Some transections of the Middle East convulsion

Submitted: Nov 12, 2017
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

 

11-9-17

Washington Post

Saudi Arabia’s arms deals are buying the West’s silence over Yemen, activists allege

By Rick Noack  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/11/09/saudi-arabias-arms-deals-are-buying-the-wests-silence-over-yemen-allege-activists/?utm_term=.d3da7d5ab06d

 

BERLIN — As U.N. and international humanitarian agencies raise the alarm over the Saudi blockade of aid deliveries to Yemen, European and American officials have remained mostly silent. The few remarks coming out of Western capitals in recent weeks have hardly been messages of support for the Yemenis in the midst of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis — in fact, quite the opposite.

Two weeks ago, Britain’s then-Defense Minister Michael Fallon offered a blunt assessment of the government's view on the controversy. “I have to repeat, sadly, to this committee that obviously other criticism of Saudi Arabia in this Parliament is not helpful,” Fallon told the parliamentary defense committee, to which he defended the planned sale of several fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. (Fallon has since resigned over sexual harassment allegations.)

In response to a missile attack from Yemeni territory targeting Saudi Arabia — which triggered the most recent escalation of the crisis — President Trump similarly ignored the plight of civilians in the war-torn country and instead went on to praise U.S. weapons sold to Saudi Arabia.

“A shot was just taken . . . at Saudi Arabia. And our system knocked it down,” Trump said, referring to the Patriot missiles the United States has sold to the kingdom. “That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re selling it all over the world.”

Both the United States and Britain have been making more money with arms sales to Saudi Arabia in recent years than ever before. Human rights critics fear that Saudi Arabia has not only bought their weapons but their acceptance for its policies.

“The shameless arms supplies to Saudi Arabia … may amount to lucrative trade deals, but the U.K. risks aiding and abetting these terrible crimes,” James Lynch, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, said in a recent statement.

The defense industry employs tens of thousands of workers in Britain, where concerns over faltering economic prospects are on the rise.

It is far from being the only European country involved in the controversial deals, however. More than a dozen European Union nations are selling arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia, with Britain being followed by France as a top exporter, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Such sales have been especially controversial since Saudi Arabia is engaged in an escalating conflict with Iran as the two fight for dominance in the region. Their rivalry will likely be felt most in the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor. Houthi rebels there are believed to have received financial support and arms deliveries from Iran, which has drawn the country into the regional power dispute.

For the past three years, Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies have been trying (so far unsuccessfully) to dislodge the Shiite Houthi rebels from their territory, relying mainly on aerial bombings. More than 20 million people in Yemen need humanitarian assistance and 7 million are facing “famine-like” conditions, aid groups say.

Of course Saudi Arabia’s attractiveness to Western countries is not just about arms sales. On Thursday, Downing Street said it would provide Saudi energy giant Aramco with credit guarantees of $2 billion to facilitate trade between the two countries. Britain and the United States are both trying to persuade Aramco to hold its much anticipated IPO (valued at hundreds of billions of dollars) on the London and New York stock exchanges, with President Trump tweeting that such move would be “Important to the United States!”

So far, all efforts to stop arms exports to Saudi Arabia have failed, although there appeared to be a change of course among Western governments not too long ago. In 2015, then-Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond encouraged an inquiry into the impact of British arms in Yemen. This year, Germany pressured Saudi Arabia into ending its arms purchases, possibly to preempt an official ban that could have become a PR disaster for the kingdom.

In the United States, the Obama administration similarly suspended the sale of precision guided munitions to Riyadh last year. However, the Trump administration is believed to be working on the resumption of such sales. A separate major U.S. arms export deal to the kingdom was struck in May, and Trump has voiced increasingly strong support for the Saudi leadership ever since. Similarly, Germany is still exporting military equipment to the kingdom, although it now appears to be refraining from direct arms deliveries.

The E.U. Parliament voted in favor of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia last year, but the vote was mostly symbolic as E.U. member states were not bound by it. There is now a new E.U. parliamentary effort underway to bring the topic back on the agenda and into the public spotlight.

