Hundreds of Iraqi protesters march in Baghdad ahead of vote

Hundreds of Iraqi protesters march in Baghdad ahead of vote

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Protesters hold posters of protesters who have been killed in anti-government demonstrations during anti-Government protest in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) more >

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By Associated Press –

Friday, October 1, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) – Hundreds of Iraqis marched in the center of Baghdad on Friday to mark two years since mass anti-government protests erupted in the Iraqi capital and southern provinces calling for reforms.

Around 1,000 protesters took part in the event, including a significant number of women, many carrying photos of loved ones who were killed by security forces during the protests. The commemoration comes a week before Iraq plans to hold early elections, which had been a key demand of tens of thousands of protesters who thronged the streets and public squares from October 2019 until early 2020.

Demonstrators, mostly young people, had camped out in the capital’s Tahrir Square for months, decrying endemic corruption, poor services and unemployment.

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The movement petered out owing to the government’s heavy-handed response and the coronavirus pandemic. Over 600 people died as security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Now, many among the protest movement are calling for a boycott of the elections scheduled for Oct. 10, convinced that nothing will change. They are protesting, in particular, a string of targeted killings against civil society groups and outspoken activists for which no one has been held accountable. The killings have created a climate of fear and widespread reluctance to take part in the voting, particularly among young Iraqis who constitute the largest group of voters in Iraq.

“I am against participating in these elections because they are meaningless. It’s the same parties in power and nothing will change,” said Walid al-Madani, a 39-year-old civil servant taking part in Friday’s protest.

Hundreds of riot police and federal policemen fanned out in Baghdad ahead of the planned march.

“We don’t want a paradise, we want a nation,” read one of the banners carried by protesters who gathered Friday at Fardous Square and marched toward Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the October 2019 protests.

Another banner read: “You will not silence the voice of Tishreen,” Arabic for October, as Iraqis refer to the protests after the month they broke out.

Iraqi PM urges less attention to ‘anti-American’ propaganda

Iraqi PM urges less attention to ‘anti-American’ propaganda

In interview, al-Kadhimi says anti-U.S. sentiment overstated abroad

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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi listens during his meeting with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Americans would do well to pay less attention to negative propaganda about their country and realize there are millions of people around the world, including in Iraq, who appreciate the United States as a beacon of democracy and a force for progress in the world.

That was a core message Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought with him to Washington this week, even if it was overshadowed in mainstream media attention by the announcement President Biden was ending the long U.S. combat mission in Iraq first begun in the campaign to oust dictator Saddam Hussein.

“One problem of Americans is that they tend to believe negative propaganda against America,” Mr. al-Kadhimi said in a behind-the-scenes discussion with The Washington Times, during which he asserted that “Iraqis recognize that the U.S. got rid of an evil dictator and helped build a democracy.”

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“Now we are only interested in moving forward,” the Iraqi prime minister told Times columnist Tim Constantine, who also produces “The Capitol Hill Show,” a weekly radio and podcast program. In wide-ranging remarks, Mr. al-Kadhimi also downplayed the threat of an Islamic State resurgence in Iraq and rejected concerns about outsized Iranian influence in Baghdad with the re-defining of the American mission there.

Still, with Mr. Biden also wrapping up the two-decade U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, the region is watching anxiously to see if a security vacuum develops in the wake of the American realignment and who might step in to exploit it.

Mr. al-Kadhimi responded with a diplomatic touch when pressed on whether Iraq is currently being squeezed between U.S. and Iranian forces. “Let me be clear: Iraq is a friend of the United States. We are a neighbor of Iran,” he said, smiling warmly to emphasize the nuance presented by the remark.

The prime minister, a onetime journalist and diplomat, was also optimistic that his country will emerge as a major promoter of regional peace during the years ahead. “Iraq has always played a role in how different civilizations have interacted, both in ancient history and in more recent history,” he said. “Iraq’s role regressed badly in the last 50 years, however, because of wayward rulers. Iraq needs to restore their historic role. We are able to find common language and common interests and are certainly capable of playing that role.”

Mr. al-Kadhimi expressed hope that such forward-leaning thinking will shine through current tensions of regional geopolitics — tension that hung in the backdrop of his momentous meeting Monday at the White House with President Biden that could shape the course of his country’s politics for years to come.

ISIS in check?

Some 2,500 American forces are expected to remain in Iraq indefinitely, although Biden administration officials say the U.S. troops’ role will shift to a purely advisory and training mission going forward.

At the same time, Mr. Biden stressed Monday that the U.S. will continue to battle remnants of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. The terrorist group, although it has lost al of the vast territory it once held in Syria and Iraq, still has many thousands of trained fighters in its ranks and recently claimed responsibility for a July 19 bombing in Baghdad that killed 35 people.

Mr. al-Kadhimi told The Times that while there currently is no territory in Iraq under ISIS control, the group does continue to maintain “sleeper cells” that Iraqi forces are constantly scrambling to disrupt. “We have been successful in that endeavor and have had major groups arrested,” he said. Security forces nearly always succeed in preempting” attacks like the one that rocked the Iraqi capital on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha on July 19.

“In that attack, on the eve of Eid, [Islamic State] planned multiple operations. All others were foiled. More importantly, we captured the cell that planned those attacks,” the Iraqi prime minister said.

Mr. al-Kadhimi maintained that Iraqi forces are now prepared to manage the situation without major help from Americans.  He also said attacks by ISIS remnants should not affect the future posture of U.S. forces in Iraq — echoing comments he made to the Associated Press earlier in the week that “there is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil.”

Iran’s rising influence?

Away from the ISIS issue, the matter of Iranian influence looms large for Iraq, particularly as the Biden administration is seeking its diplomatic outreach to Tehran through a revival of the Obama-era nuclear deal that President Trump repudiated three years ago.

Critics say Mr. Biden’s broader policy of pushing for a reduced U.S. military role in Iraq amounts to a major gamble that could undercut Washington’s ability to steer the future of the Iraqi government and military away from rising Iranian influence.

U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and neighboring Syria have come under fire in recent years from Iran-backed militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. U.S. diplomatic facilities in Baghdad’s famed Green Zone are also targeting by militants.

American officials say those two militias receive significant financial and logistical support from Iran, even as they operate within the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization of predominantly Shiite Muslim militias based in Iraq that the al-Kadhimi government has been trying to fold into his country’s broader security forces.

It’s a complex dynamic that has resulted in friction between Baghdad and Washington, most notably in late June when the Biden administration ordered U.S. forces to bomb what the White House said were “facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups” along the Iraq-Syria border.

The Pentagon said the bombing was a response to attacks by the Iran-backed groups on American interests in Iraq, but Mr. al-Kadhimi was sharply critical of the U.S. action. He issued a statement at the time calling it a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”

Some saw the comment as a rhetorical attempt to appease anti-American legislators in parliament and Iran, whose rulers have had their own issues with Mr. al-Kadhimi since the Iraqi prime minister demanded earlier this year that they begin restraining their militias in the region.

Mr. al-Kadhim told The Times on Monday that his meeting with Mr. Biden was “definitely excellent,” asserting that the U.S. president “understands Iraq very well.”

A future without war?

Mr. al-Kadhimi underscored that Iraqis view the United States as a positive force in arenas beyond the security realm.

He said his team presented the Biden administration with a “specific five-year plan” for how to strengthen Iraq-U.S. ties in ways that could score “major investments” for Iraq from Western corporations.

“We are here to organize our relationship, not just security. We are organizing efforts for the economy, the environment, the scientific and corporate sectors,” the Iraqi prime minister said. “The U.S. has offered us a lot in the way of training and understanding of security. Our troops are now equal to the task.”

“Economically, we wish to be liberated from the control of oil revenues,” he said. Iraq’s goal, he added, is to “diversify to clean energy, agriculture and industry.”

“We are working with the West to conduct and review options and move toward a digital economy,” he added. “Iraq has tremendous economic potential, in part because of the growing population. Iraq has a young population and it is slightly more than 50% female. It increases by approximately 1.2 million people every year. Such population growth requires market growth.”

“We like to look at the glass as half-full,” he told The Times. “Our people do not buy into the anti-American message in general. Of course there are different opinions among different people, but when we look at the development of science, technology and culture, …I’m sure history will give credit to the United States for the progress.”

• Washington Times writer Tim Constantine contributed to this article.

Iraqi health officials: 64 dead in fire at coronavirus ward

Iraqi health officials: 64 dead in fire at coronavirus ward

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People gather outside a COVID-19 hospital in Nasiriyah, Iraq, early Tuesday, July 13, 2021. A catastrophic blaze erupted at the coronavirus hospital ward. It was the second time a large fire killed coronavirus patients in an Iraqi hospital this year. … more >

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By Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — The death toll from a catastrophic blaze that erupted at a coronavirus hospital ward in southern Iraq the previous day rose to 64 on Tuesday, Iraqi medical officials said.

Two health officials said more than 100 people were also injured in the fire that torched the coronavirus ward of al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriyah on Monday.

Anguished relatives were still looking for traces of their loved ones on Tuesday morning, searching through the debris of charred blankets and belongings inside the torched remains of the ward. A blackened skull of a deceased female patient from the ward was found.

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Many cried openly, their tears tinged with anger, blaming both the provincial government of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriyah is located, and the federal government in Baghdad for years of mismanagement and neglect.

“The whole state system has collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price,” said Haidar al-Askari, who was at the scene of the blaze.

Overnight, firefighters and rescuers — many with just flashlights and using blankets to extinguish small fires still smoldering in places — had frantically worked searching through the ward in the darkness. As dawn broke, bodies covered with sheets were laid on the ground outside the hospital.

Earlier, officials had said the fire was caused by an electric short circuit, but provided no more details. Another official said the blaze erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

The new ward, opened just three months ago, contained 70 beds.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi chaired an emergency meeting in the wake of the fire and ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar, as well as the director of the hospital and the city’s director of civil defense. A government investigation was also launched.

In the nearby Shiite holy city of Najaf, mourners prepared to bury some of the victims.

It was the second time a large fire killed coronavirus patients in an Iraqi hospital this year. At least 82 people died at Ibn al-Khateeb hospital in Baghdad in April, when an oxygen tank exploded, sparking the blaze.

That incident brought to light widespread negligence and systemic mismanagement in Iraq’s hospitals. Doctors have decried lax safety rules, especially around the oxygen cylinders.

