In Dhi Qar, Meeting The ‘Painter Of Protests’

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As demonstrations continued last week in the southern province of Nasiriyah, Ihsan al-Faraj was moved to join the protests in the central Habboubi Square. The local cartoonist, who is in his 60s and employed as a civil servant, has since decorated the walls around the square, an area where demonstrators have gathered, with all kinds of pictures. He recently celebrated his 200th drawing and locals have started to call him “the protests’ painter”.

In an interview with NIQASH, al-Faraj said that he had loved to draw and paint ever since he was a child and that he is particularly fond of cartoons because of the way they can be used to comment on contemporary society and politics.

“They always gave me an outlet by which I could express my opinion, when things were bad,” al-Faraj explained, even when this was particularly dangerous, pre-2003, when Saddam Hussein was still in power here. “I was afraid to display my pictures during Saddam’s era and only showed them to close friends. Today I am with the protests in my city, without fear,” he proclaimed.

 

 

Al-Faraj drew his first caricatures during demonstrations in Dhi Qar in 2015 and he got great responses from the local community. His first cartoon tackled the issue of deterioration in state services, topics like a lack of electricity supply and the salaries of senior ministers.

Al-Faraj has addressed all kinds of issues with his drawings, everything from the death of fish in Iraqi rivers to arson attacks at local wheat farms, as well as politics. Sometimes he has drawn pictures that reflect his own personal situation too.

His materials are not expensive, al-Faraj says, and he uses mostly thick white card and coloured pencil. Often his wife and two daughters are the first to see his new works and he takes their constructive criticism onboard, sometimes altering the art before presenting it to the general public.

As he spoke, al-Faraj wanted to point out that anti-government demonstrations have been taking place in his province for years. It is only the number of people and their strength that has varied, he notes. “This great movement has prompted the government to try and accelerate real reforms,” al-Faraj says of the current momentum of protesters right around the country.

One day, the “painter of the protests” has hope that he won’t have to draw his cartoons on a Friday anymore. Instead, he says, he’d like to draw some beautiful pictures that show “the wonderful reality of this country”.

 


source: Niqash

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What’s Really Polluting Southern Iraq’s Most Important Waterway?

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For years, fish and other marine life has been disappearing from the all-important Shatt al-Arab waterway in Basra. This wide river at the southern end of Iraq is an important port, linking Iraq with the Persian gulf. It is a vital part of the local environment.  

In the more recent past, there have been criticisms that the Shatt al-Arab is too polluted, radioactive and affected with bacterial diseases. Locals often ask why. But it’s not like there is a lack of knowledge about the various causes of this river’s life-threatening problems. A wide number of experts in the area have been studying the different types of pollution problems carefully for years.

Researcher Jabbar Hafez Jebur has conducted a number of studies on whether the Shatt al-Arab is radioactive, taking samples from  various contributing rivers. “The concentration of radioactive elements are within the permitted limits and do not require any action,” he told NIQASH.

Much of the pollution comes from the gas emissions in the atmosphere that result from oil extraction activities and diesel engines.

The Shatt al-Arab is free of radioactivity, confirms Khajak Vartanian, a physicist with the southern Directorate of the Environment. “But,” he added, “there is growing chemical pollution.”

The concentrations of toxic metals like nickel, chromium, lead, zinc and cadmium can be measured on the water’s surface and in its sediments, says hydrologist Safaa al-Asadi, of the University of Basra’s geography department. There are low  concentrations of toxins spread evenly throughout the waterway.

“Yes, the river is contaminated with toxic minerals but their levels are still within the limits of daily use for irrigation and for aquatic survival,” al-Asadi explained. In fact, much of the pollution comes from the gas emissions in the atmosphere that result from oil extraction activities, he continued, as well as the pollutants issued by diesel generators. These pollutants, discharged into the air, end up in the river after it rains. 

Where the various toxins end up depends very much on the tides in the Shatt al-Arab. Their location depends less on the discharge of industrial and domestic sewage, he notes, pointing out that man-made discharges directly into the river have less of an impact than those coming from the sky.

Basra’s Ministry of the Environment regularly monitors the amount of pollution in the waterways at various different points, says Ahmed Jassim Hanoun, director of the department for the protection of the environment at the ministry. Samples are taken regularly and tested, he adds.

Hanoun says his offices are concerned about the direct discharge of pollutants into the Shatt al-Arab and other nearby rivers. But he believes that one of the most important factors is the level of salinity, or salt, in the water.

 

An historic map showing Basra.

 

No bacterial diseases were discovered in the waterways recently and Hanoun says this has a lot to do with the lower levels of salinity. Authorities have tried to ensure that more fresh water is released into the Shatt al-Arab to keep fresh water flowing, and prevent sea water from coming in from the ocean.

