Don’t want US foreign policy failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya repeated in Bangladesh: Elected Bangladeshi-American officials, activists write to Biden
Bangladeshi-American elected officials, and members of human rights as well as professional organizations have urged US President Joe Biden to change the current course of action and ensure a violence-free, secular, democratic future for Bangladesh. In a statement addressed to Biden, the Bangladeshi-Americans said that they are concerned about the repeated failure of the US foreign policy in its attempt to “establish democracy” without considering the historical and socio-political context in Muslim countries and regions. “The vivid examples of American foreign policy failure are Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. We don’t want that to happen in Bangladesh,” the statement reads. The recent US policies and rhetoric are only “motivating terrorists and confounding liberal forces,” said the signatories of the statement. The Bangladeshi-American elected officials, rights activists, and professionals also said they firmly support Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s strategies in combating terrorism in Bangladesh and South Asia. British Minister for International Trade in Dhaka: Focus on unlocking more opportunities to grow trade “While we appreciate the concern of your administration about the upcoming election in Bangladesh, the US policy must also consider the widespread terrorism incidents in Bangladesh perpetrated directly by the BNP-Jamaat alliance and terrorist groups under the patronage of the alliance,” they said in the statement. Bangladesh held four widely praised and well-participated elections in 1991, 1996, 2001, and 2008, the statement noted. “But it appears from the current political stalemate that holding only free elections does not guarantee liberal democratic outcomes,” the signatories said. “Especially, the terrorism incidents under government patronage between two free elections in 2001 and 2008 indicate just having a free (and so-called fair) election in 2024 indeed will not change the current political deadlock unless stakeholders find a sustainable solution guaranteeing the security, safety and post-election political participation of the minorities and political dissidents,” the statement reads. Election 2024: EU's exploratory mission arrives next week For example, the signatories said, in October 2001, the BNP-Jamaat-led coalition won the election under a caretaker government. Right after their victory, the coalition unleashed an unprecedented attack against the Hindus and Awami League supporters across 11 districts in Bangladesh, they said. The Hindus and opposition activists were targeted for voting for Bangladesh Awami League, they added. The violence led to massive looting and burning of houses, rape of Hindu women, and members of the minority community being evicted from their homes. It continued throughout the BNP-Jamaat rule during 2001-2006, in some cases, with the direct patronage of the coalition leaders, the statement reads. While in power, the BNP-Jamaat alliance failed to ensure justice, and all the terrorism-related cases were resolved only after the coalition left political office, the signatories said. Salman F Rahman asks Pakistan president to apologise for 1971 atrocities They also shared a timeline of major violences during 2001-2006, under BNP-Jamaat patronage. “Our concern is what type of democracy would be safer if Tarique Rahman and other convicts somehow manage to contest the election through the back door and win?” — they asked. “Recently, we have been observing some actions of your administration and statements by some lawmakers sounding like anti-Bangladesh rhetoric, and these actions are hurting the US-Bangladesh relations. We are concerned about these developments and humbly urge you to take steps considering the historical perspective of the Liberation War, which aimed to establish a secular and democratic Bangladesh free of violence,” the statement reads. “The political field of Bangladesh is populated with two opposing forces — one with the secular, liberal ideals of Bangladesh and the other with religious extremism mixed with political jingoism,” the Bangladeshi-Americans said. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina leads the first one, and the other side is led by the BNP-Jamaat coalition, they said. The signatories are: elected Bangladeshi-American officials — Councilman Dr. Nuran Nabi, NJ; Mayor Mahabubul Alam Tayub, PA; State Representative Abul Khan, NH; Councilman Abu Ahmed Musa, MI; and Councilman Nurul Hasan, PA; activists — Prof. ABM Nasir, NC, of Shompriti Forum; engineer Rana Hasan Mahmud, CA and engineer Shikrity Barua, NY, of USA Bangabandhu Parishad; Golam Mostafa Khan Miraz, NY, of Bangladesh Liberation War Veterans 1971, USA Inc.; Nazrul Alam and engineer Tasnim Salam Aslam, CA, of California Bangabandhu Parishad; Fahim Reza Noor, NY, of Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee, USA; engineer Ahad Ahmed, MI and Ali Ahmed Farish, MI of Michigan Bangabandhu Parishad; Zakaria Choudhury, NY of USA Committee for Democratic and Secular Bangladesh; Rumi Kabir and Mahabubur Rahman Bhuiyan, GA of Georgia Bangabandhu Parishad; Khurshid Anwar Bablu of Bangladesh Freedom Fighters Solidarity Council, USA; Nasrin Munna of Bangladesh Freedom Fighters Solidarity Council, USA; Dr. Abdul Baten of Muktijoddha Sangsad; Sofeda Basu, MA of Massachusetts Bangabandhu Parishad; Morshed Alam, Democratic leader, NY; Zahedul Mahmud Zami, CA of Bangladesh Muktijoddha Sangsad, California Command Council; Abu Taher Bir Pratik and Kazi Shamim, PA of Pennsylvania Bangabandhu Parishad; group of academics — Prof Ziauddin Ahmed, PA; Prof Mizan R Miah, IL; Prof Jamil Talukdar, WI; Prof Shahadat Hossain, NY; Nurannabi Choudhury, NJ of South New Jersey Bangabandhu Parishad; and Tawfik Soleman Tuhin and Zamiul Belal, CA of Bangabandhu Cultural Organization. Read more: Bangladesh's sovereign right to pursue independent policy must be respected by all: Foreign Ministry