 

 

 

 

 

11-9-17

The Independent (UK)

Saad Hariri's resignation as Prime Minister of Lebanon is not all it seems

I certainly did not anticipate what happened to him. Indeed, Hariri had scheduled meetings in Beirut on the following Mondayh -- with the IMF, the World Bank and a series of discussions on water quality improvement; not exactly the action of a man who planned to resign his premiership

Robert Fisk

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/lebanon-prime-minister-saad-hariri-resignation-not-all-seems-quits-resigns-surprise-saudi-arabia-a8045636.html

When Saad Hariri’s jet touched down at Riyadh on the evening of 3 November, the first thing he saw was a group of Saudi policemen surrounding the plane. When they came aboard, they confiscated his mobile phone and those of his bodyguards. Thus was Lebanon’s prime minister silenced.

It was a dramatic moment in tune with the soap-box drama played out across Saudi Arabia this past week: the house arrest of 11 princes – including the immensely wealthy Alwaleed bin Talal – and four ministers and scores of other former government lackeys, not to mention the freezing of up to 1,700 bank accounts. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s “Night of the Long Knives” did indeed begin at night, only hours after Hariri’s arrival in Riyadh. So what on earth is the crown prince up to?

Put bluntly, he is clawing down all his rivals and – so the Lebanese fear – trying to destroy the government in Beirut, force the Shia Hezbollah out of the cabinet and restart a civil war in Lebanon. It won’t work, for the Lebanese – while not as rich – are a lot smarter than the Saudis. Every political group in the country, including Hezbollah, are demanding one thing only: Hariri must come back. As for Saudi Arabia, those who said that the Arab revolution will one day reach Riyadh – not with a minority Shia rising, but with a war inside the Sunni Wahhabi royal family – are watching the events of the past week with both shock and awe.

But back to Hariri. On Friday 3 November, he was in a cabinet meeting in Beirut. Then he received a call, asking him to see King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Hariri, who like his assassinated father Rafiq, holds Saudi as well as Lebanese citizenship, set off at once. You do not turn down a king, even if you saw him a few days’ earlier, as Hariri had. And especially when the kingdom owes Hariri’s “Oger” company as much as $9bn, for such is the commonly rumoured state of affairs in what we now call “cash-strapped Saudi Arabia”.

But more extraordinary matters were to come. Out of the blue and to the total shock of Lebanese ministers, Hariri, reading from a written text, announced on Saturday on the Arabia television channel – readers can guess which Gulf kingdom owns it – that he was resigning as prime minister of Lebanon. There were threats against his life, he said – though this was news to the security services in Beirut – and Hezbollah should be disarmed and wherever Iran interfered in the Middle East, there was chaos. Quite apart from the fact that Hezbollah cannot be disarmed without another civil war – is the Lebanese army supposed to attack them when Shia are the largest minority in the country (many of them in the army)? These were not words that Hariri had ever used before. They were not, in other words, written by him. As one who knows him well said this week, “this was not him speaking”. In other words, the Saudis had ordered the prime minister of Lebanon to resign and to read his own departure out loud from Riyadh.

I should add, of course, that Hariri’s wife and family are in Riyadh, so even if he did return to Beirut, there would be hostages left behind. Thus after a week of this outrageous political farce, there is even talk in Beirut of asking Saad Hariri’s elder brother Bahaa to take his seat in the cabinet. But what of Saad himself? Callers have reached him at his Riyadh home, but he speaks only a few words. “He says ‘I will come back’ or ‘I’m fine’, that’s all, only those words, which is very unlike him,” says one who must know. And what if Hariri did come back? Would he claim that his resignation had been forced upon him? Dare the Saudis risk this?

He certainly did not anticipate what happened to him. Indeed, Hariri had scheduled meetings in Beirut on the following Monday – with the IMF, the World Bank and a series of discussions on water quality improvement; not exactly the action of a man who planned to resign his premiership. However, the words he read out – scripted for him – are entirely in line with the speeches of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and with the insane President of the United States who speaks of Iran with the same anger, as does the American Defence Secretary.

