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Eight deadly worldwide outbreaks that originated from animals

Snakes – including the Chinese krait and the cobra – may be the source of the newly discovered 2019-nCoV coronavirus that triggered an outbreak of infectious respiratory illness in China, according to scientists.

The illness was first reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, a large city in central China, and has spread rapidly, killing at least 17 people and infecting 571 in China. Infected travellers from Wuhan have spread the virus in China and other countries including Thailand, Japan, the United States and the Philippines.

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Scientists in China have been able to determine and document the genetic code of the new virus, leading to its positive identification as a new strain of coronavirus.

Further research published by scientists from five Chinese universities presented a study of the genetic code of 2019-nCoV, finding that it was distinct from but closely related to SARS-like coronavirus samples from bats.

This means that 2019-nCoV originated as a zoonotic virus, or one that was transmitted from animals to humans, but there is now evidence to suggest human-to-human transmission.

Snake - China

Researchers who conducted a more detailed bioinformatics analysis of the new virus found the protein codes in the 2019-nCoV are most similar to those in snakes [File: Mike Clarke/AFP]

A more detailed analysis of the 2019-nCoV sequence and protein codes by the Chinese scientists suggested that this coronavirus might come from snakes.

There are reports that live animals, including snakes, were being sold in the seafood market in Wuhan where the outbreak is suspected to have originated.

While there are no definitive findings, a theory has been posited that 2019-nCoV could have jumped from an original host species – bats – to snakes and then to humans.

It also remains to be determined whether the virus adapted in order to survive in a warm-blooded – human – host after being in a cold-blooded one.

2019-nCoV is not the first zoonotic virus or bacteria to have caused an outbreak. Here are seven others that caused worldwide outbreaks:

Ebola

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Ebola was thought to have originated from fruit bats. Other animal hosts that could infect a human include chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelopes and porcupines.

DRC Ebola

Most of the Ebola outbreaks since its discovery in 1976 occurred in Africa [File: Catherine Soi/Al Jazeera]

Transmission of the Ebola virus occurs upon close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or bodily fluids of infected animals found ill or dead in the rainforest. Blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with or has died from Ebola, as well as belongings that have been contaminated with their bodily fluids, can also lead to contracting the virus, the WHO said.

Most of the Ebola outbreaks since its discovery in 1976 occurred in Africa, based on the study conducted by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So far, Ebola has killed more than 11,000 people.

HIV/AIDS

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is believed to have been passed to humans from a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa, according to the US CDC.

HIV infects the cells of the body’s immune system, rendering it more susceptible to infections and complications.

According to the WHO, the term AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is applied to the most advanced stage of HIV infection, as identified by the occurrence of an infection or HIV-related cancer associated with severe immunodeficiency.

HIV/AIDS continues to claim lives, with more than 32 million deaths as of 2019. Approximately 37.9 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2018, according to the WHO.

Transmission can occur after the exchange of body fluids such as saliva, breast milk, blood, semen and vaginal secretions.

Antiretroviral therapies can slow the progression of the disease but it is not accessible to millions living with HIV/AIDS.

PAKISTAN WORLD AIDS DAY

HIV/AIDS continues to claim lives, with more than 32 million deaths as of 2019 [File: Shakil Adil/AP]

Plague

Plagues have existed for centuries.

The Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague, killed an estimated 25 million people, starting from China and spreading to Europe, starting from 1334 to the late 1340s.

Throughout history, there have been three main forms of plague: Bubonic, septicaemic and pneumonic. They are caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis found in small mammals and their fleas.

Infection occurs through the bite of infected vector fleas, unprotected contact with infectious bodily fluids or contaminated materials, and inhaling another patient’s respiratory droplets. 

All continents have gone through a plague – one of the deadliest diseases in human history – at some point except for Oceania.

SARS

Identified in 2003, the SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – coronavirus is believed to have originated from bats and later passed on to other animals such as civet cats.

The first report of humans infected with the virus was in Guangdong province of southern China in 2002, according to the WHO.

MERS South Korea

South Korean tourist assistants wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus that started to spread in 2015 [File: Ahn Young-joon/AP]

From November 2002 through July 2003, a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS that was accompanied by either pneumonia or respiratory distress syndrome (probable cases), according to the WHO. Of these, 774 died.

There is no cure for SARS, but there are treatments such as breathing assistance, antibiotics, steroids and antiviral medicines.

MERS

Identified in 2012, the origins of the MERS – Middle East respiratory syndrome – coronavirus are not fully understood, however, the genomes suggest that it originated in bats and passed to camels.

Studies have shown that humans were infected through direct or indirect contact with infected camels. The disease, which was reported in 27 countries, was not as widespread as SARS.

According to the WHO, there have been 2,494 laboratory-confirmed cases, 80 percent of which were reported in Saudi Arabia.

The fatality rate for the disease is approximately 35 percent, with 858 deaths since the outbreak. 

Rabies

About 99 percent of transmissions of rabies is through dogs, though bats account for the majority of human rabies deaths in the Americas.

Most rabies-related deaths occurred in Africa and Asia, accounting for 95 percent of world rabies deaths.

Indonesia dogs

Approximately 95 percent of world rabies-related deaths occurred in Africa and Asia [File: Firdia Lisnawati/AP]

Transmission occurs through deep bites, scratches as well as infectious material, such as saliva, coming into direct contact with human mucosa and fresh wounds, according to the WHO.