The oil is pumped 24 hours a day several meters from Raghed Jasim’s home in Iraq’s crude-rich southern heartland. Gas flares from the field light the night sky bright orange, spewing acrid smoke; when the wind picks up, the 40-year old’s clothes are coated black. For Iraq’s poorest, evidence of the country's monumental oil wealth is inescapable. So is the knowledge that very little of it trickles down to them. Jasim’s savings were depleted when he was diagnosed with cancer last year, a disease he is convinced was caused by the toxic plumes. Twenty years since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and remade Iraq’s political order with the promise of democracy and freedom, he has one wish: To find a way to leave. “There is no future here for my children,” he said. Basra province, which boasts most of Iraq’s oil reserves, is symbolic of the deep disparities that have endured since the 2003 invasion. Basra continually bewilders experts, envoys and residents: How can a relatively stable province so rich in resources rank among the poorest and most under-developed in the country? “Of course, I blame the corrupt Iraqi government,” said Jasim, a policeman, echoing a widespread view in the region. “But I blame the Americans too. They replaced our leaders with thieves.” Local leaders in Basra talk of the oil reserves as both a blessing and a curse. They say resources bring affluence but have also given rise to vicious competition between political elites and armed groups at the expense of the Iraqi people. The power-sharing system in place since 2003, which divides the state and its institutions along ethnic and sectarian lines, sucks oil wealth into a pool of corruption and patronage. The higher the oil price, the more entrenched this system becomes as sectarian-based parties claim lucrative ministry portfolios, appoint loyalists in key positions and dole out public jobs to ensure support. According to the International Monetary Fund, public sector employment tripled from 2004 to 2013, but service delivery in health, education and power sectors remained inadequate. The result is that elections keep establishment parties in power. Voter turnout has dropped to record lows. Apart from institutional failures, air pollution is extensive in Basra, and salinity levels arising from a severe fresh water crisis are leading causes of illness, according to local researchers. Unemployment is rampant, with more than half the population below the age of 25. Public anger gave rise to violent protests in 2018, the precursor to mass anti-government protests in the capital a year later. But a swift crackdown by security forces and assassinations by armed groups have created a climate of fear. “The killings silenced many activists,” said Basra activist Ammar Sarhan. “Business continues as usual.” The 2003 toppling of Saddam propelled the oil-rich country into the global economy, opening the doors to foreign investment. In pre-invasion planning, U.S. advisors and their Iraqi opposition allies in exile had envisioned a shock system of reforms that would revamp Iraq’s oil industry and fund post-war reconstruction. Instead, violence hobbled oil production for years. A charm offensive by then-Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahrestani paved the way for major oil contracts to be awarded in 2007 and 2009. Today exports reach over 3 million barrels a day, double the rate in the early 2000s. The state budget, which in 2021 reached up to $90 billion, is financed almost entirely by oil revenues. Still, the government fails to deliver essential services, including water and electricity. In Basra, conditions rank amongst the worst in the country. Unemployment stands at 21%, above the national average of 16% according to a 2022 study by the International Labor Organization. Statistics for poverty rates vary from 10-20% according to various studies and local economists. Meanwhile, the province boasts around 70% of the country's oil production capacity. The road leading to Jasim’s humble home is rocky and unpaved. In 2003, he was a young man bewitched by the Bush administration’s rhetoric of building a democratic Iraq, he said. “We were full of hope,” he recalled. Twenty years on, he is middle-aged, tired of rampant government corruption and recovering from cancer. The loan he had taken out to build a home was used up to pay for $30,000 in private medical bills. Basra’s decrepit public hospitals were overwhelmed and unable to provide treatment, he said. His is a common story in Nahran Omar, a village of fewer than 2,000 people adjacent to a state-run oil field where cancer rates are disproportionately high. Every family here has a story of illness and debt, said Bashir Jabir, the mayor. “After 2003, more and more oil was exported, and we expected to benefit from this,” he said. “Instead, it hurt us.” The government long played down the link between cancer rates in the south and oil production activity, saying cases are only marginally higher than the rest of the country. This changed in 2022, when then-Environment Minister Jassim al-Falahi acknowledged that pollution from the fields was the main reason for the rise in sickness. Nahran Omar highlights a tragic irony: The natural gas burned from the oil fields, if captured, could solve Iraq’s perennial electricity shortages and reduce pollution. But securing investment to do this has been set back by protracted contract negotiations, a common headache for most major foreign investors. The entry of foreign investors also exacerbated competition between tribes, said Sheikh Muhammed al-Zaidawi, who leads an assembly of southern tribal elders. Tribes, which often wield more influence than government institutions in the south, pressure foreign companies for jobs, compensation, training for youth and development of their villages. “Most of the problems between tribes today are caused by the presence of oil companies,” he said, “All of them want to benefit.” Tribal disputes often turn into deadly gun battles. Reliance on the oil industry has stifled private sector development. Nearly every prime minister since the invasion has repeated calls to diversify the economy and boost incentives for Iraqi businesses. Nidhal Musa is one success story. She grew up in a poor suburb of Basra city and was 35 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. She spent subsequent years taking care of her sick and disabled husband. Desperate to earn money, she began sewing clothes to sell in the local market. By 2013, she had gathered a group of women just like herself, beleaguered and in need of money to support their families. She pooled together enough funds to open a garment factory and became known for employing the poor. But not everyone welcomed her success. In 2022, Musa received a slew of death threats. “Be very careful,” one message read. She believes she is being targeted because she refused to use her local fame to back a powerful political party that asked her to promote their campaign in 2021 elections. “They try to keep us weak,” she said. “They know perfectly well, if the people are hungry, they will be preoccupied only by their hunger.”
