Voice of America is an international news and broadcast organization serving Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Balkan countries
In Symbolic Victory, Iran Conquers Iraq's Dates Market
It isn't hard to find signs that Iran is winning a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Iraq.
There are the Iraqi Shi'ite militia who have sworn allegiance to Iran and the politicians beholden to Tehran. There are the Iranian companies that make everything from Baghdad's yellow taxis to the refrigerators and air conditioners that flood street markets.
And then there are the dates.
Iraq was once the world's biggest producer of the sweet fruit. But decimated by years of neglect and the 1980-'88 war with Iran, production has declined to such an extent that imports are now banned to protect the local industry.
That has not stopped smugglers, particularly Iranian producers who hide their dates under cartons of other fruit.
Saudi Arabia is also a big producer but the Iranians have cornered the market.
It's a blow to national pride, which some Iraqis see as emblematic of Iran's growing hold on their country.
"Haqiqat dates are now the best in Iraq," Mehdi Haqiqat, owner of Iranian firm Haqiqat Golden Dates, said by telephone.
Three years ago, 20 percent of his dates were sold in Iraq, he said. Now that figure has risen to more than 90 percent.
"The government is doing nothing. Iran controls Iraqi politics and the economy," said Qusay Hamdan, a trader at a market outside Baghdad.
Iraq is one of multiple proxy battlefields as Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia seek the upper hand in the Middle East.
The regional powerhouses back opposing sides in conflicts in Syria and Yemen. They are also rivals in Lebanon, where Iran exerts influence through the Hezbollah political and military movement which Saudi Arabia considers an enemy.
Their rivalry and the regional conflicts have deepened instability in the Middle East and stoked fears in Western capitals including Washington of a direct confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran that might draw in their international allies.
Although Iran fought a war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988, it has a big head start over Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh and Baghdad began taking steps toward detente only in 2015, after 25 years of troubled relations starting with late dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Iran has been increasing its influence in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam in 2003, and the countries are now close allies. Tehran cemented ties by helping Baghdad to defeat Islamic State, a mutual enemy, and to stifle a push for independence by its Kurdish population.
The improvement in relations has enabled Iran to forge ties in many areas, including business.
"It's the same ploy. Help the Iraqis, then make sure they help you set up legitimate businesses...," said a Western diplomat who has followed Iran closely for years.
Iran is now Iraq's top trade partner, with annual turnover of about $12 billion, according to an Iraqi official. Annual trade between Saudi Arabia and Iraq stands at about $6 billion.
Tehran exports foodstuff, livestock, construction material and plastic products to Iraq. Local traders say Iranian food items and inexpensive vehicles, including the yellow taxis that are everywhere in Baghdad, dominate Iraqi markets.
Quality is decisive when it comes to dates, according to deputy Agriculture Minister Mahdi al-Qaisi, as are marketing and packaging.
"It's a process that we are still unable to match so far," he told Reuters.
No longer king of dates
Iraqi officials say it is impossible to tell how many foreign dates are sold in Iraq because they are brought in illegally. But it is clear Iraq is no longer the king of dates.
During its heyday, Iraq produced three quarters of the world's dates. It now accounts for about five percent of global output and is only the seventh biggest producer, according to the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council Foundation.
"Iranian dates have the lion's share [of those] being marketed inside Iraq compared to the Saudi, Emirates and Kuwaiti dates because Iran has multiple border crossings with Iraq in Kurdistan and the southern provinces," said Abbas al-Quraishi, who advises Iraq's Union of Farmers' Cooperatives.
Iraqis' liking of Iranian dates was evident at a sprawling market outside Baghdad where traders were busy arranging colorful cartons of them in long rows. Some have given up on local dates because they make big profits selling Iranian ones.
"We don't want the government to end the smuggling. We are selling," said market trader Muhammed Hamid. "Three years ago, Iraqi dates sold for 3,000 dinars ($2.50) a kilo. Now they sell for 1,000 because of competition from Iran."
Nearby lay boxes of dates from Saudi Arabia.
Many Iraqi farmers can barely make ends meet. In addition to water shortages and a lack of pesticides, they have to buy gas for generators to keep refrigerators going through Iraq's frequent power cuts, a burden Iranian producers do not face.
"We suffer from losses of up to 70 percent because of Iranian dates," said farmer Adnan Jaber, 58.
Others complain of corruption and bureaucracy. Far removed from regional power struggles, they just want to survive.
"The government gives us water but it's not enough. The pesticide plane comes once a year," said Maitham Kathim, 35.
A trade ministry spokesman said Iraq was doing everything in its power to protect local industry, including subsidies for farmers, but that the country had "chosen the path of free markets" since Saddam's fall.
"We want the Iraqi citizen to be able to choose the best product and, in some cases, the local product is not the best," said Mohammed Hanoun, adding that farmers "need to depend on themselves" and on the private sector.
Starting from behind
Saudi foreign policy has become more assertive since the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has said he will protect the kingdom from what he calls Tehran's efforts to dominate the Muslim world.
Riyadh's attempts to increase influence in Iraq are starting to bear fruit. Petrochemical giant Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC) plans to open an office in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia's Industrialization & Energy Services Co (TAQA) is opening an office in Iraq to boost the presence of the Saudi private sector there and expand investment.
The Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company (SALIC), an arm of the country's Public Investment Fund, is looking at farmland investment opportunities. The two countries are discussing a power-grid link initiative and investments in petrochemicals, renewable energy and power generation projects.
But Riyadh still has a long way to go to catch up with Tehran in Iraq.
Tehran has vast sway over the government, led by fellow Shi'ites, and trains and funds powerful Shi'ite militias. Top Iranian commanders could be seen on Iraqi battlefields giving orders in the war against Islamic State.