“What we noticed after periodic tests throughout 2019 is that the releases of fresh water from the Tigris river, coming from out of Maysan province, has meant that there is more resistance to the salt tongue coming in from the sea,” Hanoun said. The previous year, when there was not as much rainfall upriver, the Shatt al-Arab was a lot saltier and therefore more prone to bacterial growth.

“The department of water resources released 30 to 40 cubic meters [of fresh water] per second in 2018 but in 2019, it released more than 90 cubic meters per second,” Hanoun noted.

Besides the bacterial contamination, saline water from the sea and industrial and environmental pollution, there is another thing that isn’t helping, Hanoun points out: The number of submerged objects in the waterway.

His department has regularly asked the port authority to clear the waterways of the hundreds of objects there, he says.

“We are suffering because of the delay from the government,” says Khaled al-Talibi, a sea captain and head of a local mariners’ association. “The submerged items disrupt navigation in the harbour and change the way the sand and silt moves, which in turn causes a change in currents and reduces the flow of water to the river mouth.”


source: Niqash

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Dhi Qar’s Problem With Dirty Channels

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It is not a lack of water that is causing problems in Iraq’s central Dhi Qar province, says local farmer Ghazi Ajeel. It is the way it is distributed. There is conflict about how much water every landowner can take from irrigation canals and then the dispersal network is also old, prone to leaks and evaporation in the heat.

“The problem is painful and the government has not even tried to resolve it,” Ajeel told NIQASH. “I have to appeal to authorities and bureaucrats just in order to be able to take my share of water. If I didn’t though, all my crops would die.”

There is a vast network of irrigation canals in this area. It starts from the northern borders of the province and ends at the southern border to Basra province. The canals are essential to the livelihood of the farmers settled on all sides of them. But the size of the network really increases chances of losing water along the route and makes the farmers and their products more vulnerable to weather conditions.

There are around 9,000 kilometres worth of irrigation canals, Hussein al-Kanani, director of the local department of water resource, said. “But only around 300 kilometres of those are lined with materials that prevent leaks and losses,” he explained.

Around 40 percent of all of the water in these channels could be being wasted, suggests Jassim al-Asadi, a senior manager with Nature Iraq. The dirt channels narrow all the time because the water encourages the growth of reeds. These should be pruned back constantly but this doesn’t happen.

Miqdad al-Yasiri, a former president of the local agricultural association, believes that the canal problem could be remedied if all of the channels were mapped. After that, dilapidated or ineffective flood gates should be renovated and more gates could be installed, particularly in places where farmers living nearby could easily control them. He also thought a centrally-controlled electronic system would be a worthwhile investment.

“The best way to conserve water is through the adoption of modern methods,” al-Yasiri argued. “These would result in a closed irrigation system that ensures that water reaches farmers.”

A rainy winter has meant that Dhi Qar is safe from drought this season. In fact, there has been so much water that some of it had to be diverted out of high-rising rivers. Yet another threat to farmers’ survival are the rules set by local bureaucrats as to how much water each landowner may have. Ratios of land to water are set by the authorities and are based on how much water is available in dams. However current ratios would allow for the irrigation of only about one fifth of the arable land in Dhi Qar. 

 “Many farmers who are not included in this agricultural plan will have to water their land by their own efforts,” says Faraj Nahi, a director at the local department of agriculture.

The water department justifies certain farmers missing out with three reasons. Firstly, they say they must also supply drinking water from the province’s rivers. Secondly, they have to make sure enough water enters the southern marshes and, thirdly, they argue they need to maintain water levels at the Nasiriyah power plant.

It’s not just the local authorities causing problems with water. In past years, when water has been scarce, hoarding water and diverting supplies has led to violent conflicts in Dhi Qar too.

When one tribe has a dispute with another tribe, they may use the rivers that run through their properties as a weapon, explains Nasser Abed, a local farmer. For example, in one village a number of farmers dug out a streambed to irrigate their crops. Unfortunately cattle belonging to other farmers in a nearby village – members of another tribe – drowned in the new waterway. During the conflict that ensured, the tribe, on whose land the stream originated, then cut off the water supply to the other, offending village.


source: Niqash

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Construction On Iraq’s All-Important Faw Port Continues

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Over the past two years interest in the long-planned Al Faw Grand Port project in Basra has increased again. Despite various hold ups due to political, economic and security-related concerns, construction has started again and when finished, Al Faw will be Iraq’s only deep-sea port and one of the world’s 12 largest.

The idea of the new port was first mooted over a decade ago and in 2003, an Italian company was tasked with the job of a feasibility study. The question was whether to build a whole new port or redevelop existing ones. The conclusion was that it would be better to construct a new port.

There are four ports in Basra and Iraq exports over three-quarters of all of its oil via these. But there is a problem: Water depth in the existing ports is limited and cannot accommodate the increasingly large tankers. Only Al Faw port will have the capacity for this, as well as offering land routes linking Iraq with Europe, through Turkey.

The project has saved us and when it’s finished, it will be even better,, one of the local fishermen said.