Along the Tigris River, young Iraqi men and women in jeans and sneakers danced with joyous abandon on a recent evening to a local rapper as the sun set behind them. It’s a world away from the terror that followed the U.S. invasion 20 years ago. Iraq’s capital is full of life, its residents enjoying a rare peaceful interlude in a painful modern history. The city’s open-air book market is crammed with shoppers. Affluent young men cruise muscle cars. A few glitzy buildings sparkle where bombs once fell. President George W. Bush called the U.S.-led invasion launched March 20, 2003, a mission to free the Iraqi people. It threw out a dictator whose rule kept 20 million people in fear for a quarter-century. But it also broke a unified state in the heart of the Arab world. About 300,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2019, along with more than 8,000 U.S. military, contractors and civilians. Half of today's population isn’t old enough to remember life under Saddam Hussein. In interviews from Baghdad to Fallujah, young Iraqis deplored the chaos that followed Saddam’s ouster, but many were hopeful about nascent freedoms and opportunities. ___ Editor’s note: John Daniszewski and Jerome Delay were in Baghdad 20 years ago when the U.S. bombing began. They returned for this report on how Iraq has changed –—especially for young people. ____ In a chandeliered reception room, President Abdul Latif Rashid, who assumed office in October, spoke glowingly of Iraq’s prospects. Perception of Iraq as a war-torn country is frozen in time, he told The Associated Press: Iraq is rich; peace has returned. If young people are “a little bit patient, I think life will improve drastically in Iraq.” Also Read: Why US troops remain in Iraq 20 years after 'shock and awe' Most Iraqis aren’t nearly as bullish. Conversations start with bitterness about how the U.S. left Iraq in tatters. But speaking to younger Iraqis, one senses a generation ready to turn a page. Safaa Rashid, 26, is a writer who talks politics with friends at a coffee shop in Baghdad's Karada district. After the invasion, Iraq lay broken, violence reigning, he said. Today is different; he and like-minded peers freely talk about solutions. “I think the young people will try to fix this situation.” Noor Alhuda Saad, 26, a Ph.D. candidate and political activist, says her generation has been leading protests decrying corruption, demanding services and seeking inclusive elections — and they won't stop until they’ve built a better Iraq. ___ Blast walls have given way to billboards, restaurants, cafes, shopping centers. With 7 million inhabitants, Baghdad is the Middle East’s second-largest city; streets teem with commerce. In northern and western Iraq, there are occasional clashes with remnants of the Islamic State group. It's but one of Iraq’s lingering problems. Another is corruption; a 2022 audit found a network of former officials and businessmen stole $2.5 billion. In 2019-20, young people protested against corruption and lack of services. After 600 were killed by government forces and militias, parliament agreed to election changes to allow more groups to share power. ___ The sun bakes down on Fallujah, the main city of the Anbar region — once a hotbed of activity for al-Qaida of Iraq and, later, the Islamic State group. Beneath the girders of the city’s bridge across the Euphrates, three 18-year-olds return home from school for lunch. In 2004, this bridge was the site of a gruesome tableau. Four Americans from military contractor Blackwater were ambushed, their bodies dragged through the street and hung. For the 18-year-olds, it’s a story they’ve heard from families — irrelevant to their lives. One wants to be a pilot, two aspire to be doctors. Their focus is on good grades. Fallujah gleams with apartments, hospitals, amusement parks, a promenade. But officials were wary of letting Western reporters wander unescorted, a sign of lingering uncertainty. "We lost a lot — whole families,” said Dr. Huthifa Alissawi, a mosque leader recalling the war years. These days, he enjoys the security: “If it stays like now, it is perfect.” ___ Sadr City, a working-class suburb in eastern Baghdad, is home to more than 1.5 million people. On a pollution-choked avenue, two friends have side-by-side shops. Haider al-Saady, 28, fixes tires. Ali al-Mummadwi, 22, sells lumber. They scoff when told of the Iraqi president’s promises that life will be better. “It is all talk,” al-Saady said. His companion agrees: “Saddam was a dictator, but the people were living better, peacefully.” ___ Khalifa OG raps about difficulties of life and satirizes authority, but isn’t blatantly political. A song he performed next to the Tigris mocks “sheikhs” wielding power in the new Iraq through wealth or connections. Abdullah Rubaie, 24, could barely contain his excitement. “Peace for sure makes it easier” for parties like this, he said. His stepbrother Ahmed Rubaie, 30, agreed. “We had a lot of pain ... it had to stop,” Ahmed Rubaie said. These young people say sectarian hatred is a thing of the past. They're unafraid to make their voices heard. ___ Mohammed Zuad Khaman, 18, toils in his family’s café in a poor Baghdad neighborhood. He resents the militias’ hold on power as an obstacle to his sports career. Khaman's a footballer, but says he can’t play in Baghdad’s amateur clubs — he has no “in” with militia-related gangs. “If only I could get to London, I would have a different life.” The new Iraq offers more promise for educated young Iraqis like Muammel Sharba, 38. A lecturer at Middle Technical University in once violence-torn Baquba, Sharba left Iraq for Hungary to earn a Ph.D. on an Iraqi scholarship. He returned last year, planning to fulfil obligations to his university and then move back to Hungary. Sharba became an biker in Hungary but never imagined he could pursue his passion at home. Now, he's found a cycling community. He notices better technology and less bureaucracy, too. So he plans to remain. “I don’t think European countries were always as they are now,” he said. “I believe that we need to go through these steps, too.”
