South Sudanese see hope in new peace deal

SSD011018001JUBA, South Sudan – John Achiek Mabior lost his father in his country’s five-year-long civil war.

“He was shot on his left thigh and later died of the gun wound,” said Achiek Mabior, a 30-year-old Juba resident, adding that he was lucky. “Many lives have been lost since the war started. People are suffering because there’s no provision of basic needs by the government.”

But despite South Sudan’s moribund economy, tribal conflicts, periodic famines and other hardships, Achiek Mabior is hopeful about a peace deal signed last month by President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar.

“I am overjoyed because peace has finally been restored in our country and this mean we will now rebuild our lives and people will live in harmony,” he said.

He said it has been his wish to see the warring parties reach the deal to end the conflict that has worsened poverty in the country.

Kiir and Machar signed the deal in Ethiopia on September 12. It’s not the first time they reached a truce. But fighting re-erupted after those previous deals. While violence has continued in various parts of the country in recent weeks, South Sudanese officials said that fighting reflected local conflicts rather than civil war.

Eight African countries in the region as well as the African Union are serving as guarantors of the peace. The deal also more extensive power sharing than previous agreements.

“The process allowed for those who didn’t have an opportunity to have their voices heard to begin putting across their various viewpoints,” said South Sudanese Vice President Taban Deng Gai in a recent speech at the United nations.

Eunice Amer Manyok and her neighbors in the capital have suffered so much, she said, they had to be optimistic or else would fall into despair. It was clear that neither side would win the war, she added.

“As women of South Sudan, we have suffered enough,” Amer Manyok said. “enough is enough. This is a time we now need to implement this peace agreement fully.”

A recent U.S. State Department-funded study found that almost 400,000 people have died in the civil war. Half of those people died in fighting. Disease, lack of healthcare and other disruptions to public services claimed the rest.

Amnesty International also released a report this month accusing government forces of carrying out war crimes in northern Unity state, a rebel stronghold. The report described soldiers burning civilians alive, slamming children to death against trees and other horrors.

Under the deal, Machar will regain his position as vice president. Amer Manyok felt that move would satisfy rebels and potentially reign in errant government soldiers.

“This one alone has given us a lot of hope and faith that the president and opposition leader will work together,” said Manyok, who is chairperson of the Women's Block of South Sudan, a loose coalition of local women groups campaigning for the women’s rights,. “So I think now enough is enough for them and this is why I think they will implement this peace.”

Dennis Scopas, another Juba resident, also felt that a transitional period of eight months under the pact would help the parties rebuild trust as they implement the agreement in the next three years.

“The eight months will address a lot pending issues such as the number of states, bills and permanent constitution among others,” Scopas said, referring to issues that Kiir and Machar are supposed to iron out.

University of Juba Political Scientist James Okuk said the agreement would hold because both sides are fatigued. “People are tired of war and you can’t mobilize young people anymore to go and fight the massive war like they used to do,” Okuk said.

The government is also running out of cash amid punishing sanctions imposed due to human rights abuses perpetrated during the fighting, Okuk added. The rebels are finding it hard to sustain their effort after years of fighting, especially if they have been crossing into neighboring countries where they must elude foreign forces.

“Survival outside in the neighboring countries is very tough for the opposition,” said Okuk. “Both the warring parties are facing tough economic sanctions directly or indirectly and that sanction don’t allow them to pursue war further.”

Lastly, the African Union is seeking to make a test case of South Sudan as part of their campaign to end wars and rebellions in Africa in the next two years. “The African Union wants to see to it that this war comes to an end,” he said.

Not everyone was positive.

Atem Simon, a Juba-based journalist, had little faith in the African Union or anyone else who was supposed to guarantee the peace. Their promises haven’t help in the past, he said.

“The lack of the international community’s political will and financial support toward the South Sudanese leaders will hinder the implementation of the deal,” Atem said. “It is not going to lift people’s suffering.”

But Thomson Fontaine, a citizen of Dominica who is deputy chief of staff of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, which is monitoring the peace deal, hoped renewed oil pumping would help revitalize the country’s economy and convert naysayers like Simon.

“Full compliance to the agreement is very critical to build confidence and provide an enabling environment for the much-needed focus on the growth of the economy among other things,” Fontaine said.

Photo: September 10, 2018 - Juba, South Sudan - A woman hold South Sudan flag as it wave in the air after receiving South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir from Juba International Airport recently in Juba, after returning from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after signing the final revitalized agreement to the end the five years strife in the world’s newest country that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions of others from their homes.
Credit: Majak Kuany/ ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: October 8, 2018

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Arab leaders skeptical about Trump's 'Deal of the Century'

Oct 2, 2017-Gaza, Palestine an old woman holding a poster of Abbas as a way to support the reconciliation. (Photo by Mohammed Atallah | ARA Network Inc.)CAIRO - Even as the White House moves to unveil its’ “Deal of the Century” vision for Middle East peace, it’s increasingly clear that that Arab enthusiasm to partner with President Donald Trump on a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is faltering.

The central thrust of the plan – which Arab leaders have reportedly asked the Trump administration to withhold – is to focus first on an economic development program for Gaza with similar incentives applying to the West Bank only if Palestinians concede permanent control over Jerusalem with large settlement zones for Israelis and a limited sovereignty arrangement that is several steps short of full independence.

But after a year of shuttle diplomacy and multiple meetings with leaders in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Amman and Cairo, American envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have failed to convince Egypt or other key Arab states that the US can broker a fair solution.

“Most of the Arab world – including Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have rejected the US-proposed Deal of the Century,” said Saad El Gammal, head of the Egyptian parliament's Arab Affairs Committee.

El Gamal and other critics of the emerging deal say detailed planning for a free trade zone or building power and desalination plants in Gaza before tackling the political questions of Jerusalem, borders and refugees is side stepping core Arab concerns.

“Trump’s claims of ongoing support to the peace process are entirely false,” said El Gammal pointing to the administration’s move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May and American efforts this summer to shut down UNRWA – the UN refugee agency assisting Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.

The refugee quandary emerged again last week amid reports that Kushner proposed that the more than 2 million registered Palestinians living in Jordan no longer be listed as “refugees,” a word that implies a right to return to land inside Israel.

It’s a disappointing turn around for Arabs who remember the May 2017 photo op in the Saudi capital Riyadh where President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Trump jointly grasped an illuminated globe at an anti-terrorism summit.

President El Sisi had particularly high hopes to co-broker a Middle East solution with the Americans, securing a good relationship with Trump and reaping economic benefits from a new arrangement in the region that would place Egypt at the center of a regional energy hub and attract international – especially Saudi – investment.

“Working together we can find a solution to the problem of the century in the deal of the century,” Sisi told Trump in an April 2017 White House summit.

But peace seems as elusive as ever.

Over weekend, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire and another 60 injured at a protest along the Gaza border amid ongoing Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire.

Israel has faced a summer long assault from Gazans with incendiary kites and balloons burning fields in farms bordering the Palestinian enclave that is also adjacent to the Egyptian-controlled Sinai.

“The continued escalation against unarmed civilians in the Gaza Strip and the tension it causes has dangerous implications for regional security and stability, “said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry after an Aug. 7 meeting with Greenblatt, a lawyer with 20 years of service in the Trump Organization – and no prior diplomatic experience. “The basic living needs of Palestinian refugees cannot be separated from any concept of a lasting, fair, and comprehensive solution.”

Shoukry’s sentiments are echoed in Jordan where UNRWA provides direct assistance to 1.1 million Palestinians in 10 refugee camps whose population includes those who fled in the 1948 War that created Israel.

“The right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, these are red lines for all of us,” said Sadah Habashneh, a member of parliament from the southern Jordanian city of Karak. “It is impossible for Jordan to be party to such an agreement, as it will be the most harmed by the so-called ultimate deal.”

In July, the US State Department released nearly $200 million of military aid for Egypt withheld previously over human rights concerns, a move that has tempered the official critique in Cairo of the Kushner-Greenblatt plan.

“Our policy regarding the "deal of the century" is clear,” said El Sisi in a July 29 speech at Cairo University. “We say (Israel should pull back to) the pre-1967 borders and a Palestinian state should be established with East Jerusalem as its capital, and I just want to tell you that we are quietly playing this (peacemaker) role with the parties on that issue.”
But reluctance to accept Egyptian efforts to mediate a truce between the nationalist PLO administration in the West Bank and Hamas – the Islamist faction – is an ongoing source frustration for Cairo where security officials have tried to support a return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza.

Egypt has failed to bring the different Palestinian factions together in a series of “reconciliation talks” since Deal of the Century plans first emerged after Trump’s election.

“It’s obvious that what the US and Israel mean by reconciliation is not what Egypt means,” said Mohamed Gomaa, a researcher specializing in Palestinian affairs at Al Ahram Center, a Cairo think tank close to the El Sisi administration. “Israel wants to see the Palestinian center of gravity move to the Gaza Strip and establish a long-term functional sharing of the West Bank. But Egypt wants a Palestinian national unity government operating between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the National Security Council began canvassing the State Department and other US government agencies seeking volunteers to join the Kushner- Greenblatt Mideast peace team as they move to publicly announce details of their plan already shared with Arab leaders.

But these efforts are not going to raise the dim view of the “deal” pervades the hookah cafes and television talk shows regionwide.

“So far, no one has come out to tell us the full details,” said Ahmed Abdeen, a 31-year-old Cairo political commentator and frequent guest on the Al Araby TV satellite channel. “But it looks like a quasi-state for the Palestinians that legalizes the Israeli occupation.”

“I do not think that the US position today can be called mediation since mediation means neutrality to help reach a solution," he added. "America under Trump's administration has adopted the Israeli position completely.”
A version of this story can be found in USA Today.

In Iraq, children go to school and increasingly, the alter

IRQ-childmarriageISTANBUL – For young women like Farah Ismail in Baghdad, marriage was tantamount to a financial transaction.

“My father is a contractor who went bankrupt,” explained 22-year-old Ismail. “We went to live in my uncle’s home. His wife suggested that it would be smart for me to marry her brother.”

“Dad felt this marriage was a way to show his gratitude to that family – it was his way to pay back the favor. I was only 13, while he was 30,” Ismail said, adding that her relatives at the time gave her cold comfort about her imminent wedding night. “On the day when the Sheikh came to make the marriage, I cried a lot and loudly. They were just laughing and saying, ‘What’s wrong, he will not take you right now.’”

It's stories like these that underscore how times have been hard for women in Iraq.

Between 2013 and 2017, falling oil prices, the rampaging Islamic State and other internecine conflicts shrunk Iraq’s GDP from $235 billion to $197 billion.

In same period, early marriage for young women and girls skyrocketed.

Early marriage figures for Iraq are startling.

In 1997, 15% of Iraqi women wed before 18, according to government statistics. That was six years prior the U.S. invasion that toppled its brutal but secular dictator Saddam Hussein.

By 2016, two years after the outbreak of a sectarian Sunni vs. Shiite civil war and the rise of the Islamic State who by then had imposed a harsh version of Islam on around a third of the country under its control – Iraq’s early marriage figure jumped to 24%, including nearly 5% who married before age 15.

Now child advocates worry that the recent inconclusive Iraqi election – and the disarray it has left in government – will allow advocates of early marriage to reintroduce a popular bill allowing the different sects to set their own age of consent.

Advocates fear child marriage will rise even more.

About one in five girls in the Middle East and North Africa marries before age 18, according to the United Nations. The practice varies across the region, from as high as 32% in Yemen to 3% in Algeria.

“It’s important to underscore the impact of conflict on the incidence of early marriage,” said Ivana Chapcakova, a child protection specialist with UNICEF in Iraq who runs programs to reduce gender-based violence like sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation and child marriage, including in refugee and internally displaced communities.

Iraq’s religious and ethnic conflicts have dispersed 3.3 million civilians, forcing families to flee their homes, separating breadwinners from their traditional trades and compelling children to drop out of school.

A 2017 study by the global anti-poverty group Oxfam found a direct correlation between the rise of child marriage in Iraq and war-induced poverty and terror.

Many survey participants said arranging girls to marry their cousins was a coping mechanism to prevent daughters from wedding Islamic State fighters. Others said giving daughters as child brides to jihadists would ensure their safety, access to public services in occupied territory and livelihood opportunities for the entire family.

In those circumstances, marrying off a mouth to feed makes sense, said Basma Habib, a feminist activist from Sulaymaniyah, a part of Iraqi Kurdistan where Islamic State cells still operate despite the military collapse of the caliphate in the past year.

“There’s a reason we see higher rates for early marriage in displaced persons camps,” said Habib. “Poverty also forces parents to get rid of their daughters thinking that she might obtain a better life and protection of a man.”

Muslim societies place a high value on a women's “honor" before marriage, she added. “Families want to marry daughters off earlier to get rid of the danger that their girls might get a bad reputation,” she said.

The religious argument for early marriage carried the day in Iraq’s parliament last November when lawmakers favored a measure to allow each of country’s religious groups to set their own legal age for a girl to wed. For the majority Shiite sect of Iraqi Muslims, that age could be as young as 9. Just 13 of the 170 lawmakers present voted against it.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blocked a final vote needed to enact the law.

Currently the Iraqi parliament is disarray since lawmakers failed to extend the legislative term until they approve a recount of votes from the May election.

But there’s the widespread expectation is that Shiite Muslim religious politicians will reintroduce the bill when parliament reconvenes this autumn.

Islamic Virtue Party lawmaker Hamid Al-Khudhari, a sponsor of the Iraqi marriage bill, has declared that marriage is “the best way to protect young women from rape and harassment by giving them the security provided by a husband and the blessings of religious matrimony.”

Critics insist lowering the age of consent for marriage age legalizes child sexual abuse and denies girls the opportunity to pursue education or join the workforce.

“The law violates international human rights conventions and is humiliating to women and enables pedophilia,” said Siham Wandi, a former Iraqi diplomat and child protection advocate. “I see no religious justification for such a law.”

But throughout the Middle East, fundamentalists have moved to try to lift marriage age restrictions put in place in an earlier era when secular states set limits with the goal of improving the status of women, emphasizing opportunities for work and education aligned with nation building development goals.

Late last year President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed the “mufti law,” which allows religious officials to perform marriages once males and females reach puberty. The most recent U.N. statistics from Turkey show that 15 percent of women in the country marry before the age of 18.

In Egypt, Salafi clerics in rural areas have clamored to lower the marriage age from 18, arguing girls mature earlier.