The Al Faw port project’s director, Asaad Rashid, told NIQASH that the importance and increasing interest in the development is no secret in Iraq. The port will include not only docks but power and desalination plants, steelworks and other factories. There are also other additions planned to Faw port, including a possible land tunnel.

Drinking water and power shortages as well as high youth unemployment make the project even more important. “These projects around the port will bring thousands of jobs,” Rashid argued.

According to Rashid, work on dikes is ongoing and the construction on the first docking area has started.

Construction had already started on the breakwaters destined to protect the port. One was supposed to be 8 kilometres long and the other 16 kilometres long. These would be the biggest breakwaters in the region.

Parts of the second breakwater remain under construction but were delayed because of Iraq’s financial crisis early on, during building. Oil prices fell and the security crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State began, all of which strained the Iraq’s national budget.

Wissam al-Rikabi, who heads the department of civil engineering at the University of Basra, believes that the Iraqi government should prioritise investment in giant infrastructure projects like this one.

Whatever people say about the competition from other ports in Kuwait or Dubai, Iraq is the only country whose new port will border on Europe, via Turkey, al-Rikabi argued. “Iraq has long been considered the shortcut between Asia and Europe and one that replaces long and expensive sea routes,” he explained.

“We should make use of the Faw area to the utmost,” adds Ahmad Hamdan, a retired geology professor who lives in Basra. “The country cannot continue relying only on oil revenues.”

Other locals in the Faw area are ready and willing to make the project a reality. Many of them used to make their living from fishing but after Kuwaiti and Iranian coastguards started to restrict fishing waters, a lot of them found this impossible. While many remain unemployed, others have started working on the port construction projects.

“We now have employment opportunities as blacksmiths, carpenters and builders,” one local, a former fisherman called Ahmad Sadoun, told NIQASH. “The project has saved us and when it’s finished, it will be even better,” he concluded optimistically.


source: Niqash

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Visiting The Square In Baghdad, Where Protestors Rule A Utopian Iraq

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It feels strange entering Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square in the state it is currently in. For around ten days now, Iraqis have been flocking to this area, with its iconic monument created by the sculptor, Jawad Saleem, in the 1960s. In about a five kilometre radius around the sculpture and the square, thousands of Iraqis are living out what feels like a dream of freedom.

There’s muffled chaos on the two streets around the square. There are boxes of bottled water piled up, fruit and soft drinks. Women cook using large pots and others make huge quantities of bread. All of the food is being given to the demonstrators free of charge and it’s also offered to casual visitors.

There’s a man reading the Koran out and right next to him, wearing a cross on a chain around his neck, another reading the Bible.

According to one of the women working on a food stand, the food is brought to the square by anonymous donors. The donors are businesspeople and shop keepers, otherwise ordinary citizens, who cannot join the demonstrations because they are working – but who passionately want to support the protesters. Every morning, cars and vans arrive with the donated food, she told NIQASH.

In between the boxes of water and food and cooking pots, are mattresses and blankets that the protesters rest on. Hundreds have refused to leave the square for days. “It is now our land,” a 19 year old local, Maher Jassem, told NIQASH. “If we withdraw, we may lose it forever. So we will not leave until we have realized our dreams of change.”

In fact, some of the protesters are fighting to defend “their” territory. At the end of Tahrir Square is a long traffic bridge, Jumhuriya bridge, that links the plaza with the high security Green Zone. The latter is where various foreign embassies and Iraqi government ministries are located, as well as the residences of high-ranking Iraqi officials. There’s been a battle going on here for days. Dozens of protesters keep trying to cross the bridge but at the other end, around 80 meters away, are security forces, behind concrete blast walls. They fire teargas cannisters into the approaching demonstrators to prevent them from getting too close.

 

 

As the to-and-fro goes on, some of the protesters have been hurt and some have  been shot in the head with the dangerous tear gas cannisters. When one of them falls, they are swiftly carried away to small make-shift clinics in the middle of Tahrir Square.

These are made of tents containing camp beds. Here you might see young women wearing white coats, some of them stained with blood. They run into the tents to help three young men who have just arrived suffering shortness of breath due to the tear gas that is continuously being fired.

“We want to cross the bridge because those who oppress us are on the other side,” one of the young protesters, Laith al-Taie, explained, as he was being treated for the effects of tear gas. “If we can’t cross it then we will protect the square [by blocking the bridge], so that it remains a safe place for protesters. We know that if we withdraw from the bridge, the security forces might advance into the square.”

To the right side of the bridge is a long abandoned 14 storey building nicknamed the “Turkish restaurant” because at one stage it had a large eatery on the top floor. This building has become a symbol of resistance for the protesters, many of whom are now sleeping inside, and keeping an eye on what security forces are doing below.