On Monday, Ammar al-Zamili, spokesman for the Dhi Qar health department, told local media that there were at least 63 patients inside the ward when the fire began. Maj. Gen. Khalid Bohan, head of Iraq’s civil defense, said in comments to the press that the building was constructed from flammable materials and prone to fire.

Iraq is in the midst of another severe COVID-19 surge. Daily coronavirus rates peaked last week at 9,000 new cases. After decades of war and sanctions, Iraq’s health sector has struggled to contain the virus. Over 17,000 people have died of the virus among 1.4 million confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.

Iraqi militias suspected in rocket attack that injures U.S. troops

Iraqi militias suspected in rocket attack that injures two U.S. troops

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This Dec. 29, 2019, aerial file photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, File) more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Two U.S. servicemen were injured in the latest rocket attack on American forces stationed in Iraq, adding new fuel to a clash between the U.S. military and Iraqi Shiite militia groups with strong ties to Iran.

A second attack Wednesday on U.S. and U.S.-allied Syrian forces operating in eastern Syria was foiled, officials said.

An investigation was already underway to find out who was behind an attack early Wednesday that sent more than a dozen rockets onto a base in western Iraq that hosts U.S. and coalition forces involved in the international campaign against the Islamic State.

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Pentagon officials said two U.S. service members sustained minor injuries in the barrage and were treated for concussions and abrasions.

At least 14 rockets were fired at Iraq’s Ain al-Asad Air Base. Rockets landed both on the base and in the general area, reportedly damaging homes and a mosque in the area.

Powerful Iraqi Shiite militia groups, with strong support from Iran and only tenuous under the control of Baghdad, have led the push to drive the remaining contingent of U.S. and allied troops from the country. The U.S. mission remains in Iraq nearly two decades after the ouster of Saddam Hussein to prevent a resurgence of the Sunni terror group Islamic State.

The Iraqi central government, desperate to avoid being dragged into a shooting war between Washington and Tehran, condemned Wednesday’s attacks.

“Once again, the enemies of Iraq are intrusive and targeting the country’s security, sovereignty and the safety of our citizens,” Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesperson Yehia Rasool tweeted.

Iraqi military sources told Reuters that a rocket launcher that had been attached to the back of a truck was used in the attack. It was later found in a nearby farmer’s field where it had been set ablaze.

Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the U.S. mission in Iraq, said the rocket attack “undermines the authority of Iraqi institutions, the rule of law and Iraqi national sovereignty.”

“Each attack against the coalition endangers the lives of [Iraqi security forces] and peshmerga forces,” Col. Marotto said in a Twitter post. The peshmerga are the military forces of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

The rocket barrage came less than two weeks after President Biden ordered U.S. airstrikes on a pair of Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups operating in both Syria and Iraq, reportedly killing four militants. Pentagon officials said the Shiite groups, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, were behind at least five drone attacks on U.S. forces since April and with a number of other rocket barrages.

Dozens of American service members suffered brain injuries in January 2020 during a rocket attack on the al-Asad airbase. The assault was in retaliation for an earlier U.S. airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military leader, and a top commander of Iraqi militia forces who was meeting with him at Baghdad’s airport.

Tamar Badawi, a security analyst based in Turkey, said an insurgent group calling itself “Tha’ar al-Muhandis,” has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack. He said the group has been posting messages about it on the Telegram social media platform, claiming 30 rockets were fired with the targets being struck “with high precision.”

“We reiterate to the brute (sic) occupation that we will force you to withdraw from our lands undefeated,” Mr. Badawi said they wrote.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Badawi said Tha’ar al-Muhandis first appeared in May 2020 and was the fourth or fifth insurgent militia to sprung up since Iraqi paramilitary groups began outsourcing operations to new groups.

“The group is famous for claiming in May 2020 the targeting of a U.S. Chinook [helicopter] with two ground-to-air missiles in Baghdad’s southern belt,” Mr. Badawi tweeted.

• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

Chinese in Iraq blocked from flying home after virus cases

Chinese in Iraq blocked from flying home after virus cases

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Associated Press

Friday, May 7, 2021

BEIJING (AP) – Employees of two Chinese state-owned companies in Iraq are blocked from returning to China for two months after 14 coworkers flew home with the coronavirus, Beijing’s embassy in Baghdad said Friday.

China has repeatedly suspended the rights of airlines to fly certain routes after infections were found among their passengers. But a decision to target Chinese citizens working for state-owned companies abroad is unusual.

The 14 employees who flew home with the virus in April worked for China Power Construction Corp. in Rumaila and for the China Machinery Engineering Corp. in Basra, the Chinese Embassy said on its social media account.

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Beijing suspended issuing health codes to other employees on those projects for two months, the embassy said. That blocks them from boarding flights to China.

Failure to detect the virus before the employees boarded two Iraqi Airlines flights “caused a serious risk of importing the epidemic,” the statement said. It gave no details of whether they passed the virus to anyone in China.

The ruling Communist Party has lifted most restrictions on travel and business within China since declaring the virus under control last March. It is gradually easing controls on travel into and out of the country.

Health codes, carried on smartphones, are used in China to track whether individuals have been infected or have visited high-risk areas.

Once the suspension is lifted, the employees in Iraq will be required to undergo virus tests within 48 hours of boarding a flight, the embassy said.

Also Friday, the Chinese air regulator said Iraqi Airlines’ flights from Baghdad to Guangzhou would be suspended for two weeks due to the incident.

The air regulator also announced two-week suspensions of routes flown by Air France, Rwanda Airlines and Bangladesh’s US-Bangla Airlines because infected passengers were found on their flights.

New Iranian propaganda music video shows missile hit on U.S. Capitol

New Iranian propaganda music video shows missile hit on U.S. Capitol

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In this Nov. 6, 2020, photo, dawn arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) **FILE** more >

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By Rowan Scarborough

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Iran‘s propaganda machine has produced a new bellicose song to serve as background music for video scenes of a missile destroying the U.S. Capitol.

“We will destroy the palace of oppression,” say the lyrics, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) released Wednesday.

The video debuted Sunday on state-owned Channel 1 as a lead-up to a televised speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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The ayatollah recently condemned his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for leaked remarks in which he criticized the late, revered Gen. Qasem Soleimani for what he saw as military meddling in Mr. Zarif’s diplomatic affairs.

“This was a big mistake that must not be made by an official of the Islamic Republic,” the Supreme Leader told the nation, according to Reuters.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that the new nationalistic song, “A Vigilant and Strong Nation,” lamented the death of Gen. Soleimani, who commanded Iran‘s foreign intervention Qods Force, in a U.S. military strike in January 2020. Then-President Trump approved rubbing out Mr. Soleimani in a drone missile strike as he left the Baghdad airport by car on a mission that U.S. officials said was intended to plan more attacks on U.S. troops by Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups. Also killed was a senior Iraqi militia leader.

Iran‘s provocative film of the U.S. Capitol destruction comes as President Biden has made restarting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — which Mr. Trump repudiated three years later — as one of his top foreign policy objectives.

“You took my heart, oh Soleimani, to the city of the crying eyes,” the state-sponsored song says. “We are the avengers. We are united.”

A refrain goes: “We are the avengers. We are united. We are the avengers. We are united.”

“Today, Ali wants Ali’s army. The Leader wants a vigilant and strong nation. With Ali’s army, we will destroy the palace of oppression. The good tidings of Jerusalem’s liberation come from Iran. The path and the land are ready, let us go.”

The video shows a rocket launching from what appears to be a desert base and then scoring a direct hit on the Capitol, which bursts into flames.

“The path and the land are ready. Let us go,” say the lyrics.

Iran’s top diplomat praises Iraq efforts as regional broker

Iran’s top diplomat praises Iraq efforts as regional broker

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Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein, right, meets with visiting Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed) more >

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Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) – Iran’s foreign minister on Monday praised Baghdad‘s efforts aimed at bolstering regional stability, saying he hopes they would lead to “more negotiations and understandings” in the region.

Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke to reporters during a visit to the Iraqi capital, which earlier this month hosted the first round of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The talks signaled a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighboring countries and at least one still-raging war.

Zarif also extended Iran’s condolences after a massive fire at a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients over the weekend killed 82 people. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.

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Riyadh has been trying to end its years-long war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have increasingly launched missiles and bomb-laden drones at the kingdom to targeting crucial sites and oil infrastructure. Ending that war could be a bargaining chip for the Iranians as they seek sanctions relief from nuclear talks in Vienna.

“We welcome Iraq’s vital role in the region and we hope that day after day that strengthens Iraq’s role for the stability of the region,” Zarif said during a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Fouad Hussein.

“We thank the Iraqi government for exerting its efforts,” Zarif said, without confirming the Saudi-Iran talks were indeed held in Iraq. “We hope that these efforts will lead to more negotiations and understandings in the region.”

All foreign powers will eventually leave, Zarif added, but “we will stay here and we should base our relations on good neighborhood, no interference and mutual respect.”

Iraq, which has ties with both the U.S. and Iran, has often borne the brunt of Saudi-Iran rivalry.

Hussein said Iraq’s foreign policy is to build “balanced relation with everyone and calm things.”

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia have confirmed the talks took place, though Iranian officials have alluded to them and welcomed them.

Iran-Saudi relations worsened considerably in 2016, when Riyadh removed its diplomats after protesters attacked the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in retaliation for its execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Those posts have remained closed. At the time, Iraq offered itself as a possible mediator between the two countries.

During his Iraq visit, Zarif is scheduled to meet top officials, visit the holy Shiite city of Najaf and also the Kurdish region in the north.

The visit coincided with a firestorm within Iran set off by a leaked recording of Zarif speaking in an interview to a well known economist. Zarif took no questions from journalists after giving his brief statement in Baghdad and did not address the issue.

Fire sweeps through Baghdad hospital COVID-19 ward

Massive fire sweeps through COVID-19 ward of Baghdad hospital

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In this image made from video, first responders work the scene of a fire at a hospital in Baghdad on Saturday, April 24, 2021. The fire broke out in the Baghdad hospital that cares for coronavirus patients after oxygen cylinders … more >

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By

Associated Press

Sunday, April 25, 2021

BAGHDAD — The death toll from a massive fire at a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients rose to at least 82 Sunday as anxious families searched for missing relatives and the government suspended key health officials for alleged negligence.

The flames, described by one witness as “volcanoes of fire,” swept through the intensive care unit of the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital, which tends exclusively to COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.

