Palestinians protest, Israel braces ahead of Trump plan

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA CITY/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated against U.S. President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday hours before its scheduled release at a ceremony in Washington.

Israeli troops meanwhile reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump’s long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders rejected it even before its official release. They say his administration is biased toward Israel.

The Palestinians fear Trump’s blueprint will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War – by permitting Israel to annex large chunks of occupied territory including blocs of Jewish settlements.

Diab Al-Louh, the Palestinians’ ambassador to Egypt, said on Tuesday they had requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League council at ministerial level – which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would attend.

GAZA PROTESTS

In Gaza City on Tuesday, protesters waved Palestinian flags and held aloft posters of Abbas. “Trump is a fool, Palestine is not for sale!” an activist shouted through a loudspeaker.

Others chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” as they burned tires and posters of Trump. More protests were expected after Trump announces details of his plan later in the day.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops had been sent to reinforce the West Bank’s Jordan Valley – an area which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to partially annex.

Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to Britain, told Reuters in London that Trump’s peace plan was merely “political theater”.

“It is not a peace deal. It is the ‘bantustan-isation’ of the people of Palestine and the land of Palestine. We will be turned into bantustans,” he said, referring to the nominally independent black enclaves in apartheid-era South Africa.

“Jan. 28, 2020 will mark the official legal stamp of approval of the United States for Israel to implement a full-fledged apartheid system,” he said.

Israel vehemently rejects any comparison to the former South African regime.

GOOD DEAL?

Trump will deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House later on Tuesday to outline his plan, the result of three years work by his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

He met with Netanyahu and the Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz ahead of the announcement. Both were briefed on its contents.

Netanyahu said it was “the opportunity of a century and we’re not going to pass it by.” Gantz called it a “significant and historic milestone.”

A Netanyahu spokesman said he would fly to Moscow on Wednesday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposals.

But Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it is far from clear that the Trump plan will resuscitate them.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on a draft of the plan fear that it will seek to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank.

Further obstacles include the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington, and that no plan can work without them. An Abbas spokesman urged any Arab or Muslim officials invited to the ceremony to boycott it.

Addressing their fears, Trump said on Monday: “They probably won’t want it initially…but I think in the end they will. It’s very good for them. In fact it’s overly good to them.”

But on Monday Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.

Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said both Trump and Netanyahu were looking to change the subject from their own domestic troubles.

“The problem is it doesn’t feel like this is the beginning of an important initiative,” Alterman said.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.

On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Both men deny any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Dan Williams and Steven Holland in Washington; Editing by Angus Macswan and Mark Heinrich)

‘No, No America’: Iraq protesters demand expulsion of U.S. troops

By John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite fears of violence following a cleric’s call for a “million strong” turnout.

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi paramilitary chief in Baghdad this month. His eventual decision to hold it away from a separate anti-government protest camp, and away from the U.S. embassy, looked pivotal in keeping the march peaceful.

Throngs started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad’s main university. They avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’s ruling elites.

“We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health worker from southern Samawa, who had come by bus to Baghdad and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district controlled by Sadr’s followers.

“We support the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.

The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.

Unrest erupted in October with protests against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians, that have met deadly force from government security forces and pro-Iran paramilitaries that dominate the state.

Washington’s killing this month of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani added a new dimension to the crisis.

It has temporarily united rival Shi’ite groups in opposition to the presence of U.S. troops – a rallying cry that critics say aims simply to refocus the street and kill the momentum of the anti-establishment protests that challenge their grip on power.

Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Sadr supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.

The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament.

Parliament urged the government to eject U.S. troops after the killing of Soleimani, but Sunni and Kurdish politicians boycotted the session, the first time lawmakers have voted along ethnic and sectarian lines since the defeat of IS.

Sunnis and Kurds generally oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops, seeing them as crucial in fighting against IS remnants and a buffer against dominance of Iran.

