Morning Brief

Iraq’s Protesters Appeal to Top Shiite Cleric

Anti-government demonstrators in Iraq have called on Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for support after attacks on protest camps.

Iraqi students they march in an anti-government protest in the southern city of Basra, Iraq, on Feb. 6.
Iraqi students they march in an anti-government protest in the southern city of Basra, Iraq, on Feb. 6. HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Protesters in Iraq call on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to make a statement during his Friday sermon, a coronavirus whistleblower’s death sparks outrage in China, and Venezuela detains Citgo executives—drawing condemnation from the United States.

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Protesters Appeal to Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani

Amid months of unrest some Iraqi activists are calling on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shiite leader, to take a stand during his Friday sermon in the sacred city of Karbala after the followers of a populist Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, attacked an anti-government protest camp this week in the nearby holy city of Najaf, killing at least eight people. On Thursday, Sadr’s followers raided another camp in Karbala.

Many of the anti-government protesters are Shiites and they are now appealing to Sistani to intervene. Although Sistani tends to keep his distance from politics, his past interventions have been extremely influential, as Mohammad R. Kalantari and Ali Hashem argued last week in Foreign Policy.

The attacks came after Sadr told his followers, many of whom participated in the protests, to abandon the demonstrations when Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi was named prime minister on Saturday. The protesters have urged Sistani to reject Allawi. “Sistani is the one leader left who’s both part of the system and has supported our cause,” one activist told Reuters on Thursday.

Who is Moqtada al-Sadr? He rose to prominence as the leader of a militia during the U.S. occupation of Iraq but is now part of the political establishment: He controls the largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament. Activists are disappointed in Sadr’s shift, which has weakened protest turnout. Sadr has built a populist movement and often issues directives on Twitter, though the move this week has led to divisions among his followers, Agence France-Presse reports.

What’s next? Hundreds of protesters marched in the streets of Najaf on Thursday, condemning the violence. The activists say they plan to rebuild their protest camp in the city’s main square. Protests are likely to continue today. Meanwhile, Allawi is tasked with forming a government, with activists determined to bring him down.

What We’re Following Today

Early coronavirus whistleblower dies in Wuhan.  Li Wenliang, one of eight doctors who tried to raise the alarm about the new coronavirus in December, has died of the disease. After he first alerted fellow doctors of the outbreak in December, he was silenced by local authorities. The news of Li’s death went viral on Chinese social media and has sparked calls for greater freedom of speech, which were quickly censored.

It remains to be seen whether the Chinese government will celebrate Li or cover up his story, FP’s James Palmer writes. Meanwhile, Beijing declared a “people’s war” against the virus outbreak, with one official declaring the virus had peaked. The World Health Organization said that it was too early to tell, with nearly 2,500 new cases reported in China on Friday.

U.S. condemns Venezuela over Citgo detentions. On Thursday, the United States condemned Venezuela’s government for the detention of six executives from Citgo—the U.S. subsidiary of the state-owned oil company PDVSA. They are believed to have been taken from house arrest to a prison in Caracas. Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, called the action “cruel and indefensible.” It came after U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó at the White House and threatened “crippling” sanctions on Nicolás Maduro’s government. Abrams also warned of potential sanctions against Russia, which supports Maduro.

Canada tries to boost its bid for Security Council seat. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, today at the annual African Union summit, where he will try to win support for Canada’s bid to take a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council. Voting will be held on June 17. Canada, Ireland, and Norway are vying for two available two-year seats. Canada, which spends less of its GDP on foreign aid than the other two countries, will also need to lobby envoys at the United Nations. If Canada fails to get the seat, it would be a blow to Trudeau.

Keep an Eye On

Ireland’s election. Voters head to the polls in Ireland on Saturday, with the left-wing nationalist party Sinn Fein emerging as the unlikely frontrunner. Many voters still oppose Sinn Fein for its past role as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. It’s not likely to lead the next administration and rival parties say they won’t join a Sinn Fein coalition—but a strong showing could bring the issue of Irish unification to the forefront of political debate and force mainstream parties to cooperate with Sinn Fein.

India’s bet on Huawei. India wants to be at the forefront of deploying 5G networks, and it’s allowing the Chinese firm Huawei to participate in trials within its borders. But a divided telecoms industry, security concerns, and disagreements within the central government have complicated the country’s calculations, Harsh V. Pant and Aarshi Tirkey write for FP.

Afghanistan’s intelligence service. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence service, has close links to the CIA. As government dissidents are attacked and murdered, critics liken the NDS to the intelligence service of the country’s communist regime in the 1980s, Emran Feroz reports for FP.

Odds and Ends

Three astronauts landed safely in Kazakhstan on Thursday after finishing missions on the International Space Station. The crew included NASA astronaut Christina Koch, who set a record for the longest spaceflight by a woman: 328 days in orbit. Koch took part in the first all-female space walk last October.

That’s it for today.

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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