Nurse Maher Ahmed was called to the scene late Saturday to help evacuate patients.

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“I could not have imagined it would be a massive blaze like that,” he said. The flames overwhelmed the hospital’s second floor isolation hall within three to four minutes of the oxygen cylinder exploding, he said. “Volcanoes of fire.”

Most of those killed suffered severe burns, he said. Others were overcome by smoke, unwilling to leave behind relatives hooked up to ventilators. Ahmed said the patients could not be moved. “They would have minutes to live without oxygen.”

He said he and others watched helplessly as one patient struggled to breathe amid the smoke.

Widespread negligence on the part of health officials is to blame for the fire, Iraq‘s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said Sunday. Following a special cabinet meeting to discuss the blaze, the government suspended key officials, including the health minister and the governor of Baghdad province. Other officials, including the hospital director, were dismissed from their posts.

It took firefighters and civil defense teams until early Sunday to put out the flames.

Among the dead were at least 28 patients on ventilators, tweeted Ali al-Bayati, a spokesman of the country’s independent Human Rights Commission, a semi-official body.

Paramedics carried the bodies, many burned beyond recognition, to al-Zafaraniya Hospital, where Ahmed said forensics teams will attempt to identify them by matching DNA samples to relatives.

By midday Sunday, relatives were still searching anxiously for loved ones.

“Please, two of my relatives are missing. … I am going to die (without news about them),” posted a young woman on social media after a fruitless search for her family members. “I hope someone can help us find Sadi Abdul Kareem and Samir Abdul Kareem, they were in the ICU.”

Rokya Kareem, 30, was looking frantically for her friend Riyam Rahman, a pharmacist, who was visiting her mother at the hospital. Rahman’s mother, Basima, was admitted to the hospital 45 days ago with complications from COVID-19.

“All we know is they were in the room next to where the fire started,” she said. “Her phone is switched off, and her family has gone to every hospital trying to find them.”

The fire happened as Iraq grapples with a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Daily virus cases now average around 8,000, the highest level since Iraq began recording infection rates early last year. At least 15,200 people have died of coronavirus in Iraq among at least 100,000 confirmed cases.

Years of sanctions and war have crippled the country’s health sector, and the latest infection wave has tested the limits of health facilities. Security concerns also plague the country as frequent rocket attacks continue to target army bases hosting foreign troops and the seat of Iraq‘s government.

The deadly fire was only the latest chapter in Iraq‘s poor record for public safety.

In March 2019, over 100 people died when a ferry capsized on the Tigris River near the northern city of Mosul. The boat overturned due to overcrowding and high water. A few months later, in September 2019, a fire ripped through Baghdad‘s Shorja market, a major commercial area in the city, burning many shops to the ground.

Part of the problem is that laws and regulations governing public safety and health are old, said Yesar al-Maliki, an adviser to the Iraq Energy Institute.

“It has to do with the overall system. There are no detailed regulations and (standard operating procedures) on how to do basic things step by step, especially when handling risky equipment,” said Al-Maliki, who also worked in Iraq‘s oil and gas industry.

“There needs to be specialists handling policy, regulation and implementation,” he said. “If there was a standard operating procedure on how to handle oxygen bottles, especially noticing wear and tear … This wouldn’t have happened.”

The prime minster convened the special cabinet session hours after the flames broke out. In addition to suspending the health minister, Hasan al-Tamimi, and Baghdad‘s governor, the cabinet ordered an investigation of the health minister and key hospital officials responsible for overseeing safety measures.

The cabinet also fired the director-general of the Baghdad health department in the al-Rusafa area, where the hospital is located, and the hospital’s director of engineering and maintenance, according to a statement from the Health Ministry and the prime minister’s office.

“Negligence in such matters is not a mistake, but a crime for which all negligent parties must bear responsibility,” al-Kadhimi said Sunday after a meeting.

The United Nations envoy to Iraq, Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed “shock and pain” over the fire in a statement and called for stronger protection measures in hospitals.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis, who concluded a historic trip to Iraq last month, remembered those who perished in the blaze. Addressing people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his customary Sunday appearance, Francis mentioned the news of the dead. “Let’s pray for them,” he said.

Pope, top Iraq Shiite cleric hold historic, symbolic meeting

Pope, top Iraq Shiite cleric hold historic, symbolic meeting

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A photo released by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani Office shows the meeting between Pope Francis, right, and Shiite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, Saturday, March 6, 2021. Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday to … more >

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By Nicole Winfield and Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press

Saturday, March 6, 2021

PLAINS OF UR, Iraq (AP) — Pope Francis and Iraq‘s top Shiite cleric delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during a historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam and his rare but powerful political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq. He is a deeply revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shiites worldwide.

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The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.

Early Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff, traveling in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam. He then walked the few meters (yards) to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades.

A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping from an apparent flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.

The “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room – a rare honor. Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks. Al-Sistani, who rarely appears in public – even on television – wore black robes and a black turban, in simple contrast to Francis’ all-white cassock.

The official said there was some concern about the fact that the pope had met with so many people the day before. Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not. The aging ayatollah, who underwent surgery for a fractured thigh bone last year, looked tired.

The pope removed his shoes before entering al-Sistani‘s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water. Al-Sistani spoke for most of the meeting. Francis paused before leaving al-Sistani’s room to have a last look, the official said.

The pope arrived later in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

Religious leaders stood to greet him. While Francis wore a mask, few of the leaders on the tented stage did. The meeting was held in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah.

The Vatican said Iraqi Jews were invited to the event but did not attend, without providing further details. Iraq’s ancient Jewish community was decimated in the 20th century by violence and mass emigration fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and only a handful remain.

The Vatican said the historic visit to al-Sistani was a chance for Francis to emphasize the need for collaboration and friendship between different religious communities.

In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen against their community.

Iraqis cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.

”We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.

On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq‘s modern history.

In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shiite majority came under attack by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the Islamic State group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.

It has also seen recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities, followed by U.S. airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria. The violence is linked to the standoff between the U.S. and Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran. President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the deal.

Francis’ visit to Najaf and nearby Ur traverses provinces that have seen recent instability. In Nasiriyah, where the Plains of Ur is located, protest violence left at least five dead last month. Most were killed when Iraqi security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds.

Protest violence was also seen in Najaf last year, but abated as the mass anti-government movement that engulfed Iraq gradually petered out.

___

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Associated Press journalists Anmar Khalil in Najaf, Iraq, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed.

Pope Francis urges Iraq to embrace its Christians on historic visit

Pope Francis urges Iraq to embrace its Christians on historic visit

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Pope Francis is welcomed upon his arrival at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Cathedral, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put … more >

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By Nicole Winfield and Samya Kullab

Associated Press

Updated: 2:51 p.m. on
Friday, March 5, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — Pope Francis opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday with a plea for the country to protect its centuries-old diversity, urging Muslims to embrace their Christian neighbors as a precious resource and asking the embattled Christian community — “though small like a mustard seed” — to persevere.

Francis brushed aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to resume his globe-trotting papacy after a yearlong hiatus spent under COVID-19 lockdown in Vatican City. His primary aim over the weekend is to encourage Iraq‘s dwindling Christian population, which was violently persecuted by the Islamic State group and still faces discrimination by the Muslim majority, to stay and help rebuild the country devastated by wars and strife. 

“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family,” Francis told Iraqi authorities in his welcoming address, “will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.” 

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The 84-year-old pope donned a facemask during the flight from Rome and throughout all his protocol visits, as did his hosts. But the masks came off when the leaders sat down to talk, and social distancing and other health measures appeared lax at the airport and on the streets of Baghdad, despite the country’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak. 

The government is eager to show off the relative stability it has achieved after the defeat of the IS “caliphate.” Nonetheless, security measures were tight.

Francis, who relishes plunging into crowds and likes to travel in an open-sided popemobile, was transported around Baghdad in an armored black BMWi750, flanked by rows of motorcycle police. It was believed to be the first time Francis had used a bulletproof car — both to protect him and keep crowds from forming.

Iraqis, though, seemed keen to welcome Francis and the global attention his visit brought. Some lined the road to cheer his motorcade. Banners and posters in central Baghdad depicted Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers.” 

Some hoping to get close were sorely disappointed by the heavy security cordons.

“It was my great wish to meet the pope and pray for my sick daughter and pray for her to be healed. But this wish was not fulfilled,” said Raad William Georges, a 52-year-old father of three who said he was turned away when he tried to see Francis during his visit to Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in the Karrada neighborhood.

“This opportunity will not be repeated,” he said ruefully. “I will try tomorrow, I know it will not happen, but I will try.”

Francis told reporters aboard the papal plane that he was happy to be resuming his travels again and said it was particularly symbolic that his first trip was to Iraq, the traditional birthplace of Abraham, revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews.

“This is an emblematic journey,” he said. “It is also a duty to a land tormented by many years.”

Francis was visibly limping throughout the afternoon in a sign his sciatica nerve pain, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him. He nearly tripped as he climbed up the steps to the cathedral and an aide had to steady him. 

At a pomp-filled gathering with President Barham Salih at a palace inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, Francis said Christians and other minorities in Iraq deserve the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority.

“The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate,” he said. “Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”

Salih, a member of Iraq‘s ethnic Kurdish minority, echoed his call.

“The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” Salih said. “The continued migration of Christians from the countries of the east will have dire consequences for the ability of the people from the same region to live together.” 

The Iraq visit is in keeping with Francis‘ long-standing effort to improve relations with the Muslim world, which has accelerated in recent years with his friendship with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. It will reach a new high with his meeting Saturday with Iraq‘s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a figure revered in Iraq and beyond.

In Iraq, the pontiff bringing his call for tolerance to a country rich in ethnic and religious diversity but deeply traumatized by hatreds. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, it has seen vicious sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunni Muslims, clashes and tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and militant atrocities against minorities like Christians and Yazidis. 

The few Christians who remain harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face discrimination that long predated IS. 

Iraq‘s Christians, whose presence here goes back nearly to the time of Christ, belong to a number of rites and denominations, with the Chaldean Catholic the largest, along with Syriac Catholics, Assyrians and several Orthodox churches. They once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq, estimated at around 1.4 million. But their numbers began to fall amid the post-2003 turmoil when Sunni militants often targeted Christians. 

