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With prime minister out, Iraq in constitutional ‘black hole’
By SAMYA KULLAB and MURTADA FARAJ | Sun, December 1, 2019 03:25 EST
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s parliament on Sunday formally accepted the prime minister’s resignation, but the path to replacing Adil Abdul-Mahdi was clouded with legal questions that one lawmaker described as a “black hole in the constitution,” which does not clearly spell out the next step.
Meanwhile, anti-government demonstrations went on in the capital, and one protester was shot dead. Demonstrators closed roads, including those leading to a major commodities port in southern Iraq. A special judicial committee was formed to investigate demonstrator deaths.
Parliament approved the resignation without a vote, according to four lawmakers in attendance. Lawmakers acted on the legal opinion of the federal supreme court because existing laws do not provide clear procedures.
“According to the federal court’s interpretation, there is no need to vote,” lawmaker Sarkwat Shamsedine said during the session. Lawmaker Mohamed al-Daraji made the reference to a black hole in the law.
Following the approval, Parliament Speaker Mohamed a-Halbousi asked President Barham Salih to nominate a new prime minister. The constitution requires parliament’s largest bloc to name a candidate for the premiership within 15 days. Then the prime minister-designate has 30 days to form a government.
Officials and experts warned of a potential political crisis because the question of which coalition constitutes the largest bloc is unresolved.
Abdul-Mahdi’s nomination as prime minister was the product of a provisional alliance between parliament’s two main blocs — Sairoon, led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi al-Amiri.
In the May 2018 election, neither coalition won a commanding plurality that would have enabled it to name the premier alone. To avoid political crisis, Sairoon and Fatah forged a precarious union.
Salih began making rounds with different political blocs to reach a consensus, one lawmaker who requested anonymity in line with regulations said. Two Iraqi officials also said that Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional security apparatus, arrived in Baghdad and met with key officials.
“It is expected that not just Soleimani but other usual brokers of the prime minister candidate will be active from now on,” said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of regulations. “But for sure no candidate will go through without the blessing of Najaf.”
Najaf is the seat of Iraq’s Shiite religious authority.
The possibility of Sairoon and Fatah re-committing to an alliance over the selection of the premiership was “the strongest scenario,” Shamsedine said.
In Baghdad’s historic Rasheed Street, security forces fired live ammunition to prevent crowds from breaching concrete barriers near the Ahrar bridge that leads to parliament and other government buildings. One protester was killed and 10 wounded, according to security and medical officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hundreds of anti-government demonstrators, including students and teachers, also took to the streets in the southern oil-rich city of Basra. They donned black clothes to mourn protesters killed in Najaf and Dhi Qar provinces in recent days.
The new investigative committee was formed to hear cases from the city of Nasiriyah, which has seen the most fatalities due to live ammunition used by security forces in recent days. The committee issued an arrest warrant against Lt. Gen. Jamil al-Shammari on charges of issuing orders that lead to the killing of demonstrators, according to Iraqi state TV.
Abdul-Mahdi recently withdrew al-Shammari from overseeing security matters in the southern city following the bloodshed.
Unlike elsewhere in Iraq, in Basra demonstrators have routinely targeted the country’s economic interests.
Demonstrators staged a sit-in and cut roads to the West Qurna 1 oil field, operated by ExxonMobil. The field, among the country’s largest, produces over 450,000 barrels of oil per day. A senior oil ministry official said the protests have not yet affected crude production.
Protesters continued to block roads to the country’ main Gulf commodities port in Umm Qasr. Port officials previously said trade activity had been cut by 50 percent as a result.
Also Sunday, unknown attackers in Najaf torched the Iranian consulate, which was empty. It was the second time the building had been set ablaze in recent days, following an earlier fire started by protesters who stormed the structure.
At least 400 people have been killed since Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets in mass protests in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite south.
In Baghdad, protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the movement, to reiterate calls for a complete overhaul of the sectarian political system. Hundreds of university students skipped classes to attend.
“First, we want a country. Second, we want all of them out. No one stays. They are all thieves,” said a demonstrator who gave her name as Umm Zaynab, as protesters chanted anti-government slogans.