In the centre of the square, you start to really hear the protesters, many of whom are singing or chanting. Some have said that these demonstrations are similar to earlier ones that took place in this same square. But they are not. This is a different generation, one raised with social media, online gaming and digital windows to the rest of the world. They are a newly fearless generation, while the Iraqi authorities seem old-fashioned and inept, unable to make the changes required.

For any Iraqi, who has grown up through various conflicts –  sectarian, political, economic – the scene here is stunning. You start to feel as though all of these thousands of people here are somehow united, despite their different backgrounds and the different things they are doing for the demonstration.

Please Mr. Prime Minister, promise not to respond to our demands, we are happy in this place.

In one part of the square, you can hear nationalistic anthems. In another, you listen to religious songs. There’s a man reading the Koran out in a loud voice and right next to him, wearing a cross on a chain around his neck, another reading the Bible. Still further on, you hear pop music, both Arabic and western.

There are no cars at all in the square. The only transportation here is provided by the tuk-tuk three wheelers. These are usually used by less wealthy Iraqis because the price of travel is far cheaper than in a taxi. The tuk-tuks are mostly driven by drivers under the age of 18 and they’ve become one of the icons of these demonstrations. The drivers volunteer to carry injured people away, taking them to either a camp hospital or to a general hospital nearby. They also bring protesters to the square.

The walls around Tahrir Square have become large works of art. Dozens of young Iraqis have drawn and painted their messages about freedom and a good life on the walls. This includes graffiti about the strength of Iraqi women and their roles in local culture. On the ground, are what may best be described as small, informal libraries with hundreds of books. The literature is not being sold here though – it’s loaned to anyone who wants to read.

Some of the inhabitants here have even published their own small four-page newspaper. They have called the leaflet, Tuk Tuk, after the three-wheelers, and the pages hold sobering details about what the protesters want to see happening in the future.

Everyone who is here seems to feel like Tahrir Square has become something outside of real life in Baghdad. Nobody wants to leave this utopian wonderland they feel they have created for themselves. A young man walks around carrying a sign that says: Please Mr. Prime Minister, promise not to respond to our demands, we are happy in this place.

“Anyone who doesn’t visit this place [Tahrir Square] has wasted their life”, is a popular slogan being circulated by the protesters in real life and online.

On Monday, this week the head of the army in Baghdad wanted to take that advice. He came to visit the square, saying he wanted only to protect the protesters and he wouldn’t go any further until he had received permission from the demonstrators. The military man then took some pictures with the protesters,  and immediately left again.  


source: Niqash

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Basra Protesters Set Up Tent Town, Focus On Peace +Games

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In Basra this week, the anti-government protests became more permanent and more popular. Around 30 large tents have been erected in front of the local authority’s headquarters. The government buildings are surrounded themselves by security forces.

The tents have become headquarters of sorts for the protesters – inside there is first aid equipment and food and drink.

Some of the tents have names – Homeland, the Tent of Martyrs, or the Basra Artists’ Tent – and they have multiplied over recent days.

Also arriving at the site of the protests now are local families. It seems that at first they were afraid to join in, but now you see mothers and fathers with their children, carrying Iraqi flags and participating in the activities here.

You are the sons of Basra. Peaceful expression of opinions is the righteous way, they chanted.  

There are loudspeakers in front of the tents and the first thing the protesters decided to play was the national anthem. As it was played, some of the locals sang along or chanted the words. It was an emotional moment – some even started to cry.  

One of the most notable incidents in the last few days involved the arrival of a large group of young men and women, all wearing construction helmets. The headgear was a symbol of their wish to be employed. They also carried candles in remembrance of the people who had been killed in Basra recently during these protests. The group was very well organised and they marched into the square in way that was so coordinated that onlookers were a bit surprised.  

In one area, near the site of the demonstration, a group of young people had placed hundreds of candles on the ground. They lit them and chanted sad poems or songs, memorialising friends who had been killed or injured. It was another emotional scene and so moving that even the security forces who were standing nearby, joined the crowd of mourners. Some of the soldiers even lit candles.

The young locals in the square have also organised a variety of activities that have not been quite so sad. Some have formed a group they are calling Basra’s Civic Youth and they began to coordinate a variety of events.

One was called “Letters to God”. “The idea was to distribute pieces of paper to the protesters here and to ask them to write their messages to God on these, about their suffering, or hopes and wishes,” one of the organisers, Haider Najib, told NIQASH. “We then collected all the letters, put them inside balloons and sent them to the sky,” he said.

“We were sick of talking to people about our problems,” Najib continued. “So we decided to talk to God instead!”

Another game the organisers played was “Most Corrupt”. In this, the protesters were asked to vote for who they thought had been the most corrupt individual in Iraq since 2003. The voting papers were collected and the name of the person was read out in front of the crowd.

“The aim of that was to send a message to our corrupt political class,” Mohammed Farouq, an organiser of the game, explained. “And we noticed that a lot of people really liked this one – there was a lot of awareness and much enthusiasm for voting.”

