French police fire tear gas at strikers challenging Macron reform

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at protesters in the center of Paris on Thursday and public transport ground to a near halt in one of the biggest strikes in France for decades, aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned reform of pensions.

The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.

The outcome depends on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the government which fears voters could side with the unions and blame officials for the standoff.

“People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed,” said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through Friday, while labor unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Trade unions achieved their initial objective on Thursday, as workers at transport enterprises, schools and hospitals across France joined the strike. In Paris, commuters had to dust off old bicycles, rely on car pooling apps, or just stay at home. The Eiffel Tower had to close to visitors.

On Thursday afternoon, tens of thousands of union members marched through the center of the capital in a show of force.

Trouble erupted away from the main protest when people in masks and dressed in black ransacked a bus stop near the Place de la Republique, ripped up street furniture, smashed shop windows and threw fireworks at police.

Police in riot gear responded by firing tear gas, Reuters witnesses said. Nearby, police used truncheons to defend themselves from black-clad protesters who rushed at them. Prosecutors said, in all, 57 people were detained.

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

PRESIDENT’S SWAGGER

Macron has already survived one major challenge to his rule, from the grassroots “Yellow Vest” protesters who earlier this year clashed with police and blocked roads around France for weeks on end.

Having emerged from that crisis, he carries himself with a swagger on the world stage, publicly upbraiding U.S. President Donald Trump this week over his approach to the NATO alliance and counter-terrorism.

But the pension reform – on which polls show French people evenly split between supporters and opponents – is fraught with risk for him as it chips away at social protections many in France believe are at the heart of their national identity.

“People are spoiling for a fight,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union which is helping organize the strike, told Reuters.

The SNCF state railway said only one in 10 high-speed TGV trains would run and police reported power cables on the line linking Paris and the Riviera had been vandalized. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel 20% of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.

Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly for the authorities. Former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government in 1995 caved into union demands after weeks of crippling protests.

(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez, Geert de Clercq, Sybille de La Hamaide, Marine Pennetier, Laurence Frost in paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Writing by Richard Lough and Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

U.S. says Iran may have killed more than 1,000 in recent protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Iranian security forces may have killed more than 1,000 people since protests over gasoline price hikes began in mid-November, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said on Thursday.

“As the truth is trickling out of Iran, it appears the regime could have murdered over a thousand Iranian citizens since the protests began,” Hook told reporters at a briefing at the State Department.

He added that “many thousands of Iranians” had also been wounded and at least 7,000 detained in Iran’s prisons.

The unrest, which began on Nov. 15 after the government abruptly raised fuel prices by as much as 300%, spread to more than 100 cities and towns and turned political as young and working-class protesters demanded clerical leaders step down.

Tehran has given no official death toll but Amnesty International said on Monday it had documented the deaths of at least 208 protesters, making the disturbances the bloodiest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Tehran’s clerical rulers have blamed “thugs” linked to its opponents in exile and the country’s main foreign foes – the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia – for the unrest.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Tom Brown)

China warns U.S. over Hong Kong law as thousands stage ‘Thanksgiving’ rally

China warns U.S. over Hong Kong law as thousands stage ‘Thanksgiving’ rally
By Jessie Pang and Cate Cadell

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – China warned the United States on Thursday that it would take “firm counter measures” in response to U.S. legislation backing anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, and said attempts to interfere in the Chinese-ruled city were doomed to fail.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law congressional legislation which supported the protesters, despite angry objections from Beijing, with which he is seeking a deal to end a damaging trade war.

Protesters in Hong Kong responded by staging a “Thanksgiving” rally, with thousands, some draped in U.S. flags, gathering in the heart of the city.

“The rationale for us having this rally is to show our gratitude and thank the U.S Congress and also President Trump for passing the bill,” said 23-year-old Sunny Cheung, a member of the student group that lobbied for the legislation.

“We are really grateful about that and we really appreciate the effort made by Americans who support Hong Kong, who stand with Hong Kong, who do not choose to side with Beijing,” he said, urging other countries to pass similar legislation.

The law requires the State Department to certify, at least annually, that Hong Kong is autonomous enough to justify favorable U.S. trading terms that have helped it become a world financial center.

It also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the United States would shoulder the consequences of China’s countermeasures if it continued to “act arbitrarily” in regards to Hong Kong.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad and demanded that Washington immediately stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government said the legislation sent the wrong signal to demonstrators and “clearly interfered” with the city’s internal affairs.