Twenty years after the U.S. invaded Iraq — in blinding explosions of shock and awe — American forces remain in the country in what has become a small but consistent presence to ensure an ongoing relationship with a key military and diplomatic partner in the Middle East. The roughly 2,500 U.S. troops are scattered around the country, largely in military installations in Baghdad and in the north. And while it is a far cry from the more than 170,000 U.S. forces in Iraq at the peak of the war in 2007, U.S. officials say the limited — but continued — troop level is critical as a show of commitment to the region and a hedge against Iranian influence and weapons trafficking. A look at America's evolving role in Iraq: HOW DID IT START? The U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 in what it called a massive “shock and awe” bombing campaign that lit up the skies, laid waste to large sections of the country and paved the way for American ground troops to converge on Baghdad. The invasion was based on what turned out to be faulty claims that Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons never materialized. Also Read: Iraq’s crackdown on booze, social media posts raises alarm Saddam was toppled from power, and America's war shifted the country’s governing base from minority Arab Sunnis to majority Shiites, with Kurds gaining their own autonomous region. While many Iraqis welcomed Saddam's ouster, they were disappointed when the government failed to restore basic services and the ongoing battles instead brought vast humanitarian suffering. Resentment and power struggles between the Shiites and the Sunnis fueled civil war, leading ultimately to America's complete withdrawal in December 2011. The divide was a key factor in the collapse of the nation's police and military forces when faced with the Islamic State insurgency that swept across Iraq and Syria in 2014. Also Read: Iraqi president says country now peaceful, life is returning THE U.S. RETURNS The rise of the Islamic State group — its roots were in al-Qaida affiliates — and its expanding threat to the U.S. and allies across Europe sent the U.S. back into Iraq at the invitation of the Baghdad government in 2014. Over that summer and fall, the U.S.-led coalition launched airstrike campaigns in Iraq and then Syria, and restarted a broad effort to train and advise Iraq's military. The coalition's train and advise mission has continued, bolstered by a NATO contingent, even after the Islamic State group's campaign to create a caliphate was ended in March 2019. The roughly 2,500 troops deployed to Iraq live on joint bases with Iraqi troops, where they provide training and equipment. That troop total, however, fluctuates a bit, and the Pentagon does not reveal the number of U.S. special operations forces that routinely move in and out of the country to assist Iraqi forces or travel into Syria for counterterrorism operations. “Iraq is still under pressure from ISIS,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command and served as the top U.S. commander for the Middle East from 2019 to 2022. “We still help them continue that fight. We’ve done a lot of things to help them improve the control of their own sovereignty, which is of very high importance to the Iraqis.” Also Read: Targeting Iran, US tightens Iraq's dollar flow, causing pain WHY THE U.S. PRESENCE CONTINUES The much-stated reason for the continued U.S. troop presence is to help Iraq battle the remnants of the Islamic State insurgency and prevent any resurgence. But a key reason is Iran. Iran's political influence and militia strength in Iraq and throughout the region has been a recurring security concern for the U.S. over the years. And the presence of American forces in Iraq makes it more difficult for Iran to move weapons across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon, for use by its proxies, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, against Israel. The same is true for the U.S. troop presence around the al-Tanf garrison in southeastern Syria, which is located on a vital road that can link Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon — and Israel’s doorstep. In both Iraq and Syria, U.S. troops disrupt what could be an uncontested land bridge for Iran to the eastern Mediterranean. U.S. troops in Iraq also provide critical logistical and other support for American forces in Syria, who partner with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces battling the Islamic State group. The U.S. conducts airstrikes and other missions targeting IS leaders, and also supports the SDF in guarding thousands of captured IS fighters and family members imprisoned in Syria. Military leaders successfully beat back efforts by then-President Donald Trump to pull all troops out of both Syria and Iraq. They argued that if anything were to happen in Syria that endangered U.S. forces, they would need to be able to quickly send troops, equipment and other support from Iraq. In a recent visit to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq, in a noncombat role, at the invitation of the government. “We’re deeply committed to ensuring that the Iraqi people can live in peace and dignity, with safety and security and with economic opportunity for all,” he said. IRAQ BY THE NUMBERS By the time Washington withdrew its last combat troops in December 2011, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians were dead, along with 4,487 American troops. More than 3,500 troops were killed in hostile action and nearly 1,000 died in noncombat deaths from 2003 to 2011. More than 32,000 troops were wounded in action; tens of thousands more have also reported illnesses to the Department of Veterans Affairs that are believed to be linked to toxic exposure from the burn pits in Iraq. Legislation signed into law by the Biden administration has expanded the number of those veterans who will qualify for lifetime care or benefits due to that exposure. From 2003 through 2012, the United States provided $60.64 billion to fund Iraq's security forces and civilian reconstruction, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Of that total, $20 billion went to funding, equipping, providing uniforms for and training Iraq's security forces. There were roughly 100,000 contractors each year in Iraq supporting U.S. forces and the U.S. mission from 2007 until 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service. As of late last year, there were about 6,500 contractors supporting U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. Central Command.
