Iran has been closely involved in formulating the new strategy, with a number of meetings between political groups and government figures attended by Qassem Soleimani, the general who commands the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that supervises Tehran’s clients across the Middle East.

Two sources with knowledge of the talks said Soleimani had approved the reform plan, which would keep Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in power until new elections next year, as it would give Iran time to recalculate how to retain influence.

The protests pose the biggest challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated political order since it emerged after a 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

At least 300 protesters have been killed, most by security forces firing live ammunition into crowds. But the violent response has done little to persuade the protesters to leave the streets.

A senior security official told Reuters new tactics were being rolled out to try to confine the demonstrations to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a roadway junction at the foot of a bridge across the Tigris, where demonstrators have camped out for weeks.

“Security forces received new orders on Saturday that protesters must be kept in Tahrir Square,” the security official said. “They’re working quietly now to seal off the square from all directions, and an arrest campaign is expected to follow in a bid to reduce momentum of the protests.”

Meanwhile the authorities will push on with a reform plan to mollify the crowd, with new elections run by a commission intended to be more independent, and parliament restructured to be smaller and more representative of Iraq’s diverse population.

Sources who have attended recent government meetings say the strategy now enjoys the backing not only of the Iran-backed parties that support the government, but also of their main rivals, the faction of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who regularly denounces Iran and had called for Abdul Mahdi to quit.

Sunni and Kurdish political leaders also support the plan.

“The anger of protesters at everyone in politics, even religious figures, forced all parties to listen to Iranian advice and work together to keep Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government standing,” said a source close to Sadr.

“Even Sadr is on board,” he said. “He worried that protests he’s not controlling could also threaten his position” among his followers, the source said.

REFORMS

The new reforms include lowering the minimum age of candidates, increasing the number of voting districts and reducing parliament to 222 seats from 329, according to a proposal from Iraq’s President Barham Salih seen by Reuters. Political appointees on Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission would be replaced with technocrats and judges.

Parliament will vote on the changes before eventually approving a date for early elections in 2020, two sources close to the talks said, leaving room for potential delays.

Izzat Shahbandar, an independent who has been mediating among senior political figures including Abdul Mahdi and regularly meets with protesters, said a partial cabinet reshuffle was agreed in principle, with the premier staying.

“Everyone has rallied around the prime minister now. He’s their best bet to avoid chaos,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the promise of reforms can take any of the heat out of the protests. The reforms clearly fall short of protester demands to scrap the entire post-Saddam political system, but parties could present them as evidence that they are serious about moving in the right direction.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who speaks on politics only in times of crisis and wields enormous influence over public opinion in Shi’ite-majority Iraq, has called for serious reform within a “reasonable time frame”. He has urged protesters not to go home until concrete steps are taken to meet their demands.

As the protesters’ demands have become more specific, some have called for a system with an elected executive president, less beholden to the political factions that have selected all of Iraq’s post-Saddam prime ministers behind closed doors.

Most say they just want the rulers out.

“They choke us so we can’t breathe, so we can’t speak and tell them to go away!” said Ammar, 20, from Baghdad’s Sadr City district, wearing a helmet with a scarf around his face at a medical tent where he was being treated for tear gas exposure.

“We’re dying here for our future. We’re dying for things to change.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iraqis pour into streets for biggest protest day since Saddam

Iraqis pour into streets for biggest protest day since Saddam
By Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis thronged central Baghdad on Friday demanding the root-and-branch downfall of the political elite in the biggest day of mass anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Five people died from injuries sustained overnight after security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters camped out in the capital’s Tahrir Square. At least 103 people were injured, police and hospital sources said.

Protests, in which 250 people have been killed over the past month, have accelerated dramatically in recent days, drawing huge crowds from across Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides to reject the political parties in power since 2003.

Thousands have been camped out in the square, with many thousands more joining them by day. Friday, the Muslim main day of prayer, drew the biggest crowds yet, with many taking to the streets after worship.