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Big obstacles remain before Chicago gets long-awaited casino
By SOPHIA TAREEN | Sat, November 30, 2019 09:19 EST
CHICAGO (AP) — After years of pushing a Las Vegas-style casino to boost tourism and much-needed revenue, Chicago’s leaders seemingly hit the jackpot when Illinois lawmakers approved one as part of a massive gambling expansion.
But obstacles remain before anyone can place any bets. The city must convince state lawmakers to vote on a plan that officials say makes the casino more profitable as well as choose a location, which already has sparked disputes.
Here’s a look at the issues ahead:
Chicago is on track to become the largest American city with a casino, and it’s likely to be gigantic. Lawmakers approved up to 4,000 gambling positions, slots or table seats. Though Chicago could use some positions for airport slots, a Chicago casino could rival those on the Las Vegas Strip. Caesars Palace and Aria have roughly 1,500 slots apiece.
The details — including location and design— are unknown. A required feasibility study in August evaluated five sites outside downtown, including a former U.S. Steel plant site, but recommended one closer to the city’s core.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot says downtown is still in play. Sites often discussed include the state-owned James R. Thompson Center and an aging McCormick Place building.
Legislators also approved five other casinos, sports betting and more slots at horse tracks and Illinois’ existing 10 casinos.
First-year Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the package into law during the summer as a critical funding source for a $45 billion capital plan. Chicago would use profits to pay down pension debt.
Revenue estimates vary. State experts agree the Chicago casino will easily outperform Illinois’ highest-grossing casino, Rivers Casinos in the suburb of Des Plaines, which generated $440 million last year with its 1,200 gambling positions. The feasibility study said one site at a former hospital could gross over $950 million by year five.
But there’s a big hitch.
The same feasibility study said the “onerous ” tax and fee structure in the gambling law — the highest nationwide — would make a Chicago casino “not financially feasible.” The effective tax rate could be up to 72%, including a 33% tax on gross casino receipts that Chicago would use for police and fire pensions. The one-third rate, which applies to Chicago and not the other casinos, was written into the plan after lawmakers rejected the idea of a city-owned casino.
The study concluded any casino operator’s revenue would “likely equate to a few pennies on the dollar.”
Legislators and city officials were negotiating fixes, but lawmakers adjourned their fall veto session without taking addressing the issue. State Rep. Bob Rita, a Blue Island Democrat who sponsored the expansion, introduced a city-backed plan to lower some taxes and fees, but said lawmakers ran out of time for a vote.
Lightfoot said they’ll pursue the issue in January.
“With so much potential on the line, our city and state deserve to get this done and get this done right,” she said.
Experts say casinos can have two major benefits for cities: economic growth and tax revenue.
Chicago leaders have long found both ideas alluring.
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley floated a plan in the early 1990s for a $2 billion city-owned casino complex that would feature family-friendly entertainment. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed proposals to address the city’s financial woes.
Lightfoot has favored a casino as a way to boost economically-depressed neighborhoods and to bring long-term financial stability. The City Council recently approved her proposed $11.65 billion budget, which relies on several one-time funding sources including $215 million from debt refinancing.
Not everyone is on board, particularly with the social cost.
Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems, a nonprofit group, said casinos “prey on the poor and enable — if not tacitly encourage — gambling addiction.”
Some Chicago neighborhoods also don’t want to profit off casino dollars. A Chicago alderwoman whose ward covers one proposed site in a historically black neighborhood slammed the idea as akin to “putting a casino in Harlem.”
The Illinois Gaming Association worries about oversaturation with the expansion. The new casinos will be in Chicago’s south suburbs, Waukegan, Danville, Rockford and southern Illinois.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed two gambling expansions over concerns about ethics and school funding.
There are also doubts about the feasibility study, conducted by a Las Vegas consultant.
Michael Wenz, a Northeastern Illinois University economics professor, said he’s not convinced a Chicago casino wouldn’t be profitable even with the current tax structure and bidding developers should be able write proposals without impediment.