“DO NOT CROSS THIS BARRIER”

U.S.-Iran tension playing out on Iraqi soil has further fractured Iraqi politics and distracted leaders from forming a new government.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.

“Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected … and citizens should have the right to peaceful protest,” said the cleric, who comments on politics only in times of crisis and wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Iraqi President Barham Salih posted a photo of Friday’s march on Twitter and wrote that Iraqis deserved a “fully sovereign state that serves its people.”

Under the government of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who said he would quit in November, security forces and unidentified gunmen believed to be linked to powerful Iran-backed militias killed nearly 450 anti-establishment protesters.

Marchers on Friday wore Iraqi flags and symbolic white robes indicating they were willing to die for Iraq while others sat looking out over the square from half finished buildings, holding signs reading “No America, no Israel, no colonialists”.

Anti-American marchers were protected by Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of mostly Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, witnesses said.

The march did not head as initially feared towards U.S. Embassy, the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound.

Many marchers boarded buses in the early afternoon to head home. A smaller number shuffled along towards Tahrir Square.

Outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, a sign read “Warning. Do not cross this barrier, we will use pre-emptive measures against any attempt to cross”.

(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by William Maclean)

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises
By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric said that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence as gunmen killed at least eight people near a Baghdad protest site on Friday.

More than 20 others were wounded near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said, a week after Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shi’ite Iran’s interests.

Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.

Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.

He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.

“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalized in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.

The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.

Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.

More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.

Washington on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders who it accused of directing the killing of Iraqi protesters. A senior U.S. Treasury official suggested the sanctions were timed to distance those figures from any role in forming a new government.

Iraq’s two main allies, the United States and Iran, have acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, although Tehran’s allies have mostly dominated state institutions since then.

Iranian officials including the powerful commander of its Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, stepped in to prevent Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in October, Reuters reported.

Soleimani was reported to be in Baghdad this week.

Abdul Mahdi’s government, including himself, will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be chosen, the prime minister said last week.

President Barham Salih officially has 15 days – until Dec. 16 – to name a new premier tasked with forming a government that would be approved by parliament up to a month later.

Iraqi lawmakers say they will then move to hold a general election next year but protesters say that without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will keep corrupt politicians in power.

(Reporting by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Alexander Smith)

Protesters left on besieged HK campus weigh their options

By Kate Lamb and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – At least eight protesters who had been holding out at a trashed Hong Kong university surrendered on Friday, while others searched for escape routes past riot police who surrounded the campus but said there was no deadline for ending the standoff.

The siege at the Polytechnic University on the Kowloon peninsula appeared to be nearing an end with the number of protesters dwindling to a handful, days after some of the worst violence since anti-government demonstrations escalated in June.

Police chief Chris Tang, who took up the post this week, urged those remaining inside to come out.

“I believe people inside the campus do not want their parents, friends … to worry about them,” Tang told reporters.

Those who remain say they want to avoid being arrested for rioting or on other charges, so hope to find some way to slip past the police or hide.

Sitting in the largely deserted campus, one holdout described how his girlfriend had pleaded with him to surrender to the police.

He had refused, he said, telling her she might as well find another partner because he would likely go to jail.

“A man has to abandon everything otherwise it’s impossible to take part in a revolution,” the protester told Reuters.

Another man sitting nearby agreed, saying it was just as well he was divorced because a “man with family cannot make it to here.”

The campus was so quiet on Friday you could hear the chants of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers exercising on their nearby base.

Many levels of the buildings look like abandoned rebel hideouts strewn with remains — rucksacks, masks, water bottles, cigarette butts, with security cameras smashed throughout. Lockers were stuffed with gas masks and black clothes, and a samurai sword lay on the ground where it was abandoned.

“We are feeling a little tired. All of us feel tired but we will not give up trying to get out,” said a 23-year-old demonstrator who gave his name as Shiba as he ate noodles in the protesters’ canteen.

A Reuters reporter saw six black-clad protesters holding hands walk towards police lines, while a first aid worker said two more surrendered later.

