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Iraqi holy city hit hard by Iran economic woes
by Staff Writers
Najaf, Iraq (AFP) June 16, 2013

Two dead in Iraq rocket attack on Iran exiles
Baghdad (AFP) June 15, 2013 - A deadly rocket attack struck a camp near Baghdad housing Iranian exiles on Saturday, killing two residents, the second such assault on the group this year as its members await resettlement outside Iraq.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack involving at least half a dozen mortar rounds, which came as Iran tallied ballot papers from Friday's presidential election there.

"I can confirm that there was a deadly attack," Eliana Nabaa, spokeswoman for the United Nations mission in Iraq, told AFP.

A police colonel, speaking on condition of anonymity, put the toll at three dead and 11 wounded from six mortar blasts.

But Shahriar Kia, a spokesman for members of the People's Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, or the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), at Camp Liberty, said two people were killed -- one woman and one man -- and more than 30 others wounded.

"Dozens" of rockets hit the camp, setting fire to multiple trailers, he said.

Kia criticised the United Nations for not agreeing to move Liberty residents back to their original base at Camp Ashraf near the border with Iran.

The MEK's parent organisation, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, issued a statement in Paris sharply criticising the UN for inaction and making "false promises".

Saturday's attack was the second assault this year on Camp Liberty, which has some 3,000 residents.

In February, dozens of mortar rounds and rockets fired at the camp killed six people, according to the US State Department.

UN special envoy to Iraq Martin Kobler condemned the attack, and said the "tragic violence has occurred despite their (the MEK's) repeated requests to the government of Iraq to provide Camp Liberty and its residents with protective measures, including T-Walls," referring to concrete walls that protect against explosions.

"Today's second terror attack on camp Liberty is a reminder to third countries to come forward with serious offers to resettle Camp Liberty residents outside Iraq," Kobler added in a statement.

MEK members were moved to Camp Liberty late last year at Iraq's insistence from Ashraf, their historic paramilitary camp of the 1980s.

Camp Ashraf was the base that now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein allowed the group to establish in Diyala province during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran.

The MEK was founded in the 1960s to oppose the shah of Iran, and after the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted him it took up arms against Iran's clerical rulers.

It says it has now laid down its arms and is working to overthrow the Islamic regime in Iran by peaceful means.

Britain struck the group off its terror list in June 2008, followed by the European Union in 2009 and the United States in September last year.

But the US State Department holds the group responsible for the deaths of Iranians as well as US soldiers and civilians from the 1970s to 2001, and in its note about delisting the MEK it stressed it had not forgotten the group's militant past.

A senior US official said at the time that Washington does "not see the MEK as a viable opposition" within Iran.

Several countries have made offers to take in members of the group. Most recently, 14 MEK members left Liberty last month for Albania, which has offered to take in more than 200.

The latest attack came as ballots were being counted from neighbouring Iran's presidential election, with moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani holding the lead.

The spiritual heart of Shiite Islam and a hub for religious tourism in Iraq is being badly hit as sanctions against neighbouring Iran have resulted in fewer pilgrims with less money to spend.

Business leaders, shopkeepers and hotel owners in Najaf, site of a shrine to a revered figure in Shiite Islam and home to most of the sect's top clerics, all report declining trade as economic sanctions targeting Iran's controversial nuclear programme have made it harder for visitors from Iraq's eastern neighbour to make the trip.

"Revenues for hotels which host Iranian pilgrims have plunged since the beginning of the year," said Zuheir Sharba, chairman of Najaf's chamber of commerce. "They have fallen by half."

That marks a marked turnaround for a city that had embarked on an ambitious hotel-building programme to accommodate greater numbers of pilgrims, with Sharba himself telling AFP in 2011 that "if there are more rooms, more people will come".

The city houses the shrine to Imam Ali, a seventh century Muslim leader and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, and is frequented by Shiite pilgrims from around the world, though the biggest chunk of visitors come from Shiite-majority Iran.

Those tourists typically travel in organised nine-day tours, during which they spend three days in Najaf, which lies about 150 kilometres (95 miles) south of Baghdad.

The massive decline in Iranian pilgrims has badly hit the city, which is dependent on tourism-related revenues for 60 percent of its income.

The sharp drop is largely due to the plummeting value of the Iranian rial. In December 2010, $1 bought 11,500 rials but today, it is equivalent to 36,000 rials.

Iran's Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini has blamed sanctions tied to Iran's controversial nuclear programme, which Western powers and Israel believe is being used by the Islamic republic to develop an atomic bomb.

Tehran denies the charges and insists the nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

According to Hosseini, Iran's oil revenue has dropped by 50 percent in the past year, and he has warned that "the situation will not improve in the near future".

And, as a result of the declining value of their currency, Iranians now have less purchasing power when travelling overseas.

One Iranian pilgrim, who declined to give her name, admitted that while she had long dreamt of visiting Najaf, the trip was "very expensive".

Hotel owners are also facing a crunch as deals with Iranian tour operators have gone sour.

"We -- hotel owners in Najaf -- wanted to raise the nightly rate per person from $20 to $30 because of the rising cost of power generators, but the Iranian embassy in Baghdad refused," said Amir al-Ameri, owner of the Rebal hotel.

"And also, Iranian tour operators have stopped paying us what they owe. So now, many hotels in Najaf are refusing to take Iranian pilgrims."

Najaf, a city with a population of around 500,000, is filled with a wide variety of languages, reflecting the varying backgrounds of Shiites, who make up around 15 percent of Muslims worldwide.

They are the majority population in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain and form significant communities in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia, with travellers often coming to Iraq from as far as the United States and Canada.

So to fill the shortfall caused by the decline in Iranian pilgrims, Iraq's tourism ministry now wants to focus on Shiites visiting from other countries housing major Shiite communities.

"It is necessary that we diversify," admitted Baha al-Maya, an adviser to the minister.

"This is a crucial question, to overcome the fall in the number of Iranian pilgrims."

But for a city heavily dependent on Iranians, bridging that gap will not be easy.

"Before (the decline of the Iranian rial), we sold 90 percent of our stock, but now we are down to 30 percent," said Ahmed al-Essawi, whose stall in the Najaf souk sells the fine black fabric used to make the chador, the full-body robe worn by Iranian women.

His products are made in Iran, and his clients are exclusively Iranian, meaning Essawi has felt the decline more than most.

Elsewhere, adjacent to the market, multiple hotels simply bear a "closed" sign, with no explanation offered, though none is needed.

Other hotels, still under construction, have been abandoned completely by contractors.

"Some hotels were almost finished when their construction was stopped," said chamber of commerce chairman Sharba.

"Other establishments wanted to begin renovations, but work has not even started because they have no idea what the future holds."


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