China is considering barring the drafters of the legislation, whose U.S. Senate sponsor is Florida Republican Marco Rubio, from entering mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Macau, Hu Xijin, the editor of China’s Global Times tabloid, said on Twitter.

‘SINISTER INTENTIONS’

More than 5,800 people have been arrested since the unrest broke out in June over a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, the numbers grew in October and November as violence escalated.

Demonstrators are angry at police violence and what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, such as an independent judiciary.

China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at the handover, and blames foreign forces for fomenting the unrest, an allegation it repeated in response to the U.S. law.

“This so-called legislation will only strengthen the resolve of the Chinese people, including the Hong Kong people, and raise awareness of the sinister intentions and hegemonic nature of the U.S.,” the foreign ministry said. “The U.S. plot is doomed.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment on any countermeasures planned by Beijing.

“You better stay tuned, and follow up on this,” he said. “What will come will come.”

Gao Feng, a spokesman for China’s commerce ministry, did not comment directly on whether the law would affect trade talks, saying there were no new details of their progress to disclose. Some analysts say any move to end Hong Kong’s special treatment could harm the United States, which has benefited from business-friendly conditions in the territory.

LULL IN VIOLENCE

Anti-government protests have roiled the former British colony for six months, at times forcing businesses, government, schools and even the international airport to close.

Hong Kong has enjoyed a rare lull in violence over the past week, with local elections on Sunday delivering a landslide victory to pro-democracy candidates.

Prominent activists Joshua Wong and Denise Ho addressed the rally on Thursday night, thanking frontline protesters for the passage of the bill. Crowds sang the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong”, waving their phone torches.

Several hundred people also gathered outside the Polytechnic University, which police entered after a nearly two-week siege.

“The situation in Poly U is still a disaster,” said 30-year-old Ng, dressed in black and wearing a surgical mask. “We are out to show we will never forget the Poly U incident.”

The university became a battleground in mid-November, when protesters barricaded themselves in and clashed with riot police in a hail of petrol bombs, water cannon and tear gas. About 1,100 people were arrested last week.

It was unclear whether any protesters remained on campus as about 100 plainclothes police moved in on Thursday morning to collect evidence and remove dangerous items such as petrol bombs.

Police said they found more than 3,000 molotov cocktails and hundreds of bottles of corrosive liquids.

“The operation is going to finish today,” said Assistant Commissioner of Police (Operations) Chow Yat-ming.

He urged any remaining protesters to seek medical treatment, saying arrests were not a priority, though police were seen brushing molotov cocktails for fingerprints earlier in the day.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Kate Lamb and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong and Catherine Cadell, Huizhong Wu, Stella Qiu and Judy Hua in Beijing; Writing by Farah Master, Se Young Lee, and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Clarence Fernandez and Giles Elgood)

 

Highway blockade reveals splits in Hong Kong protest movement

By Jessie Pang and Kate Lamb

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters partially unblocked a key highway on Friday and then blocked it again during the evening rush hour, exposing splits in a movement that has been largely leaderless in months of often violent unrest.

Activists closed the Tolo highway this week, clashing with police and throwing debris and petrol bombs on the road linking the largely rural New Territories with the Kowloon peninsula to the south.

They turned the Chinese University campus next door and several other universities into fortresses, stockpiled with petrol bombs and bows and arrows, amid some of the worst violence in the former British colony in decades.

But many protesters left the Chinese University after some allowed the partial reopening of the highway on Friday, taking others by surprise.

“I am disappointed about the decision to reopen the Tolo highway and it’s not our consensus,” one student who gave his name as Cheung, 18, told Reuters.

“I was asleep when they had closed-door meetings. I was worried and scared after I realized what had happened and most protesters had left. I was worried the police might storm in again because so few people are left. Some protesters from the outside have gone too far.”

Most protesters had left by late evening but the road remained closed.

The Cross-Harbour Tunnel, outside the barricaded Polytechnic University where protesters have practised firing bows and arrows and throwing petrol bombs in a half-empty swimming pool, remained shut.

Students and protesters have barricaded at least five campuses in the Chinese-ruled city. Police have kept their distance from the campuses for more than two days, saying both sides should cool off, but many observers are afraid of what will happen if and when they move in.

