The World Today for March 29, 2023

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Books, Traffic and Trauma


Twenty years after the American invasion of Iraq, the booksellers of Mutanabbi Street are back again, reviving the popular Arabic saying, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.” Fighting in the streets kept the customers away from this otherwise well-frequented strip of booksellers during the early years of the 2003 invasion and subsequent unrest. Now, however, as Al Jazeera reported, Iraqis are returning to the Baghdad street, named as it is after the 10th-century Arab poet.

Some Iraqis are bitter about the turn of affairs, however. Why, they might ask, should they celebrate the revival of a shopping and cultural district, one that they would persuasively argue was needlessly ravaged because American leaders mistakenly – or insincerely – believed the country was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

As many as 120,000 Iraqi civilians died in the US-led war from 2003 to 2011, according to the Iraq Body Count. Approximately 80,000 died since then as armed groups filled the power vacuum that the exiting Americans created, helping give rise to the Islamic State terrorist organization. Today, around a third of Iraqi citizens are impoverished, Agence France-Presse reported. Corruption is rampant. Sectarian violence is commonplace in politics. Around 1.2 million people are still internally displaced.

Today, many Iraqis are working hard to process the horrors they experienced when the US and allied forces toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein and occupied the country, kicking off an insurgency that expanded to civil-war proportions. Authors, artists, and others have been working on projects to help people discuss and share their experiences in an attempt to get over them.

“We don’t have records, especially during the 2003 invasion when mobile phones and cameras, digital cameras, weren’t readily available for people,” United Kingdom-based Iraqi architect Sana Murrani told National Public Radio. “So there was this thing of trauma that lingers, trauma that is carried with you, and it resurfaces in very different ways.”

Even the one bright spot that arguably emerged after the war, a US-allied Kurdish autonomous region, is showing signs of deterioration, wrote Foreign Policy magazine.

Still, Iraq is making a recovery. It is a fledgling democracy, instead of a Sunni-led dictatorship led by Hussein, even if it’s a messy and often corrupt one. Violence has decreased significantly and new buildings go up as blast walls come down. Still, the economy is failing ordinary Iraqis, with a quarter living under the poverty line, and one-third are unemployed.

Just before the pandemic, thousands of Iraqis hit the streets in protest against poor services, the lack of electricity and other woes. While they were met with violence, they managed to bring down the government, the International Crisis Group noted. It’s likely that fury will bubble up again.

Meanwhile, one unintended consequence of the peace dividend is that Baghdad now has the worst traffic in the Middle East, which is no mean feat, noted the Economist. Before, bombs, terrorism and civil war used to keep Iraqis indoors; now it is the gridlocked traffic. As a result, commuters waste hours a day stuck in exhaust fumes. Residents do what they can to avoid pollution, not least by staying inside.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who took office in October, knows this is a problem, and has removed some checkpoints, moved to get traffic lights operational again and partially reopened the Green Zone, the district that the elite and diplomats had taken over since 2003.

Many of the walls built in 2003 in this district are coming down now, opening the area to ordinary Iraqis. The problem is, Iraqis need much, much more.

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No Free Pass


The Philippines will sever contact with the International Criminal Court (ICC), the country’s president announced Tuesday, after the Netherlands-based tribunal rejected an appeal by the government to stop investigating former President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs, Al Jazeera reported.

The ICC resumed its investigation in January into allegations from human rights groups and victims that Philippine authorities conducted systematic executions during Duterte’s bloody crackdown on illicit drugs. The initial investigation into crimes committed since 2016 was authorized in 2021, but deferred when the government of the Philippines protested.

Police said that more than 6,000 people were killed in operations that took place during Duterte’s presidency between 2016 and 2022. The former president and police officials emphasized that the suspects were killed in self-defense.

But human rights groups estimate that up to 30,000 people were killed in vigilante-style operations, according to Rappler, a Philippines-based publication.

Duterte and his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., have criticized the ICC’s investigation and called the probe an “attack” on the country’s sovereignty.