Women should be younger than the men they marry, said Mahmoud Bahi El-Din, a leader of Ma’zun Sharia, an Egyptian group of conservative Sunni clerics.

“It’s unjust to make the age of marriage identical for men and women,” he said. “A girl’s womanhood develops early, so there should be at least a two-year difference between the bride and groom. A girl doesn’t have to marry a guy her age.”

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi opposes such a measure – in part due fears in Cairo of a population explosion. El Sisi has called on lawmakers to criminalize child marriage.

Still, more than half of girls in the countryside marry before turning 18, according to the National Council for Women, an Egyptian government agency. The country's Ministry of Religious Endowments- the state funded Muslim authority – suspended an imam in October after learning he had performed more than 20 marriages of underage girls.

“I was wed at 14 in a marriage arranged by my parents,” said Nuha Oum Ahmed 35, now living in Cairo with her husband and with three daughters. “These matches were considered normal in the small villages of Upper Egypt. None of my daughters will marry before they are 18 and I will let them choose their own husbands.”

Reversing the trend will be difficult, said Chapcakova, especially because its victims are often young, uneducated and disempowered politically and socially. “Breaking away from the thinking that there is some benefit to girls from child marriage is going to take a long time and will demand a comprehensive approach,” she said.

Wirtschafter reported from Cairo.

Photo: This picture was created by a young girl during an art session at one of the safe spaces supported by the UNFPA in Kurdistan region, Iraq. Credit: UNFPA
Story/photo publish date: 8/13/18

A version of this story was published by Public Radio International

Once a de-escalation zone, Syrian city is now a "dumping ground"

SYR-130617AAISTANBUL - Idlib is under siege from within and without.

Since January 2016, Syria’s internally displaced have arrived in the northwestern city and its surrounding province bordering Turkey at the rate of one person a minute as they flee fighting in their country’s civil war, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups who control much of the region are seeking to impose their version of Islamic law on residents and refugees in Idlib.

This week alone, roadside bombs, targeted assassinations and firefights claimed 163 lives in Idlib, according the London-based Syrian Observatory.

Multi-sided battles that include the Free Syrian Army, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, the terror group’s main chapter in Syria, another Al Qaeda-linked militant group called Haras Al Din, or the Guardians of Religion, and remnants of Islamic State forces are a daily occurrence. While Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a militia led by Al Qaida’s former Syrian affiliate, has faced military setbacks in Idlib in recent months, it still controls about 60 percent of the territory.

“The situation in completely out of our hands and we are exhausted from this continuous war and displacement,” said physician Ali Kamal, an evacuee from the rural Homs province town of Waer that surrendered to Syrian government forces last April.

Last year, Idlib was declared one of four “de-escalation zones” in Syria included in a Russian-sponsored agreement brokered between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and rebel forces. But people on the ground said the agreement was a farce.

“How can you call this a de-scalation when a Russian missile destroyed a 12-storey building where we operated a clinic?” said Kamal, who works for a network of health centers supported by the Syrian American Medical Society in Idlib. “Meanwhile the criminal gangs and extreme groups are kidnapping specialist physicians and asking for ransoms.”

The jihadists are giving the Russians a pretext to attack and a reason for Western donors to pull back from efforts to assist Idlib civilians. Tragically, that’s hurting locals.

“HTS does not have a base within the local population,” said Ammar Kahf, executive director of Omran for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, referring to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. “Most of the local population rejects them and we are publishing our field study in July documenting how many state that they are publicly against HTS and how many are coerced into to collaborating with them.

The extremists number less than 10,000 fighters, he added.

“It’s important not to exaggerate the size of HTS,” Kahf said. “What the Russians have done is, haphazardly target the civilian populations in those regions, risking hundreds and thousands of lives. What the United States needs to do is empower residents and the anti-Assad armies to consolidate and eliminate the Al Qaeda groups in the north.”

This month, a group of civilian activists in the provincial towns of Ma’arat Al Nu’man and Saraqib took the initiative to exclude jihadist groups from their neighborhoods by posting “termination of contract” notices on trees and electrical poles that tell foreign fighters that they are not welcome in Idlib.

“People are sick of foreign commanders constantly intervening in local affairs,” said Samir Mansour, an activist who prints and posts the notices. “We are showing that these foreign fighters are not welcome in Syria, and they have been the main reason behind the air attacks.”

In January, the students of Free Aleppo University, an independent higher education center that has relocated forty miles from Syria’s second largest city to Idlib, successfully staged demonstrations that prevented the replacement of deans and department heads by functionaries backed by Islamist militias.

“We are about training students to fight against all kind of injustice, said Free Aleppo University Law Professor Abdulkafi Alhamdo. “But our biggest problems now are Russian and Assad regime bombing together with the scale back in assistance from Western donors because they don’t see how we are defeating Al Qaeda and the other extremist groups in the classroom, hospitals and town councils”

But the White House froze some $200 million dollars for civilian projects in Syria in March, citing fears of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham influence and a desire to see other nations.

The holdbacks included money for the White Helmets civilian search and rescue teams who help recover people from bombed-out buildings and other rubble, support to restore of water and power and efforts to remove unexploded weapons from agricultural areas.

Ammar Khaf, the Istanbul-based Syria analyst, believed the Idlib requires coordinated Western military intervention.

“Eliminating HTS and Haras El Din will require infiltration and elimination using the anti-Assad Syrian forces supported by the Americans and the Turks and precision logistical support for targeting the leaders of these groups, especially the foreign elements,” Khaf said. “We also need to make sure that residents have access to basic services like water and gas because it’s clear that HTS is using control over these resources as a revenue stream for themselves and for control over civilians.”

A version of this story can be found in the Washington Times.

Saudi women ready to hit the road on June 24

Courtesy of the Saudi Ministry of TransportJEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Remember that old insult about female drivers? Well, in a twist, Saudi Arabia is hoping that by allowing women to legally drive for the first time this month, the country is going to bring their tragic accident rate down.

“Did you know that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest accident rates in the whole world and that’s why safe driving is so important to us,” said Haifa Jamalallail, president of Effat University, whose 17-year-old daughter died in a fatal crash on a Saudi highway.

“Statistics show that women are generally safer and more defensive drivers than men," she added.

Last fall, Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman announced that women would be allowed behind the wheel for the first time in the last remaining country that still bans women from driving.

Soon after, Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud said the lifting of the ban would reduce the number of accidents in a conservative Muslim country with one of the worst car-crash mortality rates in the world.

"Women driving cars will transform traffic safety – it will reduce human and economic losses caused by accidents," he said.

The country has tried to bring down accident fatality by reducing speed limits, investing in more traffic signals and road-side digital over-limit warnings, and creating tougher penalties for moving violations – these helped Saudi Arabia climb back from its 2010 record with the highest road accident death toll in the world to 34th place in 2017.

But still, a male-only driving population killed more than 9,000 in 2016 – mainly due to speeding. 

Meanwhile, even as Saudi Arabian officials hope women drivers reverse a testosterone-fueled road fatality rate, they also want the ban's reversal to boost female employment and revitalize auto sales – these declined due to austerity measures caused by shrinking oil income from falling oil prices over the past few years.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers study released in March forecasts benefits for the Saudi economy as new women drivers simultaneously enter the automotive and job markets.

“Issuing licenses for two to three million women also empowers them to join the workforce and the disconnect between job opportunities and access is about to end,” said Hala Kudwah, a lead consultant for the group in Saudi Arabia.

The influx of women drivers in the kingdom is also set to benefit US automakers like Ford, which ranks as one of the top five brands in Saudi Arabia. It's already changing how they think about their business models.

“Features are tailored to markets and in Saudi Arabia the entire population of drivers had been male with both data gathering about vehicles and marketing always done from a male perspective,” said Crystal Worthem, Ford’s Middle East & Africa Marketing Director. “That is changing as women start driving and you will see different segmentation trends and features – a little bit less about power and a little more about driver assistance technology, comfort and most importantly, safety.”

Meanwhile, as the driving ban goes away June 24, private driving schools in the kingdom are reporting a surge of prospective female students, while women-only universities such as Effat in Jeddah have already been offering drivers ed. Ford has been working with administrators to get students ready for the road via their Driving Skills for Life course.

Because of her daughter's death, Effat's Jamalallail says she is particularly invested in the road safety aspect of the Ford program: "Our goal is that our student change the culture in the roads by practicing safe driving,” she said.

Students practice on a campus lot wearing specially designed “fatal vision” goggles to show the effects of fatigue on performance and simulated conditions synonymous with night driving.

“The frightening thing is that any mistake behind the wheel might cause the loss of a soul,” Dima Najm, a 21-year-old film major at Effat University, a graduate of the hands-on Ford course.

Meanwhile, she expressed pride at her achievement:

"Some of my sisters already have an international license so I'm proud to be first in the family with a Saudi one," she said.
Some future female drivers say they are excited about getting behind the wheel – finally.

“I’m not scared about my own handling of the car,” said Sarah Ghouth, a 22-year architecture major who has been training to drive. “The fear is more about risky drivers on the roads.”

“Still I feel confident because of the training we got at the university and lucky because my brothers are taking me to practice out in the desert,” added Ghouth. “They are actually happy to teach me because it means in a few weeks they won’t have to be driving me around anymore. My dad will be happy to see less money go to ride app companies.”

Mobile ride services are big in the kingdom where women are reluctant to hail taxi cabs on the street.

In 2016 Saudi Arabia’s government investment arm put $3.5 billion into Uber which splits the ride app market in the gulf states with Dubai-based Careem.

Eighty percent of Uber’s Saudi riders are women and while both personal transit firms have launched recruitment campaigns to train female drivers, many women here say they are thrilled at the prospect of no longer needing a ride service or asking their fathers or brothers to take them shopping or to work.

“Not every family can afford a driver who will take care of their daily errands,” said Aziza Zare, a Jeddah architect, who received her license earlier this month. “I calculated what I pay for these service apps every year and it adds up to about 30,000 Saudi Riyals ($8,000) so driving myself will save me time, money and will keep me in control of my schedule.”

And for young Saudi women learning to drive, getting behind the wheel has ignited a sense independence never felt before in a culture laden with gender-based restrictions and taboos.

“Since we finally achieved this, I think we can go anywhere and achieve anything,” said Najm.

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Egypt's new tool against terror: Women leading mosques

CAIRO, Egypt - Women attend Ramadan worship services at the historic Al Azhar mosque. Nearby Al Azhar University, the traditional seminary of mainline Sunni theology as well as the state-run Ministry of Religious Endowments are promoting women’s participation in preaching, mosque governance and liturgical music. (Photo: Mohamed Salah|ARA Network Inc.)CAIRO – Four years ago, President El Sisi called on state-supported clerics “to improve the image of Islam in front of the world.”

They listened.

And now, Islamic religious authorities here are doing so by allowing women to be heard, in in mosques and Muslim schools as preachers, part of governing boards and singers in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

“These measures show that Islam can grow in an open encounter with other faiths,” said Wafaa Abdelsalam, a 38-year-old female physician appointed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments to give two sermons a week at a pair of influential mosques in the Cairo suburbs. “The audience for my Ramadan talks has been mostly upper middle-class women who until recently have felt they have had nobody to talk to about how Islam fits into their lives.”

About 70 percent of mosques in Egypt have separate prayer areas for women, according to the Endowments Ministry. But the move to introduce women preachers – called wa’ezzat in Arabic – is the first time females have formally addressed worshipers in these spaces as officially sanctioned clergy.

“Religious education here is a chance for women to ask me questions about personal matters, including marriage problems, and to debate the merits and drawbacks of the choice to wear or not wear the hijab headscarf,” said Abdelsalam.

The wa’ezzat were following sermon guidelines set by the Endowments Ministry, she added.

The push to promote women in Egypt's religious sphere -- backed by scholars at Al Azhar University, the traditional seminary of mainline Sunni theology -- arises from Egypt's fight against terrorism: El Sisi has challenged theologians to examine texts that have been used to justify terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Endowments Ministry -- which holds power over financial grants and clergy appointments in more than 110,000 mosques in this nation of 90 million Muslim and is at the forefront of a crackdown on extremism -- last month moved to ban unlicensed male preachers from delivering homilies in more than 20,000 storefront mosques known locally as zawyas.

Zawyya preachers have been suspected of propagating fundamentalist views among women as well as men to advance extremist beliefs.

“We can’t leave the field of Islamic women's education to non-specialists,” said Youmna Nasser, one of the new female preachers appointed by the government.

The ministry has trained around 300 female preachers in interpreting the Koran and other Muslim texts and public speaking.

Meanwhile, the Endowments Ministry plans to name two women to the governing boards of each mosque next month with the aim of boosting attention to issues related to females, children and the family in religious work.

“The steps we are taking now are to affirm women’s rights are based on principles recognized by Islam in the past but were neglected over time,” said Abdul Ghani Hindi, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs who said officials were currently training 2,000 more female preachers.

“True Islam strengthens the women's’ status which is why we started training courses for female preachers and are trying to find out more about women's views about how mosques are run,” said Hindi.

Another important shift toward expanding women’s voices is happening at Al Azhar University, which has grown beyond its original role as an Islamic seminary to provide general education in fields including medicine and engineering to more than 45,000 students in Cairo and at satellite campuses in seven provincial cities.

Bucking conservative fatwas prohibiting men from even listening to the sound of women singing, Al Azhar has formed a co-educational choir that performs Muslim spiritual hymns both on and off campus.

"My dad was afraid that people's views of me as religiously observant would change, and that neighbors would see me as deviating from the traditions of Islam," said Umniah Kamal, a 21-year-old business major at Al Azhar, who is part of the choir. “But my mom encouraged me to join the chorale and even suggested some of the religious songs we are performing.”

University officials insist that including young women in their college chorale will make Islam more relevant to a new generation.

“Those who say the chorale reduces Al-Azhar's image of piety are wrong,” said Ibtisam Zaidan, the university’s female artistic director. “We are using the performing arts to bolster Al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic life and learning.”

“There is no text in the Quran that prohibits singing these songs," added Zaidan. “The young ladies dress conservatively, wear headscarves and stand separately from the young men during the performances.”

While the Al Azhar Chorale has won artistic accolades – they captured second place in an April competition hosted by Egypt’s Youth and Sports Ministry – the mixed gender performances and government appointments of women to leadership roles in mosques has stirred up opposition among traditionalists.

“Drafting women as public representatives on mosque directors boards, encouraging them to issue fatwas and the outrageous formation of that mixed gender musical team at Al-Azhar are all ideas imported from the West,” said Sameh Abdul Hamid, a Cairo preacher from the puritanical Salafist sect.

