Iraq struggles with corruption as protests rage

UN representative in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert is calling for action against what she called "pervasive corruption" in the government, as the death toll from ongoing, massive protests has exceeded 400 since early October. 

"We have heard plenty of words and gestures, but have seen fewer concrete outcomes," she said. "The political class will need to lead by example, for instance by publicly disclosing their assets," she said in a Dec. 3 report to the UN Security Council. "I cannot overstate that anti-corruption efforts in Iraq will be key to unlocking immense social, economic and political potential. Without meaningful progress here, we risk treading water on nearly every other front." 

She also met Dec. 8 with Iraqi President Barham Salih to discuss the need to protect peaceful protesters and stem the violence against them. This came one day after she condemned the Dec. 6 attack that killed dozens of protesters and wounded more than 100. She described the violence as an "atrocity." 

Protesters say rampant government corruption is to blame for severe unemployment, grossly inadequate public services and unwanted Iranian influence on security and politics. Some government agencies and independent bodies in Iraq are trying to take measured and urgent action to defuse the anger of Iraqis in the street calling for reform and political change. So far, the efforts have been to no avail. 

The independent Commission of Integrity has issued several statements over the past few weeks calling for the arrest of officials, ministers, parliament members, governors, general directors, provincial council members and committee heads, in coordination with the Supreme Judicial Council. The council recently announced that parliament members can be held be accountable on corruption charges without the need for judicial approval. 

Even the former head of the Commission of Integrity is being sought on a corruption arrest warrant from Baghdad’s Karkh Investigation Court. The anti-corruption campaign seems to be facing two main problems. First, the campaign can't reach the chieftains, known as the “whales of corruption” in the central and southern provinces, given the great influence and power they wield over some judicial and regulatory bodies. 

Second, it's difficult to track down looted funds and accused people who are abroad, despite a recent commission directive to recover money smuggled out of Iraq by corrupt entities, estimated at $15.6 billion. Iraq doesn't enjoy bilateral cooperation with countries hosting most of the convicts and fugitives. 

Commission member Jamal Kojar told Al-Monitor that the anti-corruption measures launched by the commission “in cooperation with the Supreme Judicial Council are good measures, but they came a little too late and will not affect the senior officials.” 

He added, “The fight against corruption must start from the top down and not just prosecute junior employees,” stressing there is “collaboration” between some influential people, whom he refused to name, and some courts settling major corruption cases. “There are previous and current [parliament members] and ministers who managed to get out of the corruption charges against them, given their contacts and influence." 

Former Salahuddin Gov. Ahmad al-Jubouri was among those indicted Nov. 21 by the commission for alleged financial corruption. He was arrested and released within a few days following contacts between parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbusi and the Supreme Judicial Council. 

Also, Sadiq Madlul al-Sultani, former Babil governor and a current parliamentarian, managed to get out of jail on bail around the same time as Jubouri. In a statement, the commission said that during his tenure of governor, Sultani "committed irregularities and imported large quantities of cement without any customs fees.” It added that Jubouri, while he was governor of Salahuddin, "committed irregularities in the contracts for building the internal department of the University of Tikrit." 

Many other prominent names in politics were summoned for investigation by the time Jubouri was released, including Minister of Culture Abdul Amir al-Hamdani, former Minister of Transport Kazem Fenjan and former Minister of Science Abdul Karim al-Samarrai. Also, the judiciary sentenced former Baghdad Mayor Naim Abboub to three years in prison. 

“There are major corruption cases that are currently being investigated that would affect prominent officials in the previous government and the current parliament, if the commission’s work was not hindered,” a source supervising some anti-corruption cases told Al-Monitor. "The judiciary will continue to issue arrest warrants against the accused as long as the popular protests are ongoing. There is fear of a constitutional vacuum that could hinder the summoning of some of the accused, especially those abroad.” 

Alia Nassif, a parliamentarian for the State of Law party and a commission member, told Al-Monitor, “Corruption in Iraq is a large system involving external parties, and parliament is trying to fight this scourge by adopting laws — including the law of 'Where did you get this?’ which was passed recently, and interrogating senior officials." 

She pointed out, “There are more than 12 interrogation cases against ministers and other same-level officials. We hope the parliament speaker will include these cases on the agenda in the coming weeks.” 