According to the WHO, there are an estimated 59,000 human deaths annually in more than 150 countries.

Influenza

A number of animals can transmit influenza, as the world saw with avian and swine flu.

Direct contact with infected animals or contaminated environments is how these viruses are transmitted, the WHO said.

According to the US CDC, symptoms of influenza include fevers, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, body aches, fatigue, diarrhoea and vomiting.

Worldwide, influenza results in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness annually, and about 290,000 to 650,000 respiratory deaths.

With additional research by Manar Al Adam.

Source: Al Jazeera English
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Coronavirus: All you need to know about symptoms and risks

At least 17 people have died from a new coronavirus in China following an outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, and more than 550 cases have been reported globally.

Most cases are in China, where more infections have been confirmed in recent days.

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There are growing concerns about the spread of the virus as hundreds of millions of people travel for the Lunar New Year celebrations, which start on Friday.

Here is what you need to know: 

What is coronavirus?

According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

These viruses are transmitted between animals and people. SARS, for instance, was believed to have been transmitted from civet cats to humans while MERS travelled from a type of camel to humans.

Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.

A novel coronavirus, identified by Chinese authorities on January 7 and currently named 2019-nCoV, is a new strain that had not been previously identified in humans.

Little is known about it, although human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.

What are the symptoms?

According to the WHO, signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.

In more severe cases, it can lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

Coronavirus

How deadly is it?

Some experts say it may not be as deadly as other types of coronavirus such as SARS, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide during a 2002-2003 outbreak that also originated from China.

MERS, which did not spread as widely, was more deadly, killing a third of those it infected.

Where have cases been reported?

Mostly in China.

Chinese officials said at least 17 people have died, all in Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital. That is also where most of the 571 reported cases are.

Beyond China, Thailand has reported four cases, while South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and the United States have each confirmed one.

All the cases involve people who had either come from Wuhan or been there recently.

What is being done to stop it spreading?

There is no vaccine for the new virus.

Chinese authorities effectively sealed off Wuhan on Thursday, suspending flights and trains out of the city and telling residents they could not leave without a special reason, state media said.

The move, effective at 10am (02:00 GMT), is meant to “resolutely contain the momentum of the epidemic spreading” and protect lives, the central city’s special command centre against the virus said, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Chinese authorities have stepped up monitoring and disinfection efforts ahead of the Lunar New Year break, which formally starts on Friday and is when many of the country’s 1.4 billion people will travel domestically and overseas.

Airport authorities across Asia, including Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia quickly stepped up screening of passengers from Wuhan.

In Europe, the United Kingdom and Italy have said they will introduce enhanced monitoring of flights from Wuhan, while Romania and Russia are also strengthening checks.

Some airports in the United States have also begun checks.

Where did the virus originate?

Chinese health authorities are still trying to determine the origin of the virus, which they say came from a seafood market in Wuhan where wildlife was also traded illegally. The WHO also says an animal source appears most likely to be the primary source of the outbreak.

There is evidence of respiratory transmission of the virus from patient to patient and Chinese authorities have also said 15 medical staff in the country have been infected.

Experts particularly worry when health workers get sick during new outbreaks because this can suggest the disease is becoming more transmissible and because spread in hospitals can often amplify the epidemic.

What next?

On Thursday, the WHO is expected to announce its decision on whether to declare a global public health emergency in relation to the new coronavirus.

Source: Al Jazeera English
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ICJ orders Myanmar to protect Rohingya

The Hague-based International Court of Justice has ordered Myanmar to take emergency measures to prevent genocide of the Rohingya.

In a unanimously-ruled order issued by a panel of 17 judges, and read by presiding Judge Abdulaqawi Ahmed Yusuf, the court upheld the provisions of the 1948 Genocide Convention – saying Myanmar had “caused irreparable damage to the rights of the Rohingya”.

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According to the Statute of the ICJ, the court has the power to order provisional measures when “irreparable prejudice could be caused to rights which are the subject of judicial proceedings”. The court found that the condition of urgency had been met in this case.

In November the Gambia filed a suit against Myanmar alleging it was committing “an ongoing genocide against its minority Muslim Rohingya population” and violating the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Provisional measures are steps to take aimed at preventing further harm and comes as the first step in the legal case.

Judge Yusuf took care to emphasise the ordering of provisional measures did not “prejudge” the case. As Mike Becker, adjunct lecturer at Trinity College in Dublin and a former legal officer at the ICJ, emphasises: “This is a preliminary decision that is without prejudice to the merits of the case.”






Will the ICJ order Myanmar to stop alleged Rohingya genocide? [2:44]

Because of the gravity of the crimes of which Myanmar has been accused, Becker and other legal experts described the case as an “historic legal challenge“. 

Urgent measures requested and ordered

In its application to the court, the Gambia requested six provisional measures requiring Myanmar to act “with immediate effect” to prevent further genocide of the Rohingya group and to take steps not to destroy or render inaccessible any evidence already described in the application.

The Gambia also urged both sides not to take any action which might aggravate the dispute or render it more difficult to resolve, and to provide a report to the court on implementing such measures.

The Gambia later also requested Myanmar cooperate with United Nations bodies that seek to investigate the alleged acts.

Judge Yusuf said the court was not constrained to ordering the measures requested by the Gambia and that it had the power to order additional measures. Yusuf further said that, in ordering provisional measures in this case, it was not necessary to decide on the question of the presence of genocidal intent, as claimed by Myanmar. 

