Tens of Thousands Turn Out in Baghdad for Anti-US Protest

Tens of thousands of people poured into a central Baghdad square Friday for what had been billed as a “million-man” march, carrying Iraqi flags and signs and shouting “No, No America.”  

Many wore white fabric, symbolizing their determination to see the U.S. military either leave Iraq, or be expelled. “

Many protesters wear white fabric, symbolizing their determination to expel the U.S. from Iraq on Jan. 24, 2020 in Baghdad. (Halan Akoy/VOA)

We want the invaders out,” said Ra’ad, a protester and father who does piecemeal work to feed his five children. “If the politicians don’t make them leave the military will.”  

Prominent Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for a “million-man” march to demand the expulsion of American forces after the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general, in a Jan. 3 airstrike at the Baghdad airport. Six others died in the airstrike, including Iraqi Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of a Shi’ite militia groups known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.   

Iran retaliated with airstrikes on U.S. bases in Iraq, and both sides have threatened grave consequences if they are struck again.

Shi’ite politicians subsequently used their majority in parliament to push through a resolution calling for the U.S. military to be expelled from Iraq, while Sunni and Kurdish politicians, representing the country’s two largest minorities, boycotted the vote. Iraq’s president, a Kurd, declared that “the vote is not good for Iraq.”

Despite the vote, the United States has said it has no plans to leave the country and the Iraqi government has given no indication that it can or will try to force the U.S. troops out.

This protesters sign says “I am an Iraqi against the presence of America on Jan. 24, 2020 in Baghdad. (H.Murdock/VOA)

At the rally, some men expressed their anger by burning a paper American flag, while others carried signs saying, “I am an Iraqi against the presence of America.”   

Some signs said more directly, “Death to America” or “Death to Israel.”  

Anti-government protesters in Iraq have rallied every day since early October to demand government action on basic human needs like jobs, security and health care. At least 600 people have died in these demonstrations, but protesters say they are not giving up.   

Friday’s protest was not related to those protests and was held in a different part of Baghdad.

Ambulances line up outside the protest during morning hours on Jan. 24, 2020 in Baghdad. (H.Murdock/VOA)

Ambulances were lined up outside the rally, but by 2:30 p.m. the day remained peaceful. Gunshots rang out late the night before in the area, but no deaths or injuries were reported. “

It’s not good for our economy to have the U.S. here,” said Ra’ad, the protester. “They come here and they take our resources out.” 



Top Indonesian Official: US Reporter Should Be ‘Deported Immediately’

Indonesia’s top security official said Friday that detained U.S. journalist Philip Jacobson should be deported immediately. 

Jacobson, 30, a reporter for the California-headquartered environmental news outlet Mongabay, was detained December 17 in Borneo for an alleged visa violation. 

The reporter was held without formal due process after attending a regional parliamentary hearing involving the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, Indonesia’s largest indigenous rights advocacy group. 

This week, Jacobson was formally arrested and told he faced up to five years in prison for visiting Indonesia with the wrong visa, a claim his employer and U.S. officials have disputed. 

Official: Reporter’s work, arrest not linked

Speaking with VOA on Friday, Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister Mohammad Mahfud MD reiterated claims made by Borneo officials that Jacobson’s arrest was not linked to his reporting on sensitive stories about Indonesia’s myriad environmental and corruption woes. 

But then he said Jacobson should be released. 

“He came to Indonesia on a visit visa and then turned out he did journalism activities to write the news,” said Mahfud. “There was already evidence and then he was detained. Yes, that’s the fact, Indonesian law is like that, but he should just be deported immediately.” 

Mahfud’s comments preceded by hours a report published by Mangobay that said Jacobson had been “moved from prison to ‘city detention’ in Palangkaraya.” 

“We are grateful that authorities have made this accommodation and remain hopeful that Phil’s case can be treated as an administrative matter rather than a criminal one,” said Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler. “We thank everyone for their continued support.” 

Employer surprised by response

According to Mongabay, Jacobson traveled to the country on a multiple-entry business visa. The news outlet expressed surprise that Indonesian immigration officials took such stringent actions against its reporter for the perceived administrative violation. 

According to various news reports, Jacobson repeatedly had entered and left Indonesia on a non-journalist visa. The Jakarta-based Legal Aid Center for the Press told VOA the hearings Jacobson attended and his activities were “in accordance with applicable legal norms.” 

Summoned Friday by the Indonesia Security Ministry, U.S. Ambassador Joseph R. Donovan said: “It is important for us to deal with issues like this through the proper channels.” 