“It’s all part of an effort by Arab governments to erase our Islamic identity and disrespectful of our belief that the way to strengthen the status of women is to safeguard their position in their homes,” said Abdul Hamid.

Photo: CAIRO, Egypt - Women attend Ramadan worship services at the historic Al Azhar mosque. Nearby Al Azhar University, the traditional seminary of mainline Sunni theology as well as the state-run Ministry of Religious Endowments are promoting women’s participation in preaching, mosque governance and liturgical music. Credit: Mohamed Salah/ARA Network, 6/11/18
Story/photo publish date: 6/20/18

A version of this story was published by Religion News Service

Palestinian youth disillusioned by aging leadership

Oct 2, 2017-Gaza, Palestine an old woman holding a poster of Abbas as a way to support the reconciliation. (Photo: Mohammed Atallah| ARA Network)RAMALLAH, West Bank – As many Israelis and American celebrate the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem, Palestinians youth protest while worrying that their nation’s aging leadership has handicapped their dreams – and their future.

They point to the Palestine Liberation Organization recently elected new members of its Executive Committee, its top 18-member top decision-making body. But in stark contrast to the median age of 20 among residents in the West Bank and 17 in Gaza, the average age of committee members is 70.

“It is obvious that the old people are monopolizing most of the political positions,” said Duha al-Jafari, 21, a psychology student at Birzeit University near Ramallah in the West Bank. “Youth are detaching themselves from Fatah (the largest secular nationalist group dominating the West Bank) and Hamas (the Islamist organization running Gaza), and they have lost trust in these parties who have yet to achieve anything.”

That dissatisfaction comes as partisan politics is failing to produce new younger leaders, economic opportunities for youth or movement on the Palestinians’ ultimate goal of an independent state sitting on land that would include settlements now under Israeli control.

It’s not clear who will replace 83-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who also chairs the PLO’s Executive Committee. The committee’s number-two, Saeb Erekat, 62, received a lung transplant in Virginia in October.

Disputes between Fatah, the Abbas-led political party that runs the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist terror group and political party that dominates the Gaza Strip, have prevented elections to be held in either territory for more than 12 years

Meanwhile, in Gaza, youth unemployment stands at 62 percent. In the West Bank, Israeli officials are preparing to authorize more settlement outposts in the 61 percent of the territory that has been under Israeli occupation since the country won the Six-Day War in 1967.

The unresolved issues rankle most strongly in Gaza where 70 percent of the population have parents or grandparents who fled or were expelled from land that became in Israel in 1948.

Gazans have staged protests as part of the Great Return March on the Israeli-Gaza border in recent months to mark the 70th anniversary of the 1948 war and demand their land back. Many Palestinians claim that independent activist Ahmed Abu Ratima, 33, and other youths initially organized the march but Hamas has taken them over.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Wednesday that Israeli army snipers had killed 63 demonstrators since the march started. According to the ministry, 77 percent of the casualties are under the age of 35.

Palestinian youths have taken action in the wake of the violence.

Last week, hoping to convince Israelis of the need for a fair peace deal, 25-year-old Fatima Mohammedan organized an alternative and peaceful demonstration on the border that diverges from the confrontational Hamas message.

“We wanted to convey a message to the whole world that we are people who want Israel to lift the siege,” said Mohammedan. “As a youth activist, my goal is to spread peace, serve my own society and work to bring democracy to Palestinian politics.”

The young have other leaders who might steal Abbas’ thunder.

Today, Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl from the West Bank of village of Nabi Salih, is the most well-known face of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settlements. She is currently serving an eight-month sentence for slapping an Israeli soldier last December while she claimed Israelis were confiscating her village's lands and water.

“Tamimi has become an icon for Palestinian youth who believe the path forward is resistance on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, and diplomatic and legal warfare at the United Nations and International Criminal Court,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

Many young Palestinians feel the wellspring of support for Tamimi reflects the beginning of the end for Fatah and Hamas.

“We need to be more independent from the mainframe of the political parties as they are bureaucrats,” said Belal Sultan, a 26-year-old business administration student in Gaza City. “For now, all these leaders can give are empty promises and sometimes provide part-time jobs.”

Older Palestinian leaders said they heard Sultan’s message.

“American president Trump’s one-sided support of Israel is driving the youth to resist,” said Saleh Ra'fat, 73, leader of the Palestinian Democratic Union and member of the PLO Executive Committee. “We are trying to cultivate young leaders in our party and prepare them for elections which need to happen soon to activate their role.”

But Palestinian youth are already be moving on.

“These young people are depressed and looking to change the situation by going to checkpoints and being involved in clashes with the Israelis,” said Afnan Nedal, a 24-year-old teaching assistant at Al-Quds University.

“The only thing that we gain out of these clashes is more injured, killed and imprisoned youth," Nedal added. "With the youth staging a revolution over this dismal life, I’m not sure if this moves the Palestinians further away from statehood or closer to it.”

A version of this story can be found on The Washington Times.

Workers from NYU Abu Dhabi are at risk, according to report

NYU Abu Dhabi TwitterA new report from a faculty-student alliance at New York University charged the university's Abu Dhabi campus has not taken adequate steps to eliminate the possibility of forced labor years after the issue first surfaced.

Sahiba Gill, a law student set to graduate from New York University this month, was the main author of the 129-page document, which alleges that thousands of workers who helped build NYU's $1 billion Abu Dhabi campus starting a decade ago are still owed millions of dollars. The report, "Forced Labor at NYU in Abu Dhabi: Compliance and the Global University" was released by NYU's Coalition for Fair Labor. The report reviews previous documents on the issue, public statements made by NYU administrators and faculty members, and what is publicly known about NYU's monitoring of labor practices on the Abu Dhabi campus in recent years.

"There is no reason NYU shouldn't be able to support modern, 21st-century labor and compliance standards," Gill said in an interview. "Available evidence shows they have not."

"Forced labor" refers to situations where workers are coerced through threats, intimidation, violence or inability to leave a job because the workers' employer holds their passports. Often workers are charged high fees for getting a job and, if they do not have the cash, loaned the money at high interest rates by their recruiter, making it difficult for them to ever leave employment. In Gulf countries, workers who don't speak English or Arabic are at especially high risk of such exploitation.

NYU strongly denied the report's findings, saying in a statement that its "assessment is neither right nor fair" and that the report's title was "both incorrect and inflammatory." The university statement went on to say the Abu Dhabi campus "has a strong set of labor standards and a robust compliance monitoring program in place."

NYU Abu Dhabi hires outside companies to provide workers for maintenance, cleaning, landscaping, food services, and many other roles.

The labor-coalition report is the latest in a string of charges about labor conditions for workers at the campus and in similar projects in Abu Dhabi, including a 2014 New York Times report. Human Rights Watch has also published reports about labor conditions for the predominantly South Asian workers recruited to work on Saadiyat Island, where the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and other cultural institutions have been built. NYU has said in the past that most lapses were due to subcontractors that it did not have direct control over. In 2015, the president of NYU at the time, John Sexton, said "We acknowledge the lapses, will learn from them, and will attempt to rectify them." (See related Al-Fanar Media article Report Finds Mistreatment of Workers Building NYU Abu Dhabi Campus.)

The new faculty-student alliance report says that says the risk for forced labor "remains significant" and the risk would be lower "if due diligence was enacted." It also charges that NYU Abu Dhabi failed to reimburse fees paid by workers in order to be considered for the jobs as far back as 2009, as it promised to do.

Among the report's recommendations: NYU Abu Dhabi should more actively ensure compliance with local laws, better assess the risk of forced labor, and move more effectively to remedy violations. The report suggests that NYU Abu Dhabi check directly with workers to see if they are in possession of their passports—unless the passports have been given to the company employing them for paperwork relevant to their employment—and make sure the workers did not pay recruitment fees and are not in debt for those fees.

Gill, who lived in Abu Dhabi for two years, said she became aware of the labor issues when reports first started surfacing in 2013 and 2014 and that she had followed the issue closely since then. The report, which she said represents eight months of work, was reviewed by a dozen NYU faculty members before its release.

NYU had been planning to release a compliance report on NYU Abu Dhabi labor standards next month, but it instead released that report—entitled "External Labor Compliance Monitoring at NYU Abu Dhabi Report"—in the wake of the release of Gill's Coalition for Fair Labor document. The university report was produced by Impactt Ltd., a 20-year-old London-based ethical trade consultancy.

The Impactt document is based on audits of 15 contractors employing more than 800 workers on the Abu Dhabi campus over a 16-month period ending in March 2017, with two limited follow-ups through March of this year. The report said it identified 87 cases of non-conformance to labor rules, but that 77 of them had been rectified during the course of the study. Of the remaining ten, seven involved contractors no longer associated with NYU in Abu Dhabi. Overall, the report said, it found "a good level of compliance among contractors and a high level of satisfaction among workers."

A survey done for the report found that NYU Abu Dhabi workers were happy about access to English lessons and sports facilities and generally felt they were treated with respect. But they often did not feel they were paid enough. The Impactt report also recommended that the university work harder to make sure workers have their own passports and are paid for overtime.

In an interview, Gill said she applauded release of the university's compliance report, but said "It is clear systematic reforms are still needed to bring labor standards to an adequate level."

Since the close scrutiny of labor conditions on the campus in 2014 and 2015, labor activists believe the attention devoted to the issue and follow-up monitoring faded, until this month. Paula Chakravartty, one of the professors who reviewed the report prior to its release, told The New York Times she believed "that as public pressure moved away, the issue was put on the back burner."

A version of this story has been published in Al Fanar Media. 

Iraqi Shiite militia leader becomes kingmaker after elections

ISTANBUL- In an upset for Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s Victory List, the Sa’iroon alliance of Moqtada Al-Sadr – a Shiite cleric, who 14 years ago ran a militia against U.S. troops – and Iraqi communists held the lead Monday night in six of Iraq’s 18 provinces and came in second in four others.

Al-Abadi struck a conciliatory tone despite his thrashing at the polls in hopes he could keep his post in coalition negotiations aimed at excluding Iranian-backed militia leader, Hadi Al-Ameri and his Conquest Alliance from dominating Iraqi politics.
“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq that’s free of corruption,” Mr. Al-Abadi said.

While the poor showing by Mr. Abadi and his electoral allies may jeopardize an additional term, hundreds of thousands of uncounted votes could alter the final result in his favor.

Full results were due to be officially announced late Monday and the early ballots of some 700,000 security personnel and diaspora remain uncounted, meaning Mr. Al-Abadi could still get a boost.

The electoral sweep for Sairoon – a youth-oriented bloc that emphasized social inequality over sectarian grievances – puts the 44 year-old Sadr, often called an Arab nationalist and thus an opponent of both the US and Iran, in a position to determine Iraq's next leader.

Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq and the U.S. once labeled him and his Mehdi army as the greatest threat to Iraqi stability.

Because he was not on the ballot as candidate himself, Mr. Sadr is prevented from leading the next government.
But the strong showing in early returns underscored the frustration that voters had with the prior governments.

“Most of the candidates in this coalition were new and didn't’ participate in the political process before,” said Amer Ahmed, 30 an employee of the Iraqi electric company and a Sa’iroon supporter. “The young generation basically formed their own electoral list…we will transform the government and society.”

In a country where the median age is 19, only 20 of the 328 Iraqi lawmakers in the outgoing legislature are under the age of 40.

Still, that voter frustration also translated into the lowest turnout since Iraq was invaded by the US 15 years ago. Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission said turnout was 44.52 percent, significantly lower than in previous elections.
Regardless of the participation rate, analysts said regional strategic implications of the results are significant.

Sadr, a Shiite leader was the unlikely beneficiary of Saudi largesse in an attempt to dilute the strength of Tehran's pick -- Al Ameri's Fateh group.

Just a year ago Al-Fateh fielded ex-fighters from Iranian-backed militias to battle Islamic State alongside Iraq’s struggling national army and US supported Kurdish peshmerga forces and Al Ameri reaped electoral benefits among Shiite hardliners for “protecting the honor” of Iraq.

"The biggest surprise was the lead of Sa'iroon rather than Al-Abadi's List, it is an obvious indicator of the American-Saudi support to Sa'iroon,' said said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. 'They contained contradicting ideological parties, like communists and liberals, under a single frame, non-Islamic in appearance, although it is."

Some fear the results put Iraq squarely in the middle of Washington-Tehran disputes, especially because of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal with Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

“Personally, I am afraid of the psychological instability of this man [Sadr] and his stances waver too easily,” said Abderrezak Al-Nuaimi, 33, year Baghdad physician. “It’s going to be difficult to get together a coalition. I think the winning List of Sadrists might forced to form a narrow government by themselves unless the Americans prepare the ground carefully.”

Other Iraqis worry that a breakdown in coalition talks could lead to more violence as party politics turns into a fracas between armed groups.

“I am afraid of the repetition of violence against civilians," said Aws Ibrahim, 22, geology student at Mosul University. “All the parties have armed wings and now they are disputing over how to divide what the cake.”

Ibrahim is particularly worried that the previous Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki will turn to violence having failed completely at the ballot box.

Many blamed government corruption under Mr. Al-Malaki for the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of the 2014 ISIS capture of Mosul, Tikrit and other territory as well as substandard education, health, and infrastructure conditions in Sunni neighborhoods that comprise 35 percent of the country.

Meanwhile jubilant Sa’iroon supporters celebrated their effective get out the vote effort and the rejection of Iranian domination by much of the Shiite electorate.

“The celebrations of Sadrists in Baghdad was so huge today and their anti-Iran slogans were blatant,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. “Sa’iroon support to Abadi could fade away as they were Baghdad’s biggest list, but if the USA is able to contain the Sadrists somehow, they are likely to present a prime minister [Abadi] with another term.”

Meanwhile, regardless of which candidate takes the lead now, many are just gratefully it wasn't one of the more militant groupings such as Al-Fateh.

“Nobody remembers the bad qualities of those on the head of this list who played with people’s feelings under the name of “fight and martyrdom,” said Thaer Qasim Jaber, 37, a graphic designer in Baghdad. "They feel sympathized with because they are a Shiite majority…and was linked with fighting ISIS and this made it acceptable in the society.”

A version on this story has been published in The Washington Times.

ISIS poses a problem for upcoming Iraqi elections

Campaign banners for various candidates line a street in Baghdad ahead of the upcoming electionBAGHDAD – Iraqi politician Faruq Al-Jubouri was optimistic about his country’s future.