By the afternoon tens of thousands had packed the square, condemning elites they see as deeply corrupt, beholden to foreign powers and responsible for daily privations.

Protests have been comparatively peaceful by day, becoming more violent after dark as police use tear gas and rubber bullets to battle self-proclaimed “revolutionary” youths.

Clashes have focused on the ramparts to the Republic Bridge leading across the Tigris to the heavily fortified Green Zone of government buildings, where the protesters say out-of-touch leaders are holed up in a walled-off bastion of privilege.

“Every time we smell death from your smoke, we yearn more to cross your republic’s bridge,” someone wrote on a nearby wall.

Amnesty International said on Thursday security forces were using “previously unseen” tear gas canisters modeled on military grenades that are 10 times as heavy as standard ones.

“We are peaceful yet they fire on us. What are we, Islamic State militants? I saw a man die. I took a tear gas canister to the face,” said Barah, 21, whose face was wrapped in bandages.

‘MINI-STATE’

In Baghdad, protesters had set up checkpoints in the streets leading into and surrounding Tahrir Square, redirecting traffic.

Young people swept the streets, many sang about the sit-in. Helmets and gas masks were now a common sight.

A woman pushed her baby in a stroller draped with an Iraqi flag while representatives from several Iraqi tribes waved banners pledging support for the protesters.

Mohammed Najm, a jobless engineering graduate, said the square had become a model for the country he and his comrades hope to build: “We are cleaning streets, others bring us water, they bring us electricity, they wired it up.

“A mini-state. Health for free, tuk-tuks transporting for free,” he said. “The state has been around for 16 years and what it failed to do we did in seven days in Tahrir.”

Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, health care or education. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in office for a year, has found no response to the protests.

‘EVIL BUNCH’

In his weekly sermon, top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned of “civil conflict, chaos and destruction” if the security forces or paramilitary groups crack down on the protests. And he gave an apparent nod to protesters who say the government is being manipulated from abroad, above all by Iran.

“No one person or group or side with an agenda, or any regional or international party, can infringe upon the will of Iraqis or force an opinion upon them,” Sistani’s representative said during a sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

Reuters reported this week that a powerful Iran-backed faction had considered abandoning Abdul Mahdi, but decided to keep him in office after a secret meeting attended by a general from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. An Iranian security official confirmed the general, Qassem Soleimani, had attended Wednesday’s meeting, to “give advice”.

Many see the political class as subservient to one or another of Baghdad’s main allies, the United States and Iran, who use Iraq as a proxy in a struggle for regional influence.

“Iraqis have suffered at the hands of this evil bunch who came atop American tanks, and from Iran. Qassem Soleimani’s people are now firing on the Iraqi people in cold blood,” said protester Qassam al-Sikeeni.

President Barham Salih said on Thursday that Abdul Mahdi would resign if parliament’s main blocs agreed on a replacement.

Protesters say that wouldn’t be enough; they want to undo the entire post-Saddam political system which distributes power among sectarian parties.

“So what if (Abdul Mahdi) resigns? What will happen? They will get someone worse,” said barber Amir, 26.

There were protests in other provinces, with the unrest having spread across much of the southern Shi’ite heartland.

In the southern city of Diwaniya, roughly 3,000 people including many families with small children were out.

Earlier, protesters in oil-rich Basra tried to block the road leading to Majnoon oilfield and pitched a tent but operations were not interrupted, oil sources said.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi; Editing by Peter Graff)

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in
BEIRUT/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – As governments in Iraq and Lebanon stagger and stumble under huge waves of popular protest, powerful factions loyal to Iran are pushing to quash political upheaval which challenges Tehran’s entrenched influence in both countries.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has resigned and the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has been pushed to the brink of collapse.

Both governments have enjoyed backing from the West. But they have also relied on the support of political parties affiliated with powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite armed groups, keeping allies of Tehran in key posts.

