2019-03-06 18:15:00

The heated competition that has accompanied various elections in Iraq since 2003 has reached the Iraq Bar Association polls, set for Thursday.

The tensions were so high that actual physical scuffles took place between rival candidates at the association’s headquarters in Baghdad on Monday.

Observers speculated over the reasons of the unprecedented unrest, with some accusing the current association council and its head Ahlam al-Lami of corruption. Others blamed the scuffles on the rejection of some candidates for their affiliation to the dissolved Baath party. Others said political differences had a hand in stoking tensions at the association.

Legal expert Tareq Harb said that chaos has been the hallmark of all electoral affairs in Iraq.

“Positions in power are no longer seen as a service to the people, but they are seen as means to achieve personal gains,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He ruled out the role of politics, sectarianism or partisan influence at the syndicate, saying the chaos was driven by candidates trying to seek personal interests.

Commenting on the corruption allegation against the association council, Harb said: “I cannot confirm or deny this, but a recent report the syndicate had submitted about its finances was much too brief.”

It did not offer a comprehensive picture of the situation, he explained.

Electoral candidate lawyer Mohammed al-Saaedi disagreed with Harb, saying he did not rule out political meddling in the affairs of the association.

He confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the nomination of one figure was rejected due to his affiliation with the former Baath regime.

The rejection prompted anger among his supporters, who sparked the scuffle, he revealed.

Addressing the corruption claims, he said that those who “incited the violence are behind the corruption.”

He said that two or three people involved in the unrest have been detained. The scuffle is unlikely to affect the elections, which will be held on time.

Lawyer Anwar al-Tharb offered a different version of the events that unfolded at the association headquarters.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that the unrest were primarily related to the corruption allegations.

He explained that a number of lawyers demanded al-Lami and members of the association council to submit official documents detailing expenses at the body, but they refused and instead attacked some lawyers.

He revealed that the association makes around $7 million a year, but it does not, however, deal transparently with these funds or provide financial statements, which drew the ire of several lawyers.

UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths returned to Riyadh Tuesday to meet with leaders of Yemen’s legitimate government in his “last chance” to save a ceasefire agreement reached in Sweden last December between the legitimate government and Iran-backed Houthi militias.

Informed Yemeni sources predicted that Griffiths will later return to Sanaa to meet Houthi officials to the same end. They said the envoy was trying to exert pressure on the government to offer concessions related to the administration of Hodeidah and its ports, following the redeployment of forces there and the withdrawal of Houthis.

The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that leaders from the government informed Griffiths that they have exhausted all efforts in offering continuous concessions for peace. There can be no substitute to the Houthis’ compliance with the Sweden deal without delay or stalling.

The government has accused the Houthis of hindering the implementation of the deal.

On Tuesday, Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Foreign Minister Khaled Alyemany met Griffiths to discuss ongoing efforts to establish peace in the country, Yemen’s Saba news agency reported.

Al-Ahmar cited the Houthis’ continuous delays and reluctance regarding the Hodeidah withdrawal, while also condemning the international community’s silence over their violations of the deal.

He reiterated the government's insistence on the importance of implementing the Hodeidah agreement in full and the Houthi withdrawal from the city and seaports and handing them over to local authorities. Such measures are key to moving forward towards any new round of consultations.

The vice president also noted that the Houthis have refused to pull out from the seaports under the agreed redeployment plan in Hodeidah, which was supposed to be carried out last month.

The Palestinian Waqf vowed on Tuesday to defy an Israeli court order barring access to the Golden Gate, a side building at the holy al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.

There have recently been scuffles between worshippers and police there over the use the Golden Gate, or Bab al-Rahma, closed by Israel since 2003.

Arguing there was no longer any reason for it to remain shut, Palestinian officials reopened the building last month and crowds of worshippers prayed inside despite the Israeli closure, reported AFP.

A Jerusalem court this week gave the Waqf until March 10 to explain why the closure order should be lifted, Israeli watchdog group Ir Amim said in a statement.

"As the Waqf does not formally recognize the Israeli court system, it is unlikely to issue a formal response, in which case the court is expected to approve closure of the building," the NGO said.

"It is anticipated that a forced closure by the police will trigger significant numbers of Palestinians rallying or breaking the closure."

"The decisions of the courts do not apply to the mosque of Al-Aqsa," Sheikh Abdel Azim Salhab, the leader of the Waqf council, said in a video clip published on Tuesday.

"It is our right, religious and contractual, to access the Golden Gate and keep this door open for Muslims to pray," he said.

Salhab and his assistant were briefly detained last week for what police said was violation of an order preventing entry into a prohibited area of the holy site, said AFP.

They were released later the same day but the arrest drew condemnation from Jordan, the custodian of the Haram al-Sharif, in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Waqf spokesman Firas al-Dibs said that since the latest dispute erupted Israel had arrested nearly 130 Palestinians in Jerusalem, including senior Muslim officials.

It has temporarily barred more than 60 people from the compound, he said.

Access to Golden Gate was closed by an Israeli court order in 2003 during the second Palestinian intifada over alleged militant activity there, police say.

Waqf officials argue that the organization that prompted the ban no longer exists.

The compound is the third-holiest site in Islam and a focus of Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

It is also the location of Judaism's most sacred spot, revered as the site of the two biblical-era Jewish temples.

Jews are allowed to visit but cannot pray there and it is a frequent scene of conflict between the two sides.

Palestinians fear Israel will seek to assert further control over it, while Israel accuses Palestinians of using such claims as a rallying cry to incite violence.

It is in the walled Old City in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Tuesday that he will be making a visit to Lebanon, Kuwait and Israel in the coming days.

An informed Lebanese source told Asharq Al-Awsat that he is expected to kick off his tour in mid-March.

Talks are set to promote US economic policies, Pompeo told a farmers’ group in rural Iowa.

Meanwhile, US Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield was in Beirut ahead of the top US diplomat’s visit.

He stressed on Tuesday that the new Lebanese government must make tough decisions as it tackles widespread corruption and a crumbling economy.

He held talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil, head of the Kataeb party MP Sami Gemayel and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat.

Satterfield said Washington is looking to support the Lebanese people as they move their country forward, but warned against increased Iranian influence.

The eight-year war in neighboring Syria has deepened Lebanon's economic woes, which include high unemployment, meager growth and a soaring public debt of $85 billion, or 155 percent of the gross domestic product. Some 1 million Syrian refugees make up a quarter of Lebanon's population.

Satterfield said Iran's growing influence in Lebanon required a national response, adding that "parties, notably Iran, are not passive, they're very active."

He added that the US will exert all possible efforts to support Lebanon’s national choices. Such choices will help the country escape foreign conflicts and ideologies.

Washington wants real security and stability in Lebanon and this hinges on its national choices, not dictates imposed on it, he continued.

In January, Lebanese political factions agreed to form a new government after the country's first parliamentary elections in nine years.

The US has expressed concerns about Hezbollah naming a health minister and two other posts in Lebanon's cabinet and called on the new government to ensure the ministries' resources do not provide support to the party.