World update: November 2-3 2019

Stories from Iraq, Kenya, Peru, and more


November 1, 1922: The last Ottoman Sultan is deposed.

November 1, 1955: The Vietnam War begins, at least according to the US government. Even though the Viet Cong had already begun battling the South Vietnamese government and the North Vietnamese government wouldn’t formally get involved until the following year, this is the date the US government reorganized its Military Assistance Advisory Group for Indochina by country. The birth of “MAAG Vietnam” is considered by Washington to mark the start of the war, and when it lists US deaths in the war it starts the count on this date.

November 2, 1917: The Balfour Declaration is issued.

November 2, 1964: Saudi King Saud b. Abdulaziz is ousted in an internal family coup. Saud and his brother/crown prince, Faysal, had been engaged in a power struggle since their father’s death in 1953, one that Faysal really won earlier in the year when he and the rest of the ruling family largely stripped Saud of his authority and forced him to name Faysal as his regent. Saud’s mismanagement of the country and concerns that he was not up to the challenge posed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s republican ideology led to his marginalization and ultimately removal from power. Finally in November the ruling family made Faysal the king officially.

King Saud with President Dwight Eisenhower (left) and Vice President Richard Nixon (right) during a visit to the United States in 1957 (Wikimedia Commons)

November 3, 644: The second Muslim caliph, Umar, is assassinated. Between the total conquest of the Persian Empire and the capture of most of the Byzantine Empire, Umar’s caliphate saw a massive expansion in the Arabian polity that had been established by Muhammad. He was murdered by a slave, Piruz Nahavandi (or “Abu Lulu”), who had previously been a soldier in the Persian army. His motives are unclear, but revenge for the Arab conquest may have been among them.

November 3, 1903: Panama declares itself independent of Colombia, at the encouragement of a US government that wanted to deal with an independent and…oh, let’s say “persuadable” Panamanian government in constructing the Panama Canal. Commemorated as Panamanian Separation Day.

November 3, 1978: The United Kingdom grants Dominica independence.

November 3, 1986: The Federated States of Micronesia becomes independent of the United States.



A car bombing in Tel Abyad on Saturday killed at least 12 people and wounded 30 more. Tel Abyad is part of the strip of Syria’s northern border that’s now under Turkish control, and the Turks are blaming the Kurdish YPG militia for the attack. If it was the YPG that would suggest that the Turks are correct in saying that the militia hasn’t withdrawn from the border as obliged under a deal Turkey reached with Russia last month to settle the chaotic situation in northeastern Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that a Russian airstrike in southern Idlib province on Saturday killed six civilians. I can’t find any mention of this other than from the SOHR, so take it with a grain of salt.


Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is asking the folks who are out in the streets demanding his resignation to kindly go home and let life get back to normal. Abdul-Mahdi on Sunday said that the ongoing protests, which started in early October and then took a short break in the middle of the month around the Arbaeen pilgrimage, have cost the Iraqi economy billions of dollars due to road blockages and threats to oil facilities. Of course, if the 256 people (at least) killed so far by his security forces haven’t convinced protesters to give up and clear the streets, it’s unlikely that some verbal cajoling from the PM is going to make the difference. Activists are now trying to organize a general strike, which would be even costlier to the Iraqi economy, but so far the message has been picked up piecemeal rather than nationwide.

Musings on Iraq’s Joel Wing believes that the protests have now become a battleground between Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who supports the demonstrators in their calls for ending foreign interference in Iraqi affairs, and Iran’s clerical elites, who for some reason don’t care very much for that message:

Najaf and Tehran have come out on opposing sides on the protests and Abdul Mahdi’s government. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s representative used his Friday sermon to say that he stood with the protesters, and that there should be elections for a new parliament and a referendum over the constitution. The Arab News reported that the religious establishment in Najaf decided to intervene because they were upset with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei comments and were afraid that Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi would turn to force again. On October 30 Ayatollah Khamenei and the chief of staff of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the protests of being controlled by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani was said to have arrived in Baghdad on that same day, taken part in the meetings between the ruling parties to tell them that Tehran stood behind the premier. In turn, Abdul Mahdi asked Iran and its Iraqi allies to help put down the protests. At the start of the protests General Suleimani set up a crisis cell in Baghdad that included the premier’s chief of staff and several Hashd leaders that provided advice and intelligence on the demonstrations, and ran the sniper teams that killed so many people as well. Iran’s sentiment was repeated in a statement by the Hashd which said that it supported the protests, but warned that it must not be manipulated by foreigners. Iran usually works behind the scenes in Iraq, but has apparently gone all in behind Abdul Mahdi forcing it to work more out in the open. That support has forced the hand of Najaf, which under Ayatollah Sistani has always felt like it should have the last say in Iraq and resented Iran’s influence.

