By Mustafa Saadoun for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

Iraqi-Saudi relations have witnessed significant improvement after years of boycott that had worsened during Nouri al-Maliki’s rule between 2006 and 2014. On Oct. 22, the establishment of a Coordination Council between the two countries was announced.

Iran, which is seeking to expand its influence in Iraq, might not like this rapprochement, especially following the latest meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud that took place with US blessing when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended the launching of the Coordination Council.

Former Iraqi Ambassador to the US Lukman Faily told Al-Monitor, “Over the past years, the US attempted to take serious steps to mend ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. With this development, the region’s geopolitics will change.”

Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that the Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement will “curb the appetite of the parties that cause stability,” in a clear reference to Iran, which Saudi Arabia always accuses of “destabilizing the situation in the region.”

The results of the US-brokered Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement started appearing when Tillerson asked Iranian militias to leave Iraq, saying that the Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement will “counter some of the unproductive influences of Iran inside of Iraq.”

Hashem al-Haboubi, the deputy secretary general of the Iraqi National Accord movement spearheaded by Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, told Asharq al-Awsat that the Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement might help Iraq break free from Iranian control.

The Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement does not include the Iraqi state in its explicit form only, but also expands to political parties that are at odds with Iran such as the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates two months ago and headed to Jordan recently to visit King Abdullah.

The rising level of dust pollution in Iraq forced Iranian airlines to cancel their flights to the Arab country’s cities of Baghdad and Najaf ahead of Arbaeen, the 40th day after the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS), the third Shiite Imam.

With dust clouds reducing visibility, Iranian flights heading to Baghdad and Najaf were grounded or delayed for a second straight day on Tuesday, Iranian media reported.

Officials at Imam Khomeini International Airport said the pilgrims traveling to Iraq for Arbaeen were required to call “199” and get the necessary information before heading to the airport.

Authorities at Najaf and Baghdad airports have also canceled all the flights because of the wind-blown dust caused by sandstorms in the Arab country.

A large group of Iranian pilgrims, wearing face masks, are stranded in airports and at Iran-Iraq joint border crossings.

Each year, a huge crowd of Shiite Muslims attend the religious commemoration of Arbaeen, by marching toward the holy city of Karbala, Iraq, which hosts the holy shrine of Imam Hussein (AS).

During the Arbaeen event, volunteers set up thousands of congregation halls and pavilions in Najaf and Karbala and along the road between them to offer services for the travelers and pilgrims.

(Source: Tasnim, under Creative Commons licence)

Finland’s Nokia will modernize and expand Zain Iraq‘s radio networks with its most advanced technologies across Karbala, Najaf and Basra, with a special focus on the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, to support the expected increase in data and voice traffic during Zeyara as millions of people converge on the region.

Zeyara is an annual event in the holy city of Karbala, which culminates in the event of Al Arba’een. It attracts visitors from across the globe and is one of the world’s largest public gatherings.

Once completed, the upgrade will allow users to enjoy improved indoor and outdoor coverage in both urban and rural areas as well as increased data throughput, leading to an overall superior customer experience.

Nokia’s project management and proven services expertise will be used to expand and modernize Zain Iraq’s 2G and 3G network, providing ubiquitous coverage and faster mobile broadband.

Additionally, the Nokia Mass Event Handler will be deployed to address the surge in data and voice consumption expected during Zeyara. The network modernization will allow visitors to remain continuously connected with their loved ones through superior voice and data connectivity during Al Arba’een and beyond.

Ali Al-Zahid, Chief Executive Officer of Zain Iraq, said:

Our top priority is to provide superior services for our subscribers. This network modernization and expansion is only the beginning of providing the best possible service quality and coverage with the most advanced technologies across the overall Karbala and Najaf and rest of sourthern region.

“We selected Nokia, our longstanding technology partner, for this important project, as we are confident that its advanced technologies will enable our network to provide such superior services. The current project will also enable a best-in-class mobile experience for visitors to Zeyara when we expect a high turnout this year.