Activists also littered Nathan Road in the Kowloon district of Mong Kok, a frequent venue for protests, with bricks and set a street barricade on fire.

NO LONGER SAFE

The week has seen a marked intensification of the violence.

A 70-year-old street cleaner died on Thursday after being hit on the head by one of several bricks police said had been thrown by “masked rioters”. On Monday, police blamed a “rioter” for dousing a man in petrol and setting him on fire. The victim is in critical condition.

On the same day, police shot a protester in the abdomen. He was in stable condition.

“We can no longer can say Hong Kong is a safe city,” Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung told a briefing.

Protesters are angry at perceived Chinese meddling in the city since it returned to Beijing rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula guaranteeing its colonial-era freedoms. Their demands include full democracy and an independent investigation into perceived police brutality.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble. Police say they are acting with restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

China and Hong Kong both condemned an attack in London on Thursday by a “violent mob” on Hong Kong’s justice secretary, the first direct altercation between demonstrators and a government minister.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, who was in London to promote Hong Kong as a “dispute resolution and deal-making hub”, was targeted by a group of protesters who shouted “murderer” and “shameful”.

The British police said a woman had been taken to hospital with an injury to her arm and that they were investigating but no arrests had been made.

Hong Kong sank into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter, government data confirmed on Friday, with its economy shrinking by 3.2% from the previous quarter on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Organizers of the annual Clockenflap music and arts festival, due to take place from Nov. 22-24, said it had been canceled because of the unrest.

Video footage obtained by Reuters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison headquarters near Hong Kong’s Central business district showed more than a dozen troops conducting what appeared to be anti-riot drills against people pretending to be protesters carrying black umbrellas.

The PLA has stayed in the barracks since 1997 but China has warned that any attempt at independence will be crushed.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister
By Tom Perry and Nadine Awadalla

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Defence Minister said on Thursday the country was in a “very dangerous situation” and compared street unrest of recent days to the start of 1975-90 civil war.

One month after the start of nationwide protests, Lebanon is in serious political and economic trouble with no indication of its leaders agreeing on a new government to replace the outgoing cabinet of Saad al-Hariri, who quit as premier on Oct. 29.

Despite the magnitude of the economic crisis, the biggest since the war, leaders have not yet been able to agree a new cabinet or to tackle the grievances of demonstrators who say Lebanon has been ruined by corruption and sectarian cronyism.

Though the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, a protester was shot dead in an altercation with soldiers on Tuesday. A funeral was held for the protester, a follower of Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, while the soldier who opened fire has been detained.

Caretaker Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab said tensions on the street and road closures “have reminded us of the civil war, what happened in 1975. And this situation is very dangerous.”

Bou Saab, a political ally of President Michel Aoun, said demonstrators had the right to protest and to be protected. But the army and security services could not tolerate violence.

Aoun said he hoped a government could be formed in the coming days to meet the demands of the protesters.

He enraged protesters in an televised interview on Tuesday evening with a comment widely understood to mean he was telling them to emigrate if they didn’t like how the country was run.

Schools, banks and many shops were closed for the third straight day. Some major routes around the capital that had been barricaded by protesters were unblocked by authorities, but the political mood remained brittle.

“WE ARE ALL IN DEEP TROUBLE”

Hani Bohsali, general manager of Bohsali Foods and president of a group representing around 50 importers, said he was among businessmen who had warned of more trouble at a meeting with Central Bank governor Riad Salameh and other top bankers.

“My message to all of them is that we are all in deep trouble, but you have to give priority to the food supply. Because the food is even more important than the fuel,” he said.

Banks, which were shut for half of October, closed again this week over staff security concerns. Most transfers out of the country have been blocked and, with U.S. dollars scarce, the pegged Lebanese pound is weakening on the black market.

So far there has been no sign of significant shortages.

Paul Kallassi, a board member of Kallassi Group, a major buyer and distributor of food, said suppliers have so far continued to ship based on “trust” even as arrears mount, a situation he said was not sustainable.

“They cannot finance millions of dollars just because they trust me,” said Kallassi.

Lebanon’s bank staff union called for employees to stay on strike until it received details of a security plan, especially on how to deal with customers demanding their cash.

A banker said that by remaining closed, banks were also avoiding the problem of depositor panic.

“You have a problem of liquidity, and there is no solution for it, unless you put in place a proper plan to solve the problem, there is no need to open the banks,” a banker said.