It is noteworthy that all these indictments and decisions to summon officials did not resonate at the sit-ins and demonstrations and have yet to defuse the tension and anger in the streets. It appears protesters believe these measures are mere short-term palliatives and that won't help eradicate the rampant corruption as long the current political class controls the state and oversees the security agencies. 

by Omar Sattar

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Iraq schools go on strike for fourth week

The majority of schools in the Iraqi capital Baghdad as well as in central and southern governorates have gone on strike for the fourth week as scores of students joined anti-establishment protests across the country. 

Popular protests continue amid an increased security presence in the country as hundreds of students organised protests in Baghdad and some provinces. In Karbala, protesters closed the doors of Karbala University and prevented students, professors and employees from entering it. 

They also closed the road leading to Karbala power station and prevented employees from accessing it. The death toll from Friday’s protests in Iraq rose to 25 with 130 injured. The Iraqi parliament called for an emergency session to be held today in the presence of the highest security leaders to discuss the targeting of protesters in Baghdad. 

On Friday, masked gunmen traveling in civilian SUVs used machine guns to open fire at protesters in the deadliest attack since 1 October when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and an end to Iranian influence in the country’s internal affairs.

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One journalist killed, another missing amid protests in Iraq

Iraqi authorities should conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the abduction of journalist Zaid Mohammed al-Khafaji, secure his release, and hold the perpetrators to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.  

On December 6, unidentified individuals abducted al-Khafaji, a freelance photographer, from his home in Baghdad and took him to an unknown location, according to news reports. Al-Khafaji was abducted when he returned home after covering protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, according to those reports. 

Protests have taken place throughout Iraq since October over a lack of basic services, unemployment, and government corruption, and have seen hundreds killed, according to news reports. 

“Covering the ongoing protests in Iraq is becoming a highly risky affair that is costing local journalists dearly,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “Iraqi authorities must step up their efforts to protect journalists; they should get started by investigating the abduction of Zaid Mohammed al-Khafaji.” 

CCTV footage posted to the news website Irfaa Sawtak shows al-Khafaji arriving home by taxi, and two men can be seen exiting a nearby car, dragging al-Khafaji to their car, and driving away. Al-Khafaji’s brother, Ali, told CPJ via messaging app today that he had not heard from al-Khafaji or his captors since the abduction. 

At least two other journalists, Mohammad Qahtan al-Shamari and Shojaa Fares al-Khafaji, have been abducted since the protests broke out in Baghdad, according to CPJ reporting. Both were later released, according to CPJ reporting and news reports. 

Also on December 6, an unidentified individual shot Ahmed Muhana al-Lami, a photographer, in the back while he was covering protests in Baghdad’s Al-Khilani Square, according to a hospital document that has been shared on social media and an interview with the paramedic who treated al-Lami’s wounds, which was posted to social media. Al-Lami was transferred to Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Baghdad, where he died of his wounds shortly afterwards, according to a statement by his employer. 

Al-Lami worked as a photographer and camera operator for the Media Directorate of the Popular Mobilization Units, a state-sponsored group consisting of 40 mostly Shia militias, according to the statement from his employer. He covered the Iraqi government’s military campaign to retake control of territory held by the militant group Islamic State between 2015 and 2017, and had been covering the protests in Baghdad since they broke out in October, according to that statement and his posts on social media. 

Initial news reports and the statement from al-Lami’s employer claimed that the journalist was stabbed, but the paramedic said al-Lami had a gunshot wound near his spine, and said there was no evidence of stab wounds. At least 14 people were killed in Baghdad on December 6 when unidentified gunmen in cars fired on protesters, according to news reports.

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Iraq summons ambassador's after support for protest movement

Four ambassadors have been summoned by Iraq's foreign ministry on Monday after they penned a letter condemning a weekend attack in Baghdad that left 20 anti-government demonstrators and four police officers dead. 

Ambassadors Dr Ole Dieh (Germany), Jonathan Wilks (UK) and Bruno Aubert (France) had met with caretaker premier Adel Abdel Mahdi on Sunday, where they reportedly said in a statement that "no armed group should be able to operate outside of the control of the state". 