They received a further blow when IS in 2014 swept through northern Iraq, including traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh plains. Their extremist version of Islam forced residents to flee to the neighboring Kurdish region or further afield. 

Few have returned — estimates suggest there are fewer than 300,000 Christians still in Iraq and many of those remain displaced from their homes. Those who did go back found homes and churches destroyed. Many feel intimidated by Shiite militias controlling some areas.

There are practical struggles, as well. Many Iraqi Christians cannot find work and blame discriminatory practices in the public sector, Iraq‘s largest employer. Public jobs have been mostly controlled by Shiite political elites. 

For the pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq‘s beleaguered Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church” that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia. 

At Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, Francis prayed and honored the victims of one of the worst massacres of Christians,  the 2010 attack on the cathedral by Islamic militants that left 58 people dead. 

Speaking to congregants, he urged Christians to persevere in Iraq to ensure that its Catholic community, “though small like a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole” — using an image found in both the Bible and Quran.

On Sunday, Francis will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to the town of Qaraqosh, where he will bless their church that was vandalized and used as a firing range by IS.

Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. Francis, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not, raising questions about the  potential for the trip to fuel infections.

The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced. 

To some degree they were, but that didn’t diminish the happiness of ordinary Iraqis — Christians and Muslims alike — that Francis had come to their home.

“We cannot express our joy because this for sure is a historic event which we will keep remembering,” said Rafif Issa. “All Iraqis are happy, not just the Christians. We hope it will be a blessed day for us and for all the Iraqi people.”

___

AP journalist Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed.

U.S. forces: Rockets hit airbase in Iraq hosting American troops

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This Dec. 29, 2019, aerial file photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq. At least 10 rockets targeted a military base in western Iraq that hosts U.S.-led coalition troops on Wednesday, … more >

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By Samya Kullab

Associated Press

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — At least 10 rockets targeted a military base in western Iraq that hosts U.S.-led coalition troops on Wednesday, the coalition and the Iraqi military said. It was not immediately known if there were any casualties.

The rockets struck Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province at 7:20 a.m., spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto said.

Later, the Iraqi military released a statement saying the attack did not cause significant losses and that security forces had found the launch pad used for the missiles. An Iraqi military official said they had been found in the al-Baghdadi area of Anbar, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to brief media.

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It was the first attack since the U.S. struck Iran-aligned militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week that killed one militiaman, stoking fears of a possible repeat of a series of tit-for-tat attacks that escalated last year, culminating in the U.S.-directed drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport.

Wednesday’s attack targeted the same base where Iran struck with a barrage of missiles in January last year in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani. Dozens of U.S. service members were injured, suffering concussions in that strike.

Denmark, which also has troops at the base, condemned the attack, saying that coalition forces at Ain al-Asad are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, helping to bring stability and security to the country.

“Despicable attacks against Ain al-Asad base in #Iraq are completely unacceptable,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod tweeted. The Danish armed forces said two Danes, who were in the camp at the time of the attack, are unharmed.

Wednesday’s attack comes two days before Pope Francis’ is scheduled to visit Iraq in a much anticipated trip that will include Baghdad, southern Iraq and in the northern city of Irbil.

Last week’s U.S. strike along the border had been in response to a spate of rocket attacks that targeted the American presence, including one that killed a coalition contractor from the Philippines outside the Irbil airport.

After that attack, the Pentagon said the strike was a “proportionate military response” taken after consulting coalition partners.

Marotto said the Iraqi security forces were leading an investigation into the attack on Ain al-Asad.

U.S. troops in Iraq significantly decreased their presence in the country last year under the Trump administration. The forces withdrew from several Iraqi based across the country to consolidate chiefly in Ain al-Asad and Baghad.

Frequent rocket attacks targeting the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy, during President Donald Trump’s time in office frustrated the administration, leading to threats of embassy closure and escalatory strikes.

___

Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

Officials: Suicide bombs rock central Baghdad, 6 dead

Officials: Suicide bombs rock central Baghdad, 6 dead

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People and security forces gather at the site of a deadly bomb attack in Baghdad’s bustling commercial area, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Twin suicide bombings hit Iraq’s capital Thursday killing and wounding civilians, police and state TV said. (AP … more >

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By Murtada Faraj

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — Twin suicide bombings hit Iraq’s capital Thursday killing at least six people and wounding at least 25 others, police and state TV said.

Three police officials said two explosions hit a commercial center in central Baghdad. Iraqi state television reported they were suicide bombings. Many of the wounded were in serious condition and there was property damage.

The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

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The bombings are the first in years to target Baghdad’s bustling commercial area. They come amid heightened political tensions as Iraq looks to have early elections in October.

The perpetrators were not immediately known. Iraq has seen attacks perpetrated by both the Islamic State group and militia groups in recent months.

Militias have routinely targeted the American presence with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone. The pace of the attacks has decreased since an informal truce was declared by Iran-backed armed groups in October.

The Islamic State group has perpetrated similar attacks in the past but has rarely been able to target the capital since being dislodged by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in 2017 battles.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran president, issues Donald Trump death threat

Iran’s Rouhani issues Trump death threat: ‘In a few days, the life of this criminal will end’

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a ceremony celebrating the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, at the Azadi, Freedom, Square in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other cities and towns … more >

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By Victor Morton

The Washington Times

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that President Trump will soon be dead while vowing blood vengeance for the killing of an Iranian general.

Mr. Rouhani made the threat in a speech to the Iranian Cabinet about the “martyred” Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which was posted in English on the Iranian presidential Website.

“One of the effects of this stupid and disgraceful act,” Mr. Rouhani said of the airstrike that killed Soleimani, “was that Trumpism ended.”

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“In a few days, the life of this criminal will end and he will go to the dustbin of history,” the official Iranian government site quoted him in English as having said.

The warning and prediction came less than a week before the first anniversary of the Jan. 3 drone strike on Baghdad airport.

“We are very happy about this and we believe that the period after Trump will be a better condition for regional and global stability,” Mr. Rouhani said.

He also, as he has frequently vowed fatal and equal retaliation for what Iran has characterized as the assassination of a prominent government official.

“As I said after the martyrdom of Martyr Soleimani, I emphasize again that if you cut off Martyr Soleimani’s hand, we will cut off your leg from the region and we will continue the resistance until that day,” Mr. Rouhani said.

“Our nation will not give up until they take revenge on his blood as its right,” the president vowed.

Donald Trump threatens retaliation if Iran-backed groups target Americans

‘Some friendly health advice’: Trump, Iran exchange fiery rhetoric as tensions rise

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President Trump tweeted: Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN… ” (Screenshot from President Trump’s Twitter feed) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Iran‘s foreign minister hurled invective at the White House on Thursday, accusing President Trump of irrationally plotting to attack Iran during his final weeks in office and ratcheting up hostility just as President-elect Joseph R. Biden prepares to extend a diplomatic olive branch to Tehran.

The fiery rhetoric from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was a direct response to Mr. Trump‘s threatening tweets a day earlier, extending a war of words between the two men. Both are well-versed in the art of theatrical battle on Twitter.

While the back-and-forth remained rhetorical on Christmas Eve, U.S. military and national security insiders have spent recent days warning about possible attacks by Iran-backed militias against American personnel in the Middle East.

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It was a strike on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq on Sunday, which administration officials blamed on Iranian proxies, that sparked the latest verbal saber-rattling between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zarif.

The president late Wednesday evening tweeted a photo of three unexploded rockets that were purportedly used in the assault, which killed one civilian and damaged parts of the American diplomatic complex inside Baghdad’s Green Zone.

“Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq,” the president said in his Twitter message. “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”

Mr. Trump suggested he is still mulling how the U.S. should respond. Although he did not directly reference Iran‘s nuclear facilities, analysts generally agree they may be targets if the president orders airstrikes.

Mr. Zarif responded just hours later by tweeting a photo of President George W. Bush beneath the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

The Iranian foreign minister suggested that should Mr. Trump target Iran, the president would be committing a foreign policy blunder of historical proportions that would carry long-term repercussions for Washington. “@realDonaldTrump uses a worthless photo to recklessly accuse Iran,” Mr. Zarif tweeted. “Last time, the US ruined our region over WMD fabrications, wasting $7 TRILLION & causing 58,976 American casualties. FAR WORSE this time. Trump will bear full responsibility for any adventurism on his way out.”

Friction with Iran has been high throughout Mr. Trump‘s time in office. After a series of escalations by both sides, tensions reached the boiling point in January when the U.S. launched a missile strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was believed to have directed attacks by Iran-backed militias against American forces in the region.

Iran responded with a missile strike on a U.S. air base in Iraq, a move that brought the two countries to the brink of all-out war. Both sides ultimately stood down.

Jan. 3 will mark the one-year anniversary of the Soleimani killing, and military officials fear Iran could launch attacks to avenge his death.

Meanwhile, any new conflict could upend Mr. Biden‘s Iran policy, which analysts say centers on rejoining an international nuclear pact with Tehran that Mr. Trump exited in 2018. That accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), offered Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

Since the U.S. exited the deal, Iran has stopped abiding by all of its commitments and has started enriching uranium past the thresholds laid out in the agreement. Still, the remaining nations in the deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — signaled this week that they believe the nuclear agreement can be salvaged and that they support renewed U.S. involvement.

Mr. Biden also has strong support from Democrats in Congress on the issue.

“The Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the internationally negotiated and UN-endorsed JCPOA undermined global non-proliferation efforts, fractured U.S. relationships with key allies, diminished U.S. leadership and influence, and reduced U.S. leverage in addressing other national security issues with Iran,” a group of 150 lawmakers said in a letter to Mr. Biden on Thursday.

Iran‘s other destabilizing activities in the region, such as its support for terrorism, development of ballistic missiles, human rights violations against its own people, and holding of foreign political prisoners, including Americans, warrant strong and coordinated international diplomacy,” they wrote.

But Republican lawmakers this week sought to derail Mr. Biden‘s efforts. They urged Mr. Trump to submit the Iran deal to the Senate as a formal treaty, thereby allowing the Republican-led body to formally reject it. That kind of parliamentary maneuver would make it more difficult for a Biden administration to formally resume American participation in the agreement.

Even as he pursues diplomacy, Mr. Biden will have to confront evidence that Tehran is working to destabilize the American electoral system.

Federal law enforcement on Wednesday blamed Iran for the creation of a website called “Enemies of the People,” which included death threats aimed at top American election officials. The website included the names, phone numbers and other personal information of election officials and private-sector companies involved in the Nov. 3 elections, the FBI said.