“You need to have a political solution, to offer a little bit of confidence, and this will eventually allow you to calm down the market and reopen normally.”

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Eric Knecht; Additional reporting by Reuters television, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi “deplored the death toll” among protesters due to the crackdown of the Iraqi government and urged him to take immediate steps to address demonstrators’ demands, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday.

Iraqi security forces on Monday shot dead two protesters in the city of Nassiriya, bringing to 300 the number of people killed since protests against political corruption, unemployment and poor public services erupted in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and spread to the southern Shi’ite heartlands.

“The Secretary deplored the death toll among the protesters as a result of the Government of Iraq’s crackdown and use of lethal force, as well as the reports of kidnapped protesters,” Ortagus said in a statement.

The government has failed to find an answer to the unrest among mostly unemployed young people who see no improvement in their lives even in peacetime after decades of war and sanctions.

“Secretary Pompeo emphasized that peaceful public demonstrations are a fundamental element of all democracies,” Ortagus said and added that Pompeo urged Mahdi to address the protesters’ grievances by enacting reforms and tackling corruption.

The unrest is the biggest and most complex challenge to the Iraqi political order since the government declared victory over Islamic State two years ago.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker)

Iraq’s elite rallies around Iran-backed plan to hang on to power

Iraq’s elite rallies around Iran-backed plan to hang on to power
By Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s ruling parties appear to have rallied behind a strategy, blessed by Iran, to try to survive a mass anti-government uprising by containing protests on the streets of Baghdad while offering a package of political reforms and elections next year.

But the proposed solution involves keeping in power a ruling elite that Iran has cultivated for years – unlikely to placate protesters who have been demanding the entire caste of politicians be swept aside.

Iran has been closely involved in formulating the new strategy, with a number of meetings between political groups and government figures attended by Qassem Soleimani, the general who commands the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that supervises Tehran’s clients across the Middle East.

Two sources with knowledge of the talks said Soleimani had approved the reform plan, which would keep Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in power until new elections next year, as it would give Iran time to recalculate how to retain influence.

The protests pose the biggest challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated political order since it emerged after a 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

At least 300 protesters have been killed, most by security forces firing live ammunition into crowds. But the violent response has done little to persuade the protesters to leave the streets.

A senior security official told Reuters new tactics were being rolled out to try to confine the demonstrations to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a roadway junction at the foot of a bridge across the Tigris, where demonstrators have camped out for weeks.

“Security forces received new orders on Saturday that protesters must be kept in Tahrir Square,” the security official said. “They’re working quietly now to seal off the square from all directions, and an arrest campaign is expected to follow in a bid to reduce momentum of the protests.”

Meanwhile the authorities will push on with a reform plan to mollify the crowd, with new elections run by a commission intended to be more independent, and parliament restructured to be smaller and more representative of Iraq’s diverse population.

Sources who have attended recent government meetings say the strategy now enjoys the backing not only of the Iran-backed parties that support the government, but also of their main rivals, the faction of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who regularly denounces Iran and had called for Abdul Mahdi to quit.

Sunni and Kurdish political leaders also support the plan.

“The anger of protesters at everyone in politics, even religious figures, forced all parties to listen to Iranian advice and work together to keep Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government standing,” said a source close to Sadr.

“Even Sadr is on board,” he said. “He worried that protests he’s not controlling could also threaten his position” among his followers, the source said.

REFORMS

The new reforms include lowering the minimum age of candidates, increasing the number of voting districts and reducing parliament to 222 seats from 329, according to a proposal from Iraq’s President Barham Salih seen by Reuters. Political appointees on Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission would be replaced with technocrats and judges.

Parliament will vote on the changes before eventually approving a date for early elections in 2020, two sources close to the talks said, leaving room for potential delays.

Izzat Shahbandar, an independent who has been mediating among senior political figures including Abdul Mahdi and regularly meets with protesters, said a partial cabinet reshuffle was agreed in principle, with the premier staying.

“Everyone has rallied around the prime minister now. He’s their best bet to avoid chaos,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the promise of reforms can take any of the heat out of the protests. The reforms clearly fall short of protester demands to scrap the entire post-Saddam political system, but parties could present them as evidence that they are serious about moving in the right direction.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who speaks on politics only in times of crisis and wields enormous influence over public opinion in Shi’ite-majority Iraq, has called for serious reform within a “reasonable time frame”. He has urged protesters not to go home until concrete steps are taken to meet their demands.