The Canadian Ambassador Ulric Shannon added that the state should not allow "armed groups with special agendas" to roam free. In response the ministry said it had summoned all four envoys for their "unacceptable intervention in Iraq's internal affairs". 

Thousands of Iraqis gathered in the streets of Baghdad on Monday to mourn the death of a prominent activist Fahem Al-Tai, who was gunned down the previous evening. The city experienced one of the worst spikes of violence in weeks, with gunmen killing 24 people in the capital and injuring over 130 early on Saturday. 

The unknown attackers raided crucial protest sites and attacked a parking complex near Tahrir Square, prompting thousands to flee the deadly attacks. Witnesses said gunshots were fired in the dark from a building towards Al-Sinek, where security forces were stationed, and reports that government security forces nearby did not intervene were met with fury. 

On Friday US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced sanctions on Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali, and Hussein Falil Aziz Al-Lami, all three of which are part of the Shia paramilitary force Hashed Al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The continued violence comes a week after parliament accepted prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's resignation. 

Sadr was in Iran at the time and his spokesperson told AFP: "This is a clear attack that could kindle a war - maybe a civil war - in Iraq." The country has been rocked by months of youth-led protests over corruption in the ruling class, poverty and unemployment. 

At least 452 people - the majority of which are protestors - have died and 20,000 have been wounded since the rallies erupted over two months ago. Demonstrators are calling for the resignation of the government and dissolution of parliament, and for a complete overhaul of a political system which has been in place since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. 

AFP

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University students, religious seminaries keep flame of Iraq protests burning

Thousands of Iraqi university students took to the streets Dec. 1 in solidarity with the victims of violence during the ongoing protests in the country. Since Oct. 25, few students have attended classes, remaining in Baghdad's Liberation Square and squares in other provinces. 

It is the first time since 2003 that organized protests depart from Iraqi universities and contribute to keeping the numbers of protesters in the streets high. Even during the two main protests in 2011 and 2015, universities did not have an official presence or participation, even if remotely, and protesters criticized them for not getting involved. 

Participation has not been limited to university students in the protesting provinces, as students from universities in Kirkuk, Ninevah, Salahuddin and Anbar joined the protests in mid-November. Civil society activists and students from Anbar told Al-Monitor that the University of Anbar took risks with its solidarity protest, after having received vague threats from security authorities not to take to the streets in support of the protest wave. 

Despite the tight measures of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to forbid students from partaking in the protests, they stood their ground to maintain the momentum, and they risked their educational future. The ministry had announced that it would “take attendance records of students in lectures and departments to free the ministry and educational institutions of responsibility toward what could happen to students during the protests.” 

A student in the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Baghdad spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity for fear of being punished. He said, “I have been in Liberation Square in Baghdad since Oct. 25, and I only attended a few days [of classes] at the university or a week at most.” 

He added, “This is our golden chance to save our country. If we are a few months behind in our education, it is not the end of the world. The end of the world is when we slacken in protesting and ignore the risks facing the country if we remain silent. I might be dismissed from school or punished, but I do not care. I only care about the success of our revolution.” 

Higher education students, not just undergraduates, at the University of Baghdad participated in the protests. This constitutes a risk for the ruling class, as they had bet in past years on universities recoiling from engaging in public issues, since Iraqi political parties controlled their security staff and administrations. 

However, the biggest shock for the ruling Iraqi parties, especially the Shiite ones, was the participation in the protests of religious seminary students in Najaf and Karbala, in support of the protesters in the rest of the country. On Dec. 2, seminary teachers in al-Muthanna province showed their support for the protests in press statements. 

On Nov. 2, hundreds of seminary students in Karbala demonstrated in support of the protesters in other provinces. The majority were Shiites who follow Iraq's top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who also voiced his support for the protests in Iraq. 

On Oct. 28, Shiite seminary students in the holy city of Najaf participated in a similar protest. The students carried banners in support of the protests calling for the protesters’ demands to be met. The religious seminaries are the center of study for Shiite theology students. Najaf — alongside Qom in Iran — is a stronghold of these students who come from all around the world, not just from Iraq. 

Shiite cleric and board director of Annabaa Information Network Mortada Maash told Al-Monitor, “The October protests represented a young popular movement that aimed at eliminating oppression and injustice against the Iraqi people. Sharia binds religious institutions, authorities and clerics to stand by the oppressed and defend their legitimate rights and human dignity.” 

