November 26, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

IRAQ

Springing Anew

In the years after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, critics said the US had achieved the opposite of its goals, plunging the Middle Eastern country into chaos and providing an opportunity for neighboring Iran to expand its power.

Now the mullahs in Tehran are learning that former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule – “you break it, you own it” – applies to them, too.

Protests have swept Iraq in recent weeks, claiming almost 350 lives in total, 13 on Sunday in increasingly violent demonstrations. As public radio station WBUR reported, many issues animate the demonstrators, but Iran’s influence in their country is their major gripe.

The civil unrest grew more intense after the New York Times and the Intercept published hundreds of leaked intelligence documents that revealed the extent of Iran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs.

“The unprecedented leak exposes Tehran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life,” the Intercept wrote.

Protesters have set fire to Iranian consulates and defaced images of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reported Al Jazeera.

Coincidentally, the demonstrations in Iraq came as riots over rising fuel prices rocked Iran, Newsweek reported. Late last week, Iranian authorities declared that the protests were over, quelled by a harsh government response.

Protests over corruption and economic stagnation have also erupted in Lebanon, jeopardizing the political power of Hezbollah, a political party and terrorist organization that is an important Iranian proxy in the country on the Mediterranean.

In Iraq, reported the New York Times, citizens have lost patience over crumbling schools and hospitals, high unemployment despite years of promises from politicians who asked their constituents to sacrifice greatly after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the war against the Islamic State. Years of turmoil have also prepared Iraqis to rebel, often violently, in the face of government oppression or incompetence, creating a powder keg situation.

Iraqi officials have been ham-fisted in their response. The Washington Post wrote about how the military’s spokesman has denied that security forces have used live fire and tear gas and has dismissed protesters as vandals armed with improvised bombs – an allegation without proof. He even accused protesters of dropping their pants and exposing their buttocks to provoke soldiers into retaliating.

The widespread protests include women who buck tradition to join the crowds in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, fittingly named after the square where Egyptian protesters overthrew their government during the Arab Spring of 2011, France 24 reported.

Agence France-Presse interviewed some of the 15,000 people injured in the Baghdad protests. They said their sacrifices were worth the pain.

Some wonder if what is happening is the beginnings of an ‘Arab Autumn,’ pointing to simmering frustrations in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Regardless, like the so-called Arab Spring, it’s inspired by a sense on the street that enough is enough. What comes next is anyone’s guess.

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WANT TO KNOW

HONG KONG

A Rout

After almost six months of violent protests, opposition pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in Hong Kong’s district council elections, a vote seen as a de facto referendum on the semi-autonomous city-state’s status, CNN reported.

In the elections, held Sunday but announced Monday, opposition candidates took nearly 90 percent of the seats among 18 councils and the turnout rate topped 70 percent – a record high, according to election officials.

Local public broadcaster RTHK called the election results a “rout”: “Most analysts had expected the opposition to make significant gains with the government’s popularity ratings at an all-time low, but no one was predicting that the pro-democracy camp would win a majority of seats – much less almost all of them.”

The outlet also said it was a strong message to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who responded that her government “respects the election results” and “will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly…”

District councils mostly handle local affairs and lack much in terms of real power, but their election has taken on increasing importance in recent years following rising discontent over the slow pace of political reform.

“The government should immediately establish the Five Demands and respond to the public’s voices,” activist Jimmy Sham posted on Facebook, referencing a longstanding protest slogan.

Analysts called the victory a “slap on the cheek” for the city’s government, but argued that protests won’t end if authorities ignore citizens’ demands, the Guardian reported.

FRANCE

Not Enough

The French government announced new measures to combat domestic violence Monday following a weekend of protests over the government’s inaction over the issue, the Guardian reported.

France’s National Observatory of Violence Against Women has estimated that more than 220,000 adult women suffer domestic violence every year and 121 were killed by their partners in 2018.

Among the changes, the new measures will provide new guidelines for authorities, weapon restrictions for perpetrators, as well as a new clause in France’s criminal code that covers harassment and “psychological control.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe admitted that authorities hadn’t seen the scale of the problem and that the new measures would be an “electric jolt.”

The government said it will allocate more than $395 million to combat domestic violence, an amount advocacy organizations said was not enough. Women’s rights groups also said the new measures weren’t exactly new.

“The prime minister announces exactly the same budget allocated against (domestic) violence in 2020 as in 2019,” tweeted activist Caroline de Haas. “They’re not changing public policy.”

KYRGYZSTAN

No Leads

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Kyrgyzstan’s capital on Monday to demand the punishment of individuals involved in a corruption scandal that has sparked public outcry in recent days, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Monday’s demonstrations follow a recent investigation by journalists which exposed possible wide-scale corruption in the country’s customs service and massive outflows of cash from Kyrgyzstan.

The expose also revealed how former deputy chief of the customs service, Raiymbek Matraimov, and Chinese Uighur businessman Khabibula Abdukadyr were responsible for funneling hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan.

Following the report last week, the Kyrgyz Prosecutor’s Office said that it launched a probe to verify the information in the expose.

Matraimov, meanwhile, has denied the accusations.

The information was provided by another Chinese Uighur businessman, Aierken Saimaiti, who was shot dead in Turkey on Nov. 10. Saimati said he would provide more information to reporters once authorities approved his Turkish citizenship.

Turkish police made several arrests, but have made no official statements on the case.

DISCOVERIES

Surfing Bees

Honeybees can’t swim, but that doesn’t mean that if they drop into water they will simply drown.

Researchers at Caltech discovered that honeybees have evolved a survival tactic to help them escape a watery grave by using their wings, Science Alert reported.

In their study, scientists experimented with more than 30 honeybees by placing them in a water-filled pan and recording their escape using slow-motion cameras.

They noted that bees beat their wings to generate tiny ripples on the water and propel themselves to the nearest surface to escape.

“Honeybees use their wetted wings as hydrofoils for their water surface propulsion,” they wrote.

This hydrofoil technique is enough to propel them at three body lengths per second, but it’s limited: Honeybees can develop muscle fatigue after about five minutes.

Several insects, such as mayflies and water lily beetles, can traverse water using surface skimming, but their wings don’t come into contact with the water – unlike the bees.

This is the first time that scientists have observed this ability in honeybees, which can help slow down their dwindling numbers.

Bee populations around the world are declining due to farming practices, chemicals and warming climates, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.