As the protesters’ demands have become more specific, some have called for a system with an elected executive president, less beholden to the political factions that have selected all of Iraq’s post-Saddam prime ministers behind closed doors.

Most say they just want the rulers out.

“They choke us so we can’t breathe, so we can’t speak and tell them to go away!” said Ammar, 20, from Baghdad’s Sadr City district, wearing a helmet with a scarf around his face at a medical tent where he was being treated for tear gas exposure.

“We’re dying here for our future. We’re dying for things to change.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Peter Graff)

Masked Hong Kong students chant at graduation amid fears for elections

Masked Hong Kong students chant at graduation amid fears for elections
By Sarah Wu and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong students, many wearing banned black masks, chanted slogans at their graduation at the Chinese University on Thursday, with some holding up banners urging “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now”.

The students defied a ban on masks that the government imposed last month in a bid to curb sometimes violent unrest that has rocked the Chinese-ruled city for more than five months.

Dressed in formal graduation gowns, many of about 1,000 students chanted as they walked to the hill-top ceremony, near the New Territories town of Sha Tin, calling for the government to respond to protesters’ “five demands, not one less” that include universal suffrage in choosing the city’s leader.

A man singing the Chinese national anthem and holding a knife during the graduation ceremony was taken away by security officers.

The protests started over a now-scrapped extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, an end to Chinese meddling in the city’s promised freedoms and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other things.

“Even though we are all exhausted, we should not give up,” said Kelvin, a 22-year-old information engineering graduate.

The university said it cut the ceremony short after the degrees were handed out.

The months of protests have plunged the former British colony into its biggest crisis in decades, with no sign the demonstrators plan to give up.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, allowing it colonial freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and right to protest.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble.

About 100 people, including candidates running in Nov. 24 district council elections, the lowest tier of voting, marched against violence on Thursday.

SAFE AND FAIR?

A man stabbed and wounded pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho on Wednesday. Jimmy Sham, a leader of Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, was beaten by men with hammers in October after his group organized mass rallies against the extradition bill.

Pro-democracy district councilor Andrew Chiu had part of his ear bitten off by a knife-wielding man on Sunday.

District council candidate Clement Woo, who joined the march, said members of the pro-establishment camp had experienced violence and intimidation.

“How can the election be a fair one if the atmosphere is like this?” Woo told Reuters. “We support democracy in Hong Kong, but democracy is incomplete without safety and fairness.”

Executive Councilor Ip Kwok-him, speaking on RTHK radio, expressed doubts as to whether election campaigning could continue in a fair and peaceful manner. He suggested the government decide by Nov. 17 if the elections should go ahead.

China has offered the “one country, two systems” formula for self-ruled Taiwan, an island Beijing considers a breakaway province.

The unrest in Hong Kong had provided a lesson for Taiwan, its foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told Reuters in Taipei.

“People here understand that there’s something wrong (with)the way the ‘one country, two systems’ model is run in Hong Kong … Taiwan people don’t like to be in the same situation,” Wu said.

The unrest has helped push Hong Kong’s economy into recession for the first time in a decade. Retail and tourism sectors have been hit particularly hard as tourists stay away.

UNICEF Hong Kong called off its annual Run for Every Child charity road run on Nov. 24 “due to a range of ongoing and uncertain factors”.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Sarah Wu, Jiraporn Kuhakan and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong and Yimou Lee and Fabian Hamacher in Taipei; Writing by Farah Master and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Iraqis pour into streets for biggest protest day since Saddam

Iraqis pour into streets for biggest protest day since Saddam
By Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis thronged central Baghdad on Friday demanding the root-and-branch downfall of the political elite in the biggest day of mass anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Five people died from injuries sustained overnight after security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters camped out in the capital’s Tahrir Square. At least 103 people were injured, police and hospital sources said.

Protests, in which 250 people have been killed over the past month, have accelerated dramatically in recent days, drawing huge crowds from across Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides to reject the political parties in power since 2003.

Thousands have been camped out in the square, with many thousands more joining them by day. Friday, the Muslim main day of prayer, drew the biggest crowds yet, with many taking to the streets after worship.

By the afternoon tens of thousands had packed the square, condemning elites they see as deeply corrupt, beholden to foreign powers and responsible for daily privations.