The court ordered Myanmar should take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts within the scope of article two of the Genocide Convention. It particularly cited clause one – killing members of the group, clause two – causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, clause three – deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part, and clause four – imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.

Myanmar must further ensure that its military does not commit genocide or attempts to commit genocide or conspires to commit genocide. Myanmar was also ordered to prevent the destruction of evidence and to ensure the preservation of evidence related to the alleged genocide.

‘Stunning rebuke of Aung San Suu Kyi’ 

In its application to the court, the Gambia asked for the measures to be implemented “with immediate effect”. In an unusual decision, the court requested the Gambia report to the court within four months after the order had been made, and every six months thereafter – until the final decision is made by the court.

There is still a long way to go before this order becomes reality and we see actual improvements in the lives of the Rohingya, but today this persecuted people will have a first taste of justice.

Reed Brody

Legal experts have applauded the court’s decision. Reed Brody, Commissioner at the International Commission of Jurists who was instrumental in the prosecution of Hissene Habre, said to Al Jazeera:  “This is a great day for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas who have been displaced, killed and raped. The UN’s highest court has recognised their suffering.” 

Brody added: “There is still a long way to go before this order becomes reality and we see actual improvements in the lives of the Rohingya, but today this persecuted people will have a first taste of justice. This is further a stunning rebuke of Aung San Suu Kyi, especially after she went personally to The Hague to defend the actions of the Myanmar military. There will now be huge pressure on the court to comply with the government’s ruling.” 

According to Gleider Hernandez, professor at Catholic University of Leuven, the ICJ has made clear that it intends to supervise the implementation of the judgement. He said “Though not unprecedented, the regularity with which Myanmar had to submit reports is striking.” 

The ICJ’s orders are legally binding. Brody says the fact that the decision was unanimous will give additional weight to the court’s measures. 

Source: Al Jazeera English
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‘Unsporty and political’: Anger as AFC matches moved out of Iran

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has moved two Asian Champions League matches out of Iran citing security concerns in the country.

In a statement on Twitter, the AFC said on Wednesday that two home matches involving Iranian teams “have been moved to neutral venues because of ongoing security concerns and the decision of several governments to issue travel warnings to the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

The games, originally scheduled for Tuesday, will now be held on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates, the governing body for Asian football said. The decision came despite threats of a boycott from Iran, which has four teams playing in the continental club competition.

A spokesman for Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani slammed the AFC’s decision as a political move.

“This is an unsporting and unprofessional move,” he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

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There was no immediate comment from Iran’s football federation.

The decision to relocate match comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran following Washington’s assassination of a top Iranian general in Baghdad earlier this month.

Tehran responded to the killing of Qassem Soleimani by striking US targets in Iraq on January 8. On the same day, the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people on board.

The four Iranian clubs competing in the AFC Champions League – Persepolis, Sepahan, Esteghlal, and Shahr Khodro – told the AFC on Monday they would only turn up for the games if they were allowed to host their games in Iran, according to IRNA.

When news of the AFC decision initially became public, Iran’s Sport and Youth Minister, Masoud Soltanifar, told reporters the move was “totally political and unathletic” based on “false pretexts of lack of security and safety of aerial routes to Iran”, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

The AFC’s move has prompted anger in Iran. A young football fan in Tehran, Hojat Vafaee, described the decision as a “pure political decision taken under the pressure of some Arab countries”.

He called on FIFA, football’s world governing body, to intervene and defend Iran’s rights, saying its president, Gianni Infantino “was here in Tehran last year and he has seen the spectacular and safe atmosphere of our stadiums”.

Ali, a 20-year-old supporter of Sepahan, a major sport club from Esfahan in central Iran, also slammed the decision.

“The AFC always says Iran has the best and greatest football fans in Asia and take so much credit for itself. But because of politics, they close their eyes on the feeling of millions of Iranian football fans,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’ve always been told that politics should be kept out of sports, but yet we see it happening by AFC itself.”

Many took to social media in protest, using hashtags including “Shame_On_AFC”, “ACLneedIranianfans” and “AFC_Iran_Is_Safe”. Many criticised the decision on AFC’s Instagram account.

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One Iranian football fan wrote on Twitter: “I don’t know if I should be happy or sad, national pride or global backwardness, pity.”

Some Iranian fans, however, said the AFC’s decision did not affect them.

Nooshin, a female football fan in the northern city of Noshahr, said the move held no weight for her as Iranian women are largely barred from attending football matches.

She added: “Well, we (Iran) are talking about revenge and war all the time. The US is also threatening us. We don’t have aerial safety now.”

Source: Al Jazeera English
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Trump impeachment trial day three: All the latest updates

The Republican-controlled United States Senate will hear opening arguments in President Donald Trump‘s impeachment trial on Wednesday, kicking off up to six days of presentations on the question of whether Trump should be removed from office.

Democrats from the House of Representatives will go first, laying out their case against the president. House managers have 24 hours over three days to make their arguments. Trump’s defence team will then make its case. 

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The start of opening arguments follows a contentious, marathon session of debate that ultimately culminated in a partisan vote in favour of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s resolution outlining the rules for the impeachment trial. 

As opening arguments get under way, here are all the latest updates as of Wednesday, January 22:

Schumer: Yesterday was ‘a dark day and a dark night for the Senate’

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said the impeachment trial began with a “cloud of unfairness” hanging over it.

Speaking to reporters before the trial resumed on Wednesday, Schumer said the first full day of the Senate impeachment trial represented “a dark day and a dark night for the Senate”.