Mr. Trump has disputed the outcome of the presidential election, though his efforts to overturn the results in key battleground states have failed so far. The Electoral College formally affirmed Mr. Biden‘s victory on Dec. 14.

The FBI statement makes clear that Iran is trying to attack the integrity of the U.S. voting system.

“The post-election creation of the Enemies of the People website demonstrates an ongoing Iranian intent to create divisions and mistrust in the United States and undermine public confidence in the U.S. electoral process,” the FBI and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in a press release.

Relative of Blackwater victim in Iraq says pardons ‘unfair’

Relative of Blackwater victim in Iraq says pardons ‘unfair’

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FILE – In this Sept. 25, 2007 file photo, an Iraqi traffic policeman inspects a car destroyed by a Blackwater security detail in al-Nisoor Square in Baghdad, Iraq. On Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, the Trump administration pardoned four military contractors … more >

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By SAMYA KULLAB

Associated Press

Thursday, December 24, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) – Faris Fadel had just one word to describe the recent pardoning by the Trump administration of four private security contractors convicted of killing Iraqi civilians – including his brother – in a public square 13 years ago: Unfair.

Fadel‘s brother, Osama Abbas, had been on his way to work that fateful day. He had just crossed a street into Baghdad’s Nisoor Square to do a money transfer – a last minute change in plans that would cost the 41-year old electrical engineer his life.

At the time, the Blackwater firm had been contracted to provide security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq. It was four years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that ultimately toppled Saddam Hussein. The four men, military veterans working as contractors for the State Department, opened fire in the crowded traffic circle killing 14 Iraqis, including a child, and wounding over a dozen more.

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The shooting of civilians by the contractors prompted an international outcry, left a reputational black eye on U.S. operations in Iraq and brought into question the government’s use of private contractors in military zones.

Nicholas Slatten was convicted of murder, while Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were convicted of manslaughter in 2014 after a months-long trial in federal court in Washington. Each had pleaded innocent.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump pardoned them.

“This decision was wrong, it was unfair,” said Fadel, now 44 years old. “How can you release those who have blood on their hands?”

Abbas left a wife and four children behind. The eldest was in her second year of university and the youngest in the last of primary school at the time of his death. He was happy with his life, Fadel recalled.

“He didn’t have much, but he didn’t want for anything,” he said.

On that day in September 2007, Abbas was on his way to work but decided to cross the road to a money transfer service. Fadel recalled it was a time when the country was still reeling in the aftermath of bloody sectarian street wars. “We were starting to feel like we could come up for air,” he said.

Then, the bullets rained down on Nisoor Square.

Defense lawyers for the four contractors argued they were returning fire after being ambushed by Iraqi insurgents. Prosecutors said the convoy had launched an unprovoked attack using sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers. Iraqis considered it a massacre.

Years after the attack, Fadel is still bitter. “They were all civilians, they weren’t guilty of anything,” he said.

Fadel lost not only a brother, but a father figure. Ten years his senior, Abbas had looked after the family following the untimely death of their father at a young age.

“He raised me,” he said of Abbas.

Abbas had started his own engineering company and took responsibility for the entire family. His death had sent them down a spiral of shock and insolvency. His widow didn’t speak for days and his mother took to a wheelchair after suffering cardiac arrest from the shock. Abbas‘ youngest son suffers from severe depression.

“They destroyed our home and our family,” he said of the contractors.

Five years after Abbas‘ death, Fadel took over the role of family breadwinner. “But I couldn’t do 5% of what my brother did,” he said. “I couldn’t replace their father.”

Fadel also blames the Iraqi government for not pushing for justice sooner. Iraq‘s Foreign Ministry, hours after the pardon was announced, said it would follow up with the United States over diplomatic channels, saying the move “regrettably ignored the dignity of the victims and the feelings and rights of their relatives.”

Asked what would bring him peace of mind over a decade since his brother’s killing, Fadel said only a death sentence for the contractors could bring solace.

“An eye for an eye,” he said.

“They are guilty, you don’t need a court to prove it.”

Pardons in killings of Iraqi civilians stir angry response

Pardons in killings of Iraqi civilians stir angry response

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FILE – This combination made from file photo shows Blackwater guards, from left, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough. On Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, President Donald Trump pardoned 15 people, including Heard, Liberty, Slatten and Slough, the … more >

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By ERIC TUCKER and ELLEN KNICKMEYER

Associated Press

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) – The courtroom monitors carried the image of a smiling 9-year-old boy as his father pleaded for the punishment of four U.S. government contractors convicted in shootings that killed that child and more than a dozen other Iraqi civilians.

“What’s the difference,” Mohammad Kinani al-Razzaq asked a Washington judge at an emotional 2015 sentencing hearing, “between these criminals and terrorists?”

The shootings of civilians by Blackwater employees at a crowded Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007 prompted an international outcry, left a reputational black eye on U.S. operations at the height of the Iraq war and put the government on the defensive over its use of private contractors in military zones. The resulting criminal prosecutions spanned years in Washington but came to an abrupt end Tuesday when President Donald Trump pardoned the convicted contractors, an act that human rights activists and some Iraqis decried as a miscarriage of justice.

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The news comes at a delicate moment for the Iraqi leadership, which is trying to balance growing calls by some Iraqi factions for a complete U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq with what they see as the need for a more gradual drawdown.

“The infamous Blackwater company killed Iraqi citizens at Nisoor Square. Today we heard they were released upon personal order by President Trump, as if they don’t care for the spilled Iraqi blood,” said Saleh Abed, a Baghdad resident walking in the square.

The United Nations’ Human Rights office said Wednesday that it was “deeply concerned” by the pardons, which it said “contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future.” The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said the pardons “did not take into account the seriousness of the crime committed,” and that it would urge the U.S. to reconsider.

Al-Razzaq, the father of the slain boy, told the BBC that the pardon decision “broke my life again.”

Lawyers for the contractors, who had aggressively defended the men for more than a decade, offered a different take.

They have long asserted that the shooting began only after the men were ambushed by gunfire from insurgents and then shot back in defense. They have pointed to problems with the prosecution – the first indictment was dismissed by a judge – and argued that the trial that ended with their convictions was tainted by false testimony and withheld evidence.

“Paul Slough and his colleagues didn’t deserve to spend one minute in prison,” said Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for one of the four pardoned defendants. “I am overwhelmed with emotion at this fantastic news.”

Though the circumstances of the shooting have long been contested, there is no question the Sept. 16, 2007, episode – which began after the contractors were ordered to create a safe evacuation route after a car bomb explosion – was a low point for U.S.-Iraqi relations, coming just years after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

The FBI and Congress opened investigations, and the State Department – which used the Blackwater firm to provide security for diplomats – ordered a review of practices. The guards would later be charged in the deaths of 14 civilians, including women and children, in what U.S. prosecutors said was a wild, unprovoked attack by sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers against unarmed Iraqis.

Robert Ford, who served as a U.S. diplomat in Iraq over five years, met with the widows and other relatives of the victims after the killings, handing out envelopes of money in compensation and formal U.S. apologies – though without admitting guilt since investigations were ongoing.

“It was one of the very worst occasions I can remember in my time” in Iraq, said Ford, who teaches at Yale University. “That was just horrible. We had killed these people’s relatives and they were still terribly grieving.”

The widows mostly took the envelopes silently. Some of the adult male relatives of those killed spoke up, bitterly. “How could you do this? We must have justice,” Ford recounted in an interview Wednesday.

Adding to the angry fallout among Iraqis was the involvement of Blackwater, a security firm founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who is a Trump ally and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The company had already developed an unfavorable reputation for acting with impunity, its guards frequently accused of firing shots at the slightest pretext, including to clear their way in traffic.

A review of Blackwater’s own incident reports in 2007 by House Democrats found Blackwater contractors reported they engaged in 195 “escalation of force” shootings over the preceding two years – with Blackwater reporting its guards shooting first more than 80% of the time.

The 2007 killings in the Baghdad traffic circle were among many attacks, large and small, hitting civilians that served to turn even some initial Iraqi supporters of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow against Americans. In 2005, for instance, Marines were accused of killing 24 unarmed men, women and children in the western town of Haditha in anger over a car bomb attack. U.S. military prosecutions in those killings ended with no jail sentences.

The case against the Blackwater guards ping-ponged across courts in Washington, with a federal appeals court at one point overturning the first-degree murder conviction of one defendant, Nicholas Slatten, and sharply reducing the prison sentences of the three others. All four were in prison when the pardons were issued.

The guards defiantly asserted their innocence at their 2015 sentencing hearing, with Slough stating that he felt “utterly betrayed by the same government I served honorably.” Another defendant, Dustin Heard, said he could “not say in all honesty to the court that I did anything wrong.”

The judge rejected that characterization, saying the “overall wild thing that went on here just cannot ever be condoned by the court.”

Besides the legal impact, there could potentially be diplomatic and strategic consequences as well as Iraq assesses the U.S. military presence there.

In Iraq, said Ford, the former diplomat, the pardons will “necessarily give some ammunition to those who say get the Americans out now.”

___

Associated Press writer Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Iraqi army: 8 rockets target US Embassy in Baghdad

Iraqi army: 8 rockets target US Embassy in Baghdad

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FILE – In this Jan. 3, 2020 file photo, the U.S. Embassy is seen from across the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq. At least three rockets targeted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Sunday, Dec. 20 … more >

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By SAMYA KULLAB

Associated Press

Sunday, December 20, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) – Eight rockets targeted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone late Sunday, Iraq’s military and Iraqi officials said, sparking fears of renewed unrest as next month’s anniversary of the U.S. slaying of an Iranian general draws near.

An Iraqi military statement said an “an outlawed group” launched eight rockets targeting the Green Zone, injuring one Iraqi security person manning a checkpoint and causing material damage to a residential complex and some cars. The residential complex is usually empty.

The U.S. Embassy’s C-RAM defense system, which is used to destroy missiles in mid-air, was activated to deflect the attack, the embassy said in a statement.

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“The U.S. Embassy confirms rockets targeting the International Zone (Green Zone) resulted in the engagement of embassy defensive systems,” the statement said. It said there was some minor damage to the embassy compound.

“We call on all Iraqi political and governmental leaders to take steps to prevent such attacks and hold accountable those responsible,” the statement said.