The protests snowballed from June after years of resentment over what many residents see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Protesters, who have thrown fire bombs and rocks and fired bows and arrows at police, are calling for full democracy and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other demands.

Police have responded to the attacks with rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and occasional live rounds but say they have acted with restraint in life-threatening situations.

On Friday Hong Kong’s High Court said it would temporarily suspend its ruling that found a controversial law banning protesters from wearing face masks is unconstitutional.

The court said it would suspend its ruling for seven days while appeals processes proceeded.

Beijing has said it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong is governed. It denies meddling in its affairs and accuses foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

One older protester, who estimated only about 30 demonstrators remained, said some had given up looking for escape routes and were now making new weapons to protect themselves in case police stormed the campus.

There have been two days and nights of relative calm in the city ahead of district council elections that are due to take place on Sunday.

Tang said police would adopt a “high-profile” presence on Sunday and he appealed to protesters to refrain from violence so people feel safe to vote.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Alun John, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang and Felix Tam; Writing by By Anne Marie Roantree, Marius Zaharia, Nick Macfie and Josh Smith; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

‘Fire magicians’ and medieval weaponry: a Hong Kong university under siege

By Kate O’Donnell-Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter

HONG KONG (Reuters) – For three days last week, anti-government protesters camped out at Hong Kong’s sprawling Polytechnic University prepared for what they feared might be a bloody, even deadly, battle with police.

In the university’s heart, littered with smashed glass and covered in revolutionary graffiti spray-painted on the walls, the black-clad demonstrators in gas masks sawed metal poles into batons and practiced firing rocks from a makeshift catapult. Nearby, others ferried around crates of petrol bombs and wrapped arrows in cloth to set aflame.

On Saturday, the battle began as police moved in to clear the campus and the protesters responded with barrages of rocks and petrol bombs, leaving parts of the university in flames.

After more than five months of protests calling for greater democratic freedoms amid growing anxiety over Chinese influence in Hong Kong, the demonstrations have taken a sudden and dangerous turn, engulfing the city’s universities for the first time.

On five campuses in the Chinese-ruled territory, students armed with medieval-type weaponry turned their universities into rebel fortresses, amid a growing sense by many that sustained peaceful protests were futile. On the other side of the barricades and beyond the flames of burning debris were lines of riot police, armed with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Most of the universities were cleared of demonstrators by the weekend. But the showdown between police and demonstrators at Polytechnic University was grinding on Tuesday, as officers maintained a siege around the campus, where about 100 protesters were still holed up.

During the past week, Reuters journalists have covered the violent confrontations at four Hong Kong universities, including the Polytechnic, as an increasingly militant protest movement suddenly shifted tactics.

‘FIRE MAGICIANS’ AND CATAPULTS

Toward the end of last week, as many as a thousand students occupied the Polytechnic campus. But the numbers dwindled over the next two days, as protesters feared police would lay siege to the campus.

The preparations, though, did not abate. In the cafeteria, tables were laden with supplies – mountains of bottled water, energy drinks, chocolate, torches, toothbrushes and power banks. Outside, a team produced petrol bombs, while the university’s archery team gave impromptu lessons on how to draw a bow.

Teams of “fire magicians”, tasked with lobbing petrol bombs at police on the frontlines, practiced by throwing empty bottles into the university’s drained swimming pool.

The campus is located in a strategic spot next to the Cross Harbour Tunnel, a major artery linking the Kowloon peninsula to Hong Kong island that had been barricaded by protesters. One aim of the Polytechnic occupation was keeping the tunnel shut, protesters said.

Demonstrators who streamed into the university last week encountered what had become a small on-campus village. Hot food was served in the cafeteria, where signs were posted asking media not to take photographs so that weary young men and women could shed their masks to eat and chat. Nearby, others napped on yoga mats spread across a basketball court.

Among the protesters, there was also a growing sense of foreboding about the looming battle with police.

