India-Iran-Turkey railway conference opens in New Delhi
A multi-nation conference on trans-Asia connectivity opened in New Delhi to explore the possibility of a rail freight service linking India to Iran and Turkey.
The two-day event brings together railway and custom officials from Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia and India along with government officials, policy-makers and experts, Press TV reported.
Indian Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu on Wednesday addressed the conference, highlighting the need for rail connectivity for the development of the region.
While the event is focused on strengthening cross-border railway transport within South and Southwest Asia, it is complementary to a wider effort to develop an intercontinental route which is believed to transform economic patterns between Asia and Europe.
The railway would link up with the North-South Transport Corridor, which is to connect Russia, Iran and India.
Both projects could loop up with China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative which seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road, making each of the connections even more feasible.
The projects are not merely being driven forward by economic dynamics. Geopolitical considerations have provided added momentum.
For China, these integrated transport networks provide a counterbalance to US ‘pivot’ to Asia, while Russia seeks to expand economic ties with India after blocking food imports from the European Union.
For Iran, the route offers a buffer against future pressures after the country came under the most intensive Western sanctions over its nuclear program between 2011 and 2015.
Earlier this month, Iran and Azerbaijan inaugurated a 10 km rail link — one of the missing final pieces of the North-South Transport Corridor which is about to be completed this year after 17 years.
Iran and Azerbaijan are both eager to establish themselves as regional transportation hubs between Asia and Europe, while other countries across Asia are trying to tap into these emerging networks.
China has already run a freight train connecting Europe. Dry runs of the North-South Transport Corridor were conducted in 2014, from Mumbai in India to Baku in Azerbaijan and Astrakhan in Russia via Bandar Abbas in Iran.
Iraqi troops seize main bridge, advance on mosque in Mosul
Iraqi government forces battling Daesh terrorists for Mosul took control of a main bridge over the Tigris river on Wednesday and advanced towards the mosque where the group’s leader declared a caliphate in 2014, federal police said.
The seizure of the Iron Bridge, linking eastern Mosul with the terrorist-held Old City on the west side, means the government holds three of the five bridges over the Tigris and bolsters Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s assertion that the battle is reaching its final stages, Reuters reported.
The bridge, which was damaged in fighting late last year, was captured by federal police and Interior Ministry Rapid Response units, a police statement said.
The gains were made in heavy fighting in which troops fought street-by-street against an enemy using suicide car bombs, mortar and sniper fire, and grenade-dropping drones to defend what was once their main stronghold.
“Our troops are making a steady advance ... and we are now less than 800 meters from the mosque,” a federal police spokesman said.
Losing the city would be a huge blow to Daesh as it has served as the terrorist group’s de facto capital since its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself head of a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria from the Nuri Mosque in July 2014.
The capture of the mosque would thus be a huge symbolic victory as well as a concrete gain. But many hard days of fighting could still lie ahead as government forces try to make headway in the streets and narrow alleyways of the Old City.
Daesh terrorists have booby-trapped houses, and government forces will also be fighting amongst civilians, ruling out the extensive use of air and artillery support.
Heavy fighting was also reported on Wednesday around the Mosul museum by journalists and combatants. A Daesh suicide car bomb exploded near the museum. Helicopters strafed the ground with machinegun fire and missiles.
The intense combat marked a decisive stage in the battle for Mosul which started on Oct. 17 last year, and in the wider struggle against Daesh.
As well as waging terror in Iraq and Syria, the terrorists have inspired attacks in cities in Europe, Africa and elsewhere that have killed hundreds of civilians.
In Baghdad, Abadi said: “Daesh become day after day surrounded inside a tight area and they are in their final days.”
In a news conference on Tuesday night, he warned the terrorists that they must surrender or face death.
Residents have streamed out of western neighborhoods recaptured by the government, many desperately hungry and traumatized by living under the terrorist group’s harsh rule.
As many as 600,000 civilians are still trapped with the terrorists inside Mosul. The Ministry of Immigration and Displacement said on Tuesday that in recent days almost 13,000 displaced people from western Mosul had been given assistance and temporary accommodation each day, adding to the 200,000 already displaced.
Compiled by Hamideh Hosseini
Iranian community is getting ready to celebrate one of its most important holidays, Norouz, the Persian New Year.
In a 2010 resolution, the UN General Assembly designated the International Day of Norouz to fall on March 21 each year. More precisely, however, Norouz marks the day of the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere, which can occur anytime between March 19-22, depending on the year as well as one’s location. Such technicalities aside, Norouz is essentially a celebration to usher in the season of spring — a welcome respite from the preceding months of winter. Not surprisingly then, the term ‘Norouz’ means ‘New Day’ in Persian.