All 11 amendments proposed by Democrats were voted down before a Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rules resolution passed along party lines shortly before 2 AM Wednesday morning. 

He urged his Republican colleagues to “make this trial more fair”.

“It’s not a question of ability, they can, if they want. It’s a question of conscience,” Schumer said

Schumer keeps door open on Bidens testifying

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, speaking at a news conference at the Capitol, did not respond directly when asked if he would rule out testimony from former Vice President Joe Biden or his son, Hunter Biden.

But he said: “The witnesses should have something to do with and direct knowledge of the charges against the president. We don’t need to have witnesses that have nothing to do with this” adding that some “are trying to distract Americans from the truth.”

What amendments did Democrats request yesterday?

Yesterday, Democrats proposed 11 amendments to the rules resolution put forward by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. All were rejected 53-47, save for one, which was voted down 52-48.

Here are those proposed amendments:

  • Ability to Subpoena White House, White House budget office, State Department, Defense Department emails and other documents related to pressure campaign against Ukraine.

  • Ability to subpoena White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney,  White House budget office official Michael Duffey,  top adviser to the White House Chief of Staff Robert Blair, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton.

  • Requirement that Trump’s defence to provide documents sought by Democrats if the president’s team introduces new evidence into the trial record.

  • Guarantee that Senate will eventually vote on whether specific witnesses will be called to testify, rather than a general vote on whether subpoenaing further witnesses will be allowed at all. 

  • Granting 24 hours, not two, to respond to any motions introduced the case. Republican Senator Susan Collins broke from her party and voted in favor of the amendment, which was voted down 52-48. 

  • Requirement that Chief Justice John Roberts must rule on motions to subpoena witnesses and documents. Under the current rules, Roberts can choose to make rulings, or can send motions directly to a vote. However, any ruling from Roberts can be overruled by a simple majority vote. 

What rules did the Senate approve for the trial? 

Here is a breakdown of how the trial will work based on the resolution passed early on Wednesday

  • Each side will get 24 hours over three days to present their case (that means opening arguments could last up to six days). 
  • After arguments, senators will have 16 hours to ask questions, submitted in writing. 
  • After the question and answer session, the Senate will likely discuss whether to subpoena witnesses and documents. 
  • House evidence will be admitted automatically for the record unless there is a motion to throw out any evidence. 

Who are the House managers? 

The House of Representatives appointed seven Democrats to make their case against Trump. Read more about them here

Interactive - Trump impeachment managers

 

Trump slams impeachment in Davos

President Trump said US economic growth is the buzz at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, but reporters are focused on the impeachment trial under way back in Washington, DC. 

Trump held a news conference on Wednesday before leaving the gathering of top business and political leaders where he rattled off a long list of positive economic statistics, and then took questions about his impeachment.

US president Donald Trump attends a bilateral meeting during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, on January 21, 2020. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Trump attended a bilateral meeting during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos [Fabrice Coffrini/AFP]

He said he will leave it to the Senate as to whether there will be witnesses called during his impeachment trial.

Trump said that in the run-up to the trial, the Democrats talked about the “tremendous case” they had, but “they don’t have a case”. 

He again called the impeachment a “hoax” and a “witch-hunt” that started right after he was elected.

Missed the marathon debate over the rules resolution? 

From 11 amendments being blocked to a preview of what is to come from each side, check out what happened during Tuesday’s debate on the rules package here

impeachment

This artist sketch depicts White House counsel Pat Cipollone speaking in the Senate chamber during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump [Dana Verkouteren/AP Photo] 


SOURCE:
Al Jazeera and news agencies

Source: Al Jazeera English
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‘Perilous times’ for Iraq’s Shia militias after Soleimani killing

Baghdad, Iraq – On January 3, soon after Iranian General Qassem Soleimani left Baghdad airport in an armoured vehicle, a US drone fired rockets at his convoy, killing the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iraqis accompanying him.

The brazen assassination sent shockwaves through the Middle East and beyond, triggering fears of an all-out war between the United States and Iran in Iraq, where the two foes compete for influence. 

Iran did choose Iraqi soil to retaliate, sending a volley of missiles at two bases hosting US forces outside Baghdad and Erbil. The attacks on January 8 ended without any fatalities, however, easing worries of a regional conflagration. As the smoke clears, what is worrying observers in Iraq is the death of the powerful Shia militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the same US strike targeting Soleimani. 

His killing leaves the paramilitary he commanded – the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – without a clear successor, throwing the future of the 100,000-strong force into uncertainty and raising new concerns over instability in war-ravaged Iraq. The leadership vacuum is also likely to weaken Tehran’s hand in Iraq, according to experts.

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The PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi, was formed in 2014, in response to a fatwa by Iraq’s most influential Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The religious leader had put out a call for volunteers to take on ISIL (ISIS) after the Sunni armed group conquered more than a third of Iraqi territory. 

Al-Muhandis, the widely used nom-de-guerre for Jamal Jaafar al-Ibrahimi, was “the creator of the PMF, its over-seer”, said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of Baghdad-based think-tank al-Bayan. With military backing from Soleimani’s Quds Force, al-Muhandis helped unite the group of 50 disparate militias – most of them Shia fighters – into an effective force against ISIL.