He added, “The religious authorities — especially Sistani — urge to build a nation based on freedom of expression, a legitimate government evidenced by the people’s satisfaction, transparent elections, laws serving citizens, political independence and self-sufficiency. But some politicians and groups turned against people’s legitimacy by manipulating the electoral process, monopolizing privileges and power, exploiting influence and ingraining subordination.” 

On Oct. 27, the seminary in Najaf suspended classes, announcing, “With its great authorities, esteemed teachers and respected students, and in solidarity with Iraqi protesters, out of loyalty for the blood of innocent people and in support of the rightful demands, the seminary has decided to suspend classes in the coming days.” 

Maash noted, “Suspending classes in seminaries is a clear message that the protests are legitimate and corruption and tyranny should be condemned. It is a step to show solidarity with the protesters’ calls for freedom, dignity and building a decent nation.” 

Political parties in Iraq are facing public and institutional ire. The participation of university and seminary students in protests means that they side with the people, despite parties’ years long attempts to distance these two institutions from public affairs, especially those related to social justice and freedoms. 

Mustafa Saadoun is an Iraqi journalist covering human rights and also the founder and director of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights.

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Visiting the museum for Iraq’s famous marshes

It might seem like a strange habit for young man but Raad Habib al-Asadi has been collecting primitive tools from around his neighbourhood for the past few years – and his neighbourhood just happens to be Jabayesh, in Iraq’s famed southern marshes. Jabayesh lies about 95 kilometres east of Nasiriyah, the capital of Dhi Qar province, and covers an area of about 600 square kilometres. 

Ever since he had been a child, al-Asadi had studied the nature around him and history was one of his favourite subjects too. He began to notice that the tools used by some of the people around him were strikingly similar to those of the ancient Sumerians who inhabited this area around 3500 BC. 

“So I started to use part of my student allowance to buy the old tools that, to me, seemed to document the lives of the people of the marshes,” al-Asadi told NIQASH. “I was then able to document the way people lived here, through the tools they used, the jobs they did and the clothes they wore.” 

Finally, after amassing a sizeable collection, al-Asadi decided to display all of the goods in a museum that he and his family built, now called the Iraqi Marshes Museum. 

“This museum is preserving a very iconic heritage,” Amer Abdul-Razzaq, the director of the history museum in Nasiriyah, told NIQASH. “When you preserve artefacts from the lives of the people in the marshes, you are harking back to the ancient Sumerian age, and we wholeheartedly support the idea.” 

Al-Asadi’s father sold some of his sheep and some of his ancestral tribal land in order to fund the construction of the museum and make his son’s dream come true. The museum is built out of reeds and papyrus in keeping with the styles of the ancient Sumerian reception halls, even though, measuring about 30 meters by 10 meters, the museum is bigger than the originals would have been. 

“Foreign tourists often come here to visit archaeological sites and they are also interested in how ordinary people live here,” al-Asadi’s father, Habib, explained. “That’s what motivated my son to document the lives of the people in these ancient marshes.” 

Even though Iraq’s marshes were declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2016, plans to invest in tourism facilities in this area or in the welfare of the locals have not progressed much, due to both political and security issues. Many of the locals here still live low-income, agrarian lifestyles and must deal with poor state services. 

On display in the museum are the 400 items in al-Asadi’s collection. They include cooking utensils, reed-cutting tools and the equipment used to build boats or dwellings. 

"Some of the pieces are very old,” al-Asadi explained. “Such as the millstones used to grind grain and the copper cooking pots, which date back 300 years, as well as a special pot used for bathing and children’s shoes.” Also on display are taxidermy models of birds native to the marshes, some of which are endangered. Al-Asadi hopes that their presence will remind visitors of the importance of preserving local nature. 

The young man also started to collect women’s jewellery, ornaments and gemstones. The stones have a special significance, al-Asadi explains. “This agate was thought to create spiritual ties,” he points out one rock, “and others were used to treat diseases and snake bites.” 