Over the last millennium, Norouz has developed and expanded, incorporating new social, religious and cultural influences as it spread along the Silk Road. Its date, originally calculated according to ancient astronomical practices, was revised and recalculated on numerous occasions in the 11th and 12th centuries as Norouz continued to be a celebration of great social significance under various rulers and governments.
Renowned Muslim scholars, such as the Persian Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, known as Biruni (973-1048), Mahmud ibn Hussayn ibn Muhammed al-Kashgari (1005-1102), and Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) are among the many intellectuals who studied the date of Norouz.
According to UNESCO, Norouz is a rite dating back to at least the 6th century BCE, marking the new year and ushering in the spring.
Norouz is celebrated by peoples of many religions and cultures across this vast region. Some of the festival’s earliest origins lie in Zoroastrianism, marking one of the holiest days in the ancient Zoroastrian calendar. The return of the spring was seen to have great spiritual significance, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow. In particular, the ‘Spirit of Noon’, known as ‘Rapithwina’, who was considered to be driven underground by the ‘Spirit of Winter’ during the cold months, was welcomed back with celebrations at noon on the day of Norouz according to Zoroastrian tradition.
Norouz is also associated with a great variety of local traditions, including the legend of Jamshid, a king in Persian mythology. To this day in Iran, Norouz celebrations are sometimes referred to as Nowruze Jamshidi. According to the myth, Jamshid was carried through the air in a chariot, a feat that so amazed his subjects that they established a festival on that day. Similar mythological narratives exist in Indian and Turkish traditions, while the legend of Amoo Nowrouz is popular in the countries of Central Asia.
Norouz observed in other countries
Norouz, the vernal spring equinox has been celebrated by people of Iran and Mesopotamia since antiquity. Although continuously celebrated in Iran for at least 3,000 years, many countries along the Silk Roads including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, China, the Caucuses and Egypt also celebrate this event.
Norouz registration on UNESCO
In recognition of the importance of this ancient rite, Norouz was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
Norouz, was inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List on November 30, 2016.
UNESCO has registered the Norouz celebrations as shared practices of 12 countries. Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan were listed by the UN agency in 2009 as countries where Norouz is celebrated.
A new proposal was prepared last year to include five more countries namely Afghanistan, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Traditions in other countries
Although the traditions and customs that accompany the celebration of Norouz vary from country to country, there are many unifying features. In most regions, symbolic preparations fire and water take place before the festival. In Iran, these ceremonies take place on the eve of last Wednesday before Norouz, known as Chaharshanbe Suri, while in Azerbaijan, this practice is carried out over the four Wednesdays preceding the celebrations. In many places, households fill up their supplies of water on the eve of last Wednesday of the year, and in Kyrgyzstan, all vessels in the house are to be filled on Norouz Eve, in the hope that this will bring abundance in the new year and keep away misfortune.
It is also customary across most regions to visit cemeteries before the Norouz celebrations begin, with visitors bringing candles and offerings to remember the dead. Two candles are commonly placed at the door to the house on Norouz Eve in Kazakhstan. In Azerbaijan, the dead are commemorated on the second day of Norouz, known as the ‘Day of Fathers’.
On the day of Norouz, there is much feasting, visiting family members and friends, and exchanging gifts. A wide range of cultural performances and traditions also take place. Children are often given small toys, and traditionally play with colorfully painted eggs. Families and within communities share a symbolic meal, often of cooked rice and vegetables combined with many local ingredients. In Kyrgyzstan, this meal is a public ceremony, with designated areas set aside in towns for the preparation of Norouz Kedje or Chon Kedje — a type of soup made from bull’s meat.
Norouz is also the occasion for traditional cultural activities, combining common practices with local customs. Poetry is a popular feature of Norouz celebrations, with ‘Norouzi poems’ being written, published and recited around the time of the festival. Music is also very important, and many of the countries that celebrate Norouz have their own traditional folk songs specifically for the festival.
One example is the well-known Afghan song ‘Molla Mammad Jaan’, which is said to have originated in the city of Mazar-i Sharif but is also sung in Iran and Tajikistan. In Uzbekistan, Norouz songs are performed by traditional singers and story tellers, such as the baxshi, shoirs and dostonchi. Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, competitions take place between Akayns, epic story tellers or bards who improvise tales about Norouz.
Open air festivities such as the game of Kopkari, wrestling and horse racing often take place to celebrate Norouz in Uzbekistan, and similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, traditional horsemanship is displayed as part of the festivities, with communities coming together to enjoy horse racing, Kyz Kuumay (a race in which men chase women on horseback), Enish (wrestling on horseback), and Jamby Atuu (shooting from horseback).
Other Norouz traditions include local street performances, tightrope walking, called Band Bāzī, in Iran, and the sport of Buz Kashī, in which horse-riders compete for an object representing the head of a calf, in Afghanistan.