Bernard Najm, head of the Middle East Market Unit at Nokia, said:

“Nokia fully understands Zain Iraq’s requirements and is committed to providing leading technologies to enable pioneering services for its subscribers. Nokia’s solutions cater to the unique connectivity requirements of mass events, and will help Zain Iraq address the expected surge in data and voice consumption during Zeyara.”

Overview of the solutions:

  • The high capacity and energy-efficient Nokia Flexi Multiradio 10 Base Station will be used to add the third carrier of 5 MHz on the 900 MHz band, to enhance capacity and increase coverage in suburban and rural areas.
  • Nokia’s Mass Event Handler will ensure network performance is not adversely affected because of heavy traffic during Zeyara. Another feature of the software – HSUPA Interference Cancellation – handles data more efficiently, enabling end users to upload pictures without any network glitch.
  • Nokia FlexiZone will be deployed to enhance coverage and capacity of the existing 3G network in Karbala.
  • Nokia’s refarming service will refarm GSM 900 MHz frequency to expand the operator’s 3G network.
  • Nokia’s NetAct virtualized network management software will provide robust capabilities for troubleshooting, assurance, administration, software management and configuration.
  • Nokia’s Network Planning and Optimization (NPO), Network Implementation , and Care services will ensure smooth execution of the project and maximize the return on Zain’s technology investments.

(Source: Nokia)

UN-Habitat and UNDP are helping Iraq to address strategic urban development of the Pilgrimage governorates of Najaf and Karbala.

Nearly thirty Iraqi officials convened in the holy city of Karbala, on 22-23 August 2017, to partake in an intensive two-day workshop titled “Governorate Urban Strategies for the Pilgrimage Cluster: Meeting the SDGs in Iraq”.

The officials represented the Ministry of Planning, Ministry of Municipalities, Construction and Housing, and Public Works, both the national and local levels, as well as Karbala Governorate.

UN-Habitat organized the workshop under the Local Area Development Programme (LADP), a project implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funded by the European Union (EU).

Director General for Local and Regional Planning at the Ministry of Planning, Mr. Mohammed Al-Sayed, said:

“We appreciate the chance to enhance coordination between Governorate officials and improve the capacity of the staff at the central and local levels, in line with the decentralization efforts of the government.”

The workshop focused on the on-going spatial analysis of urban issues and development indicators concerning the governorates of Najaf and Karbala, being developed by UN-Habitat in close coordination with the Ministry of Planning.

By John Lee.

Kuwait’s Wataniya Airways is to commence return flights to Najaf from 23rd August.

According to ArabianBusiness, the route will be served by a newly-delivered Airbus A320.

The airline was recently granted a licence to operate at Kuwait International Airport, following a six-year break from business due to financial difficulties.

(Source: ArabianBusiness)

By John Lee.

In a bid to boost local tomato production,

The Iraqi government has banned the import of tomatoes from Turkey.

A statement from the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources said the tomato production of Najaf and Karbala is enough to supply all of domestic demand.

Rudaw reports that Iraq imported tomatoes valued at $98.5 million in 2014, $82.8 million in 2015 and $88 million in 2016.

(Sources: Rudaw, Armenpress)

(Photo: Muffet1)

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Last week’s kidnapping of seven activists in Baghdad could be another sign of increasing tensions between secular parties in Iraq and the country’s ruling religious groups. Is history repeating?

Last week, an unidentified armed group kidnapped a number of younger civil society activists from their small apartment in the Sadoun area of central Baghdad. After three days it was announced that the young men had been freed, after intervention by Iraq’s Minister of the Interior, Qassim al-Araji.

In announcing the release though, the Ministry made no mention of who might have been responsible for the kidnapping even though many locals blamed members of one or other of the Shiite Muslim militias, who run security in certain parts of the city and who have been controversial in the recent past.