Mourners gather during a funeral procession for Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Basra, Iraq, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. Thousands of people gathered in Basra on Tuesday

Mourners gather during a funeral procession for Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Basra, Iraq [AP]

A fluent Farsi speaker who spent most of his adult life in Iran, al-Muhandis was the dominant administrator in charge of handling logistics, supply, personnel administration and coordinating the various competing factions of the PMF – many of whom had a history of conflict with one another and represented a range of allegiances, including to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the powerful Iraqi nationalist and Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr. 

While Iran-aligned groups likely constitute a minority in the PMF’s total number of fighters, al-Muhandis’s command of the umbrella group gave Iran an influential stake in its affairs, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank.

Some experts contend it was Iranian pressure that pushed Iraq’s government to incorporate the PMF into the state’s security apparatus in 2016, a move that provided the militia with heavy weaponry and significant financial resources. In 2019 alone, the group was allocated $2.16bn from the Iraqi state budget.

Al-Muhandis played a key role in the process. “He bought a visionary aspect to the PMF. He saw it not just as an organisation or state-sanctioned business, but more as a system relying on feedback loops, he understood the dynamics underlying the different divisions within the organisation,” said Inna Rudolf, research fellow at the United Kingdom-based King’s College, London.

‘Perilous time’

In recent years, the PMF has also grown into a powerful political faction, with politicians aligned to the militia taking the most seats in Iraq’s parliament in the 2018 legislative elections. Politicians from the Iran-allied factions in the PMF won 48 seats, coming in second behind al-Sadr’s Sairun alliance, which took 54 in the 329-member assembly. 

The force’s political and military clout has worried Washington, which has thousands of troops in Iraq to prevent a resurgence of ISIL, which was defeated in 2017.

And as US-Iran tensions escalated last year – in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump‘s pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing punishing sanctions on Tehran – the US army and the PMF accused the other of attacks on their positions in Iraq.

The long-simmering hostilities boiled over late last year when a rocket attack on an Iraqi base hosting US troops killed an American defence contractor. Washington blamed the incident on Kataib Hezbollah, a militia founded by al-Muhandis, and carried out air raids on the group’s bases in Syria and Iraq, killing 24 of its fighters. Days later, on December 29, PMF supporters stormed the US embassy, prompting a severe diplomatic crisis that culminated in the US killing of Soleimani.

Hezbollah supporter

A woman wears the words ‘powerful revenge’ on her hand, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, January 5, 2020 following the US air strike in Iraq that killed Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis [Maya Alleruzzo/ AP]

It is not clear if the US intended to kill al-Muhandis in the same attack, but the dramatic US escalation makes for “perilous times for Iraq’s Shia militias”, said Ranj Alaaldin, fellow at the Brookings Institute in Doha, Qatar. 

The heavily armed groups fear “becoming displaced or weakened by rivals”, said Alaaldin, predicting a contentious succession battle pitting Iran-aligned groups that dominate the PMF against al-Sadr’s bloc.

Tehran has a lot at stake. The main contender from the pro-Iranian faction is Hadi al-Amiri, a former transport minister and the head of the Badr Organization, which forms the backbone of the PMF. Al-Amiri is a fluent Farsi speaker and an admirer of Soleimani, and thus likely to prioritise Iran’s interests, according to observers. Al-Sadr, however, has long opposed both US and Iranian influence in Iraq.

The uncertainty hanging over the PMF presents a rare opportunity for the US to curb Tehran’s hold over Baghdad, said one Iraqi diplomat who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

“Since Qassem Soleimani was killed, Iranian influence has lost the aggressiveness, the expansionist idea it used to have. So we have three or four years for a functional US policy in Iraq, after that, we’ll go back to how it was before Soleimani’s death, so it’s now or never to do something to confront the Iranian influence in Iraq.”

Iraqi demonstrators gather during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-SudanI

Iraqi demonstrators gather during continuing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq January 20, 2020 [Thaier al-Sudani/ Reuters]

Public opinion, too, appears to be turning against the PMF. There have been calls to disband the group from protesters who have taken to the streets across cities in Iraq since October. Many question the value of the group in the wake of ISIL’s defeat, while human rights groups have accused some groups of war crimes and extortion in some of the areas they took back from ISIL. 

Yet, others said any attempts to sideline the group could provoke a backlash given its entrenchment in the Iraqi state. “Can you just suddenly clamp down on this behaviour? It’s very difficult to do without leading to violence and blowback,” said Jiyad of al-Bayan. 

For now, despite the lack of a figurehead, the PMF appears to be united.

Its various factions have promised to avenge al-Muhandis’s killing by expelling US troops from the country. On January 13, al-Sadr held a meeting in the Iranian city of Qom to coordinate the PMF’s efforts to expel US forces. In attendance were the leaders of several militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.

The groups have now announced a “million-man march” against the US’s military presence for Friday.

Meanwhile, PMF-aligned legislators pushed through a resolution on January 5 ordering caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi‘s government to end US military presence in Iraq – something Washington has opposed vehemently.

Abu Hadi al-Daraji, spokesman for the PMF, told Al Jazeera the group would remain a force in Iraq. 

“As long as the Iraqi army, and the Iraqi police force are legitimate forces under the control of the Iraqi government, the Hashid Shaabi will be too,” he said. “It’s a legitimate organisation.”

Gareth Browne reported from Baghdad. Zaheena Rasheed reported from Doha

Source: Al Jazeera English
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Why peace initiatives in Libya are failing

This month has seen several failed attempts by foreign powers to broker a ceasefire in Libya.

First, Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), refused to travel to Rome when he learned that his adversary, renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, would be present at a meeting convened by Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte.