Nearly 20 years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid wants the world to know his country now is at peace, democratic and intent on rebuilding economic life while maintaining a government that serves the whole country and the region. Rashid told The Associated Press on Sunday that after overcoming the hardships of the past two decades, Iraq is ready to focus on improving everyday life for its people. Those hardships included years of resistance to foreign troops, violence between Sunnis and Shiites, and attacks by Islamic State group extremists who once controlled large areas, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. “Peace and security is all over the country, and I would be very glad if you will report that and emphasize on that, instead of giving a picture of Iraq ... still (as) a war zone, which a lot of media still do,” Rashid said. While Iraq's major fighting has ended, there have been some recent outbreaks of violence — including on the day of Rashid's election, which came after a yearlong stalemate following the October 2021 election. Ahead of the vote, at least nine rockets targeted Iraq’s Parliament inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. Also Read: Targeting Iran, US tightens Iraq's dollar flow, causing pain After Rashid's election, he nominated Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who formed a government with the backing of a coalition of Iran-backed parties and with promises of improving security and public services. Despite its oil wealth, Iraq's infrastructure remains weak. Private generators fill in for the hours of daily state electricity cuts. Long-promised public transportation projects, including a Baghdad metro, have not come to fruition. Rashid said this is due to damage as “a result of conflicts and as a result of terror, as a result of a number of years living at war.” Government critics say the sputtering electricity supply is also a result of endemic corruption, rooted in the country’s sectarian power-sharing system that allows political elites to use patronage networks to consolidate power. Rashid, who spoke at his presidential quarters in Saddam's former palace, also asserted that most Iraqis believe the 2003 invasion of Saddam-ruled Iraq by the United States and its allies was necessary because of the former dictator's brutality. He said he believes most Iraqis, “including all sections of the society, the Kurds, the Sunni, the Christian, the Shiites, they were all against" Saddam and appreciate that the U.S. and its allies came to “save” Iraq. “Obviously certain things did not work out as we hoped. Nobody expected Daesh (the Islamic State group) and nobody expected car bombs," he said. "It should have been controlled right from the beginning. It should have been studied and planned out right from the beginning. I think the myth was that once Saddam is removed, Iraq becomes heaven.” The reality proved more difficult, he said, but it hasn't weakened Iraq's commitment to democracy. “Even if you have conflicts and if we have arguments, it’s much better to have a freedom and democracy rather than a dictatorship,” he said. However, mass anti-government demonstrations that kicked off in late 2019 were often put down by force. Hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces and state-backed armed groups. Rashid acknowledged there are still conflicts, but urged Iraqis, particularly the younger generation, to be patient and have faith in the future. “We don’t have much choice but to live together ... and let our democratic election take place to represent our values," said Rashid, a veteran Kurdish politician and former water minister after Saddam's ouster. Rashid assumed the presidency in October. Under Iraq's unofficial power-sharing arrangement, the country's president is always a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite and the parliament speaker a Sunni. Rashid's job entails helping to maintain a delicate balance among Iraq's various centers of political power and even-keel relations with both the U.S. and Iran, the government's two key — and often opposing — international backers. The balancing act is reflected in a monument near Baghdad airport. It extolls Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, who was targeted and killed in a 2020 U.S. airstrike. Improving relations with neighbors including Iran, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan is a source of strength for Iraq, Rashid said. Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia had for years kept a distance from Iraq, partly because of its ties to Iran. He noted with pride that Iraq hosted a Mideast meeting of senior Arab lawmakers on Saturday and expressed the country's willingness to continue serving as a mediator in now-stalled talks between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Rashid also promised to take a hard line on corruption. In October, reports emerged that over $2.5 billion in Iraqi government revenue was embezzled by a network of businesses and officials from the country’s tax authority. And in recent months, amid allegations of widespread money laundering used to smuggle dollars to U.S.-sanctioned Iran and Syria, the U.S. has taken measures to tighten Iraq's dollar supply, putting pressure on the currency. “I admit, we did have and we still have some problems with corruption, but the government is very serious (about fighting it),” Rashid said, adding that the government and the central bank are taking measures to regulate transfers out of the country to deter money laundering. Economically, he said, Iraq is focusing on rebuilding industry and agriculture damaged by years of conflict, and developing its natural gas reserves so as not to be dependent on buying gas from neighboring countries — notably Iran. Despite the currency's devaluation and inflation in recent months, Iraq's prospects are good, he said, buoyed by strong oil production and high global oil prices. “Iraq economically is in a sound position and probably is one of the countries in the world which (does not have) a deficit in our budget,” he said.
For months, the United States has restricted Iraq’s access to its own dollars, trying to stamp out what Iraqi officials describe as rampant money laundering that benefits Iran and Syria. Iraq is now feeling the crunch, with a drop in the value of its currency and public anger blowing back against the prime minister. The exchange rate for the Iraqi dinar has jumped to around 1,680 to the dollar at street exchanges, compared to the official rate of 1,460 dinars to the dollar. The devaluation has already sparked protests. If it persists, analysts said, it could challenge the mandate of the government formed in October after a yearlong political stalemate. The dinar’s deterioration comes even though Iraq’s foreign currency reserves are at an all-time high of around $100 billion, pumped up by spiking global oil prices that have brought increasing revenues to the petroleum-rich nation. But accessing that money is a different story. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq’s foreign currency reserves have been housed at the United States' Federal Reserve, giving the Americans significant control over Iraq’s supply of dollars. The Central Bank of Iraq requests dollars from the Fed and then sells them to commercial banks and exchange houses at the official exchange rate through a mechanism known as the “dollar auction.” In the past, daily sales through the auction often exceeded $200 million per day. Ostensibly, the vast majority of the dollars sold in the auction are meant to go to purchases of goods imported by Iraqi companies, but the system has long been porous and easily abused, multiple Iraqi banking and political officials told The Associated Press. U.S. officials confirmed to the AP that they suspected the system was used for money laundering but declined to comment in detail on the allegations or the new restrictions. For years, large quantities of dollars were transferred out of the country to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Lebanon through “gray market trading, using fake invoices for overpriced items," a financial adviser to the Iraqi prime minister said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The inflated invoices were used to launder dollars, with most of them sent to Iran and Syria, which are under U.S. sanctions, leading to complaints from American officials, he said. In other cases, the currency is smuggled across land borders under the protection of armed groups that take a cut of the cash, said Tamkeen Abd Sarhan al-Hasnawi, chairman of the board of Mosul Bank and first deputy of the Iraq Private Banks League. He estimated that as much as 80% of the dollars sold through the auction went to neighboring countries. “Syria, Turkey, and Iran used to benefit from the dollar auction in Iraq,” he said. A member of one of Iraq’s Iran-backed militias, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, said the majority of Iraqi banks are owned indirectly by politicians and political parties that have also used the dollar auction to their benefit. Late last year, the Fed began imposing stricter measures. Among other steps, at the request of the U.S., the Central Bank of Iraq started using an electronic system for transfers that required entering detailed information on the intended end-recipient of the requested dollars. One hundred Central Bank employees were trained by the Fed to implement the new system, the prime minister’s financial adviser said. “This system started rejecting transfers and invoices that used to be approved by the central bank,” he said. “Around 80% of transactions were being rejected.” The amount of dollars sold daily in the auction plummeted to $69.6 million on Jan. 31, from $257.8 million six months earlier, according to Central Bank records. Far fewer of the dollars are going toward buying imports as well, down to around 34% from 90%. Even when transactions are approved, it takes banks up to 15 days to get the funds rather than two or three days, Hasnawi said. Unable to get dollars at the official price through banks, he said, traders turned to the black market to buy dollars, causing the price to rise. In November, the Central Bank of Iraq added four new banks to the list of those banned from dealing in dollars. Two U.S. officials confirmed that the Fed requested the four banks be blocked because of suspected money laundering. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the case. A spokesperson for the New York Fed declined to discuss the specific measures taken with regards to Iraq. But the Fed said in a statement that it enforces “a robust compliance regime” for the accounts it holds. The statement said that this regime “evolves over time in response to new information, which we gather in the regular course of monitoring transactions and events that may impact an account and in communication with other relevant U.S. government agencies.” The system of keeping Iraq’s oil revenues at the Fed was originally imposed by U.N. Security Council resolutions after the 2003 ouster of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein by the U.S-led invasion. Later, Iraq chose to maintain the system to protect its revenues against potential lawsuits, particularly in connection to Iraq’s 1990s invasion of Kuwait. The new U.S. restrictions come at a time of increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Negotiations over a nuclear deal are floundering. Washington has imposed new sanctions and condemned Iran for cracking down on protesters and providing drones for Russia to use in Ukraine. Also, in Iraq, allegations came to light in October that over $2.5 billion in Iraqi government revenue was embezzled by a network of businesses and officials from the country’s tax authority The case “brought (U.S.) attention to the scale of corruption in Iraq” and how the corruption can benefit Iran and other parties hostile to the U.S., said Harith Hasan, head of the Iraq unit at the Emirates Research Center, an Abu Dhabi-based think tank. The new Iraqi prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who came to power via a coalition of Iranian-backed parties, does not have a strong relationship with the U.S. that could have enabled him to soften the implementation of the new financial measures, Hasan said. Al-Sudani has downplayed the current devaluation as “a temporary issue of trading and speculation.” He replaced the Central Bank governor and instituted measures intended to ensure a supply of dollars at the official rate. Al-Hasnawi said the government's recent measures will not stop the financial bleeding. If the current situation persists, he said, “within one year, most banks will declare bankruptcy” and there is likely to be mass civil unrest. “This U.S. pressure impacts the Iraqi street in a clear manner, and we do not see clear solutions until now,” he said. ____ AP staff reporters Samya Kullab in Baghdad and Christopher Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report. Sewell reported from Beirut.
Everything from the signboard outside down to the napkins bears the official emblem of the top international coffee chain. But in Baghdad, looks are deceiving: The “Starbucks” in the Iraqi capital is unlicensed. Real Starbucks merchandise is imported from neighboring countries to stock the three cafes in the city, but all are operating illegally. Starbucks filed a lawsuit in an attempt to shut down the trademark violation, but the case was halted after the owner allegedly threatened lawyers hired by the coffee house. Be careful, he told them — and boasted of ties to militias and powerful political figures, according to U.S. officials and Iraqi legal sources. “I am a businessman,” Amin Makhsusi, the owner of the fake branches, said in a rare interview in September. He denied making the threats. “I had this ambition to open Starbucks in Iraq.” After his requests to obtain a license from Starbucks' official agent in the Middle East were denied, “I decided to do it anyway, and bear the consequences.” In October, he said he sold the business; the cafes continued to operate. Starbucks is “evaluating next steps,” a spokesman wrote Wednesday, in response to a request for comment by The Associated Press. “We have an obligation to protect our intellectual property from infringement to retain our exclusive rights to it.” The Starbucks saga is just one example of what U.S. officials and companies believe is a growing problem. Iraq has emerged as a hub for trademark violation and piracy that cuts across sectors, from retail to broadcasting and pharmaceuticals. Regulation is weak, they say, while perpetrators of intellectual property violations can continue doing