The young protesters in Basra also keep a careful eye on the news from Tahrir Square in Baghdad, probably the biggest ongoing demonstration in the country, and are curious to know what is happening on Jumhuriya bridge and in the tower Baghdad demonstrators have occupied, known as the Turkish Restaurant. When they chant, they’ll often say things like “be strong, Baghdad. Move forward. We support you.”

Some of the chants also stress that the protests here should remain peaceful and demonstrators should keep their tempers. “You are the sons of Basra. Peaceful expression of opinions is the righteous way,” they say.  

Just as in Baghdad, the protest site has also attracted donations of food and volunteers. Throughout the day people arrive with free food and water for the demonstrators; mattresses have also been donated. And every morning older women here prepare breakfast, bread and tea made the Basra way.

“When I heard about the demonstrations starting, I decided to bring one of the chairs from my business here,” says Mohammed Ihsan, 20, who owns a barber shop. “I’ve set it up here and I’m offering people free shaves. I consider it a duty to my country.”


source: Niqash

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Protests Heat Up Long-Standing Rivalry Between Iraq And Iran Religious Leaders

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In early October, snipers shot at unarmed protesters on the streets of Iraq, who were taking part in anti-government protests. The snipers could be seen positioned on tall buildings, wearing masks and dressed all in black. It was immediately clear to almost everyone that they were not members of the official Iraqi armed forces.

Reuters reported that the snipers were deployed by the semi-official militias, even though militia commanders denied they had anything to do with the killings.

Later on Faleh al-Fayad, Iraq’s national security advisor and a former head of the militias, boasted that “we caused the conspiracy to fail”. His statement refers to the conspiracy theories that have been spread by some local politicians and by Iranian leaders that Iraq’s anti-government demonstrations are being led by “foreign” agitators, not aggrieved Iraqis.

The murder … serves our interests. The demonstrations are now contaminated.

Last weekend, protesters in the southern state of Maysan took out their anger on the same militias in the provincial capital, setting fire to the offices of the hard-line League of Righteous group and injuring one of the group’s leaders, Wissam al-Alyawi. The leader and his brother were later attacked while they were on their way to a local hospital, and eventually killed. Along with several other of the larger, better funded and armed militias, the League of Righteous militia is well known to be allied with Iran. They are often described as the loyalist militias

After al-Alyawi’s funeral, sources say that high-ranking militia leaders, army officers and senior government officials met in Baghdad. “The murder of al-Alyawi can be considered a turning point and one that serves our interests,” one of the militia leaders apparently said during the meeting. “The demonstrations are now contaminated, which means we can confront them.”

Over the past few weeks, the battles lines have slowly been drawn. Now they are coming into sharper focus. Protesters have been vocal in their opposition to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, burning Iranian flags and defacing posters of that country’s Shiite Muslim religious leader,  Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile Khamenei, who is based in the holy city of Qom and who is often forceful in his pronouncements, has continued to push the idea that foreigners and “Western intelligence agencies” are instigating the protests. He has suggested that Iraqi authorities “make it a priority to stabilize these security threats”.

That same week, many Iraqis were also waiting to hear what the highest ranking Shiite cleric in their country, Ali al-Sistani, would have to say about events. Al-Sistani is based in Iraq’s holiest city, Najaf. One of the respected cleric’s representatives, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, eventually read out what many considered to be a fairly timid statement, cautioning protesters not to be violent and not to damage public or private property. No real reference was made to their demands.

 

The protests have taken on something of a festive air.

 

In fact, that is in keeping with al-Sistani’s attitude toward the role of religion in politics. Al-Sistani belongs to the quietist tradition of clerics and, unlike his Iranian counterpart, does not believe that religion should interfere massively in national politics or that clerics should appear often in the media. His reluctance to lead a religious revolution such as the one that occurred in Iran made him a target for criticism from over the border. Nonetheless there is also no doubt that al-Sistani plays a role in Iraqi politics and has always been a presence in national crises over the past decade.

In the end, it seemed that protesters mostly ignored al-Sistani’s speech, as they continued to try to get onto government property, to damage or burn political party and militia headquarters. In Baghdad, the Iraqi army used tear gas to prevent demonstrators from getting into the high-security Green Zone, and the Iranian embassy.

A cleric in Najaf with close connections to the important Shiite seminary, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, said that during the week, there was a series of messages coming from Iran to Najaf, where al-Sistani is based. The insider believes that these messages were pressuring al-Sistani to support the current Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, to prevent him from being ousted, as per the demonstrators’ demands. The messages apparently also stressed that the protests be stopped.

However that has not happened and during the week, then again more definitively on Friday, demonstrations have continued. Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi asked the country’s crack counter terrorism forces to help end the protests in Baghdad but, as one senior army officer told NIQASH, “there was a long debate about whether and how to do this”. The special forces have gained a fearsome reputation for the way they fought the extremist Islamic State group and are generally respected by the general public for this. The commanders were reluctant to squander that.

