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Crisis in Iraq: Troops and Protesters Clash at Green Zone in Baghdad

The gunfire and surge of protesters raised concerns about the thousands of diplomats and international officials in the Green Zone.

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Protest in Baghdad. Image source: VOA

Crisis in Iraq continues. Anti-government protests in Baghdad exploded into violence Friday afternoon as thousands of demonstrators defied heavily armed guards and concrete barriers and charged into the International Zone.

Security forces unloaded heavy machine-gun fire, stun grenades and tear gas as the crowds surged forward. But even as some protesters were forced back, others began to arrive, charging their way toward the fight.

“We will kill Abadi!” some shouted as they ran toward the zone. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has come to symbolize the face of Iraq’s failing government.

Some of the protesters broke the security cordon and ran to Abadi’s offices, determined to find him. He reportedly was not there.

As the gunfire continued, dozens of ambulances with sirens blaring raced across the bridge connecting eastern Baghdad toward the entrance of the International Zone to pick up the wounded. It was not clear whether the gunfire was being directed at the protesters or above their heads, or how many wounded there were.

The protests were the culmination of weeks of mounting anger against government corruption and inefficiency, which peaked this week when a series of bombs and suicide bombers exploded in the largely poor Shi’ite area of Baghdad known as Sadr City.

By dusk, most of the gunfire had ended and smoke was blowing across the skyline of the International Zone, also called the Green Zone. But protesters vowed to return, with their own guns.

Cleric’s followers

Many of the protesters were followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric who has emerged as the leader of the Iraq’s struggling poor and has an almost cultlike following among those frustrated with a government and parliament seen as deeply corrupt and ineffective.

“I will do anything Muqtada asks me to do,” said Mahdi, a commander inside al-Sadr’s so called Peace Brigades.

His nephew Rabah, a policeman in Sadr City, agreed. “We are not afraid of anything because we are with Muqtada al-Sadr,” he said.

“If the government does nothing for us, we will do something,” Rabah added just before the protests erupted. “We want the government to fix the situation inside the parliament and inside Iraq.”

Members of parliament have been struggling to even gather a quorum after al-Sadr and his followers shocked Baghdad three weeks ago by entering the International Zone, storming the parliament and chasing out the lawmakers.

The cleric has demanded that Abadi end a political quota system that guarantees political parties ministerial positions and replace the current government with technocrats.

Interim step fails

Abadi attempted an interim measure by replacing six ministers. It was not enough. The parliament and the political parties could not agree, and the resultant squabbling devolved into a fight for power. The issue has been referred to the Iraqi federal court.

Many protesters have lost all trust in the lawmakers and the government.

“The political fighting here is creating huge problems and is the result of political infighting for personal gain, not out of concern for Iraq,” said Nabil Nouraddin, a human rights activist. “Politicians are not protecting their people. They are just out for themselves.”

But al-Sadr’s militiamen are not the only ones in Baghdad’s streets.

The Badr corps, one of the strongest militias in the umbrella group of Shi’ite armed militias known as Hashd al-Shaabi, has rejected al-Sadr’s attempts to force change and has flexed its muscle in response.

Badr corps members now protect their own neighborhoods and reject al-Sadr’s push.

“We need to follow the political process, the laws. Any emergency government or any government other than the current government, in our opinion, would be a disaster,” Hashd al-Shaabi spokesman and former Badr brigade leader Kareem Nouri told VOA.

Poster calling for volunteers to join Al Hussein Athar militia, Baghdad, May 18, 2016. Source: VOA
Poster calling for volunteers to join Al Hussein Athar militia, Baghdad, May 18, 2016. Source: VOA

Nouri also rejected the suggestion from some political corners — including from some Sunnis who feel they have lost all power under the Shi’ite-dominated political and security structure — for an emergency transitional government.

Some Iraq analysts see the political struggles as normal growing pains in a country new to democratic processes. But the presence of armed militias loyal to different leaders has turned that process into a tense and highly volatile situation.

Without the militias, “it would be more peaceful, more political and solved much easier, and everybody would be more ready to make concessions,” said Baghdad businessman Husam Gazalee.

The gunfire and surge of protesters raised concerns about the thousands of diplomats and international officials in the Green Zone.

Colonel Steve Warren, an American military spokesman based in Baghdad, said, “We’re fine. Same as last time. They don’t appear interested in us.”

