A possible candidate for prime minister of Lebanon said Sunday he is withdrawing from consideration for the post, prolonging the country's political crisis.
Samir Khatib said the country's top Sunni religious authority told him the community supports the re-appointment of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned Oct. 29 under fire from anti-government protesters.
Under Lebanon's sectarian-based political system, the prime minister comes from the Sunni Muslim community, while the president is chosen from the Maronite Christian community. The parliament speaker is chosen from the ranks of Shiite Muslims.
Khatib's announcement came hours before he was expected to be named as the official candidate following consultations between President Michel Aoun and major parliamentary blocs. In light of Khatib's decision, Aoun decided to postpone the consultations for a week.
Hariri resigned amid nationwide protests in which demonstrators accused the political elite of corruption and mismanagement. A stalemate ensued over who should head the new government amid a deepening economic crisis, shortage of liquidity and hard currency.
At the time, Hariri said he reached a dead end with his political rivals over forming an emergency government to deal with the country's crumbling economy.
He said he backed Khatib for the post, but protesters rejected him, saying the prominent businessman and contractor was too close to the ruling elite.
On Sunday, Khatib announced his decision after meeting with Hariri and Lebanon's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian.
Khatib said he has been "subjected to an unfair campaign by some biased people" since his name was floated as a candidate two weeks ago.
Protesters gathered outside parliament after the announcement for scheduled rallies to protest the way the government is being formed and the delays in choosing a candidate amid the downward spiral of the economy. They were quick to denounce Hariri's possible return as a contender for the job.
"We want an independent head of government," said Layal Siblani, one of hundreds of protesters gathered outside parliament. "Hariri is no exception. He is one of the pillars of this authority, he and his family. ... They should not portray him as our savior because he has good international contacts."
Siblani also protested the role of the religious authority in naming or supporting a candidate. "The head of the government is for all people. We should all know that and that there is no room for religious authorities to interfere."
Security forces prevented the protesters from marching to Hariri's office, tightening roadblocks and scuffling with some who tried to push their way out of a cordon. Heavy rains didn't stop dozens of protesters from reaching the outside of Hariri's office chanting: "You will not come back, Hariri," and "Revolution."
Lebanon's national unity government was headed by Hariri, backed by the West, but was dominated by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, including the party of President Michel Aoun.
Iran's president said on Sunday his country will depend less on oil revenue next year, in a new budget that is designed to resist crippling U.S. trade embargoes.
Iran is in the grips of an economic crisis. The U.S. re-imposed sanctions that block Iran from selling its crude oil abroad, following President Trump's decision to withdraw from Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
"The budget sends a message to the world that despite the sanctions, we will manage the country," President Hassan Rouhani told the opening session of Parliament.
The budget will counter "maximum pressure and sanctions'' by the U.S., he said.
Rouhani added that the Iranian government will also benefit from a $5 billion loan from Russia that's being finalized.
He said the U.S. and Israel will remain "hopeless" despite their goal of weakening Iran through sanctions.
The next Iranian fiscal year begins March 20, with the advent of the Persian New Year. The budget is set to be about $40 billion, some 20% higher than in 2019. The increase comes as the country is suffering from a 40% inflation rate.
Iran's economic woes in part fueled the anger seen in nationwide protests last month that Iranian security forces violently put down, unrest that Amnesty International says killed over 200 people.
Saudi Arabia welcomed on Saturday the decision of the United States and Sudan to exchange envoys after over two decades of diplomatic void, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry said the appointment of U.S. ambassador to Sudan considers the crucial stage Sudan is going through.
It also described the decision as a step ahead of the removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism and the reconsideration of all economic sanctions imposed on the country.
Saudi Arabia said in Ocotober that it was working on removing Sudan from the U.S. list to ensure the stability of the African country.
Anti-government protesters wielding a blood-drenched flag returned to Baghdad's central plaza on Saturday after a night of bloody attacks that left 25 people dead and more than 130 wounded.
Storm clouds gathered over Khilani Square as the protesters surveyed the blackened facade of a parking garage that had served as their de facto command post before unknown assailants torched it Friday night.
Buildings surrounding the square were pockmarked with bullet holes. One demonstrator collected as many as a dozen spent cartridges.
The attack, which took place in darkness moments after the power was cut, marked a major escalation in assaults against protesters that have been taking place in recent weeks.
It was among the deadliest since Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis first took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran's influence in Iraqi affairs. At least 400 have died at the hands of security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations.
Friday's attacks also came hours after Washington slapped sanctions on the leader of Asaib al-Haq, a powerful Iran-backed militia accused of being behind deadly sniping attacks on protesters. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned leader Qais al-Khazali, his brother Laith al-Khazali, a commander in the group, and Husain Falih Aziz al-Lami.
