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As Iraqi civilian rule weakens, Shi’ite clerics call the shots

With Iraq’s politicians tainted by corruption and the army’s standing hurt by battlefield defeats, two Shi’ite clerics have re-emerged as leaders in matters of state.

In their different ways, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s two most influential Shi’ite leaders, are pressuring Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to tackle graft at the heart of Iraq’s government.

The timing of their intervention is delicate.

If Abadi fails to satisfy Sistani and Sadr by delivering long-promised anti-corruption measures, his government may be weakened just as Iraqi forces are gearing up to fight for the largest city under Islamic State control – Mosul.

In recent weeks both clerics have increased pressure on Abadi. Sistani signalled his displeasure in January by saying his voice had “become sore” with repeating his calls for reforms. On Feb. 5, he said he would no longer deliver weekly sermons about political affairs, and he has been only addressing religious matters since.

Sadr followed up by escalating street protests.

Unlike in neighbouring Iran “there is no role in the Iraqi constitution for the clerics,” said Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based political analyst who advises the government. “They are playing an increasing role because the political class is discredited and no strongman can rise from the army like in the past.”

While the two men may share a mission, their differences are stark.

Sistani is a reclusive octogenarian based in the holy city of Najaf, who has no formal political power but whose teachings command authority for millions of Shi’ites. Sistani expresses his displeasure through silence.

The 42-year-old Sadr, who rose to prominence when his Mahdi Army battled U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion, has been more direct, setting Abadi a 45-day ultimatum to deliver on his reform promises.

Abadi has shown a willingness to act but has been slow to deliver. A plan to replace his ministers with independent technocrats, for example, was subsequently watered down. Sadr insists radical change is needed.

After staging weekly demonstrations in Baghdad, his followers started a sit-in on Friday at the gates of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone district that houses government offices, parliament, embassies and international organizations.

Branding the district a “bastion for supporting corruption”, Sadr urged his followers to remain peaceful.

Sistani’s office declined comment for this story.

A politician close to Sadr, lawmaker Dhiaa al-Asadi who heads the parliamentary bloc that supports Sadr, spoke of “an intuitive agreement” between the two clerics on reforming the state.

“A SORT OF HARMONY”

“There’s no such direct coordination, but there is a sort of harmony because Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr… needs to make sure that whatever he pronounces doesn’t contradict with what… Grand Ayatollah Sistani wants,” said Asadi.

The two clerics were communicating “from time to time” through their offices, he added.

According to Jiyad, Sistani and Sadr complement one another. “Grand Ayotallah Sistani is reserved and has a moral and religious influence … Sadr is vocal, politically active, and can mobilise people on the ground,” he said.

It is not the first time that Sistani has influenced the political agenda since the army’s collapse before Islamic State militants two years ago. He forced out prime minister Nuri al-Maliki after an eight-year premiership which alienated Sunni Muslims and saw corruption set in among senior army officers.

All it took for the Grand Ayatollah to oust Maliki was to say, in a Friday sermon delivered by one of his representatives, that politicians “should not cling to positions.’’

The move against Maliki, a close ally of Iran, showed Sistani’s independence from authorities in Tehran. Although of Iranian origin, he is opposed to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of Velayat-e Faqih, or clerical rule.

Sadr has also spent time in Iran, but is positioning himself as an embodiment of Arab Shi’ism that is more acceptable to the Sunnis as they are historically attached to the Arab world.

“Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr measures very well the relationship between Iraq and the neighbouring countries,” said lawmaker Asadi. “He is not against anybody, but he’s against corruption and whoever is the source of corruption.”

“NO VIOLENCE”

The Shi’ite-led governments which have ruled Iraq over the past 12 years have failed to improve living standards substantially and the sharp fall in the price of oil – Iraq’s main revenue earner – has made those failures more acute.

Iraq, with crude oil reserves among the largest in the world, ranked 161 out of 168 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2015.

The parliament’s Commission of Integrity, which investigates kickbacks and bribery accusations, has said that in 2015 it handled 13,067 cases involving nearly 4,000 civil servants and government officials, of whom 18 were current or former ministers. The only former minister arrested was a Christian who held the environment portfolio.

“They kept stealing and now that the oil money is no longer enough, they turn to our pensions and salaries,’’ said Abu Aliaa, 67, the owner of a fruit shack in the central Karrada district, referring to a government plan to cut pay in order to plug the public deficit. “They will never be full and that’s why the protests won’t stop unless we get rid of them.”

On March 10, Sadr formally announced his mission as guardian of good governance when he called on his supporters to rally in Baghdad in a statement that ended with a new title: The people’s servant and the fighter of corruption.

Abadi voiced concern that the street protests could spin out if control and put the nation’s security in danger when it needs to keep its focus on fighting Islamic State.

Sadr has sought to calm fears of sectarian bloodshed of the kind that happened a decade ago, when his Mahdi Army militia was accused of forming death squads targeting Sunnis and Shi’ite opponents. “No clashes, no weapons, no cutting off roads, no assaults, no disobedience,” he told followers.

Analyst Jiyad says Sistani, who has no political ambitions, may not support Sadr in case of a further escalation on the streets. “Sistani wants change while keeping the government stable,” he said. “He won’t back Sadr should he choose to escalate street protest in a way that would threaten order or causes a vacuum.”

Sadr’s protests may last until the end of March, the end of the 45-day ultimatum to Abadi to form a government made of technocrats not affiliated with political parties. Beyond that, the cleric plans to challenge the prime minister in a no- confidence vote in parliament.