Of course, the real story is just what is going on in Saudi Arabia itself, for the crown prince has broken forever the great compromise that exists in the kingdom: between the royal family and the clergy, and between the tribes. This was always the bedrock upon which the country stood or fell. And Mohamed bin Salman has now broken this apart. He is liquidating his enemies – the arrests, needless to say, are supposedly part of an “anti-corruption drive”, a device which Arab dictators have always used when destroying their political opponents.

There will be no complaints from Washington or London, whose desire to share in the divvying up of Saudi Aramco (another of the crown prince’s projects) will smother any thoughts of protest or warning. And given the smarmy reporting of the Crown Prince’s recent speeches in the New York Times, I have my suspicions that even this elderly journalistic organ will be comparatively unworried by the Saudi coup d’etat. For that is what it is. He unseated the interior minister earlier this year and now Mohamed bin Salman is getting rid of his opponents’ financial power.

But ruthless men can also be humble. Hariri was allowed to see the King – the original reason for which he believed he was travelling to Riyadh – and even paid a visit to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates this week, an ally-nation of the Saudis who would prevent him jumping on a flight to Beirut. But why on earth would Hariri want to go to the Emirates? To prove that he was still free to travel when he cannot even return to the country which he is supposed to be ruling?

Lebanon is always going through the greatest crisis since its last greatest crisis. But this time, it’s for real.


"Lebanon is too small and weak to bear the economic and political burden of the resignation,” said Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze community. “I will continue to be among those who call for dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” -- Erika Solomon, Financial Times, Nov. 4, 2017

 

11-7-17

Al Jazeera

How might Israel exploit Lebanon's political turmoil?

Zena Tahhan

The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri earlier this week has given Israel an opportunity to exploit the regional divide and to work on forming an Israeli-Arab alliance in the event of a military confrontation with Lebanon, political analysts say.

In his statement from the Saudi capital Riyadh, Hariri blamed his resignation on what he called Iranian meddling in Lebanese affairs through the former's backing of Hezbollah, a movement with a military wing based in southern Lebanon.

"Iran's arm [Hezbollah] ... has managed to impose a fait accompli on Lebanon through the power of its weapons" in the last few decades, Hariri said in his televised speech on Saturday. "They have built a state within a state.

 

How will Hariri's resignation affect Lebanon?

 

"I say to Iran and its allies - you have lost in your efforts to meddle in the affairs of the Arab world," he continued, adding that the region "will rise again and the hands that you have wickedly extended into it will be cut off". His language echoed Saudi rhetoric against Iran.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortly after the announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 

 

responded, calling the resignation a "wake-up call to the international community to take action against Iranian aggression".

He also accused Iran of "trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon," in reference to Hezbollah's expanding influence in Syria, where it is fighting alongside the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

Netanyahu added that Hezbollah's empowerment "endangers not only Israel but the entire Middle East".

Arab-Israeli alliance

Speaking at Chatham House in London on Friday prior to Hariri's resignation, Netanyahu said that Israel was working "very hard" to establish an alliance with "the modern Sunni states" to counter Iran, according to the AFP news agency. 

Hariri's move gives Israel an opportunity to exploit the Saudi-Iranian divide and to boast of an Arab-Israeli alliance in the face of Iran, political analysts say.

"Israel benefits from an escalation in any Arab conflict. Now, with Hariri's resignation, it is betting on an alliance to confront Iran," Kassem Kassir, a Beirut-based analyst with close ties to Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera.

 

Are Israel and Hezbollah headed for another war?

 

"They are pleased with Hariri's resignation because he headed a government with Hezbollah members. They believe that his resignation strips away from Hezbollah's legitimacy in the government."

 

On Sunday, during an interview with the BBC network, Netanyahu jumped on the bandwagon of anti-Iranian rhetoric, saying: "When Israelis and the Arabs, all the Arabs and the Israelis, agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover."

 

Another war?