That reflects the relentless rise of Iranian influence among Shi’ite communities across the Middle East, since Tehran formed the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 and after Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq in 2003.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have government systems designed to end sectarian conflict by guaranteeing a share of power to parties that represent different communities. In both countries, leading Shi’ite groups are closely associated with Iran, and have held on to weapons outside the official security forces.

Protesters are now challenging those power structures, which Iraqis and Lebanese blame for corruption, the dire state of public services and the squandering of national wealth, which Iraq brings in from oil and Lebanon from foreign backing.

WHO IS BEHIND THE PROTESTS?

Unusually in both countries where sectarian parties have previously dominated politics, most protesters are not linked to organized movements. In both countries they have called for the kind of sweeping change seen in the 2011 Arab uprisings, which brought down four Arab leaders but bypassed Lebanon and Iraq.

In Lebanon, demonstrations flared in late September against bad economic conditions as the country grappled with a deepening financial crisis. Nationwide protests broke out two weeks later against government plans to raise a new tax on calls using popular mobile phone software such as WhatsApp.

In Iraq, demonstrations began in Baghdad and quickly spread to the southern Shi’ite heartland.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

In Iraq, the protests have taken place on a scale unseen since Saddam’s overthrow, with sweeping demands for change. The authorities have responded with a violent crackdown which left more than 250 people dead, many killed by snipers on rooftops firing into crowds.

“The fact that you were seeing that level of mobilization makes the protests more dangerous in the perception of the political elite,” said Renad Mansour, Iraq analyst at London-based Chatham House.

The mainly Iran-backed militias view the popular protests as an existential threat to that political order, Mansour said.

In Lebanon, the demonstrations come at a time of economic crisis widely seen as the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war. If Hariri’s resignation prolongs the political paralysis it will jeopardize prospects of rescue funding from Western and Gulf Arab governments.

HOW HAVE IRAN’S ALLIES RESPONDED?

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah initially addressed the Lebanon protesters sympathetically, echoing Hariri’s conciliatory stance, before changing tone and accusing foreign powers of instigating the unrest. People loyal to Hezbollah and the Shi’ite movement Amal attacked and destroyed a protest camp in Beirut.

Hariri announced his resignation shortly afterwards despite pressure from Hezbollah, widely seen as the most powerful player in Lebanon, not to concede to the protests.

In the absence of an obvious replacement for Hariri, Hezbollah, which is under U.S. sanctions, faces a predicament. Although Hezbollah and its allies have a majority in parliament, they cannot form a government on their own because they would face international isolation, said Nabil Boumonsef, a commentator with Lebanon’s an-Nahar newspaper.

“It would be the quickest recipe for financial collapse. The whole world will be closed to them.”

In Baghdad, Abdul Mahdi’s government was saved for now after apparent Iranian intervention. Reuters reported this week that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which sponsors Tehran’s allies abroad, flew to Baghdad for a secret meeting at which a powerful Shi’ite party agreed to keep the prime minister in office.

Iraqi security officials have said that snipers who shot down from rooftops at crowds last month were deployed by Iran-backed militias.

WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE?

While Shi’ite militia forces project unambiguous power, Iran’s political weight is often deployed behind the scenes.

In Lebanon, a longstanding accord on power-sharing means no single confession can dominate state institutions. For all its prominence, Hezbollah picked only three ministers in Hariri’s last cabinet.

“A winner-takes-all mentality just does not work in Lebanon,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, who said Hezbollah may have miscalculated by employing “scare tactics” against the protesters.

“This goes against the grain of Lebanese politics. They are going to have to compromise.”

In Iraq too “Iran has more influence than any other country … but it doesn’t have control over what happens there,” says Crisis Group’s Iran project director Ali Vaez.

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE?

In Iraq it is too early to say. Tehran’s main rival, the United States, has so far kept mostly quiet on the protests, probably waiting to see the outcome.

In Lebanon, which urgently needs outside funding to keep its economy afloat, Tehran’s international foes have used their financial clout to challenge its influence more directly. Before he quit, Hariri failed to convince foreign donors to release $11 billion in aid pledged last year, in part because of Hezbollah’s prominence.