“Once you come out, you know that anything can happen, especially when you are on the frontline, even real bullets,” said Chen, a 21-year-old student and one of the “fire magicians”. Preparing for the worst, Chen, who only provided his surname, said he had recently penned a will.

The campus occupations began on Nov. 11 after police shot an anti-government protester during a demonstration.

Widespread street protests in Hong Kong escalated in June after an eruption of public anger over perceived encroachments on Hong Kong’s autonomy by the Chinese government. The trigger was a bill introduced by Hong Kong’s government that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to the mainland for trial.

The bill has since been withdrawn, but anger has only grown over the government’s perceived indifference to the demands of the protesters, which include an independent investigation into alleged police brutality and an amnesty for arrested protesters.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said she would not be swayed by violence to yield to the demands of protesters. On Tuesday, she said she hoped the university standoff would end soon and that she was shocked that campuses had transformed into “weapons factories”.

In response to questions from Reuters, Lam’s office said: “The Chief Executive has made it clear on various occasions that violence is not a solution to any problem.”

The Hong Kong Police Force did not respond to questions from Reuters.

CHANGED TACTICS

Fears that police were preparing to enter universities and arrest students involved in protests sparked an online appeal to protect campuses, attracting an influx of young protesters. Once on campus, they began preparing weapons and fire bombs, and blocking key adjacent roads that prevented people from getting to work in an effort to engineer a general strike.

And they dug in.

That marked a significant tactical shift for the protesters, whose motto has been “be like water”, a philosophy about being flexible that has underpinned the leaderless wildcat protests. The protesters had utilized Hong Kong’s topography to their advantage, gathering on busy urban streets with plenty of escape routes, making it difficult for the police to arrest more than a few at a time.

The Polytechnic occupiers set up barricades and walls of brick and cement of their own making. But hunkering down meant they would be trapped on campus, with police standing by ready to make arrests on charges carrying heavy prison sentences: rioting, trespassing and theft of public property.

Police began their siege of the Polytechnic on Saturday. By Tuesday, they said that they had “arrested and registered” about 1,100 people in and around the university. Some people tried slipping out past the police cordons in dramatic fashion: through the sewers, or abseiling down a rope hanging from a bridge.

But a hard core of about 100 remained, according to Reuters estimates.

AN APPETITE FOR VIOLENCE

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s new police chief, Chris Tang, called for support from all citizens to help end the unrest by condemning acts of violence.

Many of the protesters interviewed at university campuses over the past week expressed a sense of futility, saying non-violent opposition was not proving effective.

“We are not destroying things for nothing,” said Yip, a 21-year-old Polytechnic student, standing amid the protest debris on campus. She only gave her surname. “This is the only way we can fight for freedom.”

Others said they were frustrated by the fact that nothing had happened after the “Umbrella Protest” of 2014, when protesters occupied city streets for 11 weeks. The call for greater democracy had been followed by an erosion of freedoms in the city, they said.

Most said their tactics were justified in the face of what they see as brutal force used by the police to quell the protests.

“We are just doing this to protect ourselves,” said Chen, the “fire magician”. “I don’t think we are using violence, we are just policing the police.”

Lee, a 20-year-old nursing student, joined the protests in June, taking to the streets to peacefully demonstrate against the extradition bill.

On Saturday afternoon, she sat on a terrace at the Polytechnic where young men and women hurled petrol bombs at the police on the street below. Unlike the protesters around her, Lee’s face, under a pair of pigtails, was not covered – she’d taken off her mask to sip a juice box.

Asked about the violence, she said of the police that, “they are not following the rules – every time we try to be peaceful, they create new problems.”

“There has to be someone here to defend the things we deserve,” she said.

Later that evening, four young men with metal-tipped arrows rushed out to the same spot, drew back the strings of their bows and sent the missiles hurtling into the darkness toward the police beyond the barricades.