Many observers have equated Hariri's resignation with an imminent Israeli attack on Lebanon - a fear that has become entrenched since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The discourse of another war has only intensified since the war in Syria began in 2011.

While fighting alongside Syrian government forces and other Iranian-backed groups, Hezbollah has gained an unprecedented level of tactical experience and weaponry, analysts note.

In response to Hezbollah's growing role, Israel has carried out systematic attacks against the group and the Syrian military. Netanyahu has accused Iran of "turning Syria into a base of military entrenchment" and wanting to use "Syria and Lebanon as war fronts against its declared goal to eradicate Israel".

 

Why does Israel keep attacking Syria?

 

Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst on Israel and Palestine for the International Crisis Group think-tank, said that Israel's fear of an underground missile factory built by Iran in southern Lebanon could spark an armed conflict. 

"Hariri's resignation may make Hezbollah feel there are less domestic challenges to taking a risk vis-a-vis Israel in terms of taking forward the construction of such an underground factory," Zalzberg told Al Jazeera. 

 

In addition, he said, "growing Saudi-Iranian tensions may make it more difficult for Hezbollah and Israel to constrict an Israeli strike on such construction from becoming a full-fledged war - a war both parties know will exact a dramatic toll from their societies and civic infrastructures". 

In 2006, Hezbollah shocked the region when it managed to overwhelm Israel's ground invasion of southern Lebanon and strike military and civilian targets. Hezbollah's rocket attacks caused sizeable damage and resulted in the death of an estimated 159 Israelis, including 43 civilians, which undermined internal Israeli support for the war. 

For Lebanon, Israel's bombing campaign devastated the south's infrastructure and led to the deaths of more than 1,100 Lebanese, the majority of whom were civilians.

But despite the intensifying discourse over the possibility of another war, some believe the prospect is far-fetched. 

Khalil Shaheen, a Ramallah-based political analyst, says that Israel "cannot face Hezbollah on its own" and would need the support of other Arab states in the event of another war.

The turnout of the last war, coupled with Hezbollah's metamorphosis over the years, means that a war would be a "miscalculation on Israel's part", Shaheen said, pointing to the group's influential role in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

"They cannot ensure a win." 

 

11-9-17

Al Jazeera

Saudi siege on Yemen: 'Hundreds will die within a week'

Faisal Edroos

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/saudi-arabia-siege-yemen-hundreds-die-week-171109132019410.html

 

"We're running dangerously low on medical supplies and won't have anywhere near the necessary vials of pain-relief medication, insulin, and other specialist medicines for our patients," said Abdulrahman al-Ansi, a doctor at Sanaa's al-Mutawkil hospital...

"Unless Saudi Arabia eases its restrictions and allows food and medical supplies, I could end up losing all of my cancer patients - even those suffering from diabetes - [a treatable disease] will die. Hundreds will perish in the next week alone."

Saudi Arabia, which has been at war with Yemen since 2015, tightened its air, land and sea blockade of the country on Sunday, after Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile towards the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

The Houthis, a group of fighters that controls the capital and large expanses of the country, justified the missile attack, blaming Saudi-led air strikes - which have killed thousands of people - of ravaging large parts of north Yemen. 

The kingdom has defended the blockade, which bars aid groups like Doctors without Borders, Oxfam and UN agencies from delivering aid, claiming it is aimed at preventing weapons being smuggled into Yemen by its regional rival, Iran.

Tehran has rejected allegations of arming the Houthis, calling them "malicious, irresponsible, destructive and provocative".

Aid organisations in Yemen said they were "greatly alarmed" by Saudi Arabia's decision, warning it could "bring millions of people closer to starvation and death".

"The current stock of vaccines in the country will only last one month. If it is not replenished, outbreaks of communicable diseases, such as polio and measles, are to be expected with fatal consequences, particularly for children under five years of age and those already suffering from malnutrition," said Oxfam, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and 19 other aid groups in a joint statement. 