Wealthy Sunni Gulf Arab states, engaged in a proxy conflict with Iran across the region, had long funded Beirut, but Saudi Arabia cut back support sharply three years ago, saying Hezbollah had “hijacked” the Lebanese state.

Gulf Arab countries and the United States have coordinated moves against Iranian-linked targets with sanctions on 25 corporations, banks and individuals linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah.

“Gulf Arab states are bound by sanctions. Hezbollah are an integral part of the (Lebanese) government,” a Gulf source said. “Nobody has given up on Lebanon” but “the system is broken… Improvements need to be seen on several fronts, including fiscal discipline.”

Two U.S. officials said this week that President Donald Trump’s administration is withholding $105 million in security aid for Lebanon.

(Reporting by Reuters correspondents in Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai; writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Peter Graff)

Exclusive: Iran intervenes to prevent ousting of Iraqi prime minister – sources

Exclusive: Iran intervenes to prevent ousting of Iraqi prime minister – sources
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran has stepped in to prevent the ouster of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi by two of Iraq’s most influential figures amid weeks of anti-government demonstrations, sources close to both men told Reuters.

Populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demanded this week that Abdul Mahdi call an early election to quell the biggest mass protests in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. The demonstrations are fueled by anger at corruption and widespread economic hardship.

Sadr had urged his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri, whose alliance of Iran-backed militias is the second-biggest political force in parliament, to help push out Abdul Mahdi.

But in a secret meeting in Baghdad on Wednesday, Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, intervened. Soleimani asked Amiri and his militia leaders to keep supporting Abdul Mahdi, according to five sources with knowledge of the meeting.

Spokesmen for Amiri and Sadr could not be reached for comment. An Iranian security official confirmed Soleimani was at Wednesday’s meeting, saying he was there to “give advice”.

“(Iraq’s) security is important for us and we have helped them in the past. The head of our Quds Force travels to Iraq and other regional countries regularly, particularly when our allies ask for our help,” the Iranian official said, asking not to be named.

Soleimani, whose Quds force coordinates Tehran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, is a frequent visitor to Iraq. However, his direct intervention is the latest sign of Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq and across the region.

Iraqi security officials told Reuters earlier this month that Iran-backed militias deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops to try to help put down the protests.

If Iraq falls further into crisis, Iran risks losing the influence it has steadily been amassing in the country since the U.S.-led invasion and which it sees as a counter to American influence in the region.

FATE UNCLEAR

Despite the maneuvering behind closed doors, Abdul Mahdi’s fate remains unclear. He took office a year ago as a compromise candidate between Amiri and Sadr but faces a wave of protests that has swelled in recent days.

In the 16 years since the fall of Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, Shi’ite Iran has emerged as a key power broker in Iraqi politics, with greater influence than the United States in the Shi’ite majority country.

But that proxy power battle has rankled ordinary Iraqis who criticize a political elite they say is subservient to one or the other of Baghdad’s two allies and pays more attention to those alliances than to Iraqis’ basic economic needs.

Despite their country’s vast oil wealth, many Iraqis live in poverty or have limited access to clean water, electricity, basic health care and education. Most of the protesters are young people who above all want jobs.

The protests have broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq. They have spread from Baghdad across the mainly Shi’ite south and met with a security crackdown that killed over 250 people.

Until earlier this week, it appeared that Amiri – who is one of Tehran’s key allies in Iraq and the leader of the Badr Organization of militia – was willing to support Abdul Mahdi’s departure.

Late on Tuesday night, Amiri issued a public statement agreeing to “work together” with Sadr after the cleric called on him to help oust the prime minister.

Wednesday’s meeting seemingly changed the course of events.

A Shi’ite militia commander loyal to Amiri – one of the five sources Reuters spoke to about the meeting – said there was agreement that Abdul Mahdi needed to be given time to enact reforms to calm the streets.

Many of the militia leaders raised fears at the meeting that ousting Abdul Mahdi could weaken the Popular Mobilization Forces, according to another source familiar with the meeting.