Some of the young activists who were abducted also happened to be members of the Iraqi Communist Party. The Communists have been firm supporters of recent demonstrations in Baghdad during which protestors called for an end to corruption and demanded political reform. The Iraqi Communist party is just one of a number of civil society and political groups uniting to take part in, and organize, the protests.

This is not the only recent attack against them either. Last month unidentified men attacked the party headquarters in the province of Diwaniyah in the south of the country. The attack came just a few hours after local university students had protested a visit by Qais al-Khazali, head of one of Iraq’s most feared militias, the League of the Righteous militia, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic.

The Communists accused “militias” of the attack but, perhaps knowing the danger it would put them in, they did not name any names. The League of the Righteous denied having any part in the attack. However many locals doubt that, given the fact that they were in the province at the time and that the students who were chanting anti al-Khazali slogans did so in a location close to the party offices and some of them had connections to the Communist party.

Adding fuel to the conflict is the war of words being waged on social media. Civil society activists say that the Islamists are responsible for the state of the country today and the terrible conditions under which many Iraqis live. Meanwhile the parties with a religious basis accuse the secular groups of being anti-Islamic and spreading both atheism and immorality in Iraqi society.

The tone of the digital fight is vitriolic and many of the posts could most certainly be defined as hate speech.

“It is true that some of the Islamic parties try to accuse us of a lack of faith; they are just trying to make us look bad,” says Naseer Kathem, a civil society activist who has been attending the anti-corruption demonstrations for the past two years. “And while it is true that members of the Communist party are leading the demonstrations, they are not the only groups involved. There are dozens of groups and well-known individuals participating and there are even some independent clerics.”

However, Kathem says, he believes there is a plan to try and end the demonstrations by intimidating some of those involved. “Everybody knows who is behind the kidnappings of the activists last week and also behind the kidnapping of the journalist Afrah Shawqi earlier this year – it’s just that nobody dares prosecute them.”

Jaber al-Mahmadawi, a Shiite Muslim cleric based in Najaf, believes that a lot of people in Iraq are indeed worried that the young of the country are turning away from Islam. The extremist group known as the Islamic State, which bases its brutal ideology on a version of Sunni Islam and which has caused the current security crisis in Iraq,

“has distorted the image of Islam,” al-Mahmadawi told NIQASH. “Over the last few months we have noticed the growing number of young people who are publishing atheist ideas on social media and provoking arguments with other members of society,” he continues. “But,” he adds, “the supreme religious authority led by Ali al-Sistani [the Shiite Muslim cleric who is followed by millions of Shiites worldwide] firmly rejects the use of force against anyone simply because of their ideas. However there are other clerics and religious groups who are inciting violence and hatred. That is not acceptable.”

And they are getting away with it, al-Mahmadawi notes, “because the Iraqi government is weak and cannot keep weapons under its own control.”

Conflict between Iraq’s religious parties and its secular ones is not new. In fact Iraq’s contemporary Shiite Muslim political parties were born out of the enmity, in the middle of the 1950s when Iraq changed from a monarchy to a republic. The latter change came about thanks to a coup by the Iraqi army, which was supported by the local Communist Party, at the time one of the most popular parties in Iraq and the region.

Because of the spread of Communism in Iraq, the Shiite Muslim groups in the country decided that they too needed to take part in politics, in order to ensure their own survival. In fact, early literature of the Islamic Dawa party – today one of the largest Shiite Muslim political parties in Iraq – specifically mentions the new party’s desire to confront Communism and secularism and to promote religious ideals.

One of the most prominent clerics at the time, Mohsen al-Hakim – grandfather of one of the most prominent clerics currently in Iraqi politics, Ammar al-Hakim – even issued a religious decree saying that anyone who joined the Communist party was blaspheming. It was only when the nationalist Baath party, eventually led by Saddam Hussein, came to power that the conflict between the Communists and the Islamists died down.

Half a century later and this old feud seems to be re-emerging, even though the Shiite Muslim parties dominate local government and the Communist and other secular groups have hardly any political representation, in comparison.