TENSE WAIT AT POLYTECHNIC

The campus occupation movement began at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, located beyond the mountains that loom over Kowloon in the New Territories. On Nov. 11, hundreds of protesters there began constructing barricades on campus and blocked off a nearby highway with bricks and branches.

After a standoff of several days, the police moved in, breaking up barricades and unleashing tear gas. Protesters let loose a hail of petrol bombs, setting fire to a bridge that crossed the highway.

From the Chinese University, the protests spread rapidly to other campuses, including Hong Kong Polytechnic.

Over the course of last week, police managed to mostly clear protesters from the universities – except from the Polytechnic.

For several days, protesters at the Polytechnic waited for the onslaught from police. Then, on Saturday the police finally made a move, blocking streets and firing volleys of tear gas. Next came water cannons that sprayed the university grounds with streams of blue dye that contains an irritant that makes the skin itch. Protesters who’d been soaked stripped to their underwear as their comrades hosed them down.

About 100 demonstrators wielding umbrellas and petrol bombs led a charge against the police lines, backed by the deployment of their makeshift weapons behind them, as local residents gathered on street corners to watch.

One police officer was rushed to hospital after being shot in the leg with an arrow.

On Sunday, as a government helicopter circled the campus, the police adopted a new strategy, sealing off surrounding roads to prevent protesters escaping. Officers warned they were ready to use live bullets if protesters used lethal weapons.

Thirty-eight people were injured in the siege, amid barrages of tear gas, water cannons and petrol bombs. A police van and the university entrance were set ablaze.

By Tuesday, there appeared to be only about 100 protesters left at the university.

One of them, a man who gave his name as Sun, said he wasn’t planning to leave. “There are people out there who have been beaten till their heads were bloodied, it’s not fair to them,” he said. “Those who are staying here, we’ve got to hold out.”

(Reporting by Kate O’Donnell Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong; additional reporting contributed by Sarah Wu. Editing by Philip McClellan)

Chicago teachers strike enters seventh school day as talks continue

Chicago teachers strike enters seventh school day as talks continue
CHICAGO (Reuters) – About 300,000 students in Chicago missed classes for a seventh day on Friday as the city’s teachers union and school district worked to resolve their contract deadlock over class sizes, support-staff levels and pay.

Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for Friday, but the leader of the Chicago Teachers Union said good progress was made during negotiations on Thursday.

“We had conversations that hopefully will give us a path to a settlement,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said at a Friday morning news conference. “Right now I’m guardedly optimistic.”

The union, which represents the city’s 25,000 teachers, has been without a contract since July 1. The strike began on Oct. 17.

The strike is the latest in a wave of teacher work stoppages in cities and states across the United States. Some of the strikes, such as a six-day work stoppage in Los Angeles last winter, have been based on similar school resource demands.

Only a three-week teachers strike in Union City, California, in June was longer this year.

Student athletes are feeling the repercussions, as the strike has forced the cancellation of hugely popular high school football games, with college scholarships on the line, as well as other sports and after-school activities.

That prompted one parent to seek a temporary restraining order in Cook County, Illinois, to allow the child’s team to compete in state cross-country playoffs over the weekend, ABC News said.

POLITICAL TEST

Chicago teachers voted to go on strike against the third-largest U.S. school district after contract negotiations failed to yield a deal on pay, class overcrowding and a lack of support staff, such as nurses and social workers.

The strike has been the first major political test for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a political newcomer who was elected in April.

Lightfoot, a progressive Democrat whose campaign promised to reform the school system, has said the district offered teachers a raise of 16% over five years and promised to tackle class sizes and staffing levels.

But she said the district could not afford the union’s full demands, which she estimated would cost an extra $2.4 billion annually, representing more than a 30% increase to the current $7.7 billion school budget.

“While the public is very sympathetic to the issues of more nurses and so on, there’s a pretty good understanding that it just doesn’t come out of thin air and will have to take years of effort to make the schools better,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago City Council member.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Paul Simao)

Pence tells Hong Kong protesters in China speech: ‘We stand with you’

Pence tells Hong Kong protesters in China speech: ‘We stand with you’
By Alexandra Alper

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday accused China of curtailing “rights and liberties” in Hong Kong in a wide-ranging critique of Beijing’s behavior but also insisted that the United States does not seek confrontation or to “de-couple” from its main economic rival.