The PMF is an umbrella of mostly Shi’ite paramilitary groups backed by Iran who are influential in Iraq’s parliament and have allies in government. They formally report to the prime minister but have their own command structure outside the military.

Following the meeting with Soleimani, Amiri changed tune with Sadr. He told Sadr that getting rid of Abdul Mahdi would cause more chaos and threaten stability, a politician close to Sadr said.

In response, Sadr said publicly that without a resignation there would be more bloodshed and that he would not work with Amiri again.

“I will never enter into alliances with you after today,” he said in a statement.

(Reporting by Baghdad Newsroom; additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Nick Tattersall)

Iraqi prime minister’s main backers agree to oust him

FILE PHOTO: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi gives a televised speech in Baghdad,Iraq October 9, 2019. Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS

Iraqi prime minister’s main backers agree to oust him
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s two main backers have agreed to work to remove him from office as protests against his government gained momentum in Baghdad and much of the Shi’ite south only to be met with violence.

Populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads parliament’s largest bloc, had asked Abdul Mahdi to call an early election. When the premier refused, he called on his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri to help oust him.

Amiri – who leads a parliamentary alliance of Iran-backed Shi’ite militia that holds the second-largest amount of seats in parliament behind Sadr’s alliance – issued a statement late on Tuesday agreeing to help oust the prime minister.

“We will work together to secure the interests of the Iraqi people and save the nation in accordance with the public good,” Amiri said in a statement.

Abdul Mahdi took office just a year ago after weeks of political deadlock in which Sadr and Amiri both failed to secure enough votes to form a government. They appointed Abdul Mahdi as a compromise candidate to lead a fragile coalition government.

Mass protests driven by discontent over economic hardship and corruption have broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq. At least 250 people have been killed since the unrest started on Oct. 1.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Michael Perry)

U.S. mulls leaving some troops in Syria to guard oil: Pentagon

U.S. mulls leaving some troops in Syria to guard oil: Pentagon
By Kawa Omar and Idrees Ali

DOHUK, Iraq/KABUL (Reuters) – The Pentagon is considering keeping some U.S. troops near oilfields in northeastern Syria alongside Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to help deny oil to Islamic State militants, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday.

U.S. troops are crossing into Iraq as part of a broader withdrawal from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, a decision that allowed Turkey to launch an offensive against the SDF which for years was a U.S. ally battling Islamic State.

More than 100 vehicles crossed the border into Iraq early on Monday from the northeast tip of Syria, where Turkey agreed to pause its offensive for five days under a deal with Washington.

The truce expires late on Tuesday, just after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is set to discuss next steps in the region at a meeting in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking to reporters during a trip to Afghanistan, Esper said that, while the U.S. withdrawal was under way, some troops were still with partner forces near oilfields and there had been discussions about keeping some of them there.

He said that was one option and no decision had been made “with regard to numbers or anything like that”. The Pentagon’s job was to look at different options, he added.

“We presently have troops in a couple of cities that (are)located right near that area,” Esper said. “The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS (Islamic State) and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.”

Trump’s shift has opened a new chapter in Syria’s more than eight-year war and prompted a rush by Turkey and by the Damascus government and its ally Russia to fill the vacuum left by the Americans.

Trump’s decision has been criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside U.S. troops in a region rich in oil reserves and farmland.

The New York Times reported late on Sunday that Trump was now leaning in favor of a new military plan to keep about 200 U.S. troops in eastern Syria near the Iraq border. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“NECESSARY STEPS”

Turkey is seeking to set up a “safe zone” as a buffer against the YPG militia, the main component of the SDF. Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group due to its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

Erdogan has said Ankara will resume its assault in Syria when the deadline expires on Tuesday if the SDF has not pulled back from its proposed zone, which spans much of the border.

“We will take up this process with Mr Putin and after that we will take the necessary steps” in northeastern Syria, Erdogan told a forum in Istanbul hosted by broadcaster TRT World on Monday, without elaborating.