Illinois isn’t the only state trying to win big.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a plan this year that will, among other things, allow two Gary casino boats on Lake Michigan to move to land sites and help open another casino in Terre Haute. He said Gary — 30 miles from Chicago — would “absolutely” compete with Illinois casinos.
“It will be on a perfect thoroughfare, and I predict that we’ll exceed expectations as they are right now,” Holcomb said over the summer.
Rockford officials have also kept a close eye on the Wisconsin border with plans underway for a $405 million casino in Beloit.
Even without the legislative delays, a ribbon cutting will take a while.
The Illinois Gaming Board has a year to review applications and conduct background checks before issuing licenses. In Chicago, there’ll have to be local location approval and public hearings. Then construction can begin.
“Gaming is a very complicated issue and it always has been,” Rita said. “Everybody wants to get it up and running right away and make sure they do it right.”
Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.
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Mississippi fire department roiled by noose in locker
By REBECCA SANTANA | Sat, November 30, 2019 10:52 EST
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — There’s little disagreement that the object found in a white Mississippi firefighter’s locker was a hangman’s noose. But as with many things in America these days, there’s deep disagreement about what it meant.
To some it was a reminder of lynchings that took hundreds of black lives in Mississippi, and it had no place on city property — though there was no suggestion that firefighter Shelton Russell had ever displayed it or used it to intimidate anyone.
To Russell it didn’t carry that meaning. If anything, it symbolized America’s lawless wild-west culture, where cowboy vigilantes meted out rough justice.
It happened in August in the town of Hattiesburg, home to two universities and about 46,000 people. About 53% of the town’s residents are black, and about 42% are white.
City officials have declined to make anyone available for interviews because it’s a personnel matter and might involve future litigation. Many details emerged during a civil service commission hearing Oct. 10 as well as documents released to The Associated Press.
On Friday, Aug. 2, two firefighters working at Station 8 saw a noose hanging in the open locker of Russell, a lieutenant and station manager.
“It was like shock at first,” said firefighter Kentavius Reed, testifying about seeing it. When the city’s lawyer asked why he was shocked, the 24-year-old African American described how nooses had been used to hang black people: “I was kind of like ‘Why would you have it in your locker?’”
The other firefighter, a white engineer named Zeb Mitelsztet, testified he was “shocked and disturbed” to find the noose and said he’d always considered nooses a representation of racial hatred.
But Russell, a 22-year department veteran, didn’t see it that way. In statements, and in talking to the commission and to The Associated Press, he described how he’d been watching a western movie with a colleague after taking a ropes course years ago.
Russell said he didn’t know how to tie a noose, and his colleague showed him how it was done. Russell said he put it in his locker and never thought about it again. He said he still doesn’t understand how it’s offensive.
“African-Americans were hung by it. So were whites. So were horse thieves and you know, I’m a cowboy. I’m out in the country. I ride a tractor every day. That’s what I go back to, cowboys and that’s how it got started, with watching the Western,” Russell, who raises chickens and grows hay, told the AP.
Both firefighters who saw the noose took photos and sent them to others. By Monday word had gotten back to Russell that people were talking about it. He went to the station to confront the two firefighters about “spreading rumors of racism,” he said in a statement. The confrontation grew heated.
Both the noose and the confrontation played a role in Russell’s punishment. Fire chief Sherrocko Stewart demoted him, suspended him without pay for a month and required him to undergo counseling. Russell appealed but the commission upheld the punishment; Russell resigned.
For some, Russell’s inability to see the noose’s fraught racial history was the problem. City Attorney Randy Pope said during the hearing he can understand Russell might not understand the noose’s symbolism, saying he didn’t grow up African American.
But Pope, who is white, said he educated himself about what the noose meant to African Americans: “I went and looked, spent some time on the internet, what’s involved in that symbol … And it is a very serious symbol.”
City Council member Deborah Delgado said she was “dumbfounded” that Russell wouldn’t know the potent symbolism of the noose, especially with Mississippi’s history of racial strife.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, Mississippi had one of the highest rates of lynchings across the South.
Some were in Hattiesburg.