A week later in Moscow, al-Sarraj signed a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement, but Haftar walked out without signing.

And then, the leaders of Germany, France, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and several other countries gathered in Berlin to jumpstart a peace process on Libya.

The final communique of the conference called on all parties to respect the nearly decade-old UN arms embargo on Libya – an embargo many of those powers have repeatedly violated – and reaffirmed the need for a political, rather than a military, solution to the conflict.

The renewed call to respect the arms embargo is sensible but it lacks a plan for sanctioning those countries that continue to violate it.

Meanwhile, the complex situation on the ground in Libya has worsened. Even while the Berlin meeting was in session, pro-Haftar protesters and militias blocked four key oil terminals.

Recently, Turkey announced the deployment of its troops to Libya to back the GNA. The country has already seen the presence of mercenaries from a number of countries including Chad, Sudan, Syria and Russia.

This has exacerbated an already complex situation on the ground, making it difficult for the UN and other peace-brokers to navigate.

In this context, the failure of European and Middle Eastern actors to stabilise the situation in Libya comes as no surprise, particularly since many of the so-called peace-brokers have actually fed the violence through, for example, repeated violations of the arms embargo.

In their interventions in the Libyan conflict, some foreign actors have been pursuing opposing visions for the future of the region. Others, in particular the Europeans, have intervened, hoping to secure economic gains in Libya and its assistance in keeping migrants away from European borders.

None have had the best interest of the Libyans in mind. This is quite clear from the absence of representatives of Libyan civil society and grassroots organisations in many of these “peace” initiatives sponsored by foreign powers.

While the fate of Libya continues to be negotiated in various European and Arab cities, the aspirations of Libyans continue to be swept aside. But it does not have to be this way.

Libyans can still take the peace process into their own hands. An existing framework, known as the National Conference Process (NCP), is a good starting point. 

The NCP was a consultative process launched in 2018 and led by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue with the support of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). The consultations were informed by the participation of 7,000 Libyans across the country. They resulted in a final report that outlined Libyan consensus on various policy areas that must be addressed to build the country.

It might seem futile to return to a process of national reconciliation while fighting is ongoing, but the outcomes outlined in the NCP’s final report still provide a critical opportunity to build a Libya by Libyans for Libyans – even during protracted conflict.

Given the current fragmentation of Libya’s political leadership, domestic civil society and business actors should shepherd this process, even if on the sidelines of the brutal theatre of war. These actors include local security and military figures, municipalities and community leaders – many of whom were involved in the NCP consultations themselves in 2018.

Much of the current fighting is over resource distribution and power – no doubt a central reason why several foreign governments in Europe and the Middle East are scrambling to retain influence and control in Libya. Distribution of power and resources is one of the five policy areas identified in the NCP report, alongside national and government priorities, security and defence, constitutional and electoral processes, and national reconciliation.

Haftar’s offensive in April 2019 was an attempt to take control of Tripoli by force, and it put an abrupt stop to plans to hold the national conference that same month.  

The national reconciliation process was meant to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya, after which the priorities outlined in the report would be among the issues addressed to build the country. 

It is no wonder, then, that Haftar and his army timed their offensive to thwart any kind of meaningful dialogue, especially a Libyan-owned one, whereby his legitimacy would have certainly been undercut.

But the NCP is, as its name indicates, a process as opposed to a mere two-day conference. The work of Libyan community leaders, civil society and security sector figures that drove the national conference consultations need not stand still because of the persistent fighting.

It could, as Yemeni civil society leaders have done through initiatives such as the Yemen Peace Forum, be used to organise strategic workshops at the community level in more stable areas in Libya.

Of course, certain Libyan organisations have indeed been working together, but there needs to be a more coherent process that also aims to develop the policy areas identified in the NCP. If the military conflict makes this option difficult, there is a robust group of Libyan civil society leaders operating in the diaspora who could, together with local community leaders based in Libya, pursue such initiatives in other safe spaces.

It is difficult to envisage any follow-through on the implementation of the NCP policy areas in the absence of the participation of Libya’s rival governments, or at least that of the GNA. It is even more difficult to envisage this without elections. But it is not impossible.

Libya’s civil society both domestically and in the diaspora has been quietly, but actively, working to support the various policy areas outlined in the NCP. Those efforts must be supported – and not meddled with – by the international community. They form a crucial part of the groundwork needed to re-build Libya once the violence subsides.

Without support for such efforts, foreign military and political interference – the very problem that the NCP explicitly warns against – will continue to be afforded more space as the demands of Libyans continue to be ignored.

As the political squabbling continues in European cities, and as the fighting rages on in Tripoli and other parts of the country, the vision that Libyans put forward in the NCP should no longer be deferred. 

It is time to revive the National Conference Process in Libya, with or without a ceasefire agreement.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Source: Al Jazeera English
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Algeria to host six African foreign ministers on Libya conflict

Algeria will host foreign affairs ministers from six northern and sub-Saharan African countries on Thursday to discuss the conflict in Libya

The Algiers meeting of ministers from Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Chad, Mali and Niger follows a summit in Germany’s capital, Berlin, aimed at shoring up a ceasefire.

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Algeria, which has a 1,000-km (620-mile) border with Libya, is working to “build consensus to secure the maximum chance for a peace deal” at a proposed future meeting in Algiers, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters news agency.

Algeria maintains good contacts with all sides in Libya. Several other foreign leaders and foreign ministers from Arab and European states and Turkey have all visited Algeria in recent weeks to discuss the crisis.