Erdogan has also said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts in the “safe zone”, prompting criticism from Iran.

“We are against Ankara’s establishing of military posts in Syria,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a weekly news conference on Monday broadcast live on state TV.

“The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means … Syria’s integrity should be respected,” said Mousavi, whose country is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Echoing such concerns, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said Russia believed long-term regional security could only be achieved by restoring Syrian unity and also by taking into account the interests of all the country’s ethnic and religious groups.

He reiterated that Putin and Erdogan would discuss Turkey’s military offensive in their talks on Tuesday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that 12 Syrian prisons holding foreign militants as well as eight refugee camps had been left unguarded as a result of Turkey’s military operation.

Turkey’s nearly two-week old offensive has displaced some 300,000 people and led to 120 casualties among civilians and 470 among SDF fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday. Turkey says 765 terrorists but no civilians have been killed in its offensive.

On Monday, Reuters video images showed armored vehicles carrying U.S. troops through the Sahela border crossing into Iraq’s northern province of Dohuk.

About 30 trailers and Hummers carrying heavier duty equipment crossed, with troops in cars coming through, an Iraqi Kurdish security source said.

Turkish security sources said on Monday Kurdish YPG forces were advancing toward Al Hasakah, which is south of the proposed safe zone, adding some 125 vehicles had already left. They also said more than 80 Kurdish militants had been captured alive or surrendered to Turkish forces.

(Additional reporting by Idrees tktk Can Sezer and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

U.S. troops cross into Iraq from Syria

U.S. troops cross into Iraq from Syria
By Kawa Omar

DOHUK, Iraq (Reuters) – United States troops have crossed into Iraq from Syria through the Sahela border crossing in the northern province of Dohuk, Reuters witnesses said on Monday.

Reuters video images showed armored vehicles carrying troops into Iraq, part of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. A Reuters cameraman saw more than 100 vehicles crossing.

An Iraqi Kurdish security source also told Reuters that U.S. troops had crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

About 30 trailers and Hummers carrying heavier duty equipment crossed, with troops in cars coming through, the source added. A second security source in Mosul also said U.S. troops had crossed into Iraq from Sahela.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday that all of the nearly 1,000 troops withdrawing from northern Syria are expected to move to western Iraq to continue the campaign against Islamic State militants and “to help defend Iraq”.

On Thursday, Turkey agreed in talks with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to a five-day pause in an offensive into northeastern Syria to allow time for the Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a “safe zone” Ankara aims to establish near its border with Syria.

The truce also aimed to ease a crisis triggered by President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision this month to withdraw all 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria, a move criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of loyal Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State.

(Reporting by Kawa Omar; Additional reporting by Raya Jalabi in Erbil and Jamal Badrani in Mosul; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Turkish assault in Syria weakens Iraq Kurds, strengthens regional powers

Iraqi Kurds protest the Turkish offensive against Syria during a demonstration outside the United Nations building in Erbil, Iraq October 12, 2019.REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

Turkish assault in Syria weakens Iraq Kurds, strengthens regional powers
By Raya Jalabi and Ali Sultan

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – A Turkish border offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces will further weaken Iraq’s divided Kurds next door and embolden regional rivals who have one thing in common – they want no Kurdish state.

The assault, following an American troop pullback that in effect gave Turkey a U.S. green light, alarmed inhabitants of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. It ended Syrian Kurdish rule of “Rojava” – their name for northeastern Syria – and left Iraqi Kurdistan as the Kurds’ only self-governed land.

Outraged that their Syrian kin were betrayed by another U.S. policy decision, protesters in Iraqi Kurdish cities burned Turkish flags and authorities promised to help refugees fleeing.

“The world has failed the Kurds,” said Bayan Ahmed, a 20-year-old student.

“That’s our story – we’re always betrayed.”

But a more cautious reaction from Iraqi Kurdish leaders who did not condemn neighboring Turkey by name showed Kurdistan’s economic and political reliance on the same country that is battling their Syrian brethren over the border.