Protesters in Karbala, perhaps the holiest city in Shiʿa Islam outside of Mecca and Medina, attacked the Iranian consulate on Sunday, ripping down its Iranian flag and replacing it with an Iraqi flag. It’s hard to miss the message there.


On Sunday, massive anti-government protests broke out, especially in Beirut, after a couple of relatively quiet days that saw Lebanese banks reopen and authorities reopen roads around the capital. The protesters may have in part been responding to a new gambit by Lebanese President Michel Aoun to cast himself as the solution to the protesters’ woes instead of a big part of the problem. Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party held a rare pro-government—or, really, pro-Aoun—rally earlier on Sunday just outside of the capital. Among the speakers was Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son in-law, who stands to lose perhaps more than anybody if Lebanon really does undertake any fundamental political change to assuage public anger.


One Palestinian was killed amid multiple Israeli airstrikes on Gaza on Saturday. Ten rockets were launched out of Gaza Friday night. One damaged a house but otherwise there were no casualties. The Saturday airstrikes were retaliation.


Saudi Arabian oil giant Aramco is moving forward with its long-planned IPO, but it will only list its stock on the Riyadh exchange rather than internationally. The stock offering will amount to somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of the company, whose value is estimated in the neighborhood of $1.2 trillion as long as you accept some relatively optimistic (from Aramco’s perspective) assumptions about Saudi oil reserves, the Saudi government’s ability to resist meddling in corporate affairs, Persian Gulf stability, and the future of the global energy market. Aramco believes itself to be worth closer to $2 trillion, and the disparity between what the company thinks it’s worth and what the market thinks it’s worth (and, maybe, what it’s actually worth) is part of the reason the Saudis have been talking about this IPO for a couple of years now but still haven’t done it. The IPO, or more specifically the money it’s supposed to raise, is one of the centerpieces of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s plans to diversify the Saudi economy.



A landmine killed nine schoolchildren, aged 7-10, while they were walking to school on Saturday in Takhar province. Afghan authorities are blaming the Taliban, which has a strong presence in that province, for planting the mine, but the Taliban hasn’t commented for reasons that should be obvious.


It was another violent weekend of protests in Hong Kong. The culmination was a chaotic scene in a suburban mall in Taikoo Shing in which, amid clashes between protesters, residents, and police, a man wielding a knife slashed several people and apparently bit off part of a local politician’s ear. The former is obviously more serious than the latter, but the latter—yikes. The violence was more widespread on Saturday, when some protesters targeted the Hong Kong offices of Chinese news outlet Xinhua while many others rallied for the direct election of Hong Kong officials:



Algerian officials have announced that five candidates will run in the country’s presidential election in December:

Candidates for the Dec. 12 election include former prime ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, former culture minister Azzedddine Mihoubi, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine, and Abdelaziz Belaid, head of the El Mostakbal Movement party.

They were announced by Mohamed Chorfi, head of the election authority.

Twenty-three candidates had applied to the election authority, but most failed to meet requirements which include collecting signatures from 25 of the country's 48 provinces. Those who were rejected will be allowed to file appeals.

None of these candidates are likely to be acceptable to Algeria’s protest movement, which is demanding the wholesale ouster of the country’s authoritarian ruling elite before any elections are held. Of the five, the only one who remotely fits the profile of a non-establishment figure is Belaid, whose Future Front party is a small opposition party in the Algerian parliament. But even that’s probably a stretch.


The death toll from Friday’s militant attack on a military base in northeastern Mali now stands at 54, which I don’t think includes the French soldier who was killed in the same area by a roadside bomb on Saturday. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack on Saturday, presumably via its Greater Sahara affiliate that is active in eastern Mali, Niger, and northern Burkina Faso.


The Islamic State’s Somalia affiliate, which is mostly active in the autonomous region of Puntland, has pledged allegiance to the organization’s new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. I didn’t want you to lose anymore sleep wondering if this was going to happen. The Somali province joins the organization’s Egyptian and Bangladeshi affiliates in rededicating itself to the new boss.


The Kenyan military’s fight against al-Shabab may be doing wonders for the Somali terrorist group’s recruitment efforts:

Eight years into Kenya’s U.S.-backed offensive to combat al-Shabab, both in Somalia and domestically, residents of Kutulo say the Kenyan military is fighting terror with terror. They say the Kenya Defense Forces, or KDF, regularly round up noncombatants from Kenya’s ethnic Somali population as a form of collective punishment for al-Shabab attacks on Kenyan soil.

Some detainees are released and sworn to silence about their interrogation. But sometimes a neighbor finds a decomposing body on the side of a road days or months later. Other times, the hyenas that prowl the desert get there first. Human rights groupslocal media and the United Nations have documented dozens of allegations of abuse by the Kenyan security forces, including 88 cases of alleged enforced or involuntary disappearance since 1980.