In the end, no aggressive tactics were possible: During the week, thousands of Iraqi school children joined the protests. Nobody wanted to be seen shooting at 12-year-olds carrying their school bags.

Over the week, many of the protests have since taken on something of a festive air. The Iraqi government has announced a variety of measures to try and satisfy demonstrators’ demands but it is hard to know whether they would be satisfied with anything less than the complete dissolution of the current government.

The size of the demonstrations, supported by all Iraqis and so spontaneously, gave al-Sistani the strength to withstand pressure.

All of this has left senior cleric al-Sistani in a difficult position. Although many of the young protesters have also talked about rejecting religious influence, there’s no doubt that al-Sistani still has a lot of authority – not necessarily to control them but rather to support them, which prevents elements in the Iraqi government or Iranian authorities from going too far.

Behind the scenes, he and his advisers seem to have come to a conclusion. This was clearly indicated by the fact that the religious students in the seminaries in Najaf were released so that they could take part in local protests. Two of Najaf’s important shrines also opened their doors to offer local protesters water and food. At one of Najaf’s mosques, clerics gave a speech criticizing those who had been in command of the snipers that had shot at unarmed demonstrators – that was a clear reference to Iran.

Later on in the week, on Friday, another of al-Sistani’s spokespersons gave a further speech in which he said that no international or regional actor had the right to impose their will on the Iraqi people – another obvious reference to the Iranians. The speech also carried warnings about excessive violence from official or unofficial security forces, meaning the militias, many of which are under Iranian influence. Even though many of the militias fighters in Iraq are supported by Iran, they would also heed al-Sistani’s words.

“The size of the demonstrations, supported by all Iraqis and so spontaneously, gave al-Sistani the strength to withstand pressure,” a cleric close to the religious leader told NIQASH. “In his speech, al-Sistani didn’t mention political decisions though because he believes the demonstrations are going to continue and it is too early to talk about the political situation.”


source: Niqash

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The Answer To Iraq’s Problems Is (Still) Education

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Iraq is at a turning point. Frustrated young Iraqis of many walks of life – students of all ages as well as graduates, unemployed, underemployed and even employed – have taken to the streets with a spectrum of demands ranging from the practical to the existential; they want jobs, a better life and a different “system”. This government, or the next, must deliver tangible solutions, and it is becoming increasingly clear that business as usual is no longer an option.

The government has promised to answer young protesters’ demands by providing more jobs. But the public sector is already bloated, eating up over 60 percent of the federal budget. Youth unemployment is estimated at around 17 percent and about 750,000 Iraqis join the labour market annually, including around 200,000 graduates. With 65 percent of Iraqis under 30, things aren’t going to get simpler anytime soon.

I have been struck by their tempered optimism. They and others are testament to Iraqi ambition and ability, even in tough times. 

Real structural solutions will be required to address the jobs crisis and the private sector will be crucial if sufficient employment opportunities are to be created quickly. As I have argued before, a key first step will be education reform to prepare young Iraqis for private sector employment.

Over the past decade, I have been working to identify what is preventing Iraqi youth from finding private sector jobs. It is clear that the issue is not a lack of demand. The companies I have spoken to are extremely keen to hire qualified young Iraqis and their inability to do so is one of their key barriers to growth. I frequently receive emails asking if I know any suitable graduates to fill positions in multiple sectors including marketing, banking and accounting.

The fundamental problem is that most Iraqi graduates are simply not equipped to fill these positions and this is due to the failings of the Iraqi education system. In dozens of conversations with private-sector leaders, they identify the same gaps: A lack of English language skills first and foremost, a lack of training in basic business skills such as finance and accounting, and a lack of core professional abilities, from critical thinking, research and report writing to being able to work with common software programs. Lastly, there is also an access gap: Over the years I have encountered many young Iraqis who are equipped to work for companies, but cannot connect with them.

This points to the urgent need to completely overhaul the public education system, including modernizing the curriculum. The government also needs to regulate private, for-profit universities that put making money ahead of providing a decent education. 

These and other structural reforms will not happen overnight. However, there are more immediate fixes that could be considered.  One would be to establish a nationwide series of accredited, specialized, one- or two-year programs that focus on developing language, business and professional competencies.

 

A classroom in Basra.

 

This is what my team has been working on. We have developed a one-year intensive program that will enable a university graduate to work with leading private sector firms.  In just over 12 months, we will welcome our first cohort of young graduates. My hope is that, this initiative will grow and will spark others to open similar centres.

The government, working with the private sector and international entities, could also draw on other successful experiments that have been tried in Iraq before. An Iraqi employee at US company, General Electric, established Dar Al Takamul, a program for Iraqi engineering graduates to develop the skills they need for private sector oil and gas companies. To date, 30 of the 35 students have found jobs or been promoted.