The thundering sound of the defense system could be heard by Associated Press reporters located on the other side of the Tigris River.

The C-RAM system was installed by the U.S. over the summer as armed groups stepped up rocket attacks targeting the embassy and its premises.

The U.S. withdrew some staff from its embassy in Baghdad earlier this month, temporarily reducing personnel ahead of the first anniversary of the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassim Soleimani, outside Baghdad’s airport on Jan. 3. American officials said the reduction stemmed from concerns about a possible retaliatory strike.

Soleimani’s killing sparked outrage and led Iraq’s parliament to pass a non-binding resolution days later calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from Iraq.

The frequency of rocket attacks in Iraq has frustrated the Trump administration. Iran-backed militia groups have been blamed for orchestrating the attacks.

In September, Washington warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government fails to take decisive action to end rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias on American and allied interests in the country.

The partial withdrawal from the embassy came amid a drawdown of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan announced by the outgoing Trump administration last month. In Iraq, the U.S. plans to reduce the number of troops from 3,000 to 2,500 by mid-January, before Trump is to leave office.

___

Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed to this report.

Iran’s allies on high alert in Trump’s final weeks in office

Iran’s allies on high alert in Trump’s final weeks in office

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FILE – In this photo released by the official website of the Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Gen. Esmail Ghaani, newly appointed commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, weeps while praying over the coffin of the force’s previous … more >

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By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and SAMYA KULLAB

Associated Press

Friday, November 20, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) – Iran has instructed allies across the Middle East to be on high alert and avoid provoking tensions with the U.S. that could give an outgoing Trump administration cause to launch attacks in the U.S. president’s final weeks in office, Iraqi officials have said.

The request – delivered by a senior Iranian general to allies in Baghdad this week – reflects the growing regional anxiety over President Donald Trump’s unpredictable behavior and the uncertainty in the chaotic transition period until President-elect Joe Biden takes over in two months.

Iran’s allies have collectively welcomed Trump’s election defeat. Under his presidency, tensions with Iran escalated, reaching fever pitch at the beginning of the year with the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassim Soleimani, at the Baghdad airport. Iran launched a ballistic missile attack in response to the fatal drone strike, targeting U.S. soldiers in Iraq and wounding dozens.

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Trump also unilaterally withdrew America in 2018 from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, meant to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, and re-imposed punishing sanctions on Iran, crippling its economy.

Iran has since abandoned all limits on its uranium enrichment program, even as the deal’s other international partners have tried unsuccessfully to salvage it. The incoming Biden administration has stated plans to rejoin or renegotiate the 2015 nuclear accord.

But there is growing concern over what Trump, who is refusing to concede the election, might do in the last days of his presidency – including a potential strike on America’s enemies abroad. On Thursday, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader warned in an interview with The Associated Press that any American attack on Iran could set off a “full-fledged war” in the region.

“We don’t welcome war. We are not after starting a war,” said Hossein Dehghan, who served in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard before becoming a defense minister under President Hassan Rouhani.

The concern does not appear to be rooted in anything concrete – Trump has, in fact, ordered a drawdown in U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to be completed by mid-January – but rather in general nervousness about the unpredictability of Trump’s actions. His firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper two days after the election triggered a flurry of speculation about whether it was related to a broader plan to strike abroad.

Iraq, where the U.S.-Iran rivalry has chiefly played out, is seen as a potential arena. Frequent attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in recent months led a frustrated Trump administration to threaten to close the mission, a move that sparked a diplomatic crisis and diplomatic back channel messaging that led to an informal truce a few weeks ahead of the U.S. election.

With two months to go until a Biden administration takes over, Iranian Gen. Esmail Ghaani, head of the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force, delivered Tehran’s request during a meeting with Iranian-backed Iraqi militia factions and Shiite politicians in Baghdad this week, according to two senior Iraqi Shiite politicians who attended the meetings in Baghdad.

The message: Stand down to avoid giving Trump the opportunity to initiate a fresh tit-for-tat round of violence.

And to the Iraqi Shiite paramilitaries: Be calm and cease attacks for now against American presence in Iraq.

However, if there was a U.S. aggression by the Trump administration, Iran’s response would “be in line with the type of strike,” one of the Iraqi politicians cited Ghaani as saying.

An Iraqi government official also confirmed Ghaani’s meetings with Iranian-backed factions in Iraq this week. All Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meetings.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the leader of the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group, Hasan Nasrallah, warned followers and allies to be vigilant during Trump’s remaining weeks in office.

“All of us … should be on high alert in these next two months so that it passes peacefully,” Nasrallah said in televised remarks earlier this month even as he urged followers to “be prepared to face any danger, aggression or harm” and to respond in kind “if the US or Israel’s follies go that far.”

But only hours after Ghaani delivered Iran’s message in Baghdad – and while he was still in Iraq – a barrage of Katyusha rockets were fired at the Iraqi capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone, landing a few hundred meters (yards) from the U.S. Embassy. A few of the rockets that landed just outside the Green Zone killed a child and wounded five civilians.

The attack – contrary to instructions to avoid escalation – could indicate potential disagreement within militia ranks, or a deliberate plan by the factions to offer mixed messages and keep their intentions ambiguous.

A little-known militia group, Ashab al-Kahf, believed to have links with the powerful Kataib Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for the rocket attack. For its part, Kataib Hezbollah denied it had carried out the barrage, and claimed the truce initiated in October was still in place.

That claim was countered by Qais al-Khazali, the head of the powerful Iran-aligned Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia group, who said in a televised interview on Thursday that the truce had ended.

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes

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People shop for clothing at the used-clothes market in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Iraq is in the throes of an unprecedented liquidity crisis, as the cash-strapped state wrestles to pay public sector salaries and import essential goods while … more >

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By Samya Kullab

Associated Press

Friday, October 23, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) — Long-time Iraqi civil servant Qusay Abdul-Amma panicked when his monthly salary was delayed. Days of waiting turned to weeks. He defaulted on rent and other bills.

A graphic designer for the Health Ministry, he uses about half his salary to pay his rent of nearly 450,000 Iraqi dinars a month, roughly $400. If he fails to pay twice in a row his landlord will evict him and his family, he fears.

“These delays affect my ability to survive,” Abdul-Amma said.

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Iraq’s government is struggling to pay the salaries of the ever-swelling ranks of public sector employees amid an unprecedented liquidity crisis caused by low oil prices. September’s salaries were delayed for weeks, and October’s still haven’t been paid as the government tries to borrow once again from Iraq’s currency reserves. The crisis has fueled fears of instability ahead of mass demonstrations this week.

The government has outlined a vision for a drastic overhaul of Iraq’s economy in a “white paper” presented last week to lawmakers and political factions. But with early elections on the horizon, the prime minister’s advisers fear there is little political will to execute it fully.

“We are asking the same people we are protesting against and criticizing to reform the system,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq researcher.

The white paper’s calls for cutting public sector payrolls and reforming state finances would undermine the patronage systems that the political elite have used to entrench their power.

A major part of that patronage is handing out state jobs in return for support. The result has been a threefold increase in public workers since 2004. The government pays 400% more in salaries than it did 15 years ago. Around three quarters of the state’s expenditures in 2020 go to paying for the public sector – a massive drain on dwindling finances.

“Now the situation is very dangerous,” said Mohammed al-Daraji, a lawmaker on parliament’s Finance Committee.

One government official said political factions are in denial that change is needed, believing oil prices will rise and “we will be fine.”

“We won’t be fine. The system is unsustainable and sooner or later it will implode,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal politics.

Iraq’s activists have called for a march on Oct. 25, expected to draw large crowds, a year since massive anti-government protests first brought tens of thousands to the streets demanded reforms and an end to the corrupt political class.

“As far as meeting our demands, there have been no changes,” said Kamal Jabar, member of the Tishreen Democratic Movement, founded during the protests last year. “To us, the white paper is a joke.”

Abu Ali, a merchant in Baghdad’s commercial district of Shorjah, fears what the following months have in store. The state is the primary source of employment for Iraqis, and civil servants are the lifeblood of his business.

“The delays in salary payments have affected the market directly,” he said. “If these delays continue our business and the economy will collapse.”

Abdul-Amma’s September pay was 45 days late, and he still hasn’t received the October pay that was supposed to come on the first of the month. He worries about the coming months as well.

“I have a history of chronic heart disease, and one of my daughters is also sick,” said the father of four. He pays $100 in medical fees per month.

But to the architects of the reform paper, he is part of the problem: Public sector bloat is first in line for reform.

“We hope the civil service and bureaucracy will recognize a need for change,” Finance Minister Ali Allawi told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Iraq relies on oil exports to fund 90% of state revenues. Those revenues have plunged to an average $3.5 billion a month since oil prices crashed earlier this year.

That’s half the $7 billion a month needed to pay urgent expenses. Of that, $5 billion is for public sector salaries and pensions, according to Finance Ministry figures. Iraq also imports nearly all of its food and medicine; with foreign currency reserves at $53 billion, the World Bank estimates the country can sustain these imports for another nine months. Foreign debts account for another $316 million.

Poor productivity of public workers is the heart of the issue, Allawi said.

“We’ve ended up with a low productivity, high-cost public sector that doesn’t really earn its keep,” he said. “In one way or another this issue has to be tackled by either reducing numbers, which is politically difficult, reducing salaries … or increasing productivity.”

The white paper calls for public sector payments to be reduced from 25% of GDP to 12% but doesn’t detail how. Officials said one step may be to restore taxes on civil servants’ benefits that previous administrations had lifted.

To meet month-to-month commitments now, the government has had to borrow internally from its foreign currency reserves. A request of a second loan of $35 billion was sent to parliament, drawing criticism from lawmakers.

Haitham al-Jibouri, head of parliament’s Finance Committee, said in televised remarks that if borrowing was the government’s only plan he would fetch a shopkeeper from Bab al-Sharqi, a commercial area in the capital, to do the finance minister’s job.

Parliament’s endorsement of the loan and the reform paper is crucial for the government to avoid a full-scale economic crisis.

But this will prove difficult with elections slated for next June, since factions want to hand out jobs to maintain their constituencies.

“Whoever decides to push ahead and support reforms first will lose out, they will also need to convince other political players who will also lose out,” said Jiyad. “That is a tough sell.”

Al-Kadhimi’s advisers privately acknowledge the challenges of having the system that produced such mismanagement and corruption be its own savior.

One official recalled a remark made by the finance minister at a meeting of a high-level committee tasked with managing the crisis.