The 42-year-old agronomist was running as a member of the non-sectarian National Alliance in parliamentary elections on Saturday, May 12 – the first ballot since the Iraqi central government and its allies, including the US, defeated the Islamic State two years ago.

But on Monday, May 7 a gunman shot Al-Jubouri dead. Shortly after, ISIS claimed responsibility on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, declaring they killed the father of three sons because he was an atheist.

Former prime minister Nuri Al Maliki is also running but neither he nor his State of Law bloc are not expected to garner a large share of the vote. Al Maliki left office in 2014 in disgrace for his handling of the ISIS threat.

“Faruq was an agriculture professor interested in plans for our future, not a typical vote-buying politician offering jobs and goodies,” said his cousin Omar Ali Al-Jubouri, 33. “He wasn’t handing out mobile phone company gift cards or giving cows and sheep away to get elected.”

The death of a promising legislator is a sample of the violence that has flared up in Iraq faces in the runup to Saturday. Last week, the jihadists released a video showing a point-blank execution of two get-out-the-vote campaigners in a town 35 miles north of Baghdad. Most recently, the threatened to attack polling stations.

ISIS appeared to be leveraging Sunni-Shiite rivalries to disrupt and undermine the legitimacy of Iraq’s fragile democracy.

"We warn you, Sunnis of Iraq that these Shiites are taking power,” ISIS spokesman Abul-Hassan Al-Muhajer told an extremist website. “Anyone who participates in the vote will be considered an infidel, a disbeliever deserving of death.”

But Al Muhajer’s warning falls on deaf ears in much of the Sunni community today, said Hisham Al-Hashimi, an independent Iraqi scholar and expert on Islamist groups.

“The real problem that afflicts ISIS is their loss of their base,” said Al-Hashimi. “Their beliefs and methodologies have less and less traction in a community that has enjoyed a gradual return of normal daily life and is now focused on working seriously for Iraq’s reconstruction and stability.”

Iraqi authorities have detained dozens of terror suspects, restricted vehicular movement and deployed of thousands of police and army troops to guard polling stations.

“The Baghdad Operations Command is stopping the movement of trucks typically used in mass explosions and motorcycles used for targeted killings as part of a comprehensive plan to stop terrorism,” said Iraqi Major General Jalil al-Rubaie.

Those measures did not stop ISIS from sending a suicide attacker after Zeytoun Al-Dulaimi, a 63-year-old National Alliance member of parliament from southern Baghdad on Tuesday, May 8. Al-Dulaimi survived the attack but five other candidates have been killed and seven have been wounded.

Many Iraqi women are concerned about the consequences of the vote.

“Some political forces have worked and are still working to legislate laws trying to prevent women from playing a significant role in development and rebuilding our country,” said Shorouk Al-Abayachi, an incumbent candidate with the secular political group Tamadun.

Some religious parties have proposed minor marriage, selling widows and other so-called traditions, said Al-Abayachi. “I am terrified that these politicians want to take us back to the past in the name of tradition and religion while the block important laws to protect women from domestic violence,” she said.

The elections will also be a test for al-Fateh, a hybrid between a militia-and-political party whose Shiite Muslim ideology resembles that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Al-Fateh fighters appeared after the Iraqi army failed to stop ISIS in 2014. Today, they’re running as candidates.

“There is one phrase spreading among people – that Al-Fateh is the protector of your pride, meaning that they kept ISIS away from the women in your family,” said Anas Al-Sheikh, 24, a commercial television director in Baghdad.

Al-Fateh’s role in pushing ISIS back has helped its leader, 63-year-old leader Hadi al-Amiri, to become a viable alternative to current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Al-Amir would presumably empower Iranian interest in Iraq. He never held a post in the Iraqi army but received military training Iran that he put to use against the Islamic State.

“Iran’s influence has grown among the Shiite population after their military advisors brought the militias victory against ISIS,” said Jasim Wadi, Baghdad University political scientist.

Fears of that influence have led Saudi Arabia to take the extraordinary move of supporting Iraq’s government, Wadi added.

To curb Tehran’s reach, Saudi Arabia is backing a slate led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Sadr, who at the time of the U.S. occupation cooperated with Al Qaeda to plan attacks on American troops. Sadr is now leading a new non-sectarian multi-party bloc Sa’iroon that surprisingly also includes Iraqi communists.

“Iran will not allow the liberals and the communists to govern Iraq,” declared Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a recent visit to Baghdad.

Back in Al-Qayyarah, Al-Jubouri’s supporters have vowed to prevent his assassination from blocking their vision of a peaceful and united Iraq.

“Al-Jubouri’s battle was against ISIS and radicalism for the sake of coexistence and promoting Iraq’s national identity,” said neighbor Rayhan Al-Mosulli. “We should go to the ballots to revenge his death.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Inspirational Iraqi youth support new generation of political leaders, despite reasons for disillusionment

Campaign banners for various candidates line a street in Baghdad ahead of the upcoming electionISTANBUL – Despite earning an international relations degree from a prestigious British university and growing up as the daughter of Iraq’s former prime minister, Sarah Ayad Allawi feels the same political frustrations of other 29-year-olds in the country.

Only 20 of the 328 Iraqi lawmakers are under the age of 40. They are the voice for an underrepresented demographic, representing only 6 percent of the parliament in a country where the median age is 19.

Allawi wanted to run as a legislative candidate of the National Accord political party, the party of her father Ayad Allawi, interim prime minister from 2004 to 2005, in the elections Saturday. But a minimum age of 30 disqualified her for entering the race. The rule serves as check on the political power of the young, she says.

“You can be certain that I will be 30 by the time this next parliament has its first session,” she said.

Iraqis in Allawi’s generation grew up knowing only conflict and limited economic opportunities. Now they are getting a chance to change their wounded country, even if it is sometimes only by voting -- so far. They are part of a new, and growing wave, of activism in the wake of militant threat against activists stretching back to 2003 – when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Young voters say they are getting active because they want change.

“The Iraqi people are ready to pick new faces,” said first-time voter Mohammed Saleh, 22, a computer engineering student in Baghdad. “The youth especially are tired of the corrupt politicians.”

The May 12 parliamentary race is the fourth since the 2003 US occupation and the first since the Iraqi government drove the Islamic State out of major cities like Tikrit and Mosul last year. Iraqi officials say 24 million out of its population of 39 million are eligible to vote. Among them are 4.5 million Iraqis who will cast ballots for the first time.

“From what I see and hear from youth on the ground and in social media, I think there is a real chance for change,” said Saleh, who supports Sa'iroon, an electoral alliance between supporters of the 44-year-old influential and independent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the secular Iraqi Communist Party.

The unlikely alliance between Iraq’s communists and Shia activists has a history.

The two groups worked together to overthrow King Faisal II in 1958 and coalesced again in 2016 to lead protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square demanding Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi deliver on his anti-corruption promises.

Such off pairings are a result of disgust over poor-quality services, education, healthcare and public security due to corruption.

Transparency International ranks Iraq near the bottom at 169 out of 180 in its global corruption index. Many blame government corruption for the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of the Islamic State's capture of Mosul, Tikrit and others in 2014

The army’s failure led to the rise of self-protection forces like Al-Fateh, a largely hybrid militia-and-political party whose Shiite Muslim ideology resembles that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Hadi Al-Amiri, 63, the Iranian-trained head of the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council political party, runs Al-Fateh. He is supporting several candidates under 40. Many served in the militia last year in the fight against Islamic State.

One Al-Fateh candidate, Mohanned Al-Temimi, 37, posted an online video claiming that his visit to China as a wholesale apparel broker gave him a solid background in global affairs while his service to the Al-Fateh militia proves his readiness to fight for Iraq’s national interests.

Still, political violence has led many young Iraqis to say they will not vote.

“I will not vote because the entire system is corrupt,” said Yassir Adnan, 22, a medical student, in Karbala. “Our constitution is not humanistic. It contains many discriminating clauses based on religious and ethnic identity and age.”

In Kirkuk, Salah Al-Kanaan, a 35-year-old computer operator at a refinery company, said he understands the reasoning behind calls to boycott the election but worries that Iraq’s sectarian deadlock will continue if too many young people refrain from voting or choose to vote for parties based on their religious affiliations.

“Youth, especially those participating for the first time, will decide who wins,” Al-Kanaan said. “If they choose carefully, things could be great. If not, we will have a catastrophe on our hands.”

Young Iraqis needed to leverage their political support for opportunities to run as candidates and shape policy, said Ali Bashar, 31, a youth organizer and international relations professor at Bayan University in Irbil.

“Today, youth represent the key to electoral victory,” said Bashar, one of the founders of the Nineveh Political Youth Forum, a new education and advocacy movement which tried to develop talent in communities in order to field candidates, and has made efforts to get out the youth vote.

“All parties and political blocs are making an effort to recruit this demographic they believe they need to gain power in parliament.”

Engineer Mohammed Abbas, 36, is one such recruit. He participated in a December session of Bashar’s political youth forum and is now running as candidate with Prime Minister Abadi’s Victory Alliance in the upcoming election.

“Just because a candidate is young does not mean he is better,” Abbas said. “I hope people vote for me based on my record of community service and my professional qualifications as an engineer to advocate and guide our country’s reconstruction program.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Public Radio International.

Iraqi election may check Iran's desire for greater regional influence

Campaign banners for various candidates line a street in Baghdad ahead of the upcoming electionBAGHDAD – Perhaps the greatest irony of the American occupation of Iraq was that ousting former president Saddam Hussein’s in 2003 empowered not only the country’s Shiite majority but also gave Iran a political foothold in what had been a bastion of Arab power in the region.

But there are signs that members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family – stalwart defenders of Sunni Islam in the region – are likely to be more pleased with the outcome of Iraq’s parliamentary election on Saturday than the Shiite clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran.

Political splits inside Iraq’s Shiite community, which comprise around 65 percent of the population, have created an opening for Saudi-backed candidates to contest politicians with ties to Iran.

“Saudi Arabia seems to have understood, even if late, that the strategic depth to combat Iran should be through Iraqi politics,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil.

Few contest the current reality of Iran’s military influence in Iraq.

“Iran’s superiority in Iraq was on full display as its agents commanded most of the militias that pushed ISIS out of Mosul and other cities,” said Hussam M. Botani, chief analyst at the Son’i El-Siyasat Center for International and Strategic Studies in Istanbul. “Now it’s supporting the Popular Mobilization, also known as the Al-Fateh Alliance [a militia-affiliated political group], to strengthen its superiority in politics and try and change the government in Baghdad.”

Iranian-trained military commander Hadi Al-Amiri, 63, runs Al-Fateh. He also simultaneously serves as the head of the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, an umbrella organized for militant Shiite groups.

If Al-Amiri’s party scores an upset Saturday, their success will reflect how the Shiite masses give him credit for driving ISIS away from the gates of Baghdad, said Anas Al-Sheikhli, a commercial television director in Baghdad.

“There is one phrase spreading among people: that Al-Fateh is the protector of your pride, meaning that they kept ISIS away from the women in your family,” said Al-Sheikhli. “But when you look at their program, it’s obviously not for Iraq, it’s for Iran.”

Some Al-Fateh officials have even indicated support formal confederation with Iran. Officials in Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s administration hinted Saturday that Tehran-backed parties may be attempting to interfere with Iraqi electronic voting devices.

“Intelligence information revealed attempts of some influential political parties to disrupt electronic voting devices in order to resort to manual counting to falsify the results,” the chairman of the Iraq’s parliament's security and defense committee, Hakim al-Zamili told the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

But as Iran flexes its muscles in Iraq, some Shiite Iraqi politicians have found an opening to turn to wealthy Persian Gulf countries for support for bringing Iraq securely back into the fold of Arab nations.

The 44-year-old Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Sadr, who at the time of the US occupation tacitly cooperated with Al Qaeda to plan attacks on American troops, is now seeking the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to lead a new non-sectarian Sa’iroon multi-party bloc that includes Sunni Arabs, secular Iraqis and even communists.

Sadr met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last July and walked away with a $10 million public pledge to assist Iraqis displaced by interreligious violence .

It’s understood in Baghdad political circles that Sadr also won private assurances of support for his efforts to create a joint Shiite-Sunni electoral list to push back against Iranian dominance.

"Sadr and bin Salman agreed to continue using a language of moderation and to get rid of this sectarian discourse," said Sadr's spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi. “A breakthrough was also made when Bin Salman admitted mistakes were made in the former Saudi administration that, helped Iran dominate Iraq."

The Iranians oppose the Sadr-Salman alliance.

“Iran will not allow the liberals and the communists to govern Iraq,” declared Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a recent visit to Baghdad.

The scrambled alliances have raised hackles in traditional Shiite quarters – with the mullahs’ Hezbollah Brigades and Al-Fateh organizing demonstrations to protest plans for a proposed Saudi crown prince to visit Baghdad.

A high-profile visit by the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, on the other hand, would be a massive public relations victory for Sunni Arabs and others who oppose Shiite extremists.

"Iraq has a very important role in the Arab world and we support reconstruction efforts there” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in February at ab international donors’ conference held in Kuwait to help Baghdad’s reconstruction efforts in the wake of the war against the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion in loans and $500 million in export credits backing. Iran pledged nothing.

“This is not just happening because the Saudis are smart,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. “The Trump administration told the Saudis to change their policy towards Iraq and engage the Shiites here as well as their traditional Sunni friends. Saudi Arabia has realized that Sunnis are not able to directly face the Iranian influence. It changed its tactics towards supporting some Shiite powers to face that influence.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 

Corpses of Mosul still smell like death a year after the Iraqi city is liberated from ISIS

Sroor Al-Hosayni, 23, a nurse from Mosul, leads a volunteer team inside a home packed with bodies of killed ISIS fighters or civilians.MOSUL – When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the war-devastated city of Mosul almost a year ago, he declared it liberated from the Islamic State.

But even when departed, the jihadists exerts a morbid authority in Iraq’s second-largest city.

Today, a putrid odor rises from the thousands of corpses – both civilians and Islamic State fighters – in the rubble of bombed out buildings, tossed in roadside rubbish heaps and in and around the Tigris River.

“The sight and smell of these corpses is a constant reminder of our darkest days,” said Ayoub Thanoun, a 26-year-old pharmacy assistant who survived Islamic State’s five-month long occupation of Mosul and now works to clear neighbors of debris. “A large number of bodies are scattered the houses, gardens, squares and even in some of our mosques.”

Piles of bricks and stones, often from ancient buildings, are common throughout Mosul.

With the race for Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary election underway, Mosul candidates are planting their campaign banners atop the wreckage.