This story originated in VOA’s Indonesian service. Some information is from AFP. 



Thousands of Iraqis Call for US Troops to Leave, But Protests Smaller Than Planned

Tens of thousands took to the streets in Baghdad Friday calling for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. The protests come as James Jeffrey, U.S. special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, acknowledged that the fight against the terrorist group in Iraq is paused, and the American and coalition troops stationed there are now focused on self protection amid rocket attacks from Iran. VOA’s diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.



NPR Reporter: Pompeo Lashed Out at Her After Testy Interview

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cursed at a National Public Radio reporter and repeatedly “used the F-word” in a shouted diatribe after she questioned him about Ukraine and the ousted American ambassador to Kiev in an interview on Friday, the reporter said.

Mary Louise Kelly conducted a testy interview lasting about nine minutes with Pompeo for NPR’s “All Things Considered” program, asking him about Iran and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted by President Donald Trump last May. Yovanovitch’s removal was a key event in the actions that prompted Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives last month.

“Afterwards, Pompeo proceeded to shout his displeasure at being questioned about Ukraine. He used repeated expletives, according to Kelly,” NPR said in a statement.

“He asked, ‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’ He used the F-word in that sentence and many others,” Kelly said in an interview of her own with NPR later Friday.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kelly said Pompeo shouted at her “for about the same amount of time as the interview itself.” Pompeo then had aides bring a blank map of the world and asked Kelly to show Ukraine.

“People will hear about this,” Pompeo said after Kelly pointed at Ukraine on the map, she said.

Questions on Ukraine

When Kelly turned her questioning to Ukraine in the latter part of the interview with Pompeo, he said he had agreed to discuss only Iran.

Kelly said she had informed Pompeo’s aides that she would ask also about Ukraine, and posed several questions, including whether Pompeo owed an apology to Yovanovitch, who testified last year in the House impeachment inquiry about her ouster. The incident also has figured in Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate.

“I have defended every State Department official. … I’ve defended every single person on this team,” Pompeo replied.

In November, Pompeo declined to defend Yovanovitch after Trump attacked her on Twitter.

Yovanovitch was removed by Trump following a negative campaign against her by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others. Giuliani at the time was pushing to have Ukraine investigate Trump’s political rival Joe Biden.



Police: 2 Dead After Warehouse Explosion Shakes Houston

A massive explosion Friday leveled a warehouse in Houston, leaving two people dead, damaging nearby buildings and homes and rousing frightened residents from their sleep miles away, authorities said.
    
The explosion happened about 4:30 a.m. inside a building at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, which makes valves and provides thermal-spray coatings for equipment in various industries, authorities said. The building was reduced to burning rubble and debris, and some of the surrounding buildings suffered heavy damage to parts of their walls and roofs.
    
Police Chief Art Acevedo confirmed the deaths Friday. He said authorities don’t believe the explosion was intentional though a criminal investigation is underway.
    
“Do a search around your own home and your own neighborhood, even if you’re a mile away from this location,” Acevedo said. “Look for any debris, any body parts, anything that may be related. If you find anything in your immediate home, in your yard, don’t touch it. Just call the Houston Police Department so we can respond.”
    
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said hazardous materials crews have secured the valve on a 2,000-gallon (7,571-liter) tank of propylene that had been leaking. Propylene is a colorless gas used to produce chemicals in plastics, synthetic rubber and gasoline. It is highly flammable and can explode in a fire. People exposed to propylene can become dizzy and light-headed, and the gas can also cause liver damage.
    
Nearby homes sustained significant damage. Some were knocked off their foundations.
    
Danny Wilson, 63, who lives less than a mile from the site, said he was sleeping when his wife woke him up.
    
“She heard a big noise and the (grand kids) were running out of their rooms,” Wilson said. “She said it was some kind of explosion or somebody was trying to get in.”
    
Wilson said he first checked inside his home to make sure nobody had broken in and then he went outside and talked to neighbors to find out what was going on and to check for any damage.
   
 “I didn’t notice any broken glass and I looked at the back window and it was shattered big time,” Wilson said.
    
He said the blast also broke glass on part of his front windows.
    
“Everybody seems to be OK now. That’s the main thing,” Wilson said.
    
Miguel Ramirez, 65, tried to get out of his bedroom to see what had happened, but his bedroom door would not open.
    