Pence delivered a major policy address on China just ahead of a new round of talks aimed at resolving a bitter trade war between the world’s two biggest economies.

“No longer will America and its leaders hope that economic engagement alone will transform Communist China’s authoritarian state into a free and open society that respects private property, the rule of law, and the international rules of commerce,” he said.

Pence took China to task over its handling of pro-democracy protests that have rocked Hong Kong for more than four months. President Donald Trump has warned previously that it would be harder for Washington to make a trade deal with Beijing if there were violence in the former British colony.

“Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty,” he said. “And yet, for the last few years, Beijing has increased its interventions in Hong Kong and engaged in actions that curtail the rights and liberties that Hong Kong’s people were guaranteed through a binding international agreement.”

He said the United States stands with the protesters in Hong Kong.

“We stand with you, we are inspired by you. We urge you to stay on the path of non-violent protest,” Pence said.

U.S. lawmakers are pushing legislation that would put Hong Kong’s special status under tighter scrutiny, which would anger Beijing.

TRADE TALKS

The closely watched speech to a Washington think tank comes ahead of a new round of talks between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his counterparts on Friday and was being seen as a gauge of how tough the Trump administration is prepared to get with China on a wide range of issues.

Pence, who has often struck a hawkish tone on China, spoke just weeks before Trump is due to attend a summit in Chile where he has said he hopes to close a “phase one” trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Fears of antagonizing Beijing prompted the White House in June to postpone the speech ahead of a meeting between the leaders aimed at getting trade talks back on track.

Pence said that United States is “not seeking to contain China’s development” “We want a constructive relationship with China’s leaders,” he said, calling on China to “seize this unique moment in history to start anew by ending the trade practices that have taken advantage of the American people for far too long.”

Pence on Thursday sharply criticized China for its treatment of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region.

Earlier this month, the United States imposed visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist Party officials it believes responsible for the detention or abuse of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

U.S. authorities this month also included Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision on a trade blacklist for its alleged role in the Uighur crackdown.

Lawmakers such as Republican Senator Marco Rubio have also slammed Chinese companies for boycotting the NBA after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressed solidarity with Hong Kong protesters.

Pence sharply criticized the basketball association for how it has handled the controversy.

“In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime,” Pence said.

That spat played out amid unexpected progress in U.S.-China trade talks to end a 15-month trade war that has roiled markets and damaged global growth. The United States launched the trade war over allegations of unfair trading practices such as theft of U.S. intellectual property and generous industrial subsidies at the expense of foreign competitors.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Additional reporting by David Lawder and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Hong Kong neighborhoods echo with late night cries for freedom

Choco Chu, 23, shouts slogan from his rooftop at Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong, China, August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Felix Tam and Marius Zaharia

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Every night at 10 p.m., Hong Kong neighborhoods and university dorms echo with pro-democracy and anti-government chants, the latest form of protest in the Chinese-ruled city where a civil disobedience movement has been going on for more than 12 weeks.

What started as a protest against a now-suspended bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial, has evolved into a broad, increasingly violent, and creative, struggle for greater democracy.

Over the past week, residents were seen out on their balconies or opening their windows to shout “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times”, “Ga Yao!” – a Cantonese expression of encouragement often translated as “Add oil” – or simply vent expletives toward police and the government.

The shouting, heard across the territory, is often interactive – one person starts and a chorus of others soon respond.

“Some people may think it’s naive,” said Torres Fong, 22, a Hong Kong Baptist University student who joins the shouting from his dorm room every night.

“I think its value is far higher. It shows how Hong Kongers are united in this movement and how the spirit is spread across every district.”