William Sturkey, who wrote “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White,” describes multiple lynchings, including one in 1903 when 500 people pulled a black man named Amos Jones from the city jail and hung him from a telegraph pole. Then they riddled his body with bullets.
One expert who has extensively studied the history of lynchings in the South says whites and blacks tend to view these symbols very differently. A person doesn’t have to be racist to not understand how impactful something like a noose can be to black people, said retired University of Georgia professor E.M. Beck. He said someone like Russell “just basically doesn’t have the experience base to realize how pertinent and potent that symbol can be within the black community.”
Hattiesburg’s noose issue has drawn a little attention on social media. Some acquaintances of Russell back him up, saying on Facebook that simply having a noose wasn’t a crime and that Russell treated everyone he worked with fairly. Others question his sincerity and how he couldn’t know its racial overtones.
Russell’s lawyer, Michael Adelman, suggested Russell was treated harshly because of political pressure on the fire chief — something Stewart denied. Adelman also suggested one firefighter was retaliating against Russell for previous slights — something the firefighter denied.
Russell said if he’d known the noose was offensive, he would’ve taken it home. But he feels the situation escalated so quickly, he never got a chance.
“Anything could be offensive. But unless it’s brought to my attention, which it never was till after the fact, then how do I know?” he said after the hearing.
Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.
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Mexican voices: 1 year into the López Obrador presidency
By AMY GUTHRIE | Sun, December 1, 2019 12:10 EST
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been president of Mexico for a year, after a landslide 2018 vote. He pledged a presidency close to the people, austere, with punishment for the corrupt and greater safety and economic wellbeing.
Not all has gone according to plan. The country’s murder rate continues to log record highs, while economic growth this year has been flat and borders on recession. Corruption and crime remain difficult plagues to eradicate, though the administration has taken on some high-profile targets.
Despite the hurdles, the president still has widespread popular support. Polls show more than half of Mexicans approve of the way he is running the country. Many of those who supported him in the election say it’s too early to cast judgment — that he needs time to transform the country. Their fervor is anchored in the belief that he is an honest person with good intentions, as humble as the poor Mexicans he says he aims to help.
Here are the voices of three Mexicans who supported López Obrador as he completes his first year in office:
FRANCISCO GALVAN, 18
Had Francisco Galván been old enough to vote, he would have cast a ballot last year for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, just like his parents did.
The cook from Ecatepec, a sprawling suburb of Mexico City, is saving money for university. He’d like to study gastronomy or maybe even law.
With López Obrador in office, he hopes that maybe he can obtain some financial assistance — such as the $50 monthly subsidy that some of his friends still in high school receive as an incentive to stay in school. A supplement like that is significant, he says.
“The changes haven’t been drastic, but you can see them,” he says.
His days remain long. He sets out in the morning on a two-hour commute that starts with a micro-bus, then a subway ride and then yet another bus to the high-end neighborhood of Polanco, where he works.
Yet his aspirations are growing alongside the possibility of support from a president who says reducing inequality is a top priority.
“The truth is he’s very honorable, humble,” says Galván. “He’s a good person.”
MARIA SARA GUZMAN, 62
An artisan from the Purépecha indigenous community of the state of Michoacán, María Sara Guzmán says she already feels disillusioned with López Obrador.
“He offered that the poor and the indigenous would be first, and it turns out that’s not the case,” she says. “It’s the opposite — they’re taking away benefits.”
Just as the president has expanded support for students from low-income families and the elderly, he has also scrapped some popular social programs. Guzmán says her children and grandchildren have lost scholarships they used to count on from the government.
As an indigenous woman who has lived in the capital for four decades, she feels discriminated against. Gesturing toward her full skirt, which billows out under a wide woven scarf — traditional attire of her village — she says: “Because of our dress, people see us as weird bugs.”
The hope she felt ahead of the election and that led her to vote for López Obrador has dissipated as she continues to struggle to make ends meet. Her biggest complaint is harassment by police in the capital – which has a mayor from the president’s Morena party — who chase her away from public sidewalks where she weaves hats out of palm fronds and embroiders. They also confiscate her wares.