He looked at the room of officials charged with halting the country’s fast spiral toward insolvency and said, “I can’t believe this was done for 10 years and none of you did anything to stop it.” There was silence.

Minister: Iraq to face severe shortages as river flows drop

Minister: Iraq to face severe shortages as river flows drop

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A child walks on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Basra, Iraq on July 13, 2020. Iraq’s minister of water resources said Thursday, July 16, 2020 that severe shortages loom ahead if Iraq and neighboring Turkey fail to … more >

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By SAMYA KULLAB and RASHID YAHYA

Associated Press

Friday, July 17, 2020

DOHUK, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s minister of water resources says his country will face severe water shortages if agreements are not forged with neighboring Turkey over Ankara’s irrigation and dam projects that have decreased river inflows to Iraq’s parched plains.

Descending from the mountains of southeast Turkey and coursing through Syria and then Iraq before emptying out in the Persian Gulf, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are Iraq’s main water source and essential to for agriculture. But tensions have mounted over the years as Turkey pressed ahead with dam projects to meet its domestic electricity demands.

In turn, this has directly impacted water flows into Iraq.

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Measurements of inflows from the border with Turkey in northern Iraq were 50% below average this year, Iraq’s Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rashid Al-Hamdani said in an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday. This year also saw a reduction in annual rainfall by 50% compared to last year, he said.

“We asked our Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send an urgent message to Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to ask them what is the reason for the drop in our flow,” he said.

Iraq is still waiting for a response, he added.

With the impacts of climate change, as well as future hydroelectric projects in Turkey, the ministry estimates Iraq will face a shortage of 10.5 billion cubic meters of water by 2035, according to an internal study, al-Hamdani said.

Ordinary Iraqis have yet to fill the effects of the drop, partly because of the reservoir at the Hadhitha dam on the Euphrates River in Iraq, which is compensating for the shortage, he said.

In Fishkhabour, along the border with Turkey, Ramadan Hamza, a senior expert on water strategy and policy at the University of Dohuk, eyed the drop in river flows with concern.

“The water level of the Tigris River was around 600 cubic meters per second,” he said. After Turkey built the so-called Ilisu Dam, “it dropped to around 300-320.”

The Ilisu Dam on the Tigris, part of a megaproject by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is at the heart of the dispute. The dam, which became operational in May after three years of delay, is to be one of 22 power dams in southeastern Turkey. Negotiations over water allocations resumed when Ankara began to make progress on plans to fill the Illisu reservoir last year but have since stalled.

Hezha Abdulwahed, the director of Dohuk’s water department, said water levels had dropped by 8 billion cubic meters, compared to water flows in April 2019.

Iraq needs to put pressure on Turkey to release its share of water,” Hamza said.

A recent report by the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration found that water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates are decreasing at an “unprecedented rate,” that could result in the forced displacement of entire Iraqi communities.

Water shortages, pollution and high levels of salinity lead to many Iraqis falling sick and prompted violent protests in the summer of 2018 across southern Iraq.

Many letters were sent to Ankara over its plans for the Ilisu dam, said al-Hamdani, but Turkey only responded with “many excuses.”

“They say it’s their right to build a dam and we argue that it is is harmful to our rights to water,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic postponed a face-to-face meeting with Turkish officials. The Iraqis have requested a video conference in the meantime to revive talks. Last year, an envoy of Erdogan came to Baghdad with an action plan to improve data sharing and management of water resources.

A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to journalists, said negotiations to ensure a certain amount of water allocations to Iraq are difficult because of climate change issues.

At one point, Iraq demanded Turkey ensure at least 500 cubic meters per second. “But inside Turkey, the Tigris sometimes doesn’t go above 350 on average,” he said. “It’s hard to speak about certain limits of water – it’s so unpredictable now.”

In the absence of an international agreement, it also unclear what responsibilities Turkey has toward Iraq’s water supply. But al-Hamdani said there are international laws Iraq could turn to if needed to pressure Ankara.

Turkey’s position will change,” al-Hamdani said on a hopeful note.

___

Kullab reported from Baghdad.

Rocket fired toward US Embassy in Iraq injures child

Rocket fired toward US Embassy in Iraq injures child

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A man cools off from the summer heat under an open air shower in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, July 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) more >

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By SAMYA KULLAB

Associated Press

Sunday, July 5, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) – The Iraqi military said Sunday that a rocket aimed at Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, home of the U.S. Embassy, struck a residential house and injured a child.

Iraqi officials said the embassy’s recently installed C-RAM air defense system may have attempted to intercept the rocket as the system was operational late Saturday. A recent spate of rocket attacks have struck close to the U.S. Embassy and targeted American troops in Iraqi bases. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The rocket was launched late Saturday from the Ali Al-Saleh area of Baghdad and landed next to a house close to a local TV channel, the military statement said. A child suffered head injuries and the house was damaged.

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Iraqi security forces say they also thwarted another attack north of Baghdad in the Umm al-Azam area aiming to hit Camp Taji, a training base used by U.S.-led coalition forces.

In March, two Americans and one British soldier were killed following a barrage of rockets on Camp Taji.

The latest uptick in attacks comes shortly before Iraq embarks on strategic talks with the U.S. in which the presence of American forces in the country is expected to top the agenda.

The U.S. has criticized Iraq’s federal government for being unable to reign in Iran-backed militia groups it believes are orchestrating the attacks. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has pledged to protect American installations from attacks, U.S. officials said.

Iraqi security forces last week raided the headquarters of the powerful Iran-backed paramilitary Kataib Hezbollah and detained 14 men suspected of being responsible for rocket attacks targeting the Green Zone. Thirteen detainees were later released and one remains in custody.

The move drew praise from the U.S. but condemnation from Iran-backed political factions in Iraq.

The U.S. Embassy began testing the new air defense system late Saturday, the Iraqi officials said. It drew condemnation from Deputy Speaker of Parliament Hassan al-Kaabi, who called on the government to take action against the “illegal” move which would “provoke the Iraqi people,” according to a government statement.

____

Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Iraqi army says 2 rockets hit base near Baghdad, no losses

Iraqi army says 2 rockets hit base near Baghdad, no losses

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By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA

Associated Press

Saturday, June 13, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) – Two rockets hit an Iraqi base frequented by U.S. troops north of Baghdad late Saturday without causing any casualties, Iraq’s military said, the third such attack this month and just days after Washington and Baghdad launched strategic talks.

The Katyusha rockets struck Camp Taji and caused minor damage but no injuries, according to the Iraqi military statement. In March, two Americans and one British soldier were killed following a barrage of rockets on Camp Taji, which has been used as a training base for a number of years.

The first session of the much-anticipated strategic talks between the U.S. and Iraq began Thursday, and is to lay the agenda for the months ahead, including the presence of U.S. troops in the country, Iran-backed militia groups acting outside of the state and Iraq’s dire economic crisis.

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U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker, in comments to reporters in Washington following the session, said Iraq had committed to “moving ahead and undertaking their obligations,” with regards to militia attacks targeting the American presence.

Saturday’s attack appears to have been a test of this commitment. A statement from Iraq’s joint operations command following the attack said orders had been given to launch an investigation “to reveal these entities that, despite our warnings to them, seek to weaken Iraq.”

A day before the talks began, a rocket landed a few hundred meters (yards) from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

Another rocket attack on Tuesday struck the periphery of Baghdad’s airport, which includes a military base used by U.S. troops. There were no reported casualties or damage.

The U.S. has accused Iran-backed militias of carrying out such attacks in the past. Several attacks targeted U.S. interests early in March, including three military bases known to house U.S. troops. The U.S.-led coalition has withdrawn from several bases across Iraq in a planned drawdown.

US, Iraq launch strategic talks on economy, American troops

US, Iraq launch strategic talks on economy, American troops

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FILE – In this Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016 file photo, Iraqi soldiers participate in a training exercise with American and Spanish trainers, which includes live ammunition, at Basmaya base, 40 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. The U.S. and Iraq launched … more >

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By SAMYA KULLAB

Associated Press

Thursday, June 11, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) – The United States and Iraq launched much-anticipated strategic talks on Thursday that are to span the gamut of their bilateral relations, with Washington prioritizing the issue of the future of its forces in the country while Baghdad is expected to focus on the nation’s dire economic crisis.

The talks, which began with an initial session in the afternoon with participants tuning in online because of the coronavirus measures, are expected to drag out over several months. They come against the backdrop of soaring tensions following the U.S. airstrike in January that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani just outside the Baghdad airport. Iran’s expanding influence in Iraq is also expected to be an underlining topic in the talks.

Along with the Iranian general, the January airstrike also killed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Outraged, Iraqi lawmakers spurred by Shiite political factions, passed a non-binding resolution to oust U.S.-led coalition forces from the country following the attack.

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However, relations have improved since new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took over the helm of Iraq’s government last month, marking a new chapter in Iraq-U.S. relations following the exit of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, under whose administration ties had cooled. Some parties, notably parliament’s Iran-backed Fatah bloc, continue to call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“The first stage will try to set the tone and agenda for the talks and lay on the table some of the urgent issues up for discussion,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst and visiting fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. But it may prove to be a long uncertain process punctuated by U.S. presidential elections in November, he said.

Thursday’s session was held virtually due to flight restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus. Iraq has seen a recent flare up in cases, with authorities having reported over 16,600 infections so far and at least 457 deaths.

The U.S. team was led by David Hale, undersecretary for political affairs, and pressed issues such as the future of the U.S. forces in the country and security concerns spawning from armed militias in Iraq, early elections and violence against protesters.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said they support a scheduled withdrawal of forces from Iraq, but questions remain over time-frames and the scope of the threat posed by the Islamic State group. Officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

“The talks will focus on the need for Iraq and America to fight IS, in light of that we will make a decision,” al-Kadhimi told reporters on Wednesday.

The Iraq team, lead by Abdul Karim Hashim, the deputy minister for foreign affairs, outlined Iraq’s economic concerns at a time when oil prices have reached historic lows, leaving the crude-dependent state struggling to pay public wages.

“Probably the most important thing for the vast majority of Iraqis is how can the U.S. can assist Iraq in this very difficult period,” said Jiyad. And on the American side, “whether they see value in supporting Iraq apart from security.”