“The politicians are holding electioneering feasts on top of the bodies,” said Shihab Ahmed, a 28-year-old resident of the Bab Lagash district.

About 100,000 people once lived in Mosul’s one-square-mile Old City before the Islamic State occupied the neighborhood. The UN estimates that more than 90 percent of the district was demolished in the fighting.

Even before the war, death was a constant presence in Bab Lagash, where most working-age males were employed as marble tombstone engravers before the invasion and the government’s retaking of the city last summer.

“I’ve spent my whole life in the of the Old City, and while there are many historic buildings officials need to preserve and protect, the government should do something to help the volunteers who have been working so hard to clear the corpses out of this neighborhood,” Ahmed said.

The task of body removal is dangerous.

“Often the bodies of ISIS fighters are just dumped in a place and when we come to lift and remove them we find they’re still strapped to explosive vests or there are bombs hidden in the piles of corpses,” said Omar Mohammed, 30, an Old Mosul resident.

Doctors said the city is overwhelmed by the unremoved corpses.

“We are all vexed with how to deal with the bodies,” said Ma’an Al Jammal, a 26-year-old doctor at the Nineveh Medical College. “The residents themselves are applying some sort of quarantine, but some have been injured from hidden explosives.”

The decomposing bodies are also unhealthful.

“We are lucky that the main supply of Mosul’s drinking water from the Tigris is located far north of the city” said Al Jammal who agrees with an assessment by the World Health Organization determining that the downstream population is at risk of gastroenteritis from partially treated water with exposure to the bodies.

Last month, the United Nations held a workshop in the city to bring together officials and residents to come up with a plan to remove what it estimates to be 8 million tons of conflict debris.

The volume of the wreckage is equivalent to three massive piles the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

“Unplanned disposal of debris can create serious health and environmental risks and burdensome economic liabilities in the future,” said Hassan Partow, a UN Environment Program Manager who is working with the Mosul municipality to develop a strategy for rubble clearance.

Sroor Al-Hosayni, a 23-year-old nurse, isn’t waiting for the government to remove the bodies left on the ground and inside demolished homes in her neighborhood.

On Thursday, Al-Hosayni was leading her team of 30 volunteers pulling the dead out of the dirt and debris and bagging then in white plastic sacks.

“We gathered fifty-two bodies here and then the municipality takes them to be dumped,” Al-Hosayni said after spending the day retrieving the dead from the Old City’s Qulay’at District, scene of some of the fiercest battles between government troops and the Islamic State.

Dignified burial for the dead became Al-Hosayni’s mission after her 14-year-old sister Nibras was killed in last year’s fighting. Her father died of a heart attack shortly after an airstrike.

“I promised the security forces to work for them as a nurse if they would help me bury my sister,” said Al-Hosayni who now runs courses to train others in safe removal.

The training includes the use of protective gear including gloves and masks and how to treat scorpion bites, a common hazard when removing bodies from the charred remains of the homes and shops of the ancient city.

“The areas smell of death, it’s awful, but we have gotten used to it,” said Al-Hosayni, who said city officials suggested she let street dogs eat the bodies. “There are lots of rats and cats, but no dogs. I told them there were not enough dogs to eat the corpses. There are thousands of bodies.”

Prime Minister al-Abadi has said that the civilian death toll in Mosul was almost 1,300. But that number has been challenged by independent monitoring groups and the Associated Press which in December estimated that as many as 11,000 civilians perished.

So far, Al-Hosayni and her volunteers have removed 860 bodies.

“In many ways I’m doing this work in memory of my sister and my father,” said Al-Hosayni. “Dad taught me that actively caring for others is the best answer to the atrocities of the Islamic State.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Syria's Bashar Assad to strike rural homes

SYRHomesCAIRO Now that they've secured the areas around Damascus, the Syrian government army is on the move again, this time targeting the remaining opposition-held pocket north of Homs.

Despite a several year siege, the compact agricultural communities of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla in the north of Homs province – the largest in Syria – have not been starved into internal displacement deals or surrender yet, but a new bombing campaign by President Bashar al Assad's army is threatening them to accept such a fate.

New airstrikes by the government's air force and it's Russian allies hit the rebel-held town of Rastan, 16 miles north of Homs Wednesday.

“There were four raids, each of them lasting about 10 minutes each and during the third raid one of the houses in my neighborhood was destroyed,” said Shible Ayoub, a 48-year-old supervisor at a local fertilizer plant.

A six-year long tightening of access by government troops against Rastan’s 70,000 civilians intensified after Assad forces took complete control of Homs, Syria’s third largest city last May.

And more road blocks manned by government troops appeared in rural Homs this week following gains by the Syrian army around Ghouta – the last large rebel outpost in the Damascus suburbs.

“Government forces have put us under siege since 2011 but we have survived on the fava beans, wheat, figs and apricots we grow in the countryside around us,” said Mr. Ayoub. “But over time it’s been more difficult to buy petrol and cooking oil and people are so poor that they are selling their furniture to get fuel to run electricity generators and feed their children.”

The Syrian army and its allies – Russians with their air power and foreign Shiite militias from Lebanon and Iraq – have used siege and bombardment tactics to force rebels into surrender and population transfer deals with refugees put on busses to opposition territory in northern Syria, mostly in Idlib province to the north of Homs.

Ali Haidar, the Syrian National Reconciliation Minister – the official tasked by Assad to implement the surrender deals – told Reuters Monday that the government would focus on recovering the opposition-held pocket north Homs after securing the areas around Damascus.

“The issue will not be a long time coming after the final resolution in Qalamoun,” Mr. Haidar said, referring to a strategic mountain range between Damascus and the Lebanese border.

Mr. Haidar said the government had been dropping leaflets and communicating with rebels in Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla – a region with more than 300,000 Sunni Muslim civilians largely supportive of the armed opposition.

“Armed groups wait to feel the seriousness and determination of the state’s military action before they approach serious discussion of a reconciliation agreement. The options are open: full reconciliation or military action where necessary,” said Mr. Haidar.

Rebel commanders around Homs insist they will not be dislodged as easily as the opposition forces around Damascus.

“This region is stronger than Ghouta because of its agricultural crops and livestock,” said Colonel Fatih Hassoun, the leader of the Free Syrian Army's Central Front. “This statement by the criminal Ali Haider is part of the psychological warfare used against our side to cause confusion.”

Hassoun headed the opposition military delegation to the Astana negotiations – talks held last year brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey — that resulted in “de-escalation” deals considered highly disadvantageous to the rebels and their supporters.

“We are fighting to gain time until political pressure is exerted on the regime to stop it from taking control of the region and the preventing the forcible displacement of the population in the Homs countryside,” Mr. Hassoun said.

Rebels consolidated their hold in the north of Homs province shortly after the June 2012 government massacre in the village of Taldou, near the town of Houla where United Nations observers on the ground confirmed that at least 108 people were killed.

The dead included 49 children and 34 women shot point blank by shabiha, a paramilitary militia comprised of members from Assad's Alawite sect.

“This is when large number of officers deserted from Assad’s criminal regime and took their military experience and wisdom with them,” said Dyaa Kadoor, a 30-year-old captain in the Free Syrian Army in Houla. “We will fight to the last breath.”

Kadoor said his troops have spent the past several weeks digging trenches for the fighters and bomb shelters for civilians.

“We have fortifications on all fronts and are reinforcing them now, because we knew that when Assad was finished with Ghouta he would come toward us,” Mr. Kadoor said.

Yet doctors in the area fear they will not be able to handle the kind of chemical weapons attack Assad’s forces hurled April 7 at the town of Douma in the Damascus suburbs.

The World Health Organization said that at least 40 people died and another 500 were affected by that attack, which Western intelligence sources believe was a mixture of chlorine and possibly a nerve agent like Sarin gas.

“Thank God no one was injured in the bombing yesterday,” said Dr. Jamal Edeen Bahboh, 38 who manages a network of hospitals and clinics in the Homs countryside for the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation in Rastan. “But as the Assad forces approach us we are worried about a chemical attack.”

The town suffered a chemical attack in August 2015 that resulted in five deaths and multiple injuries and Bahboh said residents are not ready for another one.

“Our stock of medicines has been reduced in the past month because of the siege and we need protective masks, anti-chemical drugs,” said Dr. Bahboh. “We are calling on the United States to ensure that the United Nations can bring these supplies to Rastan and the rest of the Homs countryside.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Washington Times.

Egyptian President el-Sissi tempted to expand term after decisive victory at the election booths

EGYElectionCAIRO – President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has said repeatedly that he respects term limits outlined in Egypt’s 2014 constitution.

Drafted in the wake of the 2013 Tahrir Square uprising and the end of the 30-year rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, the document limits Egyptian presidents to two four-year stints in office.

But in an era when Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have extended their tenures as heads of state into the indefinite future, many believe El-Sisi might try for a third term.

"Let me tell you something, there's no bigger country than China, and they just changed the constitution to give the president an open term, up to life," television host Imad Eddin Adib said recently as he called El-Sisi to do the same.

Such calls among el-Sisi supporters for the third term began weeks before El-Sisi’s re-election victory in March, when the incumbent racked up 97 percent of the vote in a contest that human rights monitors and others said was an authoritarian referendum rather than an honest ballot.

El-Sisi’s haul reflected how opposition activists called for a boycott of the vote after authorities imprisoned three presidential candidates from the military and four potential civilian candidates opted not to run. Turnout was around 42 percent, or 6 percentage points less than when he first won office in 2014.

The president ran against headwinds.

He has had to devalue the Egyptian pound and reduce of food and fuel subsidies that were required under an International Monetary Fund bailout. At the same time, Islamic State terrorists have been fighting the Egyptian army in the northern Sinai for five years while targeting Coptic Christians in the Nile Valley.

Many Egyptians feel like they need a strong leader to deal with those threats.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves. We are pharaoh's people, and we're looking for the one man, the only man, who achieves great things and can face the security challenges,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim, managing director of Egypt Campaigns, a Cairo political consulting firm that formerly worked for ex-President Mubarak.

El-Sisi has launched massive projects to jumpstart economic development and showcase his leadership, including a new capital city around 30 miles east of Cairo, massive desert reclamation projects and urban redevelopment in Cairo’s sprawling slums.

“The opposition people are busy on Twitter, but you cannot find another man to build this country,” Ibrahim said.

El-Sisi, a former army field marshal and head of military intelligence, has been reluctant to appear as a party politician. He announced his candidacy in 2014 within weeks of the deadline for filing and did not personally appear at any of the pre-election rallies organized by his campaign.

Now, however, as he has cracked down on civil rights and eliminated rivals, nobody else appears ready to challenge him.

“Speculation that the president will remain for more than his constitutional term is often raised by political parties because there is no real alternative who enjoys the same popular consensus, or matches the broad support Mr. El-Sisi obtained in the last two elections,” said Mustafa Kamal, an analyst at the government affiliated Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Amending the constitution to permit a third term requires legislation by parliament and approval in a popular referendum.

But Kamal said parliament needed to clarify laws now governing how political parties before El-Sisi considers making those changes. Currently, security officials have oversight of parties and complex regulations make them hard to organize. El-Sisi loyalists want to reform the system so that it includes only two major parties.

Opposition groups say the both current system and the proposed changes are unconstitutional and exemplify el-Sisi’s authoritarian streak.

But proponents insist the reforms would allow room for loyal opposition groups – broadly defined in Egypt as supporters of the June 30 displacement of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi by street protesters and the military – to contest local elections slated for next year.

While Western governments are concerned about Egypt’s political trajectory – British Prime Minister Theresa May recently went as far as to remind El-Sisi of term limits in her congratulations call after he won in March – multinational companies are showing signs of supporting his economic policies.

“He is weaning this country from the socialist dogma that we had since the Sixties,” said Tarek Tawfik, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. “American multinationals in Egypt already are reinvesting and expanding here.”

Virginia-based candy maker Mars is moving its manufacturing facilities from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to Egypt, for example, said Tawfik.

“They realized that as a cost base and as a cost center it’s far more economical to be here,” said Tawfik. “We have free trade agreements with most African countries, all the Arab states, and the European Union. Companies are looking at Egypt as a regional hub, a logistical and transport center with cheap and trainable labor with access to energy for years to come.

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Palestinians honor their cultural identity with circus school and performance

June 21, 2017 - Birzeit, Ramallah, Palestine - a young group of Palestinian students practice acrobatics movements at the Palestinian Circus School.BIRZIET, Palestine – Under a circus tent here in the West Bank, music and laughter are all that can be heard.

Students at the Palestinian Circus School are learning their trade. Some juggle. Others Hip-Hop dance. Others practice aerial acrobatics, gymnastics and other performing skills.

“The Palestinian Circus School is a space for every Palestinian from different cultural backgrounds, religion and parties to build one Palestinian identity,” said Shadi Zmorrod, the school’s founder.

Zmorrod conceived of the school in 2006. He wanted to start with intensive training courses with Belgian circus school ‘Cirkus in Beweging.’ But, the Belgian team couldn’t come to Palestine due to the outbreak of the Israeli war in Lebanon. “Therefore, we have crafted our own equipment,” he said. “Our first performances had pure Palestinian handmade tools.”

Zina Rafidi, 14, described her experience in the circus school as an eye opening

“Although sometimes I heard negative criticism for joining the Circus school, I insist that woman are capable of doing what they want,” Rafidi, who’s training to be a juggler.

In 2009, the World Health Organization officially accredited the school. In 2010, the school had 160 students. Today, it has 1500. They are creating a new Palestinian institution, said Zmorrod.

“By doing balance performance, such as Tightrope walking, we teach our students how to be calm and create internal and external balance,” he said. “When we also teach our students how do Human Pyramids, we teach them how to trust each other and how they cannot reach the top if they don’t have strong bases. Hence, we build strong trustful society that cares about collective benefit”

Khaled Maqdadi, 22, has been a trainer since he was a teenager.

“The circus is a way to convey political and social messages,” he said. “I found myself in the circus as a tool to express my thoughts and beliefs…to improve the awareness in the Palestinian society regarding serious social, political, and cultural issues.”

Noor Abu al Rob, 27, described the circus as a way to transcend Palestine’s political challenges.

“The circus is the only thing that we can do without being charged or judged by the Israeli,” Abu al Rob said.

The circus only performs in the West Bank. Israeli officials have prevented it from working in Jerusalem. Israeli authorities also arrested several members of the Palestinian Circus Schools. Mohammad Abu Sakha, a 24-year-old circus performer, was arrested and has been held in administrative detention for two years after being declared a threat to the security of Israel.