Iraq and Iran have signed $7 billion in contracts in techno-engineering services, the Iranian news agency IRNA said.
Private Iranian investors set up a factory in 2014 which produces about 100 automobiles per day.
Following Iran's help in putting down the Iraqi Kurds' push for independence, Iraq is expected to start supplying crude oil for the first time from the Kirkuk fields in Iraqi Kurdistan to a refinery in the Iranian city of Kermanshah.
An Iraqi oil official said the initial shipments would start soon and would initially be 40,000 barrels per day.
Water Rationing in Brazil's Capital to End by December, Says Governor
Water rationing in Brazil's capital - one of an increasing number of cities facing shortages - will end by December with the completion of an expanded supply system, said the region's governor.
Water is under pressure globally as the planet warms and demand grows along with populations, according to a United Nations report launched this week at the World Water Forum in the South American nation's capital, Brasilia.
"Water has become a global problem," said Federal District Governor Rodrigo Rollemberg during a panel discussion on Tuesday at the forum, the world's largest water-related event.
"Here in Brasilia it is no different."
The water supply has declined due to low rainfall as well as rapid and disorderly growth in Brasilia, which is part of the Federal District, Rollemberg said.
In January 2016, after three years of rain scarcity, district authorities enforced water rationing.
The governments of the Federal District and Goias State, which surrounds it, also invested a combined $166 million to develop water infrastructure.
When construction finishes by December, the expanded system will provide 2,800 liters of water per second to the Federal District's 3 million people, and the same amount to Goias, said Rollemberg.
About 16 percent of Brazil's 5,570 cities face water issues, according to data from the Ministry of National Integration.
Globally, demand is expected to increase by nearly one-third by 2050, when 5 billion people could be left with poor access to water, the U.N. warned in its 2018 World Water Development Report.
To avoid such a crisis, the U.N. recommended "nature-based solutions" that use or mimic natural processes to increase water availability.
Those include changing farming practices so the soil retains more moisture and nutrients, harvesting rainwater, conserving wetlands that capture runoff and decontaminate water, restoring floodplains, and turning rooftops into gardens.
Such initiatives will become more important as water-intensive industries grow.
By 2025, the global demand for agriculture is expected to rise by about 60 percent, and energy production by around 80 percent, the report said.
Trauma Plagues Kids Caught Up in DRC’s Kasai
Thousands of children in the troubled Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo have been used as combatants over the last two years amid conflict between local militia and government forces. In the last few months, some 1,000 of them have trickled into rehabilitation centers run by aid agencies.
Their troubles are far from over, aid workers say. The horrors they endured come back to them in whispers, fragments — and nightmares.
“I joined the militia in 2016,” says Muyaya, a lean, shy boy of 16 who says he spent a year fighting with the Kamwina Nsapu armed group. He did not give details about what violence he may have seen or committed.
His story unfolded haltingly over the course of an hour, as dozens of his neighbors thronged around, eager to hear details that he is clearly uncomfortable recalling. VOA interviewed him in the presence of counselors from a rehabilitation center run by a Christian charity and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) with the permission of his legal guardian, his uncle.
UNICEF estimates that overall, the violence has impacted as many as 60 percent of local children — and that as many as 10,000 children were involved in the militia.
Armed with ‘magic’ for battle
Rehabilitation is a slow and complex task, aid workers say.
“When they’ve lived these traumas, it’s even difficult to bring together, to put together a memory,” said Oscar Butragueno, UNICEF’s emergency coordinator in Kasai. ”It’s made of bits and pieces of things that happened. Sometimes they were used under the effects of drugs. During the conflict, children would be given a prominent rule when they were fighting the military. The boys were sent in advance, because under the magical perception that bullets wouldn’t kill them, which obviously is not the case. And then the girls would be sent second, in the second line, because they thought that their skirts would actually absorb the bullets as well.”
Muyaya said this is exactly what happened to him — militants handed him a stick that they said would magically protect him and sent him and other boys headfirst into pitched battles. He says he wasn’t afraid — rather, he was “hypnotized” and unable to feel fear.
Muyaya said he had agreed to tell his story to journalists to help him move on. He says he is hopeful about his future and wants to become a construction worker. But he has had trouble returning to his parents — instead, he now lives with a baby-faced uncle, who at 24, says that he is expecting his first child soon. In this impoverished region, that means Muyaya’s childhood has come to a sudden end.
In the presence of counselors, VOA spoke to five children, most of them in their teens, who are thought to have been involved in militia activities. Not a single one could describe the cause their lives were risked for.
The conflict began in 2016 after local traditional leaders clashed with security forces. U.N. rights investigators accuse both sides of committing heinous crimes. More than 1.4 million people fled that violence.
Earlier this week, the United Nations Security Council discussed the situation across Congo, where top humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said 13 million people now need aid.
Slow path to rehabilitation
UNICEF is calling for $11.5 million this year to help reintegrate children after they’ve left armed groups. The process is slow and complex, workers at the rehabilitation center say.
“When I ran away from the militia, I forgot everything,” said 14-year-old Nona Marie, a resident at a UNICEF-sponsored rehabilitation center for children involved in the conflict.
Counselors also pointed to a little girl with a serious face and a dress two sizes too big. She says her name is Anita, and doesn’t know her last name, the name of her village or where her parents might be. She says they fled in separate directions when the fighting started. She says she’s 11, but adults at the center say she can’t be older than nine.
Workers at the center say it has taken them weeks to piece together a narrative: They believe Anita’s father was a policeman who joined the militia. They don’t know if he primed her for militia service, or what her role was.
Only one detail, they say, shines reliably — and repeatedly — through Anita’s muddled memory.
“My mother’s name is Mbombo,” she said, a smile crossing her face. “She’s beautiful. Her hair is dark and curly.”