The origins of the contemporary conflict started in the middle of 2015, when the first of the anti-government demonstrations began in Baghdad. At first the demonstrations were widely supported by secular and civil society groups as well as Communists. The protestors adopted a new slogan that basically said that religion was being used as a cover by thieves – that is, they thought corrupt politicians from religious parties were stealing the country’s wealth.

The former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, criticized the demonstrations back then, saying that individuals were trying to use the protests to push back against Iraq’s religious authorities.

Only a few months after they started, the numbers of those turning up to protest had dwindled and it looked like the trend for Friday’s anti-corruption gatherings was ebbing. That was until Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, stepped in and called upon his hundreds of thousands of followers to join the protests too.

This culminated in the historic storming of Baghdad’s highly protected Green Zone, home to the country’s Parliament and ministry buildings as well as embassies. Ever since then there has been a unique alliance between a Shiite Muslim political movement – the Sadrists – and the secular movement in Iraq.

Today the demonstrators are becoming even more significant. Thousands of Iraqis continue to gather in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square every week and they are becoming an influential force in political life in the capital. Last week Iraqi politicians tried to vote on a law that aims to better organize peaceful protests, which would doubtless have had an effect on the Friday meetings.

Politicians were forced to postpone the vote because of a special Sunday protest organised by the secular demonstrators.

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Recently Najaf locals who want to preserve their archaeological treasures have been protesting, calling on the authorities to stop agricultural and housing development on top of ancient tombs and palaces.

If one tours the area in Najaf province that was previously home to ancient tribes like the Ghassanids, a mixture of religions, including some of the earliest Christians, and the rulers of long gone kingdoms, one can still see the remnants of their palaces and homes, as well as earlier excavations by archaeologists from around the world.

But today these relics are competing with other contemporary buildings and farmland that are gradually encroaching on history.

Tire tracks made by would-be looters searching for antiquities to pillage and then sell, criss-cross the sand. One of the largest sites has become a watermelon farm and a field for poultry, complains Hadi al-Makhzoumi, who heads the local committee for the protection of antiquities and heritage in Najaf.

Al-Makhzoumi’s group has recorded a number of problems in this historical area and on February 1 this year they protested against what they described as the violations against the ancient city of Hira and the Manathirah antiquities, which date back to the fourth century.

They called upon international organisations like UNESCO to step in and protect them and upon the local authorities to stop allowing investment and business in these areas.

By Salam Zidane for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

In a meeting held Feb. 21, Najaf’s provincial council followed in the footsteps of Dhi Qar, Muthanna, Wasit and Diwaniyah and voted against the privatization of the electricity sector in the province.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government insists on privatizing the distribution of electricity in all Iraqi regions, despite popular protests against this decision, which many believe harms the poor, who make up 30% of the country’s population.

On July 20, 2012, parliament voted on the privatization of electricity after the government failed to improve the situation despite spending $22 billion over the course of nine years attempting to fix the crisis. Iraq needs 30,000 megawatts, but citizens are only provided with 8,000 megawatts.

On Jan. 25, 2016, the Ministry of Electricity applied the privatization project in Zayouna in eastern Baghdad, in partnership with the local company al-Noor al-Thaqib. This year, it concluded agreements with local as well as foreign companies to implement the project nationwide.

Musab al-Moudarres, the spokesman for the Ministry of Electricity, told Al-Monitor, “As a result of residential slums scattered around the country, in which people steal electricity from each other, 65% of the produced energy was wasted. The majority of citizens refuse to pay electricity bills, which are now worth $2.7 million, enough to cover the salaries of the ministries’ employees for two years.”

He stressed, “The ministry has come to the conclusion that the electricity crisis will not be resolved if the situation remains the same, so it suggested the idea of privatizing the distribution of electricity, which aims to rationalize consumption and collect fees while ensuring around-the-clock electricity.” He added, “The project was a success in some areas in Baghdad and it contributed to rationalizing consumption by 30% and putting an end to waste by 100%.”