 

Yemenis denounce Saudi siege as 'collective punishment'

 

The 22 humanitarian groups also warned Yemen had only six weeks of food aid remaining for about seven million Yemenis who are facing "famine-like conditions".

 

"The humanitarian situation in Yemen is extremely fragile and any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death," they added.

 

 

Since the start of Sunday's siege, the country's already inflated food and fuel prices have skyrocketed, while flights delivering much-needed humanitarian aid have been prevented from landing.

'Assad's playbook'

"I haven't received my salary in months," Mohamed Aboubakr, a 62-year-old civil servant, who was undergoing chemotherapy at the hospital, told Al Jazeera.

"How am I going to pay my medical bills?" he asked. "Prices have soared since the start of the siege - what am I supposed to do?"

Aboubakr said he had borrowed more than $2,000 from friends and family to pay for the treatment, but with the tightening of the siege, suggested it could have all been in vain. 

 
 

"The Saudis have taken a page from [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad's playbook. They think this siege will break us and we'll accept their plan for the country. I may not live to see the end of this war, but I pray the Saudis lose." 

The streets of Sanaa were almost free of cars on Thursday due to a fuel shortage, with locals saying public transport fares have doubled.

Azzubair Abdullah Hasan, a medic at a cholera centre in Sanaa's Aljiraf neighbourhood, said even wealthy Yemenis were beginning to feel the pinch.

"Everything has gone up in price," Hasan told Al Jazeera.

"Cooking gas has spiked and filling up my car with petrol now costs YR10,000 ($38) [it cost YR6,000 before the start of the siege], how can people continue with their lives. The situation is unbearable."

Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthi rebels took over the capital, Sanaa, and forced Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee.

Together with a coalition of other Arab states, and with logistical support from the United States and other western powers, Saudi Arabia has pushed the Houthis from the southern port city of Aden, but has failed to dislodge them from Sanaa and their northern strongholds.

According to the UN, the conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and left over seven million in need of food assistance.

Millions of others do not have adequate access to health, water and sanitation services.

The country has also been hit by a cholera outbreak, with some 900,000 suspected cases since April.

 


 

11-11-17

opednews.com

Saudi Crown Prince poised to take over as King: sources

Anti-corruption drive expands with arrest of hundreds of businessmen; $800 billion in assets targeted

from Asia Times

Pepe Escobar and Agencies

https://www.opednews.com/articles/Saudi-Crown-Prince-poised-by-Pepe-Escobar-Assets_Bankers_Corruption_Prince-Mohammed-Bin-Salman-171110-114.html

The Saudi "anti-corruption" crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), which initially netted 11 princes and a few dozen ministers and former ministers, has caught up with hundreds of businessmen, who are being detained in the luxurious Ritz Carlton and other hotels in Riyadh. The Wall Street Journal reports the Crown Prince is targeting an astonishing $800 BILLION in assets believed to be held in 1,700 frozen bank accounts.

The latest speculation, to which we give substantial credence, is that the Crown Prince will top up his coup by having himself crowned King "in a matter of days," according to our sources. Al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab television news channel, posted on Twitter on Wednesday that the abdication may be imminent but then deleted the post.

How will this play out further?

Not even the key players probably know. But it is entirely possible -- in the midst of feuding in the royal family -- that the entire Saudi Monarchy could be overthrown and replaced by a military junta much as happened in Egypt in 1952, when King Faruq was overthrown and replaced by military leaders Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Reuters reports that Saudi authorities have questioned 208 people in an anti-corruption investigation and estimate at least $100 billion has been stolen through graft, a top official said on Thursday as the inquiry expanded beyond the kingdom's borders.

"Based on our investigations over the past three years, we estimate that at least $100 billion has been misused through systematic corruption and embezzlement over several decades," Attorney-General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said in a statement.

Anti-corruption authorities have also frozen the bank accounts of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, one of the most senior members of the House of Saud, and some of his immediate family members. Nayef had been appointed as Crown Prince in 2015 and was first in line to the throne until he was replaced by MBS in June. He is a nephew of King Salman and grandson of the founding monarch King Abdulaziz.