Demonstrators feared the attacks would be followed by armed street fighting and more violence that would undermine the peaceful tone of their mass rallies.
"Everyone is terrified," said Noor, a protester who provided only her first name for fear of reprisal. "We don't want this to become a street war. That is why we are trying to stay peaceful. But day after day we find that we are alone."
Anti-government activists blame the attacks on Iran-backed militias, which have staged similar assaults against protester sit-ins in the capital and the country's southern cities. On Thursday, the militias attempted to hold their own demonstration in the square to counter anti-government protesters, many of whom were attacked with knives by unknown assailants. They later withdrew.
Two Iraqi officials, who requested anonymity in line with regulations, said it was widely suspected that militiamen were involved in Friday night's attacks.
Members of the Popular Mobilization Units, an official umbrella organization comprising an array of militia groups, have said the attacks during the protests have been aimed at infiltrators of the anti-government movement who were looking to cause disturbances.
Falah Fayadh, chairman of the paramilitary PMUs, the program that oversees an array of Shiite militia groups, directed the PMU forces to stay away from squares occupied by protesters, according to an internal statement issued Saturday and seen by The Associated Press. Those who disobeyed the order would be fired, Fayadh said in the statement.
Protesters said the government's failure to protect them at the height of the hostilities on Friday forced them to rely on a militia linked to influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, also the leader of the Sairoon bloc, which holds the most seats in Parliament.
Al-Sadr has supported the protests by sending Saraya Salam (Peace Brigades), a militia group under his control, to block roads and prevent anti-protest gunmen from entering during Friday's clashes.
Iraqi officials said they believed al-Sadr would use his popularity on the street as political leverage in talks over the selection of a new premier. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned last week in response to the protests.
Abdul-Mahdi's ascension to prime minister was the result of an uneasy alliance between the Sairoon bloc and parliament's other main bloc, the Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi al-Amiri.
Even protesters who are wary of al-Sadr's politics — they consider him part of the establishment they are protesting — said the presence of Saraya Salam members, who were unarmed, was key to their safety.
"I wish the ... army had come and fought for us so that other people don't feel that Sadr is protecting the protesters — because they are also a militia at the end of the day," Noor said.
For Iraqi officials inside the fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq's government, the presence of al-Sadr's militia on the street serves only to reinforce perceptions that the majority of anti-government protesters are in fact supporters of al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr, meanwhile, said his home in the holy city of Najaf was hit by a drone strike on Saturday. He did not elaborate. Nassar al-Rubaie, head of Sairoon's political committee, decried the attack in televised remarks and called for an emergency parliamentary session to discuss the violence in Khilani Square.
Friday's attacks had many protesters on edge.
Mohamed, a protester who only provided his first name for fear of reprisal, said when he arrived at the square Friday night after receiving a call from distressed protesters, he saw groups of masked men wielding knives near the protesters' command post at the parking garage.
Twenty minutes later, he said, four white pickup trucks arrived from the direction of Abdul-Qadir Gilani mosque, adjacent to Khilani square, without license plates and car rying armed men wearing ski masks.
"They fired at us, and we ran," he said, noting that the electricity went off moments before. The armed men positioned themselves on the top floor of the parking garage and started shooting at the demonstrators below, said Mohamed, whose version of events was corroborated by a half-dozen other protesters. The shooting lasted for at least three hours, he said.
The attacks claimed the lives of 22 protesters and three policemen, officials said. Iraqi security forces were deployed to streets leading to the square early Saturday.
Some protesters accused the government of colluding with the masked gunmen, pointing to the power outage that happened around the same time as the attacks.
But a senior Electricity Ministry official, who requested anonymity in line with regulations, denied the allegation. The official said it would have been easy for anyone to cut the power lines.
Israeli aircraft bombed several militants' sites in Gaza early Sunday, hours after three rockets were fired from the Palestinian enclave toward southern Israel.
The military said in a statement the airstrikes targeted military camps and a naval base for Hamas, the Islamic militant group controlling Gaza. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
On Saturday evening, Israel announced that its air defenses, known as "Iron Dome," intercepted two of three missiles coming from Gaza. Later, it said all three rockets had been shot down.
No Palestinian group claimed responsibility for the rocket fire. The Israeli army said Hamas was responsible for any attack transpiring in Gaza.
Cross-border violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza has ebbed and flowed in recent years. Last month, the two sides fought their worst round of violence in months.
Leaders from Hamas and the smaller but more radical Islamic Jihad are in Cairo, talking with Egyptian officials about cementing a cease-fire that would see some economic incentives and easing of restrictions on Gaza.
Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since seizing Gaza in 2007 and dozens of shorter skirmishes.