Ramirez said he had his son hand him a small screwdriver through an opening underneath the door and he used that to remove the pins from the door’s hinges so he could get out.
    
Once he got out, Ramirez said he found that a large portion of the ceiling in his living room had collapsed onto the floor and sofa. Chunks of insulation were on the carpeted living room and on the couch. The wooden beams on the ceiling were exposed.
    
The explosion also shattered the sliding door in his kitchen that leads to his backyard. Bits of glass were strewn all over the kitchen floor and a dining room table that still had plates from when the family ate Thursday night. The blast also knocked off from the ceiling in the kitchen.
    
“The good thing is nobody got hurt,” said Ramirez, who lives about 500 feet (150 meters) away from the company where the explosion occurred. He lives in the home with his wife, son and daughter.
    
The blast shook other buildings, with reports on Twitter of a boom felt across the city. Pena said there were no reports of hazardous air quality, based on monitoring done by a hazardous materials team.
    
A phone number for Watson Grinding was out of service when called by a reporter with The Associated Press on Friday morning. The family-owned business manufactures valves and provides thermal-spray coatings for equipment used in the chemical, mining, petroleum and aerospace industries, among others, according to its website.
    
About 90,000 people live within 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of the company, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Houston police tweeted that officers were blocking off streets, but no evacuation was ordered. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said first responders checked on residents of nearby homes.
    
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Twitter said there was no hazard in the air “from all indications,” but that authorities continued to monitor.
    
This part of Texas is home to the highest concentration of oil refineries in the nation and has experienced a series of explosions in recent years. Last July, an explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, east of Houston, left more than dozen people with minor injuries and put nearby residents under a shelter-in-place advisory for three hours.
   
 In December, two blasts in the coastal city of Port Neches shattered windows and ripped the doors from nearby homes.

 



Dems Pick Whitmer, Escobar for Trump State of Union Response

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will deliver the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4. Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas will deliver the Spanish-language response.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer made the announcement Friday.

They praised Whitmer for her efforts to ensure clean drinking water is available in communities across Michigan, which was scarred by the 2014 water crisis in Flint. About 25,000 people have sued over the crisis, in which a change in the source of the city’s water resulted in lead contamination.

Whitmer, a former prosecutor who was sworn in as governor last year, defeated Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Trump ally. She had previously served as Democratic Leader in the Michigan state Senate and was the first woman to lead the Senate caucus.

Escobar, of El Paso, attended a protest rally in August ahead of Trump’s visit to the city after a mass shooting at a Walmart killed 22 people. Police said the gunman specifically targeted Mexicans. Escobar spent two decades in local government before coming to Washington. She’s the first Latina to represent her district.

Trump has said he intends to deliver the State of the Union as scheduled despite his ongoing Senate impeachment trial.



Fighting Polio in Pakistan, Afghanistan

Afghanistan and Pakistan witnessed a spike in reported polio cases last year, further highlighting what local officials call an imminent threat to the border region



Nigerian Journalist Found Hacked to Death

A Nigerian reporter has died after being discovered bound, gagged and near death in a farmer’s field in Adamawa state.

In a development first reported by regional news outlets, Maxwell Nashan, a newscaster with government-owned Federal Radio Corporation (FRCN), appears to have been abducted from his home before being bound, gagged and hacked to death.

Women who discovered Nashan in the early hours of Jan. 15 contacted Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps, who rushed to the scene but were unable to save Nashan, who died shortly after arriving at a hospital.

Police officials have confirmed the killing but have yet to determine whether it was tied to Nashan’s work as a journalist.

Donald Didan, Adamawa state chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, urged police to bring the assailants to justice, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on Thursday called on Nigerian officials to conduct a thorough investigation.

Colleagues of Nashan, who covered the Adamawa state house of assembly and was preparing for his wedding in the days leading up to the attack, told CPJ they were not aware of any threats made against the journalist. Local police, however, said they found a message Nashan had sent from his cellphone saying his life was in danger.

Nashan’s relatives described evidence of a break-in at his home in the Lainde community, where nothing but his computer was missing.

“Maxwell Nashan must not become just another crime statistic, and investigators must consider whether his journalism was the motive for his killing,” Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, said in a prepared statement. “Authorities in Nigeria must work to ensure the safety of reporters, which includes investigating acts of violence against members of the press.”

CPJ said police had arrested eight suspects in connection with the case.

At least five journalists have been killed in relation to their work in Nigeria since 2010, according to CPJ, which ranks Nigeria 12th on its 2019 impunity index.