“The occupation tries always to restrict and to demolish everything that’s related to the Palestinian identity, culture, and art,” Zmorrod said. “However, that won’t happen as this is the main mission of the school to empower the Palestinian society.”

The Palestinian Circus School accommodates the Palestinian cultural backgrounds.

“Throughout my four years in being a juggling player, I have learned how to express myself and think outside the box,” Abu al Rob said. “We do respect all cultural ideas and beliefs. We try to accommodate the variety of cultural thoughts in different Palestinian cities such as Hebron, Ramallah, and Bethlehem.”

Ramallah is the most liberal city in Palestine, Bethlehem is considered the second-most liberal country, while Hebron is the most conservative city.

The Palestinian Circus School conducted the first mixed-gender performance in the old city of Hebron.

“The increased number [of students] reflects our ability in cultivating trust in our community with mixed gender activities, where there is a space for everyone to voice out their thoughts, opinions and fears equally,” Zmorrod said.

Rafidi is planning to study medicine in the future. “I will be a doctor who train circus to indicate that Palestinian woman can do what they want,” she said.

Gymnast Dana Jodua, 14, said she trained even when her parents resisted. “Nowadays, after noticing how much I have been improved, they keep encouraging me to continue,” she said.

The school’s finances are always a challenge.

Zmorrod areceives funding from the EU, the Switzerland-based Drosos foundation, Secours Catholiques - Caritas France and others. The school has also received $10,000 from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture.

“I can recall every organization and individual who supported the Palestinian Circus School financially because as they are very limited,” Zmorrod said.

Still the school has been able to conduct several performances locally and internationally. Many referenced the Palestinian suffering under the occupation.

The troupe is booked to stage its performance “Mirage” in London in the next few months. The show strings together numerous stories from the refugees in Germany, Iraq, Palestine and Syria. All are journeys that should be documented and recorded lest humankind too soon forget their lessons.

“Art is a way to preserve our identity and culture,” Zmorrod said. “Without both of them, we will be lost.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Residents of divided Syrian town Qamiishli enjoy autonomy amidst political purgatory

Qamishli, autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – Billboards of Bashar al-Assad overlook a traffic circle in downtown Qamishli. A section of the traffic circle is controlled by Assad’s regime, while the remainder is held by coalition SDF forces. (Bottom Left) A regime traffic officer standing in the SDF controlled part of traffic circle.”Qamishli, Syria – This town in northeastern Syria has slipped into a largely quiet truce between forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad and Kurdish militia fighters.

Each group holds an area but allows civilians to pass unmolested from one quarter to the other.

Qamishli sits 180 miles east of the Euphrates River outside the zone where the Turkish army has been fighting Kurdish groups since January.

“Sometimes Turkey attacks and bombs the area beyond the border, but people in Qamishli and the whole area around us are living their normal lives without any fears,” said Bahram Zaradesht, the head of political department for the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are a US-supported army of Kurds and other anti-Assad revolutionaries. But they have rejected the militant Islamism that Turkey has supported among other Sunni Muslim rebels.

The SDF claims to have 80,000 fighters in Rojava, a self-proclaimed autonomous region in northern Syria where the Damascus government maintains a sparse presence.

It’s not clear if all those soldiers are willing to fight. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has accused the SDF of arbitrarily arresting hundreds of civilians and forcing them into their army to fight against ISIS, however.

Still, with the help of American, French and British troops, the SDF has driven out jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State in the region.

But SDF advances in the Islamic State’s largest remaining bastion in Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria slowed last month after Kurdish members of the group redeployed west to the Afrin area to fight Turkey.

That appeared to bolster Pentagon officials’ concerns of allowing the Islamic State to regroup if President Trump follows through with his call to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria even as he’s also threatening to launch attacks against President Bashar Al Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people.

But in the marketplace in central Qamishli – where the SDF and government forces share jurisdiction – merchants and customers are more concerned about the fluctuating value of the Syrian pound, or SYP. Merchants regularly use American dollars and other foreign currencies in their day to day businesses due to the instability of their native currency.

“It’s a basic fact of life here that what people eat for dinner depends on the dollar to pound rate,” said Abdullah Amin, a currency shop owner. “When the government advanced last week and the dollar went down people bought more food.”

The SYP had reached 415 to the U.S. dollar prior to President Donald Trump’s announcement that missiles 'will be coming' to Assad’s military assets in response to Saturday’s chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma in the Damascus suburbs.

The stronger Syrian currency reflected confidence in Al Assad’s regime even as he took potentially used weapons of mass destruction to achieve them. By midweek, after Trump’s threats, it fell to the 515 SYP to the dollar raising the cost of food again in the Qamishli marketplace.

Qamishli residents’ don't welcome a American military escalation. They have been enjoying their political autonomy and rise as a trading center with access to goods from Turkey and Iraq and customers from throughout Syria.

“In general, we can secure our needs from Turkey, the Kurdish controlled part of Iraq and government held parts of Syria, “said Zakaria Wiso, a 29-year-old grocer. “We still have to pay for customs duties at borders and bribes at Free Syrian Army checkpoints so prices for food stay expensive and customers focus more on their basic needs.”

Still, Qamishli s experiment in power sharing and self-defense has drawn respect in Western capitals desperate to see Syrians capable of forging a better future for themselves.

Last week a group of British parliamentarians visited the city and called for an American and European commitment to its people.  

"We’re here for a long-term relationship with you, where we can support you against all the people who are trying to destroy your liberty,” said Maurice Glasman, a Labor peer in the House of Lords. "We would like the US and British troops to be in Manbij and to stop the attack of Turkey on Rojava."

Local leaders could not have been more pleased.

“We are the owners of a project aimed from the beginning to solve political and social issues by calling for a parliamentary and federal system for the whole of Syria,” said Suliman Hami Khalil, the 34-year-old deputy administrator for the Qamishli area. “Compared to other areas in Syria, we can say the people here are living with a better level of security and the situation is better than before.”

Last Sunday the Assyrian Christian community here celebrated Easter.

While no longer the majority in the city, the Assyrian churches and their schools have taken advantage of the diminishing power of the Assad regime and the rise of a certain level of multiculturalism under the SDF, to teach Aramaic, the community’s language and the same tongue spoken in the Holy Land during the lifetime of Jesus.

“People come to mass hear the language of Christ and to pray for Peace in the region,” said Pierre Gaurie, a 51-year-old parishioner at St George's Church just a few steps from the market. “Here we live beside each other like brothers. My message to those international countries who are supporting the war here – stop supporting the war and start supporting the peace. It’s a better choice.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Mideast neighbors continue surprise embargo against Qatar

QAT130227AA001.jpegCAIRO- Last year, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain jointly accused Qatar, a Persian Gulf state with a land mass the size of Connecticut and the world’s third-largest reserve of natural-gas and oil, of supporting Islamist terror groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Now in its ninth month, the embargo by four formerly friendly Arab nations against Qatar has split families, raised the prices for food and medicine – and revealed to the Qataris that their small but proud nation is reliant on the good graces of others.

“Our worlds were shaken after neighboring countries announced the embargo,” said Farah Abel, a trainee at the World Innovation Summit for Education, a nonprofit funded by the Qatar Foundation. “We felt under attack and our sister countries made us question food security, militaristic intervention, travel bans, and even family ties.”

The blockading Gulf states say the measure was necessary to stop Qatar from funneling funds to groups destabilizing the region – a step that immediately followed President Donald Trump's meeting with Saudi leaders.

“Qatar gives members of the Muslim Brotherhood a haven in Doha and allows them through Al Jazeera (television) to incite for the overthrow of president Abdel Fattah El Sissi,” said Nevine Mossaad a Cairo University political scientist. “Nothing has motivated Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to stop this support for terrorism.”

Cairo has explicitly pointed the finger at Qatar for financing Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked groups operating in the Sinai, the Nile Valley, and the desert borderlands with neighboring Libya, while other Gulf states point to money flows to Al-Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel groups and Shiite militias in Iraq.

“He even extended this sabotage to his neighbors, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates,” added Mossaad echoing the views of the Arab leaders who submitted a list of 13 security and political demands to Qatar June 22 that include also closing the us airbase in Qatar. “The Qatari role is one of the main sources of instability, turmoil, and violence in the Arab region and specially so in Egypt.”

Al Udeid Air Base in the southwestern part of the country is the largest operations center for the US military in the Middle East and houses almost 10,000 American personnel.

Qatari officials have rejected the accusations even as there have been talks, including mediation attempts by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Still, few believe an upcoming meeting between Qatar and the other Arab states in mid-April, will lead to a quick resolution.

“After nine months of not even being able to send text messages to family members in the boycotting countries, the Qataris themselves have become more nationalistic, and have rallied to their Emir so Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has come to be seen as a real leader,” said Harry Verhoeven, professor of government at Georgetown University’s Doha campus. “It’s actually going to become more difficult for him now to give into the humiliating demands of (UAE President) Sheikh Khalifa and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.”

Still, Qatari nationals –- who comprise only a little over 14 percent of the population of 2.6 million – say the embargo is hurting their pocketbooks and their relationships.

“This is bigger than a certain brand of juice not being available at the supermarket,” said Nasser Al-Rayes, 24 years old basketball player for Al Saad Sports Club, “My cousin is married to an Emirati woman and he can longer see her because of this blockade. In his case matters are even more complicated since she has ties to the ruling family of (the emirate of) Abu Dhabi.”

Saudi Arabia closed the Salwa border crossing last June, blocking Qatar’s only land connection with the outside world and prompting Qatari businessman Moutaz Al Khayyat to fly 4,000 cows to the Doha airport to supply fresh milk that was formerly trucked in from the next-door kingdom.

All Qatar’s cargo now must pass through the Doha’s sea or airport and the cost of air transit has soared as carriers scrambled to reroute flights away from the blockading countries.

“The flights’ cost and duration has increased and may also force them to pass over unsafe zones in other countries, such as Iraq adding to both the price of fuel and insurance,” said Ali Salah, an economist at Future Research, a think tank in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Qatar Airways lost revenue on more than 50 routes to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. And Qataris and the foreigners living there find themselves taking circuitous routes to visit love ones or conduct business.

“I had to change planes in Oman and Beirut and pay about 2,400 Qatari Riyals ($600) more than usual in order to get back to Cairo for my sister’s wedding,” said Hassan Abdel Meguid, a 29-year-old Egyptian engineer who works for a Qatari construction firm.

“The other issue is transferring money to my family back home because there is now a daily limit which just means I waste more time going to the local bank and Western Union.”

More worrisome to Abdel Meguid and the other foreign workers in Qatar is the exit of hundreds of construction companies in the county where architects and builders had found an El Dorado of projects driven largely by preparations for the 2022 World Cup football tournament.

In February, Saudi Arabia demanded that the global soccer association FIFA strip Qatar of the 2022 World Cup not over concerns over its alleged support for terrorists – but rather of vote buying to secure the rights to host the event in the 2010 nomination process.

The demand to pull the tournament has gathered steam in Europe where German publications have published details of the alleged bribes and in Britain where members of the majority Conservative Party have called for an inquiry.

“The decision to award the World Cup to Qatar has to be reviewed,” said Damian Collins, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport committee in the House of Commons. 

Despite what feels like unfair bullying by kindred nations, Qataris say they support their leaders and have developed an inner resilience to the blockade. They are also thankful their leaders have deep pockets of resources on reserve – its sovereign wealth fund boasts some $338 billion in assets.

“My real concern lies in the relations between the people of all these countries,” said Aliya Fakhroo, a 24-year-old student in Doha. “Will the hatred that’s been spurred go away?

An alternative versio of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Violence in Palestine dulls Israel's 70th anniversary celebration

TEL AVIV -- As Israelis prepare for celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of independence April 18, the century-long conflict over the land they share with the Palestinians will extend to a split over the interpretation of the day.

For Israelis, it's a momentous day, marking a tough but victorious past, while for many Palestinians, it's about loss.

“For us, it is not an anniversary and certainly not a celebration,” said Belal Sultan, a 26-year-old business administration student in Gaza City. “We commemorate Nakba Day because for us, Israel shouldn't have come into existence on that day.”

Nakba, is the Arabic word for catastrophe and the term Palestinians use for the expulsion and flight of more than 700,000 Arabs from the lands won by the Israelis during the 1948 war.

The celebration comes amid an uptick in turmoil on the Gaza border.

Last week, as Israeli Jews marked the first night of Passover retelling the story of the biblical Exodus from Egypt, some 30,000 Palestinians on the Gaza border staged Land Day demonstrations protesting Israeli expropriation of Arab-owned land to build Jewish settlements.

Israeli army snipers shot around 750 of them with live munition, leaving 15 dead and many severely injured.

Some Israelis mourned the renewed hostilities.

“For me it was a sad Passover,” said Yaniv Sagee, a member of Kibbutz Ein Ha Shofet in northern Israel. “I was celebrating with 700 other people at the kibbutz but my thoughts were with the people in Gaza.”

“I wonder how can our nation celebrate its freedom pretending to have a clear conscience when we are destroying the liberty of others,” added Sagee who is executive director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva, 34 miles north of Tel Aviv, which focuses on creating a shared society for both communities.

But the kibbutzniks and other Israeli Jews who make up the approximately 22 percent of the population supporting the liberal Labor and leftist Meretz parties represent only one part of this politically fragmented society.

“People give the wrong interpretation to what's happening in Gaza,” said Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, the second largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank area between Jerusalem and Hebron. “They say it's about the Palestinian people calling out for their own independence, yet in Gaza they have their own borders and their own leadership.”

The mayor is planning a festive firework display for Independence Day in Efrat and the town has something special to celebrate.

In February, Revivi received approval from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build more than 300 new homes – ending an earlier freeze on construction aimed at giving negotiators “breathing room” to discuss territorial compromise.

“The situation in Gaza is terrible but why demonstrate against the State of Israel? They should go and protest against their own leadership since the Palestinian Authority has gone nearly 4,500 days without holding elections,” said Revivi. “It is an outrageous figure that shows the Palestinian people can't even express their own opinion.”

Despite the unrest in Gaza and uncertainty over Mr. Netanyahu’s political future – he is under scrutiny in three separate police investigations – Revivi insists term "occupied" has no relevance for his city and insists he and his constituents are staying put.

“For an individual person, 70 could be their lifespan, but during history it is a short period of time,” Revivi said. “Jewish settlement here began with Abraham some 4,000 years ago and has continued since without interruption.”

But analysts say more immediate developments might shatter Israeli public indifference around the turbulence in the region that extends from their borders to Libya and the Persian Gulf.  