business largely because they enjoy cover by powerful groups. Counterfeiting is compromising well-known brands, costing companies billions in lost revenue and even putting lives at risk, according to businesses affected by the violations and U.S. officials following their cases. Qatari broadcaster beIN estimated it has lost $1.2 billion to piracy in the region, and said more than a third of all internet piracy of beIN channels originated from companies based in northern Iraq. The complaint was part of a a public submission this year to the U.S. Special 301 Report, which publicly lists countries that do not provide adequate IP rights. Read more: 8 killed in attack by gunmen on an Iraqi village: Official Iraq is seeking foreign investment away from its oil-based economy, and intellectual property will likely take center stage in negotiations with companies. Yet working to enforce laws and clamp down on the vast web of violations has historically been derailed by more urgent developments in the crisis-hit country or thwarted by well-connected business people. “As Iraq endeavors to diversify its economy beyond the energy sector and attract foreign investment in knowledge-based sectors, it is critical that companies know their patents and intellectual property will be respected and protected by the government,” said Steve Lutes, vice president of Middle East Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Makhsusi insists he tried the legal route but was denied a license from Starbucks' regional agent based in Kuwait. He also said he attempted to reach Starbucks through contacts in the United States, but that these were also unsuccessful. He depicts his decision to open a branch anyway as a triumph over adversity. Cups, stir sticks and other Starbucks merchandise are obtained in Turkey and Europe, using his contacts, he said. “The coffee, everything is authentic Starbucks,” Makhususi added. Makhsusi said he “had a session” with a lawyer in Baghdad to come to an understanding with the coffee company, “but so far we have not reached a solution.” The law firm recounts a different version of events. Confidentiality agreements prevent the firm from divulging details of the case to third parties, but the AP spoke to three Iraqi legal sources close to the case. They spoke on condition of anonymity in order to provide details. They also asked the name of the firm not be mentioned for security reasons. They said that in early 2020, the firm was hired by Starbucks and sent a cease-and-desist notice to Makhsusi. They said that the businessman then told one of the lawyers on the case that he ought to be careful, warning that he had backing from a prominent Iranian-backed armed group and support from Iraqi political parties. “They decided it was too risky, and they stopped the case,” the Iraqi legal source said. Makhsusi denied that he threatened Starbucks' lawyers. Read more: Heavy gunfire rocks Iraq's Green Zone amid violent protests Makhsusi said doing business in Iraq requires good relations with armed groups, the bulk of whom are part of the official state security apparatus. “I have friendly relations with everyone in Iraq, including the armed factions,” he said. “I am a working man, I need these relationships to avoid problems, especially given that the situation in Iraq is not stable for business.” He did not name particular armed groups he was in contact with. The AP contacted two groups known to have business dealings in the areas where the cafes are located, and both said they had not worked with Makhsusi. Counterfeiters and pirates have stepped up activity in Iraq in the past five years, particularly as Gulf countries have responded to U.S. pressure and become more stringent regulators, said a U.S. official in the State Department, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the trends. The broadcaster beIN has sent cease-and-desist letters to Earthlink, Iraq’s largest internet service provider, which offers subscribers with a free streaming service, Shabakaty, composed almost entirely of pirated content, beIN has said. Iraq’s Communications Ministry, which partners with Earthlink, did not respond to a request for comment. “It’s unheard of and completely outrageous,” said Cameron Andrews, director of beIN’s anti-piracy department. “It’s a huge market, so it’s a great deal of commercial loss.” But the larger issue for beIN is the piracy that originates inside Iraq and bleeds into the rest of the region and the world, he said. After being copied by these companies, beIN’s channels are re-streamed on pirate IPTV services, and become accessible all over the region, according to beIN. The company’s investigation found that some Iraqi operators even distribute pirated content in the U.S. At least two U.S. pharmaceutical companies have approached the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with complaints that their trademark was being used to sell counterfeit life-saving medication by Iraqi companies. “I worry if regulatory lapses or infringements in IP protection are allowed, then U.S. companies will be deterred from doing business in Iraq and quality of care could be dangerously jeopardized for Iraqi patients,” said Lutes. The companies did not accept to be named in this report or detail the types of medications. Successive Iraqi governments promised to fight graft since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion reset Iraq’s political order, but none has taken serious steps to dismantle the vast internal machinery that enables state-sanctioned corruption. Intellectual property has also historically been a low priority for Iraq. Limited bilateral talks with the U.S. over the issue have been on and off for the past five years. The challenge is to find a “clear leader in the Iraqi government that is interested in IP issues as a way to attract foreign investment,” said a U.S. State Department official. “Until that person exists, it is difficult for us to engage.”
Eight people were killed and three injured Monday in an attack by gunmen on an Iraqi village previously held by the Islamic State extremist group, officials said. The attack took place in the village of Albu Bali northwest of Fallujah in Iraq. Read more: Explosion in northern Iraq kills 9 policemen: Iraq officials Uday al-Khadran, commissioner of the al-Khalis district where the attack occurred said “a group of terrorists riding motorcycles” had attacked the village at around 8:30 p.m. and that dozens of residents, some of them unarmed, had rushed to confront the attackers, the official Iraqi News Agency reported. Security forces are searching for those responsible, he said. The violence came a day after an explosive device went off in northern Iraq, killing at least nine members of the Iraqi federal police force who were on patrol. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the village of Ali al-Sultan in the Riyadh district of the province of Kirkuk. Read more: Iranian Guard attacks militant group in Iraq amid unrest On Wednesday, three Iraqi soldiers were killed when a bomb exploded during a security operation in the Tarmiyah district, north of Baghdad. Among the dead was the commander of the 59th Infantry Brigade. No one claimed responsibility for that attack either, but remnants of the militant Islamic State group are active in the area and have claimed similar attacks in Iraq in the past.
