Basra, Sep 8(AP/UNB) — Assailants fired three Katyusha rockets at Iraq's Basra airport Saturday, an airport official said, after a chaotic and violent night that saw hundreds of protesters setting ablaze the Iranian consulate in the city, attacking offices belonging to Iranian-backed militias and blocking roads.
The city of Basra, home to some of the largest oil fields in Iraq, has been the epicenter of angry protests over decades of government neglect, poor services and corruption. The demonstrations are the most serious to shake the oil-rich southern Shiite area in years, demanding an end to endemic corruption, soaring joblessness and crumbling infrastructure.
This week, they turned their rage on neighboring Iran, blaming its outsized influence in Iraq's political affairs for their misery and calling for radical change.
"We have no work, no money. Something needs to change," said 18-year-old Mustafa Diaa, a currently jobless construction worker from Basra's Tannouma district who said he has been taking part in the protests daily.
Diaa took part in burning the provincial government building two days earlier and came back Saturday to look at it again. He said he does not regret it and would do so again until something gives.
"They should change the government, provide job opportunities and fix the water. I'm not scared," he said.
The airport official said it was not clear who was behind the Saturday morning attack on Basra airport, which also houses the U.S. consulate. He said the attack occurred at about 8 a.m. local time and did not cause casualties or disrupt flights in or out of the city. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Iraq's parliament held an emergency session Saturday to discuss the unrest in Basra.
Hours earlier, protesters shouting anti-Iranian slogans including "Iran, out, out!" stormed the Iranian consulate and set a fire inside. They also burned an Iranian flag and trampled over a portrait of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, condemned the attack, which he said caused significant damage to the building. He called for maximum punishment for the assailants.
The State Department criticized the attack, without explicitly mentioning Iran. "The United States condemns violence against diplomats, including that which occurred today in Basra," it said in a statement.
Elsewhere in the city, protesters tried to attack the headquarters of the Iran-backed Assaib Ahl Al-Haq Shiite militia and the guards stationed there opened fire. Angry protesters marched to the city's presidential palaces compound, where Shiite paramilitary troops are stationed, and tried to breach it. At least three cars driven by the troops ploughed into the protesters, killing one and wounding four others, according to a health official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
On Saturday, an Associated Press reporter touring the city observed that traffic was normal and shops were open. Police and security forces were conspicuously absent. The two-story consulate was partially burned. An Iraqi flag was placed at the entrance to the consulate after the Iranian one was snatched away and set ablaze at night. Sprayed in red on the concrete wall of the consulate were the words: "Down with Iran, down with the militias, the revolution will continue."
A lone, unarmed policeman sat on a chair at the entrance, underneath the slogan.
The provincial government building in the center of Basra was completely torched. A banner on one side of the building read in Arabic: "No to the militias, your militias under our feet."
Several burned cars were also seen in the city's presidential palaces compound, where Shiite paramilitary troops are stationed.
At least 15 protesters have died in clashes with security forces since the beginning of the month, health officials said. The violence has forced the closure of the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf.
A provincial official with state-run Iraqi Ports Co. said authorities closed the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf since late Wednesday, fearing sabotage. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information, wouldn't say when operations will resume.
Basra, once known as the "Venice of the East" because of its freshwater canals, has been hit by an acute water crisis and crippling electricity shortages this summer amid surging Iraq temperatures. Adding to the outrage is a water pollution crisis and salt water seeping into tap waters that is making residents sick. Two hospital officials told the AP that around 35,000 residents have been hospitalized as a result of water pollution in the past month.
The water is reportedly so polluted it cannot even be used for cooking or washing. The protests began in June, then tapered off but restarted Monday following a surge in water poisoning cases.
Iraq's government has scrambled to meet the growing demands for public services and jobs, but has been hindered by years of endemic corruption and a financial crisis fueled by diminished oil revenues and the costly war against the Islamic State group.
Basra streets are filled with pictures of young men from the Iran-backed Shiite militias who were killed fighting against the Islamic State group in the past few years — a war that allowed powerful Iran-backed militias space to flourish and gain strength in Iraq.
Many residents of the predominantly Shiite city now accuse Iranian-backed political parties of interfering with Iraqi politics and hold them responsible for the Shiite militias based in their city, which they blame for mismanagement and profiteering at their expense.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an investigation into the violence, which showed no sign of abating.
The unrest in the south comes amid a political crisis in Baghdad, adding to overall tensions in the country.
The newly elected parliament earlier this week held its first session since the national elections in May, but the session was adjourned amid disagreements as two blocs, both claiming to hold the most seats, vied for the right to form a new government.