“They take — they steal — the merchandise,” she says. “This is very complicated embroidery.”
Another concern for Guzmán is the large number of women being raped and murdered in the country; on average, 10 women are murdered every day. Violence against women has become a leading issue in Mexico.
Whereas she thought López Obrador would be an ally, Guzmán now describes herself as “fighting against the government.”
DAMIAN BANUELOS, 32
Damián Bañuelos is a Huichol artisan from the mountains of Nayarit, a state on the Pacific coast, who feels the Mexican president is far more accessible and in touch with the people than his predecessors.
Bañuelos was so inspired by López Obrador that he waited all day in a line to cast a vote for the president – the first time the artisan exercised his right to vote. He believed the promises to help the poor, and the indigenous, and he says the benefits have begun to reach the elderly and others in need.
López Obrador spends many weekends visiting small communities in far-flung corners of Mexico, such as Bañuelos’ hometown. These televised visits have led to unflinching devotion in remote and isolated places like Las Higuera del Nayar, where Bañuelos was born.
“He goes often to the Sierra — those before never went,” says Bañuelos. “He’s more accessible, you can communicate with him.”
Bañuelos left his tiny village of subsistence farmers for the state capital of Tepic years ago so that he could work and study. He has labored in construction, and picked tomatoes, all the while perfecting his embroidery skills.
Now from sunrise to sunset, he embroiders geometric Huichol designs onto bracelets and bags. The multicolored bag strung across his shoulder on a recent day in the capital’s main square took him about a month to embroider and would sell for more than $100.
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Sewer blockage pushes waste into 300 New York City homes
By RYAN KRYSKA and MICHAEL R. SISAK | Sun, December 1, 2019 12:50 EST
NEW YORK (AP) — A blocked sewer main flooded basements Saturday with brown filth and left residents in the neighborhood near New York City’s Kennedy Airport feeling sickened by the stench.
A water condition caused the backup, pushing human waste into about 300 homes in Jamaica, Queens, officials said.
Cynthia McKenzie said she woke up around 3 a.m. to an odor she thought was a gas leak, only to realize that sewage water was rushing into her basement.
As the water level rose, McKenzie said she raced to move furniture and other belongings — but some electronics couldn’t be saved. After a few hours, she said, her whole neighborhood was awash in fetid fluid.
“It’s messy,” said McKenzie, who posted photos showing murky water covering the floor of a basement bedroom and the bottom of a staircase.
“When you open it, it just smells,” she said. “It makes you want to vomit. We have to pack up all the clothes.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said crews were making repairs and bringing in pumping equipment to clear up the mess.
The city’s water agency says drinking water is safe and unaffected, but de Blasio advised residents to reduce usage to cut down on water going into the blocked main.
McKenzie said she bought two pumps from Home Depot and ran extension cords and a hose to try and clear water from her basement, but the rig hardly kept up.
“There’s still some at knee level,” she said. “The odor is just unbelievable.”
McKenzie said she called 911 and the city’s 311 help line soon after discovering the sewage. A few firefighters eventually showed up, she said, but according to her, none of the city services could stop the flow of sewage.
Officials have a culprit in mind: cooking grease that’s been poured down the drain.
It tends to congeal into big masses that slow or stop the flow of sewage, leaving it no place to go but back up the pipes. In some places around the world , the grease balls have gotten so enormous they’ve been described as “fatbergs.”
“This time of year we get a lot of grease blockages in sewers from residents that discharge grease,” city environmental protection chief Vincent Sapienza told reporters. “We’re under the assumption that it’s that.”
Most residents in the middle-class neighborhood are non-white and about half are foreign-born, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
De Blasio says American Red Cross and city emergency management representatives are at the scene to help families displaced by the sewer back up. The city opened a service center for affected residents at a nearby public school.
De Blasio said the city is working to provide hotel rooms to anyone who was unable to return home Saturday night.
“It’s unlivable,” McKenzie said. “It’s all around the neighborhood and farther down.”
This story has been corrected to show the last name of the Queens resident is McKenzie, not McKenvie.