An explosive device went off in northern Iraq on Sunday, killing at least nine members of the Iraqi federal police force who were on patrol, Iraqi security officials said. Among the fatalities was an officer with the rank of major, according to a tweet from a military spokesman, Yahya Rasool. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the village of Ali al-Sultan in the Riyadh district of the province of Kirkuk. Read more: Iranian Guard attacks militant group in Iraq amid unrest Rasool added that Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani had been briefed about the attack. An investigation was underway. Two Iraqi security officials said nine were killed and clarified that the explosive device was a bomb. They said another three policemen were wounded in altercations with militants that broke out following the explosion, without elaborating. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. On Wednesday, three Iraqi soldiers were killed when a bomb exploded during a security operation in the Tarmiyah district, north of Baghdad. Among those killed was the commander of the 59th Infantry Brigade. Read more: Heavy gunfire rocks Iraq's Green Zone amid violent protests No one claimed responsibility for that attack either, but remnants of the militant Islamic State group are active in the area and have claimed similar attacks in Iraq in the past. IS was defeated and lost all territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq, with its last stronghold in Syria falling to the U.S.-backed campaign in 2019. However, sleeper cells remain and have carried out attacks that have killed scores of Iraqis and Syrians. In Iraq, the militants have successfully exploited security gaps across a patch of territory in the north because of an ongoing dispute between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish-run semi-autonomous region of Iraq. Rural areas of Kirkuk, Diyala, Ninevah and Salahaddin provinces in particular have been difficult to police, with Iraqi security forces spread thin and IS militants routinely terrorizing local residents. At times they have managed to overrun towns overnight due to the security gaps.
An Iranian drone bombing campaign targeting the bases of an Iranian-Kurdish opposition group in northern Iraq on Wednesday killed at least nine people and wounded 32 others, the Kurdish Regional Government’s Health Ministry said. The strikes took place as demonstrations continued to engulf the Islamic Republic after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who was detained by the Iranian morality police. Iran’s attacks targeted Koya, some 65 kilometers (35 miles) east of Irbil, said Soran Nuri, a member of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. The group, known by the acronym KDPI, is a leftist armed opposition force banned in Iran. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in a statement said the attacks “impacted the Iranian refugee settlements” in Koya, and that refugees and other civilians were among the casualties. Iraq’s Foreign Ministry and the Kurdistan Regional Government have condemned the strikes. Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency and broadcaster said the country’s Revolutionary Guard targeted bases of a separatist group in the north of Iraq with “precision missiles” and “suicide drones.” Gen. Hasan Hasanzadeh of the Revolutionary Guard said 185 Basijis, a volunteer force, were injured by "machete and knife” in the unrest, state-run IRNA news agency reported Wednesday. Hasanzadeh also said rioters broke the skull of one of the Basij members. He added that five Basijis are hospitalized in intensive care. The Iranian drone strikes targeted a military camp, homes, offices and other areas around Koya, Nuri said. Nuri described the attack as ongoing. Iraq's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government in Baghdad was expected to summon the Iranian ambassador to deliver a diplomatic complaint over the strikes. In Baghdad, four Katyusha rockets landed in the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Wednesday as legislators gathered in parliament. The zone, home to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, is a frequent target of rocket and drone attacks that the United States blames on Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups. The Iraqi military earlier said in a statement that one rocket landed near parliament, another near the parliament’s guesthouse, and a third at a junction near the Judicial Council. Two security officials told the AP that the fourth rocket also landed near parliament. Iraqi state news reported four security officers were wounded. The office of Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, in a statement said security forces were pursuing the assailants who fired the rockets, and asked protesters to remain peaceful. Cellphone footage circulating on social media showed smoke billowing from a carpark near the parliament building. Following the first series of strikes in northern Iraq, Iran then shelled seven positions in Koya's stronghold in Qala, a KDPI official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity in order to speak publicly. The Qala area includes the party's politburo. An Associated Press journalist saw ambulances racing through Koya after the strikes. Smoke rose from the site of one apparent strike as security forces closed off the area. Meanwhile, security forces lobbed tear gas and fired rubber bullets at protesting Iranian Kurds in Sulimaniyah. On Saturday and Monday, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard unleashed a wave of drone and artillery strikes targeting Kurdish positions. The attacks appear to be a response to the ongoing protests roiling Iran over the death of a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who was detained by the nation’s morality police. The U.S. Department of State called the Iranian attacks an “unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.” “We are also aware of reports of civilian casualties and deplore any loss of life caused by today’s attacks,” said spokesperson Ned Price in a statement. “Moreover, we further condemn comments from the government of Iran threatening additional attacks against Iraq.” The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq said in a tweet that the country cannot be treated as “the region’s “backyard” where neighbors routinely, and with impunity, violate its sovereignty.” “Rocket diplomacy is a reckless act with devastating consequences,” the U.N. agency said. Meanwhile, Britain's State Minister for the Middle East said the attacks “demonstrate a repeated pattern of Iranian destabilizing activity in the region," while the German Foreign Ministry and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez also condemned Iran for the strikes. The U.N. secretary-general called on Iran early Wednesday to refrain from using “unnecessary or disproportionate force” against protesters as unrest over a young woman's death in police custody spread across the country. Antonio Guterres said through a spokesman that authorities should swiftly conduct an impartial investigation of Amini's death, which has sparked unrest across Iran’s provinces and the capital of Tehran. “We are increasingly concerned about reports of rising fatalities, including women and children, related to the protests,” U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric in a statement. “We underline the need for prompt, impartial and effective investigation into Ms. Mahsa Amini’s death by an independent competent authority.” Protests have spread across at least 46 cities, towns and villages in Iran. State TV reported that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since the demonstrations began Sept. 17. An Associated Press count of official statements by authorities tallied at least 14 dead, with more than 1,500 demonstrators arrested. Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard in a statement called for an international investigation over the deaths of protesters. “Dozens of people, including children, have been killed so far and hundreds injured,” the statement read. "The voices of the courageous people of Iran desperately crying out for international support must not be ignored.” The human rights organization added that it has documented cases of Iranian security forces sexually assaulting women protesters. Meanwhile, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it documented the arrests of at least 23 journalists as the clashes between security forces and protesters heated up. CPJ in a Wednesday statement called on Iranian authorities to “immediately” release arrested journalists who covered Amini’s death and protests. Dujarric added that Guterres stressed the need to respect human rights, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association during the meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on September 22nd.