The investigation has spread to the neighboring United Arab Emirates, as the UAE central bank has asked commercial banks and finance companies there to provide details of the accounts of 19 Saudis, commercial bankers told Reuters on Thursday.

The UAE, particularly Dubai, is one of the main places where wealthy Saudis park their money abroad. In addition to bank accounts, they buy luxury apartments and villas in Dubai and invest in the emirate's volatile stock market.

Some wealthy Saudi individuals have been liquidating assets within Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries this week, apparently in an effort to move money out of the region and escape the crackdown, private bankers and fund managers said.

In Riyadh, rich individual investors have been selling equities heavily, although buying by state-linked funds has helped to support the market. In Dubai, shares in real estate developers have sunk as investors worry about the impact on the property market of a pull-out by Saudis.

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The UAE commercial bankers said they had not been asked to freeze the Saudi accounts at their institutions, but they believed the central bank's request for information might be a prelude to such action.

The risk of the accounts being frozen "jeopardizes Dubai's pitch as a private banking centre," said a Gulf-based banker, adding: "Banks in the UAE are full of Saudi money."

One senior banker at an international bank with business in Saudi Arabia said his institution had already frozen some accounts, both inside the kingdom and outside it, in response to Saudi government requests.

The bank is conducting its own investigations into accounts linked to people who have been detained, the banker said without elaborating.

Another banker in the region said his institution was receiving more enquiries from Saudi clients about cross-border financial transactions, but it was handling the enquiries with extreme caution as there could be further action by regulators.

 

 

11-9-17

The Independent (UK)

Arbaeen: Millions of Shia Muslims take part in world's greatest pilgrimage as Isis is finally defeated

Iraq Reborn: Twice the size of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, yet nowhere near as well known, the Arbaeen comes this year at a moment of victory for Shia Muslims over the extremist Sunnis of Isis. In the final part of his series, Patrick Cockburn reports on a moment of historic significance – the end of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ project

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Patrick Cockburn Kerbala, Iraq 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/arbaeen-pilgrimage-kerbala-shia-isis-defeat-muslims-thousands-killed-middle-east-iraq-najaf-a8046621.html

 

Millions of black-clad Shia pilgrims are converging on the holy city of Kerbala for the Arbaeen religious commemoration, the largest annual gathering of people anywhere on earth. Walking in long columns stretching back unbroken for as much as 50 miles, sleeping and eating in tents erected by supporters beside the road, the event has become an overwhelmingly powerful display of Shia belief and solidarity.

The Arbaeen coincides this year with the final defeat of Isis, the movement that slaughtered Shia in their tens of thousands and aimed to overthrow the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The Syrian army announced today that it has captured the last Isis-held town in Syria, Albu Kamal, its victory coming a few days after Isis was driven from western Iraq.   

Arbaeen is the living symbol of the rise of the Iraqi Shia, a highly significant development in the Middle East, but it has happened only recently. Karim, 48, a tribal leader from Najaf, who provides free food for the pilgrims, recalls that when he first took part in an illegal Arbaeen walk under Saddam Hussein, “we had to take a roundabout route by the river [Euphrates] and try to keep hidden because, if we were caught, we would put in prison or executed”The Arbaeen has provided many modern-day Shia martyrs, murdered by Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and Isis, but its purpose is to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the founding father of the Shia faith, killed in the battle for Kerbala in AD680. The long ritual walk to his golden-domed shrine in that city – some walkers spend 10 or 12 days on the road from Basra or Kirkuk, others two or three days from Najaf – comes on the 40th day of the mourning period as religious fervour reaches its peak among the faithful.

Shia cities, towns and villages all over Iraq empty out during a 20-day period as their people take to the roads in an elaborately organised and well protected mass movement not seen anywhere else in the world. Estimates vary of the total attending, from highs of 15-17 million to a low of 6-7 million, but it includes at least two million Iranians whose numbers are easier to calculate because they require documentation to enter Iraq. Mohammed al-Hilli, the author of a book entitled The Arbaeen: the Walk, says that “the city of Kerbala can only contain two or three million people at one time, but, since pilgrims are coming and going over a long time, the total attending will be much higher.”  

