Iraq's "Ghost Soldiers," World AIDS Day, Record Christmas Tree

An Indian activist attends a World AIDS Day event.
An Indian activist attends a World AIDS Day event.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A corruption probe in Iraq has discovered that the Iraqi army counts 50,000 “ghost soldiers,” troops that don’t even exist but are paid, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said yesterday, as he continues efforts to end years of graft. Meanwhile, AP reports that the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS launched as many as 30 overnight airstrikes Saturday against the terrorist group in the Syrian city of Raqqa. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 50 ISIS fighters were killed.

Some 40 million people have died of AIDS during the last three decades, but the world has finally reached the “beginning of the end” of the pandemic, according to a report released to mark World AIDS Day. “We've passed the tipping point in the AIDS fight at the global level, but not all countries are there yet,” warned the ONE campaign, an advocacy group working to end poverty and preventable disease in Africa. As of last year, an estimated 35 million people were believed to live with the disease. Writing in the Washington state newspaper The News Tribune, a woman diagnosed with AIDS 20 years ago explains that “those afflicted, like myself, can and do live full and long lives.”

Hong Kong police clashed with pro-democracy protesters early this morning in an attempt to remove protesters from a government building they were surrounding. Forty people were arrested and at least as many were taken to the hospital with injuries after the police used pepper spray and batons to remove the protesters, The Guardian reports. Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying urged occupiers to go home, saying that those arrested “will have criminal records, which will affect their chances in studying and working overseas.” Read more from the South China Morning Post.

The government in Taiwan, meanwhile, resigned after the ruling Kuomintang party suffered its biggest ever defeat in Saturday’s local elections. According to the BBC, the electorate punished the party pursuing closer ties with China, which still regards the island as a “renegade province.”

A Las Vegas man who won $14.3 million on a casino slot machine plans to donate all his winnings to charity.

Israel’s governing coalition was “close to collapse” last night as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and cabinet rival Yair Lapid clashed over a controversial bill designating Israel a Jewish state, The Daily Telegraph reports. Haaretz quoted a source close to Netanyahu as saying that the prime minister may call for an early election in the next days. A Palestinian woman was shot and wounded this morning in the West Bank after she stabbed an Israeli settler, AFP reports. This comes after a Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in Jerusalem was torched Saturday by suspected extremist Jewish activists who sprayed racist messages on the walls.

As Die Welt’s Birger Nicolai reports, changing behavior among younger generations of Germans will eventually lead to fewer cars on the road — and more women behind the wheel. “The young market is lost to car manufacturers because lifestyles are changing,” the journalist writes. “Fewer people are starting families, for example, and therefore more of them are staying in the city instead of moving to the suburbs where they would need a car. ‘We phone instead of driving,’ a young traffic adviser says. ‘Young Germans don't want to be physically mobile to the extent people previously were.’”
Read the full article, In Car-Loving Germany, A New Generation Foregoes Auto Ownership.

After days of sometimes violent protests across the country in reaction to a grand jury’s decision not to indict the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed teenager Michael Brown in August, officer Darren Wilson resigned. He cited threats against him if he didn’t step down. “I’m not willing to let someone else get hurt because of me,” he told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


Uruguay’s leftist candidate Tabaré Vázquez was elected president yesterday with voters handing the country’s top job to the ruling Broad Front party for the third time in a row, newspaper La República reports. Vázquez already served as president between 2005 and 2010 and will succeed his ally, the very popular José Mujica, who was barred by the Uruguayan constitution from running for a second consecutive term. Vázquez vowed to govern “without ignoring anybody” and said he wanted “to be able to count on all Uruguayans.” Read more in English from AP.

Rio de Janeiro might not have snow for Christmas, but that’s not stopping the city from boasting the world’s tallest floating Christmas tree, which contains 3.1 million micro bulbs and weighs 542 tons. Watch a video of the unveiling ceremony here.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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