It hasn’t been easy to get the museum going: Al-Asadi used part of his university bursary to fund the museum and he thinks it probably cost him around IQD70 million (around US$58,000) altogether. A telecommunications company topped up his budget with another IQD20 million donation (around US$16,600) and to cover his remaining costs, he borrowed money that he is still currently repaying. 

Visitors to the museum are asked to pay a donation of not more than IQD2,000 (US$1.60) to enter. That sum is supposed to help fund the museum’s daily costs. At the same time though, the museum, which has been open for around nine months now, didn’t get too many visitors over summer because it was so hot and humid in the area. 

So al-Asadi had to pay the salaries of the three part-time staff there out of his own pocket as well as pay back his loan. None of that has prevented him from continuing to look for more tools and artefacts to add to the museum’s collection though. 

by Murtada al-Houdoud

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The ghost of Iraq's Christmas past

Have you read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens? Would you be brave enough to join the Ghosts of the Past, Present and Future on a journey? As Dickens wrote: “Ghost of the Future. I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, I am prepared to bear you company.” 
The government of Iraq declared Christmas an official holiday for the first time in 2008, but Iraqi Christians celebrated it quietly and sombrely. Families would attend church, but they would not put up Christmas trees or host happy gatherings. 
Iraqi Christians then cancelled Christmas festivities across the country in 2010, as Al Qaeda insurgents threatened attacks on the Iraqi Christian community if they were to celebrate the annual holiday, to mark the birth of Jesus Christ.
In the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, in Basra and in the capital Baghdad, all did not put up decorations or hold evening Mass and the Church even urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes. An appearance by Santa Claus was also called off.

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Iraq protest death toll mounts as cleric warns against meddling

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric said a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence, as armed men killed at least 19 people, including three police, near a Baghdad protest site on Friday. 

More than 70 others were wounded by gunfire and stabbings near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said. It was the most violent flare-up in the capital for weeks and came a week after Iraqi’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests. 

Security sources said they could not identify the gunmen who attacked protesters. 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. A senior State Department official lambasted his involvement in establishing the next Iraqi government. “Seems to us that foreign terrorist leaders, military leaders, should not be meeting with Iraqi political leaders to determine the next premier of Iraq,” David Schenker, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at State Department, told a briefing. 

Abdul Mahdi and his government 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. 

by John Davison

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Iraqi Commission warns of possible ‘massacre’ in Baghdad

The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) issued a statement warning that a “security escalation” in central Baghdad might lead to a “massacre” of protesters in the area. According to AP, unknown armed groups opened fire on protesters late Friday in Baghdad’s Khilani Square. At least 15 people died and more than 60 others were wounded. 

IHCHR also called on the security forces to bring back “stability” to the squares and streets where protests are taking place, and stated that these forces are responsible for the lives of the protesters. Youth took to the streets across southern Iraq on October 1, protesting against a lack of basic services, rampant corruption and high unemployment. 

After a pause to observe the Shiite commemoration of Arbaeen, protesters expanded their demands, calling for an end to the current governance system and the resignation of the three top officials – the president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker. 

Around 400 protesters and members of the security forces have been killed since October 1, with around 16,000 others have been wounded due to clashes between security forces and protesters. Currently, unidentified armed groups are pushing protesters stationed in Khilani Square, Ahrar Bridge, and Sinak Bridge back toward Tahrir Square, the central locus of the protest movement in Baghdad. 

Ahrar, Sinak and Al-Jimhuriyah bridges all lead to the Green Zone (also known as the international zone), the heavily fortified safe haven of the Iraqi federal government and the location of all of Baghdad’s foreign embassies and diplomatic missions. 

This most recent lethal targeting of protesters comes only a day after a stabbing incident in Baghdad, as an unknown group of people started to stab protesters. A medic from Tahrir Square published a video confirming the stabbing of nine protesters on Thursday, including six men and three women. This wave of violence on the streets of Baghdad comes after a brief period of relative quiet and even optimism on the part of protesters after Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi announced the submission of his resignation to parliament. 

Renewed targeting of protesters by unknown assailants using lethal force came after the US Treasury Department announced in a press release that four prominent Iraqi political and paramilitary leaders have been sanctioned for killing protesters, including Qais al-Khazali, the Secretary General of Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Hussein Falih Aziz al-Lami, who is a senior PMF commander. 