Already facing its own internal political problems after nearly a year of mass protests that have led to changes in its leadership, Algiers is worried about new security threats arising from any escalation in Libya.

The conflict represents the first major international test for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected last month.

It fears attempts by armed groups to enter its territory from Libya to attack its oil and gas facilities.

Rival administrations

Libya has been in turmoil since the 2011 overthrow of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi and has become a battleground for rival proxy forces.

The deeply divided country currently has two rival administrations: the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, and another allied with renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar in the east.

The country’s embattled Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj enjoys UN backing and a Turkish military presence, but has struggled to assert his authority beyond Tripoli.

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Haftar has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia. His Libyan National Army controls vast swaths of territory in the oil-rich North African country.

In April, Haftar’s forces launched an offensive to seize Tripoli, with clashes so far killing more than 280 civilians and 2,000 fighters while displacing tens of thousands.

On January 12, a fragile ceasefire backed by both Turkey and Russia was put into place.

On Sunday, world leaders agreed at a conference in Berlin to set up a so-called “International Follow-Up Committee” (IFC), which seeks to implement the goals of the summit, namely to secure a lasting ceasefire and implement a UN arms embargo that has been largely ignored for almost a decade.

A number of European figures further suggested the possibility of deploying peacekeeping troops to Libya if a permanent ceasefire were agreed, though this was not part of the discussions.

The committee is scheduled to meet for the first time in Berlin in mid-February.

Source: Al Jazeera English
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Trump impeachment trial day two: All the latest updates

The impeachment trial of United States President Donald Trump is set to begin in earnest on Tuesday with Democrats and Republicans battling over a resolution on the rules governing the trial. 

Day two of the impeachment trial follows its ceremonial opening last week when US Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the proceedings, swore in senators as jurors. 

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Senators are expected on Tuesday to vote on a rules resolution proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that envisions a speedy trial with long days. Democrats have rejected the proposal and vowed to introduce amendments. 

Here are all the latest updates as of Tuesday, January 21:

White House rejects Democrat claim that Trump’s lawyer is a material witness

The White House rejected a request from Democrats that President Donald Trump’s lawyer Pat Cipollone disclose any first-hand knowledge he had of the withholding of aid to Ukraine, which is at the crux of the Senate trial over whether Trump should be removed from office.

“The idea that the counsel to the President has to turn over protected documents and confidential information is ludicrous, and to imply he can’t represent the President of the United States in an impeachment proceeding is completely absurd,” said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.

impeachment trial

House impeachment managers are arguing the case against Trump. [J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press]

Impeachment trial begins in earnest

The second day of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began shortly before 1:30 PM local time. 

Schumer says he will immediately seek amendments to subpoena witnesses and documents

House Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he will immediately seek amendments to the Republican proposed rules for the trial that would allow for subpoenaing witnesses and documents. 

Under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rules proposal, the question of witnesses would not be addressed until after opening arguments and the question-answer session. 

“The evidence is supposed to inform arguments, not come after their completed,” Schumer said.

McConnell says amendments to subpoena witnesses will be tabled

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will table any Democratic amendments to subpoena witnesses and documents until after the first phase of the trial. 

Under McConnell’s rules proposal, the question of witnesses would not be addressed until after opening arguments and the question-answer session. 

House Democratic leaders decry rules resolution

Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler, chairmen of the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees and two of the managers who will present the impeachment case against President Donald Trump in Senate, have joined their Democratic colleagues in decrying a rules resolution proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“This is not a process for a fair trial, this is the process for a rigged trial,” Schiff told reporters shortly before the beginning of Senate trial on Tuesday. He called the resolution a “cover-up”.

Meanwhile, Nadler said: “There’s no trial in this country where you wouldn’t admit relative witnesses.”

Senate Democrats will seek to subpoena White House documents

US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he will seek to amend the resolution coming later on Tuesday that outlines the procedure for Trump’s impeachment trial in order to obtain records of communications on US aid to Ukraine.

“The first amendment I will offer will ask that the Senate subpoena White House documents related to the charges against the president,” Schumer said, adding that he would introduce a series of amendments on the trial process. “No one can argue that these documents are not directly related to the charges against the president and should be reviewed by the Senate.”

Democrats: Trump lawyer Cipollone a material witness 

Democrats who will argue the case to remove Trump from office demanded on Tuesday that Trump’s personal lawyer Pat Cipollone disclose any first-hand knowledge he has of evidence he will present in the Senate’s impeachment trial, calling him a material witness.

trump impeachment

The US Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger introduces the US House impeachment managers, including lead manager House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, on the floor of the Senate as they arrive for the procedural start of the Senate impeachment trial [US Senate TV/Reuters]

“You must disclose all facts and information as to which you have first-hand knowledge that will be at issue in connection with evidence you present or arguments you make in your role as the President’s legal advocate so that the Senate and Chief Justice can be apprised of any potential ethical issues, conflicts, or biases,” the House of Representatives managers wrote in a letter to Cipollone.

Trump in Davos as World Economic Forum kicks off

The 50th World Economic Forum has kicked off in the Swiss city of Davos, with an agenda that is focused heavily on climate change, as world leaders struggle to tackle the crisis.

The four-day annual gathering of some of the world’s top political and business leaders in the Swiss Alps is seeking to meet head-on the dangers to both the environment and the economy from global warming.