Local telecommunications company Zain Iraq has launched the Zain Youth “empowerment platform” which provides training in software coding and robotics. A consortium of Iraq’s banks, the Iraqi Private Banks League, offers training and job opportunities for recent graduates. And Careem, a regional ride-share company that is the equivalent of Uber in the Middle East, is expanding rapidly in Iraq, hiring young people and offering university internships. 

All of these individual initiatives in entrepreneurship and education require constant investment, rather than off-the-cuff funding.

Another successful model can be found with my former employer, the American University of Iraq, based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, with whom I worked for ten years. Around 80 percent of graduates are either employed with private sector companies and NGOs, or pursuing graduate work, thanks to a curriculum that emphasizes proficiency in English and the basics of business. Students also have access to career services and other programs to help them identify opportunities. While the university’s model could not be replicated across Iraq in the short term, some of the most pertinent elements of the curriculum could be offered on a wider scale relatively quickly, if there was sufficient government and private sector support.

Another step the government could take in the short term would be to address the needs of Iraq’s burgeoning entrepreneurship and tech sectors. Many young Iraqis are now looking beyond the public sector. They want to open their own businesses, following the lead of the godfathers of Iraqi entrepreneurship, such as Ammar Ameen of Iraq’s Amazon, Miswag, Marwan Ahmed of grocery delivery service Mishwar, Mujahid Waisy, who developed co-working company, The Station, Ali Hilli, a youth and entrepreneurship consultant and Hussein Abul Maali who developed the popular clothing line, Zuqaq13, often worn by Baghdad youth.

Telecommunications company Zain recorded 65 new start-ups in Iraq in recent years.  At the same time, young graduates have also launched hundreds of pages on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram to sell their crafts online, from jewellery to clothing to soap. But they lack funding to open brick-and-mortar stores.  

Venues such as the Al Faisaliah culture café in Baghdad’s Karrada district offer free space to such start-ups. Visiting these venues and meeting these prominent entrepreneurs over the past year, I have been struck by their tempered optimism about the future, combined with their energy and determination to succeed. They and others are testament to Iraqi ambition and ability, even in tough times. Indeed, spending time in Baghdad of late, the energy and perseverance of younger Iraqis is infectious. The ouster of the extremist group known as the Islamic State has created a much more permissive security environment, and as a result, the city is bustling with renewed activity.

All of these individual initiatives in entrepreneurship and education require constant investment, rather than off-the-cuff funding. The United Nations Development Program and the European Union – in particular Germany and the Netherlands – have been active but more is needed inside Iraq. A functioning banking sector that offers loans, government promotion of new start-ups and expanded public-private partnerships are among those needs. The focus should be on extensive educational programs, not simply short-term, one-off training.

Clearly Iraq needs major reform, and better education and supportive private sector programs won’t solve all of the country’s underlying structural problems. But initiatives like the ones mentioned above – especially if backed by  the private sector, the Iraqi government, and international partners – can provide a blueprint for more comprehensive policies that could finally shift the Iraqi economy onto a more productive, progressive path, one that delivers the peace and prosperity Iraqis have craved for 16 years.

 

To contact the author: vandentoorn@gmail.com


source: Niqash

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Diwaniyah Protests Reveal Divide, When It Comes To Anti-Govt. Tactics

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This weekend, in the southern city of Diwaniyah, thousands of people gathered near the offices of the provincial government. All Friday morning, more demonstrators joined the crowd and there were calls to maintain the peace while demanding political reform.

The government offices themselves were blockaded with concrete barriers and security forces surrounded the headquarters. Many of the demonstrators wanted to try and enter the building but security forces repelled them. Eventually, emboldened by their numbers, some of the protestors started trying to enter the offices by climbing walls at the back of the complex. It was at this stage that security forces began to fire tear gas at the crowd.

The young people here are just so angry, some of them don’t listen to the instructions from the coordinating committees of the protests.

In a large square opposite the government offices, protestors carrying a large sign climbed a central monument. Locals were surprised when the sign was eventually unfurled: It was the picture of a young man who had been killed during the protests. On the sign were written demands for justice, asking the government to reveal the names of those who had killed this young demonstrator.

 

The Iraqi federal government had said their investigations into the killing of unarmed protestors by snipers were concluded; as a result, around a dozen military officers were suspended. However the question asked on this banner – who were the snipers? – was never satisfactorily answered.  

Many among Diwaniyah’s demonstrators were determined to stay in the city centre all weekend and a number of volunteer initiatives began as a result.

Restaurants and shops nearby were closed so teams of locals, many of them women, arrived and offered the demonstrators food, water and tea for free.

 

Early on at protests in Diwaniyah.

 

Unlike demonstrations that took place earlier in the month, there were many more Iraqi women present at the weekend’s events.

“We decided to participate more this time, to support our brothers,” Afra al-Taie, a local activist, told NIQASH. “We believe that the presence of females in these protests will ease tensions because both the security forces and the protesters feel a sense of responsibility. They feel that they should protect women who are present.”