Central to the Iranian celebrations of Norouz is the setting of the Haft seen table. In line with the literal meaning of its name — ‘haft’ refers to the number seven, while ‘seen’ refers to the letter ‘S’ in Persian language. Thus the ‘haft seen’ table contains seven items, all with Persian names starting with ‘S’.
Haft seen has a rather complex history, having evolved from Haft-Shin of the Kayanids dynasty era to Haft-Chin of the Achaemenids dynasty circa and to its current Haft Seen since the writing of ‘Shahnameh’ (‘Book of the Kings’) — the epic poem book of the Persian kings by Ferdwosi of nearly 1,000 years ago.
In fact, the word Haft, meaning seven, denoting the seven days of ‘creations’ has remained the same throughout.
In addition, each of them have their own symbolism, as outlined by a teaching resource on Norouz published by Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies:
1. Sumac (crushed spice of berries): For the sunrise and the spice of life
2. Senjed (sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree): For love and affection
3. Serkeh (vinegar): For patience and age
4. Seeb (apples): For health and beauty
5. Seer (garlic): For good health
6. Samanu (wheat pudding): For fertility and the sweetness of life
7. Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass): For rebirth and renewal of nature
Apart from these seven items, there are also many other items that Iranians include in their Haft seen table, such as painted eggs representing fertility and a mirror to signify reflection on the past year. While the origins of the Haft seen table are still not well-documented today, the tradition of placing various symbolic items on a Sofra (a piece of cloth spread on the floor or table) during Norouz has its roots in Zoroastrianism — a Persian monotheistic religion that predated the Abrahamic faiths.
The other principal customs associated with Norouz, i.e. Chaharshanbe Suri (fire-jumping festival) and Sizdah Bedar (the tradition of spending the day outdoors on the thirteenth day of Nowruz), probably had historical links to Zoroastrianism too.
Rouhani defends government’s performance
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that his government has made ‘very positive measures’ in economic and manufacturing infrastructure since the beginning of the current Iranians year — which began on March 20, 2016.
“Establishing security, advancing economic plans through public support, acquiring self-sufficiency in wheat, succeeding in production and exports, compensating for previous setbacks in the energy sector, marking good growth in food, agriculture, transportation as well as tourism sectors, and inaugurating dams and new power plants are among these important measures,” Rouhani told reporters on the sidelines of the last cabinet session in the current year.
He said the government’s measures have been in line with the principles of the ‘resistance economy’ outlined by the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.
The Leader introduced the general policies of ‘resistance economy’ in February 2014, which are mainly aimed at boosting the national economy by reducing dependence on foreign products.
Rouhani said his government has also reduced dependence on petrodollars to comply with the Leader’s guidelines.
The president said the resistance economy should continue in a bid to achieve its objectives.
Further in his remarks, the chief executive called for establishing stronger unity on the eve of the Persian New Year.
“We can achieve the objectives of our Islamic establishment by [strengthening] unity, solidarity and brotherly ties,” he said.
Rouhani said the Islamic Republic has managed to establish calm and security despite the ongoing problems in the Middle East.
South Korea to hold election May 9; prosecutors summon ousted Park
South Korea said on Wednesday it will hold an election on May 9 to choose a successor for former president Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in a historic court ruling last week over a widening corruption scandal.
Prosecutors said on Wednesday Park – the first democratically elected president to be removed from office in South Korea – would be summoned for questioning on Tuesday into the influence-peddling scandal, Reuters reported.
The Constitutional Court dismissed Park from office on Friday when it upheld a parliamentary impeachment vote in December.
Park has denied any wrongdoing. Her lawyers said in a statement they would cooperate.
After she left the presidential Blue House on Sunday, she issued a statement hinting of defiance, saying: “It will take time, but I believe the truth will be revealed.”
A special prosecution team had accused Park of colluding with a friend, Choi Soon-sil, to pressure big businesses into contributing to foundations set up to support her policies and allowing Choi to influence state affairs.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has been acting president since the impeachment vote, said he would not run in the election.
Minister of the Interior Hong Yun-sik promised the vote would be the most clean and transparent ever.
“This election is unprecedented in our history,” Hong told a briefing, referring to the short campaign period.
Hwang had emerged in opinion polls as a top conservative candidate even though he had not declared an intention to run. The scandal has undermined support for the ruling conservatives, and Hwang’s decision would appear to bolster the chances of a prominent liberal, Moon Jae-in, who is leading in opinion polls.
Iran hosts meeting on closer Latin America banking ties
Iran’s Foreign Ministry officials and representatives of the state-run and private banks held a meeting in Tehran to explore avenues for expanding banking ties with Latin American countries.
The gathering was attended by Iranian Foreign Ministry’s political directors in charge of Latin American affairs, representatives of Iranian banks and diplomats representing a Foreign Ministry committee on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (Russia, China, the US, Britain, France and Germany) on Iran’s nuclear program, Tasnim News Agency reported.
