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Sunday , January 17 2021

New protests hit southern Iraq

Iraqi riot police protect the provincial council building during a demonstration demanding better public services and jobs, in Basra, 340 miles (550 kms) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, on Aug 5. (AP)

BASRA, Iraq, Aug 5, (Agencies): Protesters flooded the streets of southern Iraq again on Sunday, nearly a month into a wave of unrest over corruption and decaying public services, AFP correspondents said. In oil-rich Basra, the southern port city where the protests broke out on July 8, tribal chiefs and Shiite religious leaders joined several hundred demonstrators in front of the provincial headquarters.

Security forces were deployed en masse as demonstrators railed against chronic power cuts, water shortages and endemic unemployment, along with state incompetence and foreign interference. While there were no clashes over the weekend, fourteen people have been killed since the unrest flared, including at least one person shot dead by security forces.

In Samawa, further west, protestors have been staging a sit-in for more than a week, condemning the misappropriation of billions of dollars from the state budget over recent years. Daily demonstrations have continued despite government pledges to pump billions of dollars into oil-rich but neglected south.

But the initially large protests have dwindled, apparently weakened by numerous arrests and a heavy security presence. Anti-corruption rallies have also hit Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, but they too have waned to just a few dozen protestors. Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi on July 29 sacked Electricity Minister Qassem al-Fahdawi, whose departure had been demanded by demonstrators.

Fahdawi’s dismissal came amid political tensions as Iraq awaits the results of a partial recount of May 12 elections. Meanwhile, Iraq’s election commission ignored an anticorruption body’s warnings about the credibility of electronic vote-counting machines used in May’s parliamentary election, according to investigators and a document seen by Reuters.

The devices, provided by South Korean company Miru Systems under a deal with the Independent High Elections Commission (IHEC), are at the heart of fraud allegations that led to a manual recount in some areas after the May 12 election. The results of the recount have not yet been announced and political leaders are still trying to form a government. Concerns about the election count centre on discrepancies in the tallying of votes by the voting machines, mainly in the Kurdish province of Sulaimaniya and the ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk, and suggestions that the devices could have been tampered with or hacked into to skew the result.

Iraq’s Board of Supreme Audit (BSA) expressed reservations about the vote-counting system in a report it sent to the IHEC on May 9, three days before the election. The BSA said in the report, seen by Reuters, that the IHEC

had not responded to 11 concerns it had raised — including over contractual procedures, the inspection of company documents and a failure to properly examine the devices for any fl aws.

“Hereby, we found that ignoring and not responding to the report’s findings is considered a clear legal violation contributed to the passage of the electronic vote counting devices despite its unsuitability and easiness of being tampered,” the BSA said in the report. The report also referred to a letter from the Iraqi embassy in South Korea saying Miru Systems had assembled but not manufactured the equipment sent to Baghdad, and suggesting the price tag should have been lower.

The IHEC’s failure to act on the report’s findings could fuel calls for the election to be rerun, a concern for populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the political bloc that won on May 12.

IHEC officials declined to comment. A Miru official who spoke on condition of anonymity dismissed the assertion in the letter, saying the company had manufactured the equipment. He also said the “equipment does not lie” and that he and five other Miru employees had travelled to Iraq to examine the machines and found no evidence of hacking.

“We have checked our election device provided to Iraq after the fraud allegation erupted, and found out that there has been no malfunction in the device nor its system,” he said. “We have already submitted the report to Iraq’s national election commission after making a thorough check on the device.”

Sadr has expressed concern about the situation. “There are fears that the recount process will be a preamble to repeat the election and infringe on people’s votes. Thereby it will be a burial of the democratic process and will cut turnout in the future,” Sadr said in late June.

The election was the first in which an electronic vote-counting system has been used in Iraq. The digitised system was intended to help regulate and speed up vote-counting. The BSA report said the contract with Miru was worth just over $97 million though the man who was the country’s chief electoral officer said in April the deal was worth $135 million. Abdul Kareem Abtan, a member of a parliamentary fact-finding committee formed to investigate whether fraud was linked to the devices, said the committee had concerns about the system.

“The electronic vote counting devices were useless and completely not secure from tampering, and our conclusion was corroborated by results reached by a professional technical team from the Iraqi National Intelligence Service,” he told Reuters, referring to intelligence service representatives who were part of the committee.

A BSA official told Reuters an IHEC director had signed the contract with Miru in March 2017. The BSA official spoke on condition he was not named as he is not authorised to speak on the issue. A law passed by parliament suspended the IHEC’s nine-member board of commissioners in June and replaced the commissioners with judges. Aziz al-Kheqani, the IHEC’s media manager when the fraud allegations surfaced, said he was no longer authorised to comment for the election commission.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose alliance came third in the election, said on June 5 that a government investigation had found serious violations in the election and blamed the IHEC for most of them. Parliament later ordered the manual recount. Most of the parliamentarians who pushed for the recount had lost their seats in the election.

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