Shiite Muslim pilgrims gather for the Arbaeen religious festival

The pilgrims carry black, green, red and white flags, with the black flag of mourning for Imam Hussein by far the most common. Vast numbers of them decorate permanent brick buildings and temporary tents which are used for praying, eating and sleeping along the three main routes leading to Kerbala. Once pilgrims were lucky if they got rice and bean stew – “there was nothing but muddy water to drink” recalls one early participant – but everything is now highly organised with copious supplies of food, small clinics and even dentists all working for free. The care of pilgrims is regarded as a religious duty.

This year there are more red, white and black Iraqi national flags evident than before, indicating a shift towards greater identification with the Iraqi state by the Shia, traditionally marginalised by the Sunni since Ottoman times and before. When the Shia-dominated government took power in Iraq in 2005 it was the first time the Shia had held power in any country in the Arab world since the Fatimids in Egypt were overthrown by Saladin in the 12th century. It is only now that they have started to look comfortable in their new role. 

All religions have their martyrs, but for the Iraqi Shia they come from the present as well as the distant past. Lamp posts fifty yards apart along the 45-mile Najaf-Kerbala road each have a different picture of a soldier or civilian killed by Isis or al-Qaeda. The same is true of other routes to the holy city. Once pilgrims risked death from Isis ambushes, but the roads are more secure. Major General Qais Khalaf, military governor of Kerbala, Najaf and Diwaniyah provinces, says “there was just suicide bombing in this area 18 months ago, when three people were killed.” He believes Isis no longer has the base areas or the level of support it needs to launch big attacks.

The mood of the pilgrimage is one of intense piety and communal solidarity, though Shia clerics keep emphasising that the pilgrimage is dedicated to peace. Asked if the Iraqi security forces’ victory over Isis had an effect on the gathering, Shia clerics said there has been an improvement in morale and self-confidence. “Who does not want more security?” asked Kamil Kadar, a pilgrim taking part in the walk. After 40 years of wars and emergencies, Iraqis are wary of good news, always suspecting that developments will turn sour as they have done so often in the past.  

Sayyid Alaa al-Moussawi, a senior Shia cleric who is head of the Office of the Shia Endowment, says that Iraq seems to be entering a period “of greater harmony with its neighbours, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran”. Iraqis see this as crucial because it is the combination of domestic insurgency with financial and military support from foreign states that has kept Iraq in a permanent state of war and emergency.   

Pilgrims from all over the world head for Najaf, Iranians being much the most numerous, but they also come from Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and places where the Shia community must be tiny. Many of the pilgrims are teenagers or in their twenties. Asked what the pilgrimage meant to him, one 19-year-old visitor from London said: “It means my whole life to me. It means one small step towards heaven.”  

Shia identity is beginning to blend with Iraqi national identity as Iraq looks less like a failed state. There is strong sympathy for Shia struggles in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Inside Iraq, there is strong popular backing for the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Units as a sort of Shia national guard. Nationalism may be on the rise but it is still trumped by religion as a cause Iraqis will die for.  Asked about the Hashd, one observer said: “I don’t think you could have defeated Isis without using ideologically-driven fighters like the Hashd.”

The first time I saw Arbaeen walkers was in April 2003 when US soldiers looked in perplexity and with suspicion at bands of young men, often carrying green palm fronds rather than flags, walking to Kerbala from all over Iraq. This was happening just after the US invasion and the pilgrims were walking unconcernedly past burned out Iraqi tanks and military vehicles. The incoming administrators of the US-led occupation paid the walkers no attention, though they were an early sign of the Shia piety and determination which was to shape the future of the country.  

The US shows little sign of having learned much about the Iraqi Shia community in the 14 years since the invasion. It certainly still underestimates them. The Arbaeen was not a victory rally for the Shia as Isis is defeated, but they may well feel that, in Iraq, their day has come.

 

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