“We all live in a tense political atmosphere. Shouting is a way to let out steam and keeps us focused on our core demands.”

The protesters’ cries draw on a long tradition, albeit in a uniquely Hong Kong style owing to its densely populated residential districts packed with dozens of tall blocks of tiny apartments.

During the 1979 Iranian Revolution, residents of Tehran defied curfews to shout “Allahu akbar” (God is Greatest) from their rooftops – a gesture echoed in the city during 2009 protests against the re-election of Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Through the summer of 2013, and during protests since, Istanbul residents also raised a clamor by leaning from windows and banging pots and pans in support of demonstrations against Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan.

Less revolutionary, though sometimes political, the “Flogsta scream”, named after a neighborhood in Uppsala, Sweden, is a long-known way for students there to vent out the window to deal with the stresses of university life.

It also occurs daily at 10 p.m.

In Hong Kong, the idea spread through social media app Telegram and LIHKG, a Reddit-like forum. Various posts invited Hong Kong people to join a late-night concert, with free admission and a pajamas dress code.

“It’s very touching,” said Alice Lo, a 24-year-old web designer who lives with her mother in the Hang Hau neighborhood.

“I’ve lived here for two years and never had time to meet my neighbors. I’m glad to know they are proud Hong Kongers who want freedom and democracy. It shows we’re united.”

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Tom Westbrook, and Thomas Peter; Editing by Robert Birsel)

In Iraqi holy city, row over female violinist at soccer match shows social rift

Joelle Saade, violinist, plays Iraq's national anthem during an opening ceremony of the West Asia Football Federation Championship at Kerbala Stadium in the holy city of Kerbala, Iraq July 30, 2019. Picture taken July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By John Davison

KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) – The match should have been cause for young Iraqis to celebrate. Their national team beat Lebanon 1-0 in the first competitive international hosted by Iraq for years in the holy city of Kerbala, complete with an opening ceremony of music and dance.

Instead, the event drew high-level criticism which many of the city’s youth say shows the gulf between them and the political and religious establishment.

At the opening ceremony last week for the West Asia Football Federation Championship, a tournament of Arab countries hosted by Iraq, a Lebanese woman violinist not wearing the Islamic headscarf and with uncovered arms played Iraq’s national anthem.

Many Iraqis were elated that such a ceremony, typical of international football tournaments, could finally take place on their soil after football governing body FIFA last year partially lifted a ban largely in place since 1990 on Iraq hosting competitive matches over security concerns.

Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim endowment which administers religious sites and property, backed by prominent conservative politicians, rushed to condemn the performance saying it “overstepped religious boundaries and moral standards … and violated the holy sanctity of Kerbala.”

Iraq’s Ministry of Youth and Sport which organized the ceremony first defended it, then said: “the ministry will coordinate with official bodies to prevent any scenes that contrast with the holiness of the province.”

For many Iraqis, especially women, it was a reminder of the power Islamic authorities, Islamist parties and conservative Iran-backed politicians still wield after years of conflict and sectarian killing, as Iraq tries to recover and open up to the outside world.

“We thought the event was a positive message, that a more normal life can come to Kerbala,” said Fatima Saadi, a 25-year-old dentist, sitting in a coffee shop in Kerbala.

“Most of us rejected the politicians’ comments – the holy ground is where the shrines are, but outside those places there’s a different life.”

Kerbala is hallowed ground for Shi’ite Muslims. It houses the shrine of the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and most revered Shi’ite imam who was slain in battle.

Millions of Shi’ite pilgrims, mostly from Iraq and Iran, visit every year. Shi’ite religious authorities say women should wear the headscarf everywhere in the city.

“There’s nothing to stop a ceremony taking place at Kerbala stadium, or from women attending,” said Sheikh Wael al-Boudairi, a local cleric.

“But we disagreed with the way in which the woman appeared in that stadium, and that she played (violin) – it is against the holy character of Kerbala.”

Shi’ite scholars hold various views on what type of music pious Muslims should listen to. For many, playing of an instrument in Kerbala would be forbidden, they say.