During the protests, the streets were increasingly littered but teams of young men began to clean them, picking up rubbish. “We don’t want to tarnish our reputation and we don’t want the government to accuse us of creating chaos,” Naseer al-Mohamdawi, one of those picking up litter, told NIQASH. “So we are cleaning up and organizing things in this area so nobody can criticize us.”

But the demonstrators in Diwaniyah did not all feel the same way. Angry protesters also decided to split into several groups and go to the headquarters of political parties and to the homes of their officials. The headquarters of one of those, the powerful Badr Organization, which boasts one of the largest Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq, was set on fire. It was here that tragedy struck. While one group of protesters was inside the building, that had otherwise been empty, another group of protesters apparently set the building alight. Eleven people trapped inside the building died although some managed to get out by jumping off the roof.

 

 

Another of Diwaniyah’s youthful demonstrators, Abdul Rida al-Khafaji, said this tragic incident was the result of a lack of coordination between the different groups. “The young people here are just so angry, some of them don’t listen to the instructions from the coordinating committees of the protests,” he explained.

During the weekend, several other party offices were also attacked and burned by protesters. Also attacked was a political party-controlled radio station and the homes of the head of the provincial council, Jubair Salman al-Jubouri, and MP Faisal al-Nayeli. At the headquarters of the notoriously hardline League of the Righteous militia, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq, there was an exchange of gunfire.

In an attempt to control the situation, local security forces eventually declared a curfew. A large military contingent also arrived to reinforce local troops. While a number of demonstrators were eventually arrested, most of the participants say they will continue to go to the streets and assert their right to protest.


source: Niqash

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In Dhi Qar, Volleyball And Dominoes For Protesters Instead Of Death + Destruction

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After several days of increasing violence, which saw arson attacks on government buildings and political party headquarters, things were much calmer in the southern province of Dhi Qar over the weekend.

Demonstrations are still taking place in the provincial capital’s Habboubi Square and, despite a curfew and road closures in Nasiriyah, an estimated 3,000 protesters are maintaining a presence there.

The square is no longer just a place to protest. It’s also a great place to meet new people. It is beautiful.

One of them is 18-year-old Mohammed – he also happens to play volleyball and he is organizing games among the demonstrators. “After protesting and calling for change, I decided to come here with my friends to practice our sport,” the young man, who didn’t want to give his full name for security reasons, told NIQASH. “Although,” he added, “the space is pretty tight and we don’t have the right facilities or nets, we want to show another side to these protests.” Mohammed and his friends have formed two teams and they will play several matches in the square. One team is made up of the more casual protesters and the other comes from a group who are holding an ongoing sit-in.

It’s not just about politics, the athlete said. It’s also about pointing out that funding for activities like sports in local schools and clubs has decreased and that these things are actually important for local culture. “We’re playing here as a way to call on the government to better support recreational activities here in Dhi Qar,” he noted.

Meanwhile other protesters were engaging in more cerebral contests. Nasser Majid, 19, told NIQASH that the young people in the square are trying to create a new space for local culture as well as make their political demands. He himself began to recite poetry in the square. Then another young man challenged him, also speaking lines from a similar poem. The contest was similar to the classic Arab tradition of battling poets in a marketplace – the contests held in Souq Ukaz in Saudi Arabia were some of the best known, Majid said. Both poets were trying their best to embellish rhymes while keeping the rhythm constant.

Majid says that through poetry he is trying to make his voice, and the voices of the other young people who are suffering in this province, heard. “Poetry has a big impact and motivates people here,” he argued. “We will continue to hold these sessions even after the demonstrations have finished. It’s going to help us improve our skills. We will create a new kind of club and we are calling it the Protest Poetry Forum.”

 

 

The young men also plan to collect the poems recited during the demonstrations with a view to eventually printing them, providing a cultural artefact of what they consider to be an important and historical event in their province.

Nearby another group of young men is playing dominoes. Nour, 20, is a university graduate – he wished to remain anonymous for security reasons too – and he expressed his happiness at meeting his three companions, all playing with him, here at the protests for the first time.

“We wanted to take a break,” he explained. “The square is no longer just a place to protest. It’s also a great place to meet new people and discuss political and social events. These are new places to exchange knowledge,” he noted.

Nour says that if the protests continue, he and his new friends plan to bring other games along, like chess. “This place is beautiful,” he says, “and this is a new and wonderful experience for me.”

At the other end of the square, a more sombre activity was taking place. Ali, 23, and several other students were lighting candles in memory of those who died in recent protests.

The group recited poems and sang sad songs. Ali told NIQASH he had lost a friend this month, a young man who’d been shot five times while at the demonstrations. The loud noises and the gunfire had not scared this friend, Ali recounted, and he had gone to the front lines of the protest.

“But he had no cover and he was shot dead, in the middle of the street,” Ali continued. “An ambulance came for him but he died on the way to hospital.”

 


source: Niqash

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