President Donald Trump delivers the opening remarks at the World Economic Forum, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in Davos. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump delivers the opening remarks at the World Economic Forum [Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

Trump, who has repeatedly expressed scepticism about climate change, lauded the US economy in his keynote address on Tuesday morning, hours before his impeachment trial was set to get under way in Washington, DC.

Read more here.

TRUMP IMPEACHMENT REFRESHER

  • The impeachment inquiry centred on a call between Trump and Ukraine’s president in which Trump asks for a probe into the Bidens. Trump also wanted an investigation into a conspiracy theory about the 2016 elections.
  • At the time of the call, Trump was withholding $391m in military aid from Ukraine, and conditioned a White House meeting on the probes, according to witnesses. 
  • Trump was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He denies any wrongdoing.

#MitchMcCoverup trends ahead of trial’s debate on rules 

Angered over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules package, Democratic supporters slammed the Republicans and called for rules they say would guarantee a fair trial. #MitchMcCoverup trended on Twitter on Monday night into Tuesday. 

Many, also using #MidnightMitch, said they were outraged over the fact that under McConnell’s proposed rules, the opening arguments could go well past midnight. Others called on McConnell to allow witnesses. 

Top Republican proposes speedy trial, with long days 

McConnell on Monday proposed a rules package that envisioned a speedy trial, with long days scheduled for opening arguments. 

The resolution would allow House managers, who work as prosecutors, up to 24 hours over the course of two days to present their case. Trump’s defence team would have the same amount of time. The arguments would be followed by 16 hours for questions and answers from senators, and then four hours of debate.

Democrats slammed the resolution, calling it a “national disgrace”. While the Democrats are expected to propose amendments, Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority and their preferred rules package is expected to pass. 

How does impeachment work? 

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the US impeachment process: 

INTERACTIVE - US Impeachment process

Source: Al Jazeera English
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Trump impeachment trial: Your 600-word guide

The impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump is set to begin in earnest on Tuesday as Republicans and Democrats battle over the rules of the proceedings. 

With a 53-47 majority, Republicans are expected to ultimately get their preferred rules package, which includes 48 hours, divided evenly between House managers and Trump’s defence, for opening arguments over four days. The opening arguments would be following by 16 hours of questions and answers from Senators before four hours of debate. 

The impeachment trial marks a historic moment in the United States, highlighting the deep divisions in the country. 

As the trial gets fully under way, here’s what you need to know in fewer than 600 words. 

What should you expect to see on Tuesday? 

The Senate will convene at 1pm local time (18:00 GMT) to begin debate on the rules resolution. Democrats have already promised to propose amendments. That means the debate could go well into the night. But expect the resolution to ultimately pass along party lines. 

Why do the rules matter? 

The rules ultimately decide the direction and tone of the trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules package indicates that Republicans want a speedy trial with long days. 

Democrats argue 12-hour days of arguments mean many Americans will not watch as the days will stretch well into the early hours of the mornings. 

Trump impeachment

In this image from video, Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell, speaks as the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump begins in the Senate [Senate Television/AP Photo] 

The rules package of former President Bill Clinton was passed with bipartisan support. But that is unlikely this time. 

There’s also a question of witnesses. Right now, the rules package puts off the question of witnesses until after opening arguments. That has angered Democrats, who will likely propose amendments on Tuesday that would call witnesses or evidence. 

Why was Trump impeached? 

House Democrats accuse Trump of abusing his power in office by orchestrating a pressure campaign to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic political rival, as well as launch a probe into a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 presidential elections.

The House impeachment investigation centred on a whistle-blower complaint in which Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the phone and asked for the investigation into Biden.

At the time of the call, the Trump administration was withholding nearly $400m in military assistance to Ukraine.

During the impeachment inquiry, Trump refused to participate and urged current and former administration staffers to do the same.

He was impeached on December 18 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. 

When will oral arguments begin? 

Oral arguments are expected to begin on Wednesday – that’s if the Senate adopts the rules resolution on Tuesday. 

First up would be the House mangers, followed by Trump’s defence team. 

Is it Day 1 or 2 of the trial? 

Technically, Tuesday marks the second day of the trial. It officially opened last Thursday when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swore in the senators as jurors.

Who are the House managers?

House managers act as prosecutors. They include: 

  • Adam Schiff, House Intelligence Committee chairman (team lead) 
  • Jerrold Nadler, House Judiciary Committee chairman
  • Zoe Lofgren 
  • Hakeem Jeffries 
  • Val Demings 
  • Jason Crow
  • Sylvia Garcia
Nancy Pelosi and managers

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking during a news conference to announce impeachment managers on Capitol Hill in Washington [Susan Walsh/AP Photo] 

Who’s on Trump’s defence team? 

  1. Pat Cipollone, White House counsel (team lead)
  2. Jay Sekulow
  3. Kenneth Starr
  4. Alan Dershowitz
  5. Robert Ray
  6. Pam Bondi
  7. Pat Philbin
  8. Mike Purpura

What’s Trump doing during it all? 

The obvious expectation is that he will be tweeting, but how much remains to be seen. The president is currently in the Swiss town of Davos for the four-day annual gathering of the World Economic Forum. 

What’s the expected outcome?

An acquittal is expected. 

A two-thirds majority vote is required in the Senate to convict and remove a president from office. 

The Senate is currently made up of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats. 

Trump is only the third US president to be impeached. No president has ever been removed from office via the impeachment process. 

Source: Al Jazeera English
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