Protests have been comparatively peaceful by day, becoming more violent after dark as police use tear gas and rubber bullets to battle self-proclaimed “revolutionary” youths.

Clashes have focused on the ramparts to the Republic Bridge leading across the Tigris to the heavily fortified Green Zone of government buildings, where the protesters say out-of-touch leaders are holed up in a walled-off bastion of privilege.

“Every time we smell death from your smoke, we yearn more to cross your republic’s bridge,” someone wrote on a nearby wall.

Amnesty International said on Thursday security forces were using “previously unseen” tear gas canisters modeled on military grenades that are 10 times as heavy as standard ones.

“We are peaceful yet they fire on us. What are we, Islamic State militants? I saw a man die. I took a tear gas canister to the face,” said Barah, 21, whose face was wrapped in bandages.

‘MINI-STATE’

In Baghdad, protesters had set up checkpoints in the streets leading into and surrounding Tahrir Square, redirecting traffic.

Young people swept the streets, many sang about the sit-in. Helmets and gas masks were now a common sight.

A woman pushed her baby in a stroller draped with an Iraqi flag while representatives from several Iraqi tribes waved banners pledging support for the protesters.

Mohammed Najm, a jobless engineering graduate, said the square had become a model for the country he and his comrades hope to build: “We are cleaning streets, others bring us water, they bring us electricity, they wired it up.

“A mini-state. Health for free, tuk-tuks transporting for free,” he said. “The state has been around for 16 years and what it failed to do we did in seven days in Tahrir.”

Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, health care or education. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in office for a year, has found no response to the protests.

‘EVIL BUNCH’

In his weekly sermon, top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned of “civil conflict, chaos and destruction” if the security forces or paramilitary groups crack down on the protests. And he gave an apparent nod to protesters who say the government is being manipulated from abroad, above all by Iran.

“No one person or group or side with an agenda, or any regional or international party, can infringe upon the will of Iraqis or force an opinion upon them,” Sistani’s representative said during a sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

Reuters reported this week that a powerful Iran-backed faction had considered abandoning Abdul Mahdi, but decided to keep him in office after a secret meeting attended by a general from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. An Iranian security official confirmed the general, Qassem Soleimani, had attended Wednesday’s meeting, to “give advice”.

Many see the political class as subservient to one or another of Baghdad’s main allies, the United States and Iran, who use Iraq as a proxy in a struggle for regional influence.

“Iraqis have suffered at the hands of this evil bunch who came atop American tanks, and from Iran. Qassem Soleimani’s people are now firing on the Iraqi people in cold blood,” said protester Qassam al-Sikeeni.

President Barham Salih said on Thursday that Abdul Mahdi would resign if parliament’s main blocs agreed on a replacement.

Protesters say that wouldn’t be enough; they want to undo the entire post-Saddam political system which distributes power among sectarian parties.

“So what if (Abdul Mahdi) resigns? What will happen? They will get someone worse,” said barber Amir, 26.

There were protests in other provinces, with the unrest having spread across much of the southern Shi’ite heartland.

In the southern city of Diwaniya, roughly 3,000 people including many families with small children were out.

Earlier, protesters in oil-rich Basra tried to block the road leading to Majnoon oilfield and pitched a tent but operations were not interrupted, oil sources said.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi; Editing by Peter Graff)

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in
BEIRUT/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – As governments in Iraq and Lebanon stagger and stumble under huge waves of popular protest, powerful factions loyal to Iran are pushing to quash political upheaval which challenges Tehran’s entrenched influence in both countries.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has resigned and the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has been pushed to the brink of collapse.

Both governments have enjoyed backing from the West. But they have also relied on the support of political parties affiliated with powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite armed groups, keeping allies of Tehran in key posts.

That reflects the relentless rise of Iranian influence among Shi’ite communities across the Middle East, since Tehran formed the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 and after Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq in 2003.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have government systems designed to end sectarian conflict by guaranteeing a share of power to parties that represent different communities. In both countries, leading Shi’ite groups are closely associated with Iran, and have held on to weapons outside the official security forces.

Protesters are now challenging those power structures, which Iraqis and Lebanese blame for corruption, the dire state of public services and the squandering of national wealth, which Iraq brings in from oil and Lebanon from foreign backing.

WHO IS BEHIND THE PROTESTS?