“Mid-May could be an eventful time – with Trump probably withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal amid international opprobrium, and 'celebrating' the embassy move to Jerusalem, amid widespread Palestinian protest, and possibly, even more bloodshed,” said Paul Salem, senior vice president for Policy Research and Programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an analysis.

Pulling out of the Iran agreement – which was always strongly opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu – might trigger a more aggressive anti-Israel stance by the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and raise tensions with Tehran’s proxy, the Syrian government in Damascus as well.

“The heating up of the situation in Gaza comes at a time when Israel is even more worried about the situation to its north, where a growing Iranian presence in Syria has raised concerns of war,” Salem added.

But as Independence Day approaches, most Israelis are comfortable that their military superiority and the technology-driven economy that reinforces it, guarantee their security along with the personal freedom that comes a with a democratic form of government – rare in the in the region.

Nearly 70 percent of Israelis are optimistic about their country’s future and 81 percent tell pollsters that they would not want to emigrate to another country even if they were given full citizenship there.

“Israelis are watching what's happening in Gaza and they are watching what's happening in Syria, Iraq and Libya – and in a different way they sadly observe the lack of democratic and economic development in places like Egypt," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute [IDI] that commissioned the survey.

“They feel some fear but mostly alienation from the region where even after 70 years of existence never recognized us as an integral or legitimate neighbor. So, in some ways, it’s as if we look at the Middle East from afar and feel much closer bonds to our democratic allies in North America and Europe.”  

Plesner’s organization is taking an American approach to the anniversary, putting efforts into educating the public about its founding charter – the Israeli Declaration of Independence – by setting up a pavilion devoted to the country’s founding document to be opened on Tel Aviv’s leafy Rothschild Boulevard in the center of the city.

“The Declaration of Independence is a phenomenal and to some extent, miraculous document,” Plesner said, pointing out that its signers met at the Tel Aviv Museum on an evening when the organized armies of the neighboring Arab states were planning an invasion.

“You would have expected the declaration to be a lot less enlightened, open and committed to equality to all of our citizens – but instead it lays out the basic democratic, constitutional and Jewish ideals that serve as the most important source of values and inspiration for our country.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Surprise decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria produces unease for Manbij residents

Jan. 15, 2018 - Manbij, Syria - Manbij frontline and SDF forces on the lookout for FSA and Turkish drones.Manbij, Syria - As Turkish forces consolidate their hold on the Syrian border town of Afrin in an anti-Kurdish operation dubbed Euphrates Shield, US troops have been helping to block a similar advance at Manbij – 90 miles to the east.

But the Turkish advance into Afrin 20 miles south of the border – is draining Kurdish manpower, while residents nervous watch and wonder if Washington will continue to stand by their small autonomous city or force them to accept Ankara’s domination.

In fact, Manbij now is the testing ground of the Western commitment to the Kurdish forces, men – and women – who bore the brunt of the struggle to liberate the area from Islamic State – as Turkey is determined push an armed group it sees as radicalizing its own Kurdish minority away from its borders.

“People here want to talk about how to rebuild their lives,” said Samir Mohammed Noor, a Mabij imam, who passes much of his time advising couples on matters of marriage and divorce and helping local traders resolve business disputes.

“With the help of God, President Trump and US forces may stay to bring peace to Syria.”

Today, the only remaining sign of the 18-month Islamic State reign of terror in the city is the wrecked cemetery – where the jihadists smashed tombstones claiming that the elaborate historic monuments were signs of idolatry.

“ISIS even placed explosives inside mosques,” said Abdullah Fayad, a 45 year-old local resident. “They blew up this ancient one over here,” he added, pointing to a massive pile of rubble in the center of the cemetery.

But in spite of the peace that has mostly reigned since the militants fled, anxiety has risen since last week’s announcement by Turkey’s National Security Council – a body chaired by President Tayyip Erdogan – threatening to deploy further into Kurdish areas if their militia doesn't withdraw immediately from Manbij.

In a televised interview in February, President Erdogan said that Euphrates Shield forces would turn toward Manbij because it is “historically Arab” and should be “cleared of these terrorist organization elements,” referring to Kurdish forces in the city.

Manbij’s population is 80 percent Arab but the locals here prefer to align themselves with the Kurdish minority largely because they adamantly renounce Islamist armed groups – including Sunni jihadist organizations operating in the area and the multinational Islamic State.

Residents of Manbij became even more nervous last week after President Trump said the US would "be coming out of Syria like very soon," just hours after the Pentagon underscored the need for American troops to remain there for the immediate future.

On Friday, President Trump spoke to Erdogan by phone “to discuss regional developments and the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey.”

In August 2016, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured Manbij from the Islamic State with the support of the US-led coalition.

That victory was never really celebrated in Ankara.

“Turkey is using Afrin as a form of brinkmanship to have the Kurdish forces evacuate Manbij,” said Hay Yanarocak, a Turkey analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, who believes the US and Turkey are likely to negotiate an arrangement where the town, or at least the area around it sees a Kurdish retreat.

“I can’t say that Turkey was happier when ISIS controlled the area – considering they (IS) launched rockets at Killis (22 miles northeast of Afrin) and attacked tourism spots in Istanbul," he added. "But they were pleased when the Kurdish forces were losing men to ISIS in the Syria fighting.”

On Thursday French President Emmanuel Macron that his country would bolster its force commitment in Syria causing Erdogan to warn that Paris could become a target of Ankara’s wrath.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the residents want the Kurds to stay because the Kurds are credited with defeating Islamic State and restoring a semblance of normalcy under the protection of US and French troops.

“There is fighting here but the frontline is stable,” said Mohammed Abu Adil, head of the Manbij Military Council, which guards the town and its surroundings. “Coalition forces are present and in fact, their numbers have increased since Turkey made its demands.”

“We’ve made it clear that we are staying and not going to withdraw from the city,” he added.

On Saturday the Defense Department released the name of a soldier who was killed in an IED attack near Manbij.

Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar, 36, of Austin, Texas, was deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Another coalition service member who has not been publicly identified was killed and five others were wounded in the attack on the allied patrol on the Turkish- Syrian border.

The SDF forces in northeastern Syria are comprised of a mixed army of some 70,000 Kurdish and Arab fighters including up to 10,000 volunteer female fighters in Kurdish women’s protection units.

For the past eight months, these forces have faced off against their ostensible countrymen – Sunni Syrian fighters have dug into positions on the Turkish side of the border, 10 miles north of Manbij.

“Officially there’s (a ceasefire) agreement between the coalition and the Turks,” said Shiya Gerde, a front line commander in the SDF forces. “But the pro-Turkish Sunni militias do initiate clashes and are constantly probing our positions.”

Gerede estimates that a force of around 650 men from an array of Sunni Syrian groups including Ahrar al-Sham – a rebel group with links to Al Queda – are stationed on the other side of the border at the Manbij front lines.

These Sunni Syrian forces have lobbed 120mm artillery shells toward Manbij from the safety of a nearby Turkish army base, according to the commander.

“They are most active at night, shouting out ‘Allahu Akbar’ when shooting,” said Mohammed Sheh Abed, a 20 year-old Kurdish fighter from Manbij. “After Turkey launched Euphrates Shield, their behavior started to change.”

Using his binoculars, Abed spots the array of forces deployed against the Kurds in this corner of northeastern Syria.

“Some of the men facing us wear Free Syrian Army uniforms, others are in Kandahar robes,"said Abed referring to the Afghan-style garb often favored by jihadis closest to al Qaeda. “Another unit that’s affiliated to a tribal clan from Deir Ez Zor (170 miles south east) wears uniforms similar those we used to see on the men from the Islamic State.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Pope delivers stirring message to wartorn countries on Easter Sunday

Courtesy of Pope Francis's Twitter VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis asked the tens of thousands of faithful -- and hundreds of police and security personnel -- gathered for Easter in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him, after using strong language to call for peace in some of the most war-torn parts of the world.

The tightest security on record limited the crowd size in the square, which had large empty areas despite the first day of crisp spring weather after a grey, rainy week in Rome. The crowd on hand waved flags and chanted in support of the 81-year-old Argentine.

Francis, who two weeks ago celebrated his fifth anniversary as pontiff, used his homily to lament to death of 15 Palestinians in Gaza, where he said the violence is causing “wounds of conflict that do not spare the defenseless.” The pope also called for warring parties to allow humanitarian aid to enter Syria, and he called for an end to violence in the African nations of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“This Easter, may the light of the risen Christ illuminate the consciences of all political and military leaders, so a swift end can be brought to the carnage,” Francis said.

“It’s notable that the pope used such strong language when talking about violence in the world,” said Salvatore Cernuzio, an author and Vatican expert with the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa. “His papacy has never shied away from taking strong political stances, and he continued that” on Sunday.

The pope recited the Biblical parallel of the grain of wheat that must die in order to bear fruit as an example of focusing on the long term: “It is the power of the grain of wheat, the power of that which humbles itself and gives of itself until the very end, and in that way renews the world.”

Rome was on high alert in the days leading up to Easter, with police stationed around the city for several days. Italian Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti warned Thursday that some of the tens of thousands of ISIS fighter on the run after defeats in Syria and Iraq could end up in Italy.

“It is a national security priority,” Minniti said. A ministry spokesman said Friday that at least four suspected terror agents had been arrested in Italy in the week before Easter, though there is no proof any of them were targeting the Vatican City, which is surrounded on all side by the Italian capital of Rome. Italy remains the only large European country not to have suffered a terror attack since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

Those gathered in St. Peter’s Square for Easter had to go through two security checks to enter the main square. Traffic was blocked off for several blocks in all directions, and armed security were visible on the surrounding streets and on nearby rooftops.

“For every security measure that is visible, you can be sure there are ten we do not know about,” said Massimo Blanco, a criminology and security expert at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “The security of the pope or of any place where large crowds are gathered is something Italy takes very seriously.”

After the Easter Mass, Francis gave his “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and the World) blessing from a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, closing with a plea: “Please don’t forget to pray for me,” the pope said.

In the square, the faithful had mixed views after the pope waded into increasingly complicated geopolitical waters Sunday.

“The see the pope as a kind of moral compass for Christians, and I think it is his duty to cast a certain light on problems that religious people should be more aware of,” said Matthew R. Reynolds, 27, a philosophy and theology graduate student from Detroit studying in Rome.

Meaghan Ellis-Nowicki, 40, a Massachusetts high school administrator, agreed.

“If the pope says he is outraged, then maybe it should mean something to us,” said Ellis-Nowicki, who is on vacation in Rome with her parents.

But some Italians in the crowd were less convinced by the pope’s remarks about global events.

“I agree there is tragedy in the world, but I also think the pope should focus on being a spiritual leader and leave politics to others,” said 68-year-old Leo Rosiello, a church volunteer and retired municipal bus driver.

Anna Maria Alfonso, 49, a hospital worker, said she would have liked to see the pope address problems within the church as well as secular, global topics.

“We have a church splitting between conservative and progressive, we have problem of sex scandals,” Alfonso said. “Pope Francis is a holy man, and I think I agree with his vision of the world. But he probably focuses too much on things he cannot control directly and too little on areas where he can have an immediate impact.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Pakistani court ruling that aims to identify religious minorities provokes fear

PAL130823AA001LAHORE, Pakistan (RNS) – A recent court verdict in Pakistan has made a declaration of faith compulsory for citizens before joining the civil services, military and judiciary.

The move has scared the already beleaguered religious minorities in the South Asian country.

“Already it is difficult for us as minorities to retain our government jobs. With this court judgment we can forget whatever normalcy we had in our lives,” said Ejaz Mall, 34, a Christian government employee in Lahore. “Many people will face socioeconomic exclusion if the order is implemented.”

In its ruling, the Islamabad High Court noted that citizens should be easily identifiable by their faith and that applicants for public offices should declare their beliefs before being considered for public employment. The court also directed that religion should be mentioned on birth certificates, identity cards, voters’ lists and passports and that citizens must take an oath that the Prophet Muhammad is God's only Prophet, a belief not held by most of Pakistan's minority groups.

Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui said in the ruling it was “alarming that one of the minorities was often mistaken for being Muslims” due to their names and general attire.

The court’s ruling outraged human rights activists who feared that it would blackball minorities and lead to more persecution.

The independent, non-profit Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called on the government to appeal the decision immediately.

“It is essential that the government acts in aid of its minority citizens by appealing this ruling,” said Commission Chairperson Mehdi Hasan. “Forums for justice such as the Islamabad court should play their due role in safeguarding the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable sections of society.”

The ruling is the latest attempt by officials to distinguish between religions in the country. In 1992, lawmakers proposed including religion on identity cards, but they dropped the idea when protests erupted among the Christian community.

The second-largest religious minority in Pakistan, Christians comprise less than two percent of the populations. Hindus are also around 2 percent.

Non-Muslims in Pakistan for decades have faced discriminatory laws, violence and prejudice in the country. Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom and the abuse of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs and other minorities.

Meanwhile, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report noted that, during the past year, the Pakistani government continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations. Religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments, the report said.

“Instead of adopting such policies, there is a need for the government to promote harmony,” said Nasir Saeed director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, a Lahore-based group that advocates for religious minorities in Pakistan. “Minorities who are living under threat and are already fleeing the country, need to be assured of security, protection and equality.”

The judgment is being seen as a big victory for hardline clerics who have sought to identify Ahmadis and other minority religious groups working in government offices. Ahmadis consider themselves to belong to an Islamic sect but many mainstream Muslims consider them to be heretics.

The campaign against Ahmadis has systematically gained momentum in the run up to the general election slated for July.

Last December, lawmaker Muhammad Safdar Awan called for a ban on Ahmadis from joining the armed forces. Safdar is the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

“These people [Ahmadis] are a threat to this country, its constitution and ideology. I want to bring a resolution to ban the recruitment of Qadianis [Ahmadi Muslims] in the armed forces of Pakistan,” Safdar said at the time. “A person who doesn’t believe in the jihad in the path of Allah, that person cannot be a part of our pious army.”

Pakistani culture dictates that Ahmadis refrain from calling themselves Muslims or use Islamic symbols in their religious practices.

“In 2016 my husband Qamar ul Zia, was stabbed to death outside our house in broad daylight, his crime, he was an Ahmadi,” said Ruby Tabbasum, 32, an Ahmadi mother of two from the northeastern city of Rabwah.