Marcos Jr. added that the government has not been cooperating with the ICC and that the Philippines’ own institutions are capable of prosecuting crimes, a claim the ICC has rejected.

The president also questioned whether the tribunal still has jurisdiction in the Philippines, after Duterte withdrew the country from the ICC’s founding treaty in 2018.

The ICC’s treaty stipulates, however, that the court can still probe crimes that took place while a country was a member.

Defiance and Fury


Anti-government protests in Kenya turned deadly this week, sparking worries of escalating violence for Kenyans who are already grappling with soaring inflation and unemployment, Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday.

Police and protesters clashed in the capital Nairobi and the western city of Kisumu as demonstrators took to the streets despite authorities warning that such marches are “illegal.” One person was killed in Kisumu, the second fatality since the opposition-led protests kicked off last week.

Meanwhile, hundreds of looters broke into the home of former President Uhuru Kenyatta, stealing sheep and cutting down trees before setting ablaze a section of the property.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga has called for protests every Monday and Thursday, accusing President William Ruto of stealing last year’s election and failing to get a handle on the country’s economic woes.

Many Kenyans are struggling to make ends meet amid rising costs of basic goods, a plunging local currency and a record drought that has left millions hungry. Ruto – who vowed to improve the lives of ordinary Kenyans – has recently removed subsidies for fuel and maize flour.

On Tuesday, the African Union voiced “deep concern” about the ongoing violence, calling for calm and political dialogue.

Similarly, Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission, has also called for dialogue “as a means of moving our country forward.” The peace-building commission was set up after the 2007-2008 post-election clashes that killed more than 1,100 people.

Word Smiths


Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador this week defended the insertion of phrases and words in grade-school textbooks that many teachers have long considered to be ungrammatical, the Associated Press reported.

His comments came after copies of new textbooks posted on social media showed a number of terms that are commonly used in vernacular or “street speech,” but not used in written Spanish. These included words such as “dijistes,” long considered an incorrect or uneducated way of saying “dijiste,” meaning “you said.”

Another textbook also featured the use of redundant phrases that repeat themselves, such as “súbate para arriba,” – meaning, “come up, up here.”

Parent groups and educators expressed concern about the changes, noting that Mexico’s Public Education Department should promote proper language.

But López Obrador – who frequently accuses his critics of being “racist” or “classist” – dismissed the concerns, saying that Mexico is “a cultural mosaic and language has to do with the roots of ancient cultures.”

Despite efforts by teachers and grammarians, such expressions and verb forms sometimes persist in Mexico, although they are not tied to any particular region or ethnic group.


The Lazy Dino

In 1987, paleontologists uncovered the remains of a long-necked dinosaur that some 162 million years ago roamed what is now northwestern China.

Named Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum, the species belonged to a group of dinos called sauropods, known for their large sizes, long necks and tails, and vegetarian habits.

But M. sinocanadorum was no mere sauropod.

A new study found the creature had a nearly 50-foot-long neck, the longest one ever recorded in any known dinosaur, CNN reported.

Using computerized tomography scanning, a research team was able to determine the neck’s length by examining the specimen’s three intact vertebrae and comparing them with the neck bones of other sauropods.

Previously, the Xinjiangtitan was the species regarded as having the longest neck, but which is now estimated to be about five feet shorter than that of M. sinocanadorum.

The researchers also found that the extinct creature’s bones were very hollow and primarily filled with air, instead of marrow. But this was advantageous for the species because it lightened the load of moving that massive neck around, they noted.

Biomechanical studies also hinted that the sauropod’s neck was elevated at an angle of about 20 to 30 degrees above the horizontal. However, this did not prevent the animal’s head from reaching heights up to almost 33 feet above ground.

“They’re seemingly well engineered to be efficient food gatherers and that’s what the neck allows them to do … plant themselves in one space, eat the vegetation that’s around them and then move only as necessary,” according to lead author Andrew Moore.

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