Baghdad, Sep 8 (AP/UNB)— An attack Saturday on a Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan base in Iraq killed at least nine people and wounded more than 30, Kurdish media reported, with officials immediately blaming Iran for the assault.
Iranian state media did not immediately acknowledge the attack in Koya, some 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of Baghdad.
The Rudaw satellite news channel aired video showing smoke rising from the base in Koya. It quoted a health official for the casualty count.
The secretary-general of the separatist group, Mustafa Mawludi, and his predecessor, Khalid Azizi, were injured in the attack, Rudaw reported.
Kurds represent about 10 percent of Iran's population of 80 million people, with many living in the mountainous northwest that borders Iraq and Turkey.
A string of recent attacks by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, PDKI, mark the end of a 20-year cease-fire between its fighters and Iran, though Kurdish separatists have agitated for freedom for decades in the country's northwest.
The area had been largely quiet since the 1990s under the cease-fire. But Kurdish resentments grew recently. In one incident, the death of a Kurdish maid at a hotel in the northwestern city of Mahabad in May 2015 sparked unrest by local Kurds as opposition groups alleged Iranian security forces somehow had a hand in it.
Since 2016, clashes have erupted between Kurdish fighters and Iranian security forces, including the elite Revolutionary Guard, leading to casualties on both sides. The PDKI, operating out of the northern Iraq, claimed many of those attacks, which saw Iranian forces shell Kurdish positions just across the Iraqi border in response.
United Nations, Sep 6 (AP/UNB) — Iran's foreign minister sharply criticized President Donald Trump Wednesday for abusing the U.S. presidency of the Security Council this month by holding a meeting on Iran's international activities during the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. in late September.
Mohammad Javad Zarif was responding in a tweet to U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley's announcement Tuesday that Trump will chair a meeting to address "violations of international law and general instability Iran sows throughout the entire Middle East region."
She accused Iran of supporting terrorism and destabilizing activities in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria.
Zarif tweeted that Trump "plans to abuse presidency of SC to divert a session — item devoted to Palestine for 70 yrs — to blame Iran for horrors US & clients have unleashed across M.E. (Middle East)."
He also accused Trump of violating a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution, number 2231, that endorsed the Iran nuclear deal. The president withdrew the United States from the nuclear accord between Iran and six major powers in May.
Zarif said "@realDonaldTrump is violating it & bullying others to do same."
Under Security Council rules, Iran can speak at the Sept. 26 meeting that Trump will chair, but Zarif and Iran's U.N. Mission did not indicate whether it would participate. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to attend the General Assembly's ministerial session, along with Zarif.
The mission said in a press release that despite the fact that Iran is in compliance with all its nuclear obligations under the 2015 deal according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, "the U.S. not only unilaterally and unlawfully withdrew from the accord, but also now openly invites all U.N. member states to either violate or ignore resolution 2231 or face punishment."
The mission called Israel's occupation of Palestine "the main cause of all conflicts in the Middle East" and accused the U.S., Israel's most important supporter, of rendering the Security Council "ineffective in discharging its duty to end the illegal occupation."
Iran called the Sept. 26 council meeting "a further attempt by the U.S. to divert attention away from Israeli brutalities and to remove the issue from the council agenda; however, such actions are doomed to fail."
Answering U.S. criticism of "the so-called destabilizing role of Iran in the region," the Iranian mission called the United States "a menace to Middle Eastern security with its destabilizing, unilateralist policies and military interventions based on false claims."
It pointed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, its presence in Afghanistan, "the illegal occupation" of nearly one-third of Syria, and its part in the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen, which has been accused of killing civilians.
The mission noted that Iran was in "the forefront" of defeating the Islamic State extremist group which it claimed was created and supported by the U.S. and its regional allies.
Beirut, Sep 6 (AP/UNB) — When the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran meet Friday in Tehran, all eyes will be on their diplomacy reaching a last-minute deal to avert a bloodbath in Idlib, Syria's crowded northwestern province and last opposition stronghold.
The three leaders, whose nations are all under U.S. sanctions, have an interest in working together to contain a potentially catastrophic offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to recapture the province, but Idlib is complicated and they have little common ground when it comes to Syria.
The province and surrounding area is home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria — but also an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including al-Qaida-linked militants.
For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian government, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete what they see as a military victory in Syria's civil war after they recaptured nearly all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Assad.
A bloody offensive that creates a massive wave of death and displacement, however, runs counter to their narrative that the situation in Syria is normalizing, and could hurt Russia's longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria's postwar reconstruction.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which supports Syria's rebels, stands to lose the most from an assault on Idlib.
Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has sealed its borders to newcomers. It has also created zones of control in northern Syria and has several hundred troops deployed at 12 observation posts in Idlib. A government assault creates a nightmare scenario of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, including militants, fleeing toward its border and destabilizing towns and cities in northern Syria under its control.
"I don't think that there is a total solution for Syria on the table, but certainly it is a defining moment," said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. He said if Damascus retook Idlib, it would mark its near-total victory over the opposition, but it will likely also bring humanitarian suffering and carnage on a scale not yet seen in the seven-year war.
A lot of expectations hang on the Iran summit bringing together Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.'s Syria envoy, made a personal appeal to Erdogan and Putin to find a "soft solution to this crisis."
"We look to Russia, Turkey, Iran to come with hope to the civilians in Idlib," he said. "There are indeed many more babies than there are terrorists in Idlib. There are a million children."
Friday's meeting in Tehran marks the third time the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran have met over Syria in less than a year. In the absence of an engaged United States, they have taken it upon themselves to manage Syria's messy civil war, and their previous meetings in Sochi and Ankara established so-called de-escalation zones in several areas, including Idlib, that temporarily reduced violence. All these agreements were later violated as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, moved to retake those areas after pounding them into submission with airstrikes.
Capitulating rebels and militants from Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta and Daraa were packed in green buses and taken to Idlib, where the war's last showdown is about to unfold. Only this time, there is nowhere left to go, and remaining fighters are more likely to fight until the end.
Speaking to Russian news agencies Wednesday in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov repeated Russian statements that Idlib is turning into a breeding ground for terrorists and needs to be dealt with accordingly.
He added, however, that Russia "is acting cautiously, selectively and is trying to minimize possible risks for civilians." He added that the Russian and U.S. militaries, as well as diplomats, are still in touch on the situation in Idlib.
"I think the military situation will become clearer after the leaders of the three countries hold talks on Friday," he said.
The meeting takes place against the backdrop of much saber-rattling.
Assad has built up forces around Idlib, vowing to retake the province. Turkey, which backs the rebels in Idlib, is warning against such a move, saying it will be disastrous. Moscow, meanwhile, has moved 10 warships and two submarines off the coast of Syria in a huge show of force.
At the core of Idlib's predicament is the thousands of jihadists entrenched in the province along with the civilians. The al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee remains the dominant force there, and any deal would most likely entail intensified Turkish efforts to oust the militants. Russia is reportedly talking to the group through mediators about dissolving itself.
Instead of a full-scale assault, Russia, Turkey and Iran could agree to a piecemeal approach that would see government forces taking off bites of the province, including cities like Jisr al-Shughour, close to Assad's coastal heartland in Latakia province, and Maaret al-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun, which lie on the M5, a key highway that runs through Syria's major cities.
According to an analysis by the International Crisis Group, one compromise plan could entail ending recurrent rebel drone attacks on Russia's Hmeimeem air base in Latakia by withdrawing the de-escalation zone's protection from specific problem areas, and reopening key highways in return for suspending a government offensive in Idlib to enable Turkey to find a solution to the province's jihadist challenge.
Another approach could be to get Turkey to agree to a government return to parts of Idlib while guaranteeing Turkish interests in northwestern Syria, at least in the short term.
For Turkey, however, the loss of Idlib would represent a humiliating failure that threatens to completely defeat Ankara's interests in Syria.
Can Acun, foreign policy researcher at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, or SETA, said Turkey will try to push at the summit for any operation in Idlib to be limited, "one that targets only terror and radical groups."
He said Turkey could propose that the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces and other moderate groups in Syria be used "to weaken" the radical groups in Idlib.
Russia, which has seen its ties with Turkey grow amid Ankara's ongoing row with Washington, may be willing to compromise to protect the budding relationship.
Volkan Bozkir, head of the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee and a senior official of Turkey's ruling party, said he was hopeful a political solution would emerge at the meeting.
"They (Turkey, Russia and Iran) are all smart nations," Bozkir said. "I am hopeful that a formula can be reached with diplomatic ways, with smart policies and not through the use of guns."
Jerusalem, Sep 3 (AP/UNB) — An Israeli businessman says he received calls and messages from senior Israeli and foreign military officials after he was assigned the former phone number of Israel's military chief of staff.
A report Monday by Israeli Army Radio identified the man only as Yossi. He said that when he began receiving messages, "a red light went on...if it got in the hands of another citizen I don't know what would happen."
It wasn't entirely clear how Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot's number was passed on to a private citizen.
The report said military phone numbers are often reassigned for security reasons.
It said the military returned the number to the mobile provider about a year ago. The provider said the number was not classified and was reassigned to another customer.