In a sign of support for al-Kadhimi’s administration, hours after he was sworn in, the U.S. approved a 120-day sanctions waiver enabling the country to continue importing Iranian gas and electricity to meet its power needs. Iraq’s progress in becoming more gas independent is also on the agenda as future waivers depend on Baghdad reducing its reliance on Tehran for energy needs.

Iraqi officials have said plans are being drawn up to capture associated gas currently being flared in oil fields in Iraq’s south. However, Baghdad last week signed a two-year contract with Iran to continue importing Iranian electricity.

“On the American side as well, I think, particularly with the Trump administration, a lot of this is about Iran, whether they admit it or they don’t admit it,” said Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House. In particular, he said, the U.S. concern has been whether Iraq can prosper as a country without being drawn into Iranian influence.

Late Wednesday, a Katyusha rocket fell just a few hundred meters (yards) from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, the latest of several incidents targeting the American presence in Iraq in recent months. The U.S. has repeatedly blamed Iran-backed Iraqi militias for the attacks.

Tackling the issue of militia groups operating outside of the state is “complicated,” said one Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. “We have communicated that to the Americans.”

U.S. sanctions Iran’s interior minister for actions in November protests

U.S. sanctions Iran’s interior minister for actions in November protests

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A wounded protester is carried to receive first aid during clashes with security forces on Rasheed Street in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019. Anti-government protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The U.S. on Wednesday announced sanctions against Iran’s interior minister, accusing him of “gross violations of human rights” against Iranians during widespread anti-government protests last year.

The U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement that Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli authorized Iran’s law enforcement agencies to use lethal force on protesters in November, killing dozens of them, including 23 minors.

“The Iranian regime violently suppresses dissent of the Iranian people, including peaceful protests, through physical and psychological abuse,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in a statement Wednesday. “The United States will continue to hold accountable Iranian officials and institutions that oppress and abuse their own people.”

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The department also blacklisted seven senior Iranian law enforcement officials for their role in the protests, and a provincial commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The latest sanctions freeze all U.S.-held assets of those blacklisted and prohibit them from conducting business with an American company or person.

The move comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran that have steadily increased since a January U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s top general. Iran responded by firing ballistic missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq, and accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner departing Tehran, killing all 176 aboard.

More recently, the U.S. has threatened to use defensive action against Iranian ships that come within 100 meters of an American ship, after a handful of Iran’s IRGC boats made threatening approaches to U.S. warships conducting joint operations in international waters. Iran has said it will “destroy” American ships that threaten their own and will continue conducting operations in the Persian Gulf.

ASAP Mob – Crazy Brazy (On The Late Show With Stephen Colbert) (Live)

Woah, woah, yo
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Gucci rag tied on my head
Put a red dot on your head
I put that guap on your head
Don’t be talking to me crazy
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I got a lot on my mind
I put that guap on my mind
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I put that nine to your mind
Don’t talk to me brazy
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I don’t want no conversation
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We rock I’m a rockstar
Try to cuff me like a cop car
Try to play me like a popstar
That’s how you get not far
All my cus, niggas crazy
All my bloods, niggas brazy
Might just drop in on a Wednesday
Been the shit designer wavy
Don’t talk back, just give me face
I got nines on my waist
Hide them lines in the place
I don’t care
I’m with Flacko, you on flakka
You got guns but won’t pop ’em
I send niggas to the doctor
I don’t care
Sandman tan money bag, drag, slash bag man
Baghdad land
Talk back, get back slapped with a back hand
Black man, black hand side
Anti everything since Yams died
In dodge van by NY
No who, what, where, why, when
I got a lot on my head
Gucci rag tied on my head
Put a red dot on your head
I put that guap on your head
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
I got a lot on my mind
I put that guap on my mind
I got a lot on my mind
I put that nine to your mind
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Hundred thousand dollar nightmare
If I wanna take a flight there
Man fuck it spend a life here
Young thuggin in some Nike Airs
Bicken Back Being Bool, baby
Layin’ back by the pool, baby
Bumpin’ that shit too wavy
Counting stacks shit too brazy
Walk around with a bag on me
Walk around with a flag on me
Bickin back I got mad homies
Joey Fatts might blast for me
Tote the tecs I got cash homie
Take it back I got crack on me
This and that got that on me
Where you from?
Where you at homie?
I got a lot on my head
Gucci rag tied on my head
Put a red dot on your head
I put that guap on your head
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
I got a lot on my mind
I put that guap on my mind
I got a lot on my mind
I put that nine to your mind
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy

Aaron Rose – The Art Of Sole (Elixir Album)

[Intro]
I paint a picture with the lines I stroke
They lost hope in ya’ll niggas, so it’s time I spoke
I’m the J57
I’m coming for the streets, if you understand me
The art of sole, feel like I’m on another planet

[Verse 1]
It has been a long time coming, ever since my farther [?]
I knew that I would be something, the abundance of talents
I managed to perceive before I breath
Bit clear to me, I understand it, I’m granted
The life of art, the life I dream up in the dark
So then the light I spark arise of every two in which I thought
I would grow up to be, but hopefully the road I see
Would lead to greatness, so first I got to find the golden key
To rev the engine, the sector brain with no syringes
Open up the mind so first I got to disable the hinges
They block me out, I’m independ-
I’m trying to picture something up your gold
No I’m never talking for the glitter
They reminisce on the essence I see myself spit
The same thing I found myself with
The same thing connecting us through vibrations, I know you felt this
Feel like someone hit the rail switch
We just some freight trains, afraid to run off track
I took my own route, now I’m never coming back
And that’s a fact, in a universe full with opinions
So despicable, I’m ducking you internet minions
Your criticism ain’t nothing more than a comet
You should calm it down, ’cause I’m still viewed as a comet
And Steelo was a shooting star
So if you seen him, you know you were going far
Now here we are

[Hook]
I’ve got more teeth than I’ve got family
But they still falling out, feel like God playin’ me
I’m coming for the streets, if you understand me
The art of sole, feel like I’m on another planet
I’ve got more teeth than I’ve got family
But they still falling out, feel like God playin’ me
I’m coming for the streets, if you understand me
The art of sole, feel like I’m on another planet

[Verse 2]
This is the moment I’m breaking my inhibition
Rejoicing the villain to know I fit with the description
I’ve done reflection when I’m looking up
You stand in front your mirror, do you see the same one?
We just begun this dynasty so they won’t be subside to me
I swear to God, I’m breaking through the tyrannies
To freelance a free man
So as I vividly paint you niggas my motion picture
I’m conjuring longevity with this potion Elixir
But momma told me to finish my food first, "You right"
So my dinner plate filling up after every bite
This appetite will make these wack rap niggas half as nice
Now double the work, you can get the bragging rights
To overshadow where I shine
But we both know, The Pros never be the cons, we a different kind
Even if you missed a line you won’t miss my prime
This is bombs of Baghdad mixed with Vietnam
Saddam Hussein, two tanks of propane won’t blow you niggas up
I am Cobain, fuck what you see in front
‘Cause a wise man will never speak
You just showing too much December
Dry your seed up before you could even grow it
A natural poet, on a road to entourages of the chosen
I’m started to grow my conscience, unlocking up every solar
Side, I used to conquer my life
But this a write to angel to momma, "Your son will still arrive"

[Hook]
I’ve got more teeth than I’ve got family
But they still falling out, feel like God playin’ me
I’m coming for the streets, if you understand me
The art of sole, feel like I’m on another planet
I’ve got more teeth than I’ve got family
But they still falling out, feel like God playin’ me
I’m coming for the streets, if you understand me
The art of sole, feel like I’m on another planet

[Outro]
I paint a picture with the lines I stroke
They lost hope in ya’ll niggas, so it’s time I spoke
I paint a picture with the lines I stroke
They lost hope in ya’ll niggas, so it’s time I spoke
I paint a picture with the lines I stroke
They lost hope in ya’ll niggas, so it’s time I spoke
I paint a picture with the lines I stroke
They lost hope in ya’ll niggas, so it’s time I spoke, nigga

A$AP MOB – Crazy Brazy Lyrics

[Intro: A$AP Rocky]
Woah, woah, yo
Woah, woah, woah

[Hook: A$AP Rocky & Key!]
I got a lot on my head
Gucci rag tied on my head
Put a red dot on your head
I put that guap on your head
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
I got a lot on my mind
I put that guap on my mind
I got a lot on my mind
I put that nine on your mind
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
[Verse 1: A$AP Rocky]
I don’t want no conversation
I don’t need explanation
Shoot with no hesitation
They do it for a reputation
They don’t play me on the station
Press ’em like detonation
Want more jelly than a Mason
Man I’m rocky like a caveman

[Verse 2: Key!]
We rock I’m a rockstar
Try to cuff me like a cop car
Try to play me like a popstar
That’s how you get not far

[Verse 3: A$AP Rocky]
All my cousins, niggas crazy
All my bloods, niggas brazy
Might just drop in on a Wednesday
Been the shit designer wavy

[Verse 4: Key!]
Don’t talk back, just give me face
I got nines on my waist
Hide them lines in the place
I don’t care
I’m with Flocko, you on Flocka
You got girls [?]
I send niggas to the doctor
I don’t care

[Verse 5: A$AP Rocky]
Sandman tan money bag, drag, slash bag man
Baghdad land
Talk back, get back slapped with a back hand
Black man, black hands [?]
[?]
No who, what, where, why, when

[Hook: A$AP Rocky & Key!]
I got a lot on my head
Gucci rag tied on my head
Put a red dot on your head
I put that guap on your head
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
I got a lot on my mind
I put that guap on my mind
I got a lot on my mind
I put that nine in your mouth
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy

[Verse 6: A$AP Twelvvy]
Hundred thousand dollar nightmare
If I wanna take a flight there
Man fuck it spend a life here
Young thuggin is a night years
Bicken Back Being Bool, baby
Layin’ back by the pool, baby
Bumpin’ [?], too wavy
Counting stacks shit too brazy
Walk around with a bag on me
Walk around with a flag on me
Bicken Back I got mad hoes
Joey [?] might blast for me
Talk to [?] I got cash homie
Take it back I got crack on me
This and that got that on me
Where you from?
Where you at homie?

[Hook: A$AP Rocky & Key!]
I got a lot on my head
Gucci rag tied on my head
Put a red dot on your head
I put that guap on your head
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
Don’t be talking to me crazy
I got a lot on my mind
I put that guap on my mind
I got a lot on my mind
I put that nine in your mouth
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy
Don’t talk to me brazy