It also masked the underlying tensions between the two main parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan PUK, a close ally of Iran, and the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which enjoys close relations with Ankara.

As Turkey advances on Kurdish militants, Syria’s government retakes Kurdish areas and Iran-aligned militias secure regional supply lines, Iraqi Kurdish dependence on regional powers will only grow, according to Kurdish officials and analysts.

“Kurds are caught between powerful states all working against them, Turkey, Syria, Iran, even Iraq. The Kurdish government’s worried. It’s the only one left,” said Shirwan Mirza, a Kurdish lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament.

“To preserve itself, it might look to closer cooperation with Baghdad – but not as first-class citizens.”

Iraqi Kurds are still reeling from a failed independence bid in 2017. They say the attempt was wrecked by U.S. criticism of their referendum on full Kurdish self-rule, a stance they see as a betrayal by Washington.

The U.S. criticism, plus Turkish and Iranian condemnation, paved the way for Iraqi government forces to retake areas under Kurdish control since Islamic State seized vast parts of Iraq.

Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the two Kurdish experiments in self-government in Syria and Iraq “suffered a nosebleed” in the past two years.

Wahab questioned whether the setbacks were due to bad timing, lack of political nous, or “a bigger picture where Kurds will always end up with the shorter end of the stick regardless.”

FAILED INDEPENDENCE, DIVISIONS

Kurds have sought an independent state for almost a century, when the Ottoman Empire crumbled and left Kurdish-populated territory scattered between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

But moves by regional powers to keep the ethnic group of 30 million in check, combined with internal divisions, have long thwarted efforts towards independence.

In northern Iraq, the Kurds got their first self-run territory in 1991, after the Gulf War.

But since then, they have had to balance their ambitions for full independence with the threat of a backlash from their neighbors and the reluctance of Baghdad to redraw borders.

Syria’s Kurdish experiment is younger. The war that began in 2011 allowed Kurds in the northeast to rule themselves as President Bashar al-Assad was busy fighting rebels in the west.

U.S. forces partnered with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to defeat Islamic State, providing a powerful Western ally Kurds hoped would support shaky de-facto self-administration.

That ended last week as U.S. troops withdrew and Turkey began its incursion. Ankara sees the YPG as terrorists and an extension of its home-grown PKK militant group.

Desperate to stave off the offensive, the YPG made a deal with Assad to allow his forces to defend them, giving back territorial control to Damascus for the first time in years.

Assad’s ally Iran is also set to gain. Iraqi paramilitary groups backed by Iran on the Iraq-Syria border will likely help Assad secure control, strengthening their own supply lines along a corridor of territory from Tehran to Beirut.

In this environment the Kurdish regional Government (KRG) is not in a position to rush to the aid of Syrian Kurds, and nor will it want to, for fear of upsetting regional ties with Iran and Turkey, according to Kurdish politicians and analysts.

In Iraq, this could push Kurdish authorities to work closer with the central government, they say. The 2017 independence move left the Kurds weaker in their relations with Baghdad.

Maintaining ties with Turkey will also be crucial.

“The KDP has become a part of (Turkish President Tayyip) Erdogan’s plan … they have interests in keeping up ties, among them oil and gas contracts,” said Bezdar Babkar of the Kurdish opposition Change Movement.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) relies on Turkish pipelines to export oil. Links between the ruling KDP and Turkey go beyond the economy, including a shared enemy in the PKK. Turkey regularly bombs PKK bases in northern Iraqi Kurdistan.

KRG help to Syrians will therefore be limited to taking in some refugees, which it has started doing. KDP rival the PUK, which controls areas near the Iran border, has closer ties with the PKK and has issued stronger condemnation of Turkey.

The two Kurdish parties fought a civil war in the 1990s. More recently they have taken to sharing power, but competing regional loyalties, rivalry and strains govern the relationship.

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi and Ali Sultan in Sulaimaniya; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, William Maclean)