LOOKING TO THE AYATOLLAH

Saadi, who wears a headscarf but not the full black robe that most women in Kerbala wear in public, said society had closed off there since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and since which mostly Iran-backed Islamist parties and groups have dominated Iraq.

Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of the Dawa party and Qais al-Khazali, a rising political leader who heads a powerful paramilitary faction took to social media to criticize the ceremony.

Observant but liberal Iraqis, who say they are the majority in the country’s urban centers, hoped for high-level pushback from Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who holds enormous sway, but he has not commented on it.

Other Iraqis say the football ceremony debate has been used to distract from Iraq’s real problems, including corruption and a suppression of rights they blame on those in power.

“The politicians and religious authorities are out of touch. They don’t understand what the street wants or the nature of Iraqi society,” said Dhikra Sarsam, a civil activist in Baghdad.

“But this isn’t a new issue for us. Whenever we try to take a step forward on women’s rights, they try to send us 100 steps back.”

(Reporting by John Davison; additional reporting by Reuters TV, Maher Nazih in Baghdad; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Petition by Walmart employee to protest gun sales gathers over 45,000 signatures

A police officer stands next to a police cordon after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso,Texas, U.S. August 3, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A petition started by a junior Walmart Inc <WMT.N> worker in California to protest the retailer’s sale of firearms, following two mass shootings over the weekend left 31 people dead in Texas and Ohio, has gathered more than 45,000 signatures.

Thomas Marshall, a 23-year-old category manager in San Bruno began his protest by emailing fellow employees and asking them to call in sick on Tuesday, leave work early on Wednesday, and to sign a Change.org petition.

The petition https://www.change.org/p/doug-mcmillon-stop-the-sale-of-guns-at-walmart-stores?utm_content=bandit-starter_cl_share_content_en-us%3Av4&recruited_by_id=fc7b5740-b810-11e9-be8a-6fbcafd3c27d&recruiter=989859201&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition, which is open to the public, is steadily approaching its goal of 50,000 signatures.

“In light of these recent tragedies — a mere snapshot of the gun violence epidemic plaguing the United States — and in response to Corporate’s inaction, we as employees are organizing several days of action, to protest Walmart’s profit from the sale of firearms and ammunition,” the petition says.

Marshall told Reuters he and other organizers would send the petition to the company’s Chief Executive Doug McMillon after it reaches its target.

Marshall said he was shut out of the company’s email and messaging networks temporarily earlier this week after he started the protest, but that he has since been granted access.

Employees in San Bruno and in Portland, Oregon had walked out on Wednesday in protest of the company’s policy of selling firearms, Marshall said, adding that some Walmart employees in New York also held a minute of silence that day.

Walmart said 40 employees in San Bruno protested by walking out but did not confirm the other details.

“A lot more employees have been reaching out to me to express their support but a majority of those employees are very afraid of retaliation from the company,” he said.

NO CHANGE IN GUN SALE POLICY

Earlier this week, Walmart told Reuters there had been no change in its policy on gun sales after the recent mass shootings, one of which took place in a Walmart store.

Years of public pressure led Walmart, the largest U.S arms retailer, to end assault-rifle sales in 2015 and to raise the minimum age for gun purchases to 21 in 2018.

Some gun control activists and Walmart customers now want the retailer to drop sales of guns and ammunition altogether.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said on Thursday the company continued to feel there were more appropriate ways for employees to engage with the retailer, including through discussions with top leadership.

He said the company’s policy on selling firearms had not changed.

“We have worked very hard to be a responsible firearms retailer…Walmart does more in the area of background checks than what the federal law requires,” Hargrove added.

The retailer’s Chief Executive Doug McMillon sent a message to employees on social media late on Tuesday, assuring them the company was listening to their concerns.

“We will be thoughtful and deliberate in our responses, and we will act in a way that reflects the best values and ideals of our company,” McMillon said.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Bernadette Baum)