Allegations of abuses against ethnic Somalis have dogged the KDF for decades — starting long before it sent troops into Somalia in 2011. Experts have warned that their clampdowns often serve to radicalize populations instead of contributing to peace, but the KDF has always denied any wrongdoing and rejects any link between its activities and radicalization.



New polling for El Pais newspaper has Spain’s Socialist Party still in front heading into the country’s November 10 snap election, but losing two seats from the 123 it won in April’s vote. The big winners appear to be the far right Vox party, which could emerge with 46 seats compared with the 24 it won in April, and the right-wing People’s Party, up to 91 seats from 66. The big loser appears to be the center-right Ciudadanos party, which would finish with 14 seats compared with the 57 it won in April.



United Nations investigators are looking into possible human rights abuses by Chilean security forces during the country’s ongoing anti-government protests. At least 20 people have been killed during those protests and thousands have been injured, many quite seriously. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights is Michelle Bachelet, who served as Chilean president in 2006-2010 and again in 2014-2018. Both times she was succeeded by current President Sebastián Piñera (Chilean law doesn’t allow presidents to serve consecutive terms).


Bolivian presidential challenger Carlos Mesa is calling for a new election to erase doubts over the vote count stemming from the previous vote on October 20. President Evo Morales officially won that election, just barely clearing the threshold to avoid a runoff against Mesa. But Mesa and his supporters have seized on the events of election night, when the vote count was stopped with Morales leading by a narrower margin and seemingly doomed to a runoff, and the following day, when the count was resumed and Morales’s vote count increased quickly until he’d won outright. The Organization of American States is auditing the vote count and Morales has pledged to hold a runoff if it finds evidence of fraud. Mesa doesn’t seem inclined to wait.


The Intercept has found more evidence of prosecutorial malfeasance in relation to Brazil’s “Operation Car Wash” corruption investigation—though in this case not in Brazil but in Peru:

The investigation into graft involving lucrative public works contracts has centered on the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and implicated large-looming figures in business and politics in dozens of countries. But in Brazil, as The Intercept’s reporting on a trove of secret documents revealed, the prosecutors and judges tasked with cleaning up corruption made use of highly questionable and even illegal procedures to accomplish their goals. Now, revelations from Peru show that dubious methods were not limited to Brazil.

Peruvian prosecutors asked a defendant to doctor his reports about connections to other suspects under investigation in the Peruvian iteration of Operation Car Wash, according to audio files given to The Intercept by a source who requested to remain unidentified, which were jointly analyzed with the Peruvian investigative journalism site Ojo Público.

The prosecutors wanted help in investigations targeting former President Ollanta Humala and another local politician. The defendant, Martín Belaunde Lossio, a financier and political operative currently under pretrial detention on unrelated charges, hoped to cooperate in order to shorten his own prison sentence. Belaunde, who previously served as Humala’s campaign manager, is a central figure in a corruption case involving the former president, who was in office from 2011 to 2016.


The governments of Venezuela and El Salvador traded diplomatic shots over the weekend. On Saturday, the Salvadoran government announced that it would accept a new Venezuelan diplomatic mission representing self-declared president Juan Guaidó, and ordered diplomats representing the current Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro to leave the country. On Sunday, in retaliation, Maduro’s government expelled El Salvador’s diplomatic mission in Venezuela. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who took office in June, has been eager to curry favor with the Trump administration and undoubtedly hopes this tit-for-tat will get him some extra attention in Washington.


Finally, ever since the CIA finally admitted (in 2013) playing a role in the 1953 coup that ousted Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, it’s become fashionable in anti-Iran circles in the US to acknowledge that the US was involved but to reduce the level of its involvement to something akin to a bit player. It was really other Iranians who ousted Mosaddegh, they say, with just a little US involvement, and also Britain played a much bigger role. Sadly, no:

Putting these various politicized historical narratives aside, the documents and memoirs that are now available to historians leave no doubt that the United States played a crucial role in the 1953 coup. CIA personnel, working with their British counterparts, planned and financed the coup; selected its nominal leader, Zahedi; and persuaded the shah to support the coup and appoint Zahedi as Mosaddeq’s successor.

A CIA team led by Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, organized the military units that provided muscle and backbone for the coup. The CIA team also directed two large networks of Iranian agents that carried out key elements of the covert operation, including an elaborate effort to undermine Mosaddeq in the months before the coup with propaganda and political action.

After an initial coup attempt failed on the night of Aug. 15-16, Roosevelt’s team used these assets first to undermine Mosaddeq by fomenting chaos in Tehran for several days and then deploying military units and crowds on Aug. 19, seizing control of Tehran and forcing Mosaddeq into hiding. Mosaddeq surrendered the following day to the U.S.-backed forces.