Warren, whose words were relayed to Pentagon reporters from the Baghdad embassy, referred to the large demonstration three weeks ago.

Another U.S. military official said there had been no change to the security posture at the embassy. (VOA)

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Amid Intensifying US China Trade Dispute, Indian Exporters Eye Gains

Orient Craft’s new unit in Jharkhand, one of India’s least developed states, will employ about eight thousand workers

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US, China, Trade Dispute, Indian Exporters
Orient Craft, one of India's largest apparel exporters, says it could benefit from increased business as the US-China trade war intensifies. This building in Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi houses its office and one of its garment units. VOA

As work on establishing a massive garment-manufacturing unit by one of India’s leading apparel exporters enters the final stages, the company is optimistic about keeping the machines humming. Slated to begin production in August, Orient Craft’s new unit in Jharkhand, one of India’s least developed states, will employ about eight thousand workers.

Inquiries from buyers in the United States, its biggest market, have increased in recent months as a trade dispute with China intensifies, according to A.K. Jain, who heads the Commercial department at Orient Craft. That is why he is upbeat about generating new business. “This is an unbelievable blessing in disguise,” he says. “It will give us an edge.”

Exporters in India are reaping the benefits of the trade war between the world’s two biggest economies as business with both countries jumps, according to Ajai Sahai, who heads the Federation of Indian Export Organizations.

“While overall exports have gone up by nine percent, exports to the U.S. have gone up by 13 percent and to China by 32 percent,” he says. And as the confrontation escalated last week after the two countries failed to reach a deal, his optimism increased. “Since the tariff hike is now substantial from 10 to 25 percent we feel we will have more advantage in market access.”

US, China, Trade Dispute, Indian Exporters
A slowdown in the Indian economy is being attributed to a drop in consumption by an affluent middle class. VOA

India is among a handful of countries set to benefit from the U.S.-China trade dispute, a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development stated in February. “The saying ‘it’s good to fish in troubled waters’ could apply to some bystander nations,” the report said, pointing out that most of the Chinese exports subject to U.S. tariffs will be captured by firms in third countries.

While China has opened its doors wider to a range of agricultural products from India such as rice and sugar, exports to the United States have increased in areas such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals, jewelry, auto components and apparel.

“In various products we were losing out to China with a very narrow margin. With the hike, we are able to offset that,” says Sahai. “That is why the tariff war has presented us an opportunity to enter markets in the U.S. in some areas we were hardly penetrating.”

But even as Indian exports benefit, trade experts warn that clouds are also gathering over New Delhi’s trade relationship with Washington. In recent months, U.S. President Donald Trump has slammed Indian duties on some U.S. goods, saying that India is not providing “equitable and reasonable access” to its markets.

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Economists also warn that an eventual slowdown in global trade due to the U.S.-China trade spat will hit all countries including India, which is already staring at an economic slowdown

Growth in the world’s fastest growing major economy flagged to 6.6 percent in the last quarter of 2018 – it’s lowest in more than a year. It is not expected to fare much better this year.

The slump is blamed on slackening domestic consumption, which powers the Indian economy. Unlike East Asian countries, which have raced ahead on the back of exports, growth momentum in India is largely based on an affluent middle class snapping up goods such as cars, refrigerators, air conditioners and other consumer goods.

But there are concerns as automobile sales, the barometer of consumption, plunged to the lowest in nearly eight years in recent months.

US, China, Trade Dispute, Indian Exporters
Like other carmakers, the Hyundai showroom in Gurgaon has witnessed a decline in sales of cars in recent months. VOA

At the Hyundai car showroom in the upscale business hub of Gurgaon, near Delhi, a range of swanky models beckon customers, but there are few to be seen. This is in marked contrast to the last three years when buoyant automobile sales helped India overtake Germany to become the world’s fourth largest automobile market. That prompted car makers such as Hyundai, Honda and Toyota to expand their presence in the country.

“In recent years, March and April used to be good months. But now 20 to 30 percent drop is there in these months also,” says Gagan Arora, business head at the Hyundai showroom. “There is a slowdown in the whole industry. New buyers are not being added so frequently.”

Economists say while rising exports to the United States and China present a silver lining, the first challenge facing India’s new government due to take office after vote counting in elections is completed this week, will be how to restore overall momentum to the economy and see why consumers are not so willing to open their wallets. (VOA)