Her husband Zia was hounded for years by Islamists for supposed offenses like putting up the inscriptions like ‘Muhammad Ali’, the name of his father, on his house gate or “Mashallah,” or “God is willing,” on his mobile shop window. After a few assaults, a group armed with knives killed him as he was bringing his children back from school.

“I fear for my children. They know what happened to their father. They also know that they are not accepted in this society,” said Tabbasum. “We left our home after the killing because the children were teased in the school for being Ahmadis.”

Other minorities say that now, they feel as if they have a larger target on their back.

“Why should my religion be a business of the state? If my religion is mentioned on the identity card that makes me even more vulnerable as a minority,” said Asher Daniel, 19, a university student in Lahore and a Christian. “Now even getting a parking or red-light ticket for me will become dangerous. When I show my identity card it will have my religion on it.”

A version of this story can be found in Religion News Service. 

Youth frustrated with political trajectory of Egypt

EGYYouthGiza, EGYPT – Seven years ago, many young voters had such high hopes for Egypt – for its future and for their own.

These days, as the presidential election approaches, many say one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East has forgotten its revolution – and with it its way.

“The 2011 uprising felt like a new beginning for this country a time when everything seemed possible. We were very energetic to achieve this democracy,” said Mohamed Zaky El-Karany, a 25-year-old Giza resident who says he felt hope first during the Arab Spring and two years later when the country's Islamist president was pushed out.

“In 2013, I was happy of course that we got rid of an Islamist president but worried that there would be no democracy brought by military leaders," he added. "And I am sad to say I was right about that."

Such sentiments reign because incumbent President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi will run virtually unopposed in elections that begin March 26. Most of his challengers have withdrawn from the race claiming they had been intimidated by Egypt’s deep state. Three possible candidates from within the military were arrested by the authorities.

Egyptians say it's clear no one has a chance against the former head of military intelligence and army field marshal who replaced Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's first democratically elected president, after he was ousted from office in June 2013.

“I had planned on voting for Khaled Ali," said Yousef Shandawely, 24, sound engineer, referring to a human rights lawyer who withdrew from the race in January along with four other opponents. "I see now that El-Sissi is the Pharaoh of modern Egypt.”

Even so, discontent is simmering in the face of El-Sissi 's strong support among the civil service, rural voters and the Coptic Christian minority.

A majority of those unhappy with the situation in the country are its youth – and they matter because two-thirds of Egypt’s 90 million people are under the age of 29 – one of the youngest populations in the world.

As he heads into an election, President El-Sissi and his nominal challenger, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, have been campaigning on platforms targeting this population, promising employment and education opportunities for them. Both issues represent one of Egypt’s greatest challenges.

Even so, young critics say they don't believe the ruling army brass knows how to create private sector jobs or jump-start needed reforms in education. Instead, they point to El-Sissi’s mega projects, including a city built from scratch on the site of the WWII battlefield at Al Alamein and a $45 billion new capital in the desert 28 miles east of Cairo.

They say these projects are diverting funds needed for investment into education and promoting small business that could employ them. Egypt's youth unemployment rate is hovers around 30 percent, and 7 million youth are poised to enter the work force in the next five years.

“The regime is launching these projects with large investments assuming that it will solve the unemployment crisis and attract investments,” said El-Karany a youth leader in the Social Democratic Party, a leftist party headed by the nephew of a former president. “But this is not the development that people need, education and healthcare should be the first step to raise our human capital.”

Despite a growing population, government spending for education has declined from 2004 to 2017 from 11.9 % to 7.4 % of its budget, according to the government's official statistics agency.

Despite pre-election pledges for more money for schools, experts believe that the shortfall of education funding increases the likelihood of future unrest in Egypt.

“Thirty-five percent of Egyptian children in school do not know how to read or write, so the public-school system is failing to prepare students for either university education or vocational training," said Adel Abdel Ghafar an Egyptian researcher at the Brookings Center in Doha. “Poor education is disadvantaging them for life.”

Some young Egyptians also say they are chafing at restrictions of civil rights.

“The economic situation is getting worse because of the military mentality that dominates all organizations including the education system,” said Sameh Ahmed a 25-year-old graduate of the Cairo University Engineering school in Giza.

“University officials first decided to restrict student political activities but now these bans have extended to all kinds of extracurricular activities,” he added.

El-Sissi’s defenders say the president is doing the best he can give the security and economic challenges he inherited – problems they blame on mismanagement and corruption in 30 years of rule by Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the revolution in 2011. They point to the three years of instability which followed the Arab spring and the subsequent standoff between El-Sissi’s military and radicalized Islamists.

Violence directed at Coptic Christians and their churches and Islamic State attacks on security forces in the Sinai and even in Cairo, have become commonplace since Morsi’s ouster.

“By holding dialogue sessions with young Egyptians and establishing a new National Academy to train civil servants, El-Sissi has taken steps toward youth empowerment,” said Michael Mamadouh, a 20-year-old business major at Ain Shams University in the middle-class Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

“At this point it’s obvious that we must give up some freedom to have more security and economic development,” said Mamadouh who said he would vote for El-Sissi.

But with persistent dissatisfaction bubbling just beneath the surface, there are warning signs that the youth bulge could turn into an outburst of unrest if the economic needs of the Arab spring generation remain unmet.

According to Dalia Research, a Berlin-based Market Research & Opinion Tracking group, the willingness of Egyptians to take to the streets has increased in recent months.

In November and December, 13% of the internet-connected population surveyed said they would be likely to join a protest or demonstration within the coming 90-day period. By January, that number nearly doubled, ticking up to 24%.

“Unless El-Sissi makes allowances for political pluralism during his second term in office, the risk of political instability will continue to increase,” said Joseph Colonna, a Cairo-based analyst with Global Risk Insights.

Many who led the uprisings against Morsi and Mubarak have called for a boycott of what they call a sham election. Some are heeding that call.

“I will not participate in the elections," Shandawely said. "And don’t be surprised if after a while, people will take to take to the streets in sudden protests.”
An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Ethiopian tensions surge amidst a vacuum in leadership

ETHPrimeMinisterADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – When Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned from his position last month, tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of the capital singing, dancing, honking car horns and waving flags to celebrate the end of his autocratic era.

They said the page had turned on bad times in Ethiopia.

"We are free,” said Salem Gebre, 30, a street hawker who has led protests in the capital, recalling his jubilation at the time. “He has killed and oppressed many of us. We don't want him anymore and we are glad he’s gone.”

More than 1,000 people have died in protests in Ethiopia in the past three years, according to Human Rights Watch and other groups. Disputes over land that arose from urban development around Addis Ababa sparked the first demonstrations. Later, protesters added discontent over political restrictions and other human rights abuses to their grievances.

The government began releasing hundreds of political detainees to ease tensions early last month, but those moves failed to quiet the protests, prompting the prime minister to quit.

“Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many,” Desalegn said in a televised address to the nation on Feb. “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”

Desalegn is temporarily staying on as prime minister as a caretaker capacity until lawmakers in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front name a new leader. That’s expected soon.

Still, the opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress, wants more drastic change.

“The ruling party has lost the respect of the people and we cannot allow them to lead this country,” said Mulatu Gemechu, deputy secretary of Oromo Federalist Congress. “Ethiopians now need a government that respects their rights, not one that keeps beating and killing them.”

But analysts said deeper ethnic tensions must also be address. Ethnic Tigrayans, who are only 6 percent of the country’s 105 million population, dominate the ruling party and government. People of the Amhara and Oromo communities, which are among Ethiopia's largest ethnic groups, have long called for more participation in government and greater autonomy.

“I think the government needs to address the fundamental problem of inequitable distribution of resources nationwide,” said Nazlin Umar Rajput, a Nairobi-based political analyst and human rights advocate for minority groups across East Africa. “When a minority tribe gets all public jobs, government tenders and public land then you have to expect resistance from majority tribes.”

If the next prime minister is not from Oromia or Amhara, Rajput warned, the country could explode into full-scale civil war.

“The political crisis in this country will be harder to resolve if the next prime minister is from the Tigrayan ethnic group,” she said. “There is no way they (Oromia and Amhara citizens) will accept it.”

Protests continue. The streets of the capital and in towns in the surrounding Oromia region are deserted. Shops and businesses are shut down.

Other developments are adding to the chaos. Ethiopian soldiers enforcing the country’s state of emergency killed at least nine civilians in what the Ethiopian military said was a botched security operation targeting militants on March 11.

According to state television, troops in the town of Moyale, in Oromia state close to the Kenyan border, acted on a “mistaken intelligence report” in an “anti-terrorist operation.”

As a result, more than 10,000 Ethiopians have crossed into Kenya seeking refuge, according to Kenyan Red Cross Society.

“The population of refugees from Ethiopia continues to increase,” Kenya Red Cross Society said in a statement this week. “They are mostly women and children."

Meanwhile, those celebrating the resignation were a bit disheartened when the day after Desalegn made his announcement, the government declared a state of emergency. In what appeared to be an attempt by hardliners to reassert control, protests and the publication of material deemed as inciting violence were banned.

"The decree allows law enforcement bodies to detain without court warrant any individual who orchestrated, led and organized as well as took part or is suspected of taking part in criminal acts against the constitution and constitutional order,” said Ethiopia’s Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa. “The individual will face justice after necessary investigation."

Still, the resignation showed some locals that people power can have an effect. And some say they will continue fighting for their freedoms.

“We are demanding for our rights,” said Gebre. “We will continue to demonstrate until the government listens to us and our demands are met. We are not going to be intimidated.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 

Child marriage again an issue in the Middle East as conservative lawmakers seek to rollback protections

“I’ve discovered how important trust is in life and that not everyone deserves it. If a stranger asks us to get into his car, we shouldn’t accept it, we shouldn’t even talk to him. After the programme, I always tell my friends to say no when their parents want to marry them off. It will ruin your future and you won’t be happy,” Ghaysaa says, a 13 year old Lebanese, who’s attended IRC’s My Safety, My Wellbeing, a psychosocial support curriculum supported by UNICEF.ISTANBUL- The persistence of early marriage in the Middle East continues to damage the educational prospects and emotional wellbeing of girls across the region.

“I was forced to leave my studies in 8th grade and, after marriage, my life was hard,” said Farah Ismail, 22, a resident of a majority Shia neighborhood in northeast Baghdad.

When she was 13, Farah’s father arranged her marriage to a 30-year-old business associate who had helped out when her family fell into economic straits.

“Before this marriage I was a good student and made plans with my best friend Shaima to become a dentist,” Farah said. “I lost my education. Even though I was divorced just two months into the marriage, father refused to let me go back to school, saying that I brought shame on the family.”

Decades ago, secular governments in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries enacted age restrictions on marriage with the goal of improving the status of women, particularly by giving women time to receive university educations.

But in recent years Shia traditionalists in Iraq and Sunni fundamentalists in Egypt and Turkey are trying to roll back those restrictions in parliaments and the popular media.

In a preliminary vote in November, religious lawmakers in Iraq passed a measure that would enable clerics to determine the age when individual girls should marry. Only 13 of the 170 lawmakers present opposed it.

Currently the legal marriage age in Iraq is 18. But judges can reduce that age to 15 in special circumstances. For the majority Shiite sect of Iraqi Muslims, the law would empower clerics to allow girls to marry as soon as they begin menstruating, which usually occurs around age 12.

Faced with objections from the United Nations, the European Union and United States, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blocked the bill from going for a final vote needed to become law. But its supporters vow to reintroduce the measure after parliamentary elections in May.

“The law would protect girls from rape and harassment by giving them the security provided by a husband and the blessings of religious matrimony,” insisted Hamid Al-Khudhari, a sponsor of the measure.

Critics blasted the proposal.

“The law violates international human rights conventions, is humiliating to women and enables pedophilia,” said Siham Wandi, a former Iraqi diplomat and child protection advocate.

But even without the legislation, child marriage has been on the rise in Iraq.

In 1997, 15% of women wed before 18, according to the Iraqi government. In 2016, that figure jumped to 24%, including nearly 5% who married before age 15.

The trend is similar in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan late last year signed the “Mufti Law,” which allows religious officials to perform marriages once men and women reach puberty.

The most recent UN statistics from Turkey show that 15 percent of women in the country marry before the age of 18.

“I believe we should support girls attending university instead of forcing children who are neither physically or psychologically ready for the responsibilities of marriage,” said Irem Ozorman, an Istanbul bank accountant whose views reflects the city’s more secular outlook versus Erdogan’s rural heartland supporters. “Unfortunately, early marriage is increasingly common in eastern and rural Turkey, just like in the Arab countries.”

In Egypt, fundamentalists have taken to the airwaves calling on lawmakers to lower the marriage age for girls.

“It’s unjust to make the age of marriage identical for men and women,” Mahmoud Bahi El-Din, a leader of Ma’zun Sharia, a group of Sunni clerics, told the Ana Al-Watan – or I Am the Country in Arabic – a program on Al Hadath TV in January.

“A girl’s womanhood develops early, so there should be at least a two-year difference between the bride and groom,” the imam said.

El Din’s efforts are unlikely to gain traction with the administration of president Abdel Fatah El-Sissi, who views early marriage as a threat to the county’s development goals, including emphasizing the social and economic benefits of women’s education.

Keeping girls in school reduces the likelihood of early marriage according to UN surveys.


“UNICEF and other international development agencies have partnered with the Egyptian government to expand access to basic education, and close the gap between boys’ and girls’ enrolment,” said Nadra Zaki, a child protection specialist at UNICEF in Cairo. “The effort includes basic infrastructure improvements like better sanitation facilities and working with parents and educators to reduce keep adolescent girls in school.”

These polices mean that Egypt has the reverse trend of early marriage compared to Iraq.

While 44.4% of Egyptian women who were born between the years 1965 and 1969 were married before the age of 18, the figure dropped to around 19% for girls born between 1990 and 1994, according to the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey.

“Early marriage remains a huge problem for uneducated women, for rural women for poor women,” said Professor of Global Practice Shereen El Feki at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

But there is a glimmer of hope.

[ LINK to PROMONDO study]

“Our research shows changing attitudes among younger men in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine who increasingly view education for their daughters as important as for their sons,” El Feki said. “You see that they are moving towards what we would call a companionate idea of marriage based on an international model of parenting, where it's less an economic exchange and more partnership driven.”

The trends don’t necessarily mean a sea change in Arab societies, but they do illustrate evolving views on matrimony, El Feki added.

“It doesn't mean the decision making is equal in the household and it doesn't mean that there isn't [male] spousal control that happens all over the place,” she said. “But this model does not include a 30-year-old man marrying a 14-year-old girl.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar Media. 

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