The World Today for May 29, 2018



Waiting on a Comeback

The ascent of Muqtada al-Sadr is the latest bizarre turn in Iraq’s tumultuous politics, as the country scrambles to cobble together a government.

Al-Sadr has adopted many roles in recent Iraqi history, including years on end when he disappeared from public life and appeared poised to fade into obscurity, the Jerusalem Post explained. He gained notoriety when his militia fighters killed American troops after the US invasion in 2003. At the time, the Shiite Muslim cleric was closely aligned with Iran.

“Best remembered by Americans for fiery sermons declaring it a holy duty among his Shiite faithful to attack United States forces,” was how the New York Times described him.

But today al-Sadr opposes Iran’s meddling in his country and runs a political bloc called Sairoon that recently won the most votes in a parliamentary election after running on a platform of good government reforms.

“The Iraqi people are now fed up with a lack of progress on addressing poverty, corruption and the need for essential services,” wrote Time in an article that compared al-Sadr’s “Iraq First” and “drain the swamp in Baghdad” campaign to US President Donald Trump’s 2016 success.

Technically he cannot become prime minister because he did not run for election, but al-Sadr is now a kingmaker in Iraqi politics. Surprisingly, he’s likely supporting current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose party came in third, because Abadi gained respect among Iraq’s many stakeholders after successfully managing the US and Iran’s help in fighting the Islamic State, reported Reuters.

Iran is likely to seek to undermine al-Sadr’s role as the power beyond the prime minister, however. “Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere,” the Associated Press wrote.

An editorial in the Hindu, a respected Indian newspaper, also warned that al-Sadr is on a collision course with Iran. Al-Sadr has called for Iranian-backed militias to join the Iraq army. He has visited Saudi Arabia to shore up relations with Iran’s nemesis in the region, too. “If Iran doesn’t play spoilsport, Iraq could get a government soon,” the editors wrote.

Writing in an opinion piece in the Hill, International Crisis Group analyst Elizabeth Dickinson said Saudi and Iranian leaders have an opportunity to work together with Iraq to avoid repeats of past nightmares.

“They should both see the case for détente,” wrote Dickinson. “Before all else, countries of the region share a desire to prevent another iteration of the Islamic State, al Qaeda or other forms of jihadism.”

That’s common ground to cherish.



Permanent Trouble

Moscow responded to Poland’s reported offer of $2 billion to ensure US troops are stationed there permanently with a warning that the move could “lead to counteraction from the Russian side.”

According to a Polish Defense Ministry proposal reported by Poland’s news site, Warsaw wants a permanent US presence to deter “potential Russian aggression,” Newsweek reported. But Moscow sees NATO’s eastward expansion as aggression, too, said a spokesman for the Kremlin.

“When we see the gradual expansion of NATO military structures towards our borders…this of course in no way creates security and stability on the continent,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters. Similarly, the first deputy head of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs committee in Russia, Vladimir Dzhabarov, said a permanent NATO base in Poland would make it “one of the main targets in case of a possible conflict.”

Poland has housed more than 1,100 NATO soldiers, some Americans among them, for more than a year south of Kaliningrad under a temporary arrangement.


Fast Track Reversal

Malaysia’s new prime minister aims to scrap a planned high-speed railway linking Kuala Lumpur with Singapore as part of his efforts to slash the country’s national debt.

“We need to do away with some of the unnecessary projects, for example the high-speed rail, which is going to cost us RM110 billion ($28 billion) and will not earn us a single cent,” the South China Morning Post cited Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as telling the Financial Times. He said he would open talks with Singapore to try to avoid high financial penalties associated with scrapping the deal.

Slated to be completed by 2026, the project was valued by analysts at about $17 billion. It was already out for tenders, and rail firms from China, Japan and South Korea had expressed interest in bidding for the contract. If built, it would slash travel time from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to 90 minutes from five or more hours by road.

Mahathir is also seeking to renegotiate a separate multibillion-dollar rail deal with China.


Charging Ahead

Kenya issued formal charges Monday against more than 50 people as part of an investigation into the theft of nearly $100 million of public funds.

Mainly implicating civil servants, the charges represent a rare effort to hold public officials accountable for graft in the East African nation, Reuters reported.

The accused included the head of the National Youth Service and the chief internal auditor at the national treasury, chief prosecutor Noordin Mohamed Haji told a news conference.

Though President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to stamp out corruption when he was first elected in 2013, there have been no high-profile convictions since he took office, the agency noted. Reuters wasn’t able to reach any of the accused for comment.

Meanwhile, Haji said the probe would now look into the role played by local banks in the case, in which youth service officials allegedly stole government funds by creating fictitious invoices and receiving multiple payments on one supplier invoice. The state organization trains young people and deploys them to projects ranging from construction to traffic control.


DJ, Driver, Dictator

Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov may be an autocratic leader in the style of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but he has some non-political skills his contemporaries lack.

Case in point: The Moscow-based Fergana news website recently reported that he won an international motor race qualifier after joining “on the spur of the moment,” according to BBC.

While on his way to meet his interior minister for a briefing in preparation for the rally, Berdimuhamedov discovered that his sports car passed the entry requirements for the race – and he was “immediately” allowed to participate.

According to local sources, he won the qualifier by completing his lap 12 seconds faster than a professional driver, a feat that won him a “Master of Sports” certificate and the victor’s cup “for the skills in motorsport, experience and commitment.”

For his achievement, he was invited to participate in another rally this year.

But “Master of Sports” is just one of President Berdimuhamedov’s many titles: He’s also a skilled electronic music DJ, as well as a competitive cyclist and jockey.

Still, many people might wish he were a little more talented in democracy: Amnesty International accuses the president of restricting free speech and of committing human-rights violations.

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