And although his bloc in parliament does not have a majority to vote down Abadi should the other parties support the premier, Sadr said he could easily sustain pressure on the prime minister by mobilising grassroots supporters to continue their protests, possibly to breach into the Green Zone. His followers had, he said, methods besides the sit-in that were no less effective.

Source: http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-iraq-politics-idUKKCN0WM0UH

Iran refuses lawyer for American detained for months, family claims

An Iranian-American businessman who has been detained in Iran since October has been denied access to his lawyer by authorities, his attorney and family said in an interview and on social media over the last two days.

Siamak Namazi, a dual US-Iranian citizen, was detained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in October while visiting family, according to a source familiar with the matter who declined to be identified. Iranian authorities have not announced any charges against him.

Five other American citizens were released from Iranian prisons more than a month ago, as part of an historic prisoner swap with the United States. After their release, the secretary of state, John Kerry, said he had commitments from Iran that Namazi’s case would be resolved soon.

Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaei said in a phone interview on Friday that he was representing Namazi, and that Iran’s judiciary chief had not yet allowed him to meet his client. Such permission is required by Iranian law if an individual is accused of national security related crimes, Tabatabaei said, adding that he has not been officially informed of Namazi’s charges.

“Not me, nor any other lawyer has received such permission from the head of judiciary so far,” Tabatabaei said. “His mother has met him a few times, but his father has not been allowed to see him.”

Tabatabaei said he and Namazi’s mother this month met a prosecutor who promised to allow more meetings between her and her son.

In a post on Facebook on Saturday, Namazi’s mother, Effie Namazi, said she had not been able to see her son for some time and did not know his condition. But she said she had received news through his cellmate’s family that Namazi had begun a hunger strike.

“This step by Siamak has greatly increased the worries of his family, because it will certainly hurt his health,” Effie Namazi wrote. “As a mother I ask officials to at least allow for me and his father to meet with Siamak as soon as possible and jointly convince him to quit his hunger strike.”

Tabatabaei identified Namazi’s cellmate as Isa Saharkhiz, a prominent Iranian journalist who is also Tabatabaei’s client.

Hunger strikes have been one way for imprisoned Iranians without other recourse to pressure authorities. Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh ended a nearly 50-day hunger strike in 2012 after Iranian officials lifted a travel ban on her daughter.

Namazi was most recently working for Crescent Petroleum, an oil and gas company in the United Arab Emirates. Previously, he led a consulting firm in Iran. Born in Iran, he was educated in the US and was named a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum in 2007.

An official at Iran’s interests section in Washington declined to comment on the case. The State Department said it could not comment because of privacy concerns.

Namazi’s arrest has sent a chilling message to expatriates who hope to participate in Iran’s economic opening following the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

Tabatabaei is a prominent lawyer who has represented other detained dual nationals, including former US marine Amir Hekmati, one of the five Americans released from Iranian prison last month.

Ahmad Kiarostami, a friend of Namazi, said he worried that the hunger strike indicated Namazi had been driven to extreme measures by his detention.

“I don’t know what he wants, I don’t know what he needs,” Kiarostami said in a phone interview. “This is not a solution that the Siamak that I know comes to easily.”

Iran holds talks with Russia over missile defense upgrade

Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket system move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow May 4, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

Iran negotiated with Russia at the weekend over buying an upgraded version of the S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system, which it requires to meet its military needs, a foreign ministry spokesman in Tehran was quoted as saying.

Iran was blocked from obtaining the S-300 before it reached a deal with world powers last July on curbing its nuclear program, with Russia having canceled a contract to deliver an older version of the system in 2010 under pressure from the West.

Russia now hopes to reap economic and trade benefits from the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions on Iran last month.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Tehran on Sunday.

Commenting on the visit, ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari told state news agency IRNA: “Iran is negotiating with Russia for providing its military needs… One of the main issues is buying the next-generation S-300 missile system.”

Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan was quoted as saying by the Fars agency on Feb. 10 that Iran would start taking delivery of the S-300 within two months.

Iran has also shown interest in buying the more advanced S-400 system, though no negotiations were being conducted at the moment, Russia’s RIA news agency reported last week.

It was not clear if by “next generation” Ansari was referring to the S-400, which Russia says can hit missiles and aircraft up to 400 km (250 miles) away.

Israel has expressed “dismay” at Russia’s decision to lift the ban on supplying S-300 missiles to Iran, which does not recognize Israel as a nation and has said it will use all its power to destroy it.

Ansari also said Shoigu met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday to convey “President (Vladimir) Putin’s special message …regarding bilateral relations and some regional issues.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; editing by John Stonestreet)

Nuclear Deal in Place, Iran is Testing New Missiles and Doubling Down in Syria

First published on Foreign Policy here.

During festivities this month marking the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution, officials publicly displayed a mock-up of the country’s latest rocket, the Simorgh. Designed to launch a satellite into space, it bears a striking resemblance to the rocket North Korea just used for its own satellite launch, reinforcing concerns that Tehran is working with Pyongyang to develop advanced ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel and parts of Europe.

Iran’s unabashed pursuit of missile technology is the latest example of how the country is asserting itself in the aftermath of the landmark nuclear deal that Tehran signed in July with the United States and five other major powers. While U.S. officials say Iran has so far abided by the nuclear accord, Tehran in recent months has been flouting separate international restrictions on ballistic missiles and arms imports while expanding its support for militants in the region.

Iran has recently conducted two ballistic missile tests despite a U.N. ban and appears poised to launch its new Simorgh rocket. Western intelligence agencies fear Iran is working its way to building an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could eventually be outfitted with an atomic warhead — if Tehran were to opt out of the nuclear agreement.

News reporter gets angry and speaks truth about corrupt politicians

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