The Popular Mobilization Forces, also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi in the Arabic language, are predominantly Shiite paramilitaries that were formed in 2014 after a fatwa (religious decree) issued by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Iraq. Al-Sistani called on Iraq’s Shiites to take up arms as Islamic State (ISIS) loomed uncomfortably close to Baghdad. 

After helping defeat ISIS, the PMFs gained formidable political power, and are often considered to be proxies of the Iranian government. Despite being formally incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces in 2016, they are often accused of operating outside the authority and oversight of the Iraqi government. 

by Lawk Ghafuri

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Franciscan University partners with school in Iraq

The Franciscan University of Steubenville is embarking on a meaningful partnership with a school in Erbil, Iraq. On Friday, the president of the university and the Archbishop of Erbil signed a memorandum of understanding. 

The schools will participate in student exchange programs, develop Arabic and Aramaic languages at Franciscan and fund scholarships for Iraqi students to study at Franciscan -- both online and on campus. 

The schools have had a relationship for the past few years and say there are many opportunities for collaboration in the future. Pictured are Franciscan University President Dave Pivonka and Archbishop Bashar Warda, signing the memorandum of understanding.

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The Iraqi people are reborn in protest and at Christmas

Christmas "is not just for Christians, but a people" waiting for a "positive solution" to the current crisis, a time to celebrate for people who want to see "a new pluralist, peaceful Iraq, worthy and respectful of all,” said Card Louis Raphael Sako. 

The Chaldean Patriarch spoke to AsiaNews about the atmosphere of the beginning of Advent, a time still marked by protests and police crackdown. For the cardinal, Iraqis “want a different life from that experienced before and after the fall of the regime” of Saddam Hussein in 2003 with its legacy of “refugees, deaths, corruption, poverty, misery". 

"We Christians must live amid our people, not in a notional world. We must read the signs of the times” and renew our commitment “to brotherhood, collaboration, peace and life, without fear as Jesus urged as many times.” Christmas requires greater commitment and involvement in the events that are stirring the nation, said Card Sako; otherwise, “we too will end up being sectarian.” 

The coming of Christ "is for everyone" and “we must assert this truth” first of all by showing closeness "to Sunnis, Shias, those killed. We cannot be indifferent.” Since 1st October, Iraq has seen largescale protests against government authorities over corruption, malfeasance, and bad governance, which has led to high unemployment and has impoverished most people, especially the young. 

The protests, repressed by the police, forced Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to quit, but the protesters of all stripes want the whole political class removed. Nonetheless, the police has continued to crack down after the Iranian consulate in Najaf was attacked twice in the past week. "Our suffering and sadness are deep,” said Card Sako, because of “the 430 and more dead and 20,000 wounded. “No one feels like celebrating or victory”. 

For this reason, the Chaldean patriarchate decided to cancel public displays of Christmas and New Year – trees, lights, parties, decorations – using the money saved for the country’s orphanages and for the hospitals where the latest wounded are recovering. "With this gesture we want to bear witness our suffering and sadness,” said the prelate. 

“This choice has been welcomed by Iraqis; many have written to us, even among those in the streets, to thank us for the closeness of the Church and Christian support.” "This is our way to say that we are close, that Christmas is for everyone: donating money to hospitals and orphanages to provide some support to everyone.” 

Over the recent weeks, “I spoke to several (Muslim) leaders in Najaf and Nasiriya" and I told them that "we cannot be selfish or indifferent to the pain of others.” In the streets, in Baghdad as in Basra, elsewhere, we can see “the Iraqi mosaic,” noted the Chaldean primate. “Christian too are strongly represented. There are Shias, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen.” However, for Card Sako, "what is striking is the presence of girls and women, this is a first.” 

“Back in October I had already said that we needed to highlight the role of women, who came out and got involved in protests, caring for the wounded. There were no violent incidents or abuse against them by other protesters.” In Iraq, “a new feeling, a new consciousness is emerging. People are talking about THE people, not about anyone’s ethnicity or confession.” 

"Time will be needed” to solve the crisis. For this reason, "I ask Christians and the West to support reforms in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, in Lebanon, in Syria. This is important: Jesus too came to restore rights, dignity to human life. We must read what is happening through a Christian perspective.”

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