Unusually in both countries where sectarian parties have previously dominated politics, most protesters are not linked to organized movements. In both countries they have called for the kind of sweeping change seen in the 2011 Arab uprisings, which brought down four Arab leaders but bypassed Lebanon and Iraq.

In Lebanon, demonstrations flared in late September against bad economic conditions as the country grappled with a deepening financial crisis. Nationwide protests broke out two weeks later against government plans to raise a new tax on calls using popular mobile phone software such as WhatsApp.

In Iraq, demonstrations began in Baghdad and quickly spread to the southern Shi’ite heartland.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

In Iraq, the protests have taken place on a scale unseen since Saddam’s overthrow, with sweeping demands for change. The authorities have responded with a violent crackdown which left more than 250 people dead, many killed by snipers on rooftops firing into crowds.

“The fact that you were seeing that level of mobilization makes the protests more dangerous in the perception of the political elite,” said Renad Mansour, Iraq analyst at London-based Chatham House.

The mainly Iran-backed militias view the popular protests as an existential threat to that political order, Mansour said.

In Lebanon, the demonstrations come at a time of economic crisis widely seen as the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war. If Hariri’s resignation prolongs the political paralysis it will jeopardize prospects of rescue funding from Western and Gulf Arab governments.

HOW HAVE IRAN’S ALLIES RESPONDED?

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah initially addressed the Lebanon protesters sympathetically, echoing Hariri’s conciliatory stance, before changing tone and accusing foreign powers of instigating the unrest. People loyal to Hezbollah and the Shi’ite movement Amal attacked and destroyed a protest camp in Beirut.

Hariri announced his resignation shortly afterwards despite pressure from Hezbollah, widely seen as the most powerful player in Lebanon, not to concede to the protests.

In the absence of an obvious replacement for Hariri, Hezbollah, which is under U.S. sanctions, faces a predicament. Although Hezbollah and its allies have a majority in parliament, they cannot form a government on their own because they would face international isolation, said Nabil Boumonsef, a commentator with Lebanon’s an-Nahar newspaper.

“It would be the quickest recipe for financial collapse. The whole world will be closed to them.”

In Baghdad, Abdul Mahdi’s government was saved for now after apparent Iranian intervention. Reuters reported this week that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which sponsors Tehran’s allies abroad, flew to Baghdad for a secret meeting at which a powerful Shi’ite party agreed to keep the prime minister in office.

Iraqi security officials have said that snipers who shot down from rooftops at crowds last month were deployed by Iran-backed militias.

WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE?

While Shi’ite militia forces project unambiguous power, Iran’s political weight is often deployed behind the scenes.

In Lebanon, a longstanding accord on power-sharing means no single confession can dominate state institutions. For all its prominence, Hezbollah picked only three ministers in Hariri’s last cabinet.

“A winner-takes-all mentality just does not work in Lebanon,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, who said Hezbollah may have miscalculated by employing “scare tactics” against the protesters.

“This goes against the grain of Lebanese politics. They are going to have to compromise.”

In Iraq too “Iran has more influence than any other country … but it doesn’t have control over what happens there,” says Crisis Group’s Iran project director Ali Vaez.

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE?

In Iraq it is too early to say. Tehran’s main rival, the United States, has so far kept mostly quiet on the protests, probably waiting to see the outcome.

In Lebanon, which urgently needs outside funding to keep its economy afloat, Tehran’s international foes have used their financial clout to challenge its influence more directly. Before he quit, Hariri failed to convince foreign donors to release $11 billion in aid pledged last year, in part because of Hezbollah’s prominence.

Wealthy Sunni Gulf Arab states, engaged in a proxy conflict with Iran across the region, had long funded Beirut, but Saudi Arabia cut back support sharply three years ago, saying Hezbollah had “hijacked” the Lebanese state.

Gulf Arab countries and the United States have coordinated moves against Iranian-linked targets with sanctions on 25 corporations, banks and individuals linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah.

“Gulf Arab states are bound by sanctions. Hezbollah are an integral part of the (Lebanese) government,” a Gulf source said. “Nobody has given up on Lebanon” but “the system is broken… Improvements need to be seen on several fronts, including fiscal discipline.”

Two U.S. officials said this week that President Donald Trump’s administration is withholding $105 million in security aid for Lebanon.

(Reporting by Reuters correspondents in Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai; writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Peter Graff)