Speaking at the meeting, Foreign Ministry’s Director General for the Americas Mohammad Keshavarz-Zadeh highlighted the enthusiasm among Latin American nations to forge banking ties with Iran, given the Islamic Republic’s position in the international community, high investment security in Iran, its great political and economic weight in the Middle East, as well as the ample trade opportunities available in the country.
The meeting came a few months after a visit to Latin America by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Heading a 120-strong delegation of Iranian business people and economic officials, Zarif traveled to Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela in August.
International enthusiasm for enhanced ties with Iran has grown since the JCPOA came into force in January 2016.
EHRs created for 65m Iranians
Currently, electronic health records (EHRs) have been established for 65 million Iranians, announced the health minister.
Hassan Qazizadeh Hashemi further said that once effective coordination is made among medical centers, insurance companies and Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, all insurance booklets will be phased out by March 2018.
He said the Health Ministry is in charge of creating the infrastructures for this, adding that the Health Overhaul Plan has become well established nationwide.
The Health Overhaul Plan will continue in new Iranian year starts on March 21.
Electronic health records will be completed by incorporating medicine and insurance data as well as information available in hospitals.
Earlier, health minister said the personal medical information available in clinics and private medical centers should be included in the EHRs in subsequent phases.
The minister predicted that all Iranians will have complete data recorded in the EHRs by mid-March 2018.
Data from state- and private-run medical centers as well as medicine information should be included in the records, he said.
This will create transparency and lead to a
reduction in state expenses, the minister added.
“The data on every record will help prevent unnecessary prescriptions and do away with drug trafficking.”
The public will have access not only to their own data but also to the medical centers, he said. This data however cannot be accessed by any other individual, he added.
Asian sides learn FIFA U20 World Cup opponents
Asian sides learned their FIFA U20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 opponents on Wednesday following the tournament’s official draw in Suwon.
Asia will have five teams flying the continent’s flag at the global extravaganza – Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Vietnam which all qualified thanks to their top four finishes at last year’s AFC U-19 Championship, while Korea Republic will appear as host, the-afc.com reported.
Korea Republic will meet Guinea, which returns after a 38-year absence from the tournament, six-time FIFA U20 champion Argentina, as well as England in Group A.
In Group C, Iran will come up against African champion Zambia, Portugal and Costa Rica, which has qualified nine times.
Reigning 2016 AFC U19 champion Japan will face South Africa, Italy and CONMEBOL champion Uruguay in Group D.
Vietnam will have its work out to progress from Group E where it has France, Honduras and recently crowned Oceania Football Confederation champion New Zealand for company.
Meanwhile, AFC U19 Championship runner-up Saudi Arabia is grouped with Ecuador, USA, which will be making its maiden appearance, and Senegal in Group F.
The competition is set to get underway on May 20.
FIFA U20 World Cup groups
A1. Korea Republic, A2. Guinea, A3. Argentina, A4. England
B1. Venezuela, B2. Germany, B3. Vanuatu, B4. Mexico
C1. Zambia, C2. Portugal, C3. IR Iran, C4. Costa Rica
D1. South Africa, D2. Japan, D3. Italy, D4. Uruguay
E1. France, E2. Honduras , E3. Vietnam, E4. New Zealand
F1. Ecuador, F2. USA , .F3 Saudi Arabia, F4. Senegal
UK’s Fox says commissioned work on Iran ties will help develop trade
British Trade Minister Liam Fox said on Wednesday he had commissioned work from his department to look at how to normalize “effective payment channels” with Iran to try to open up trading opportunities.
Britain is seeking new and deeper trade relations with countries outside the European Union to strengthen its hand in divorce talks with the bloc and is targeting countries in the Middle East among other areas, Reuters reported.
Fox told a parliamentary committee that he expected to receive the findings of the report at the end of this month.
Iran has signed a flurry of deals with Western companies over the past year since the easing of international sanctions on Tehran after an accord was reached over its nuclear program.
Major global banks have so far shied away from handling Iranian-related business, citing the ongoing risk of violating ongoing US sanctions.
Central Bank of Iran (CBI) announced in June 2016 that a few small European banks were among businesses that had links to the country, including Germany-based Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank AG and some small Italian lenders.
Dozens killed in Damascus bomb attack
Two suicide bombings hit Damascus Wednesday including an attack at a central courthouse that killed at least 32 people, as Syria’s war entered its seventh year.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts, the second wave of deadly attacks in the capital in less than a week after twin bombings killed 74 on Saturday, AFP wrote.
Wednesday’s first attack saw a suicide bomber rush inside the building and blow himself up when police tried to prevent him from entering the courthouse in the center of Damascus, state media reported.
A police source said that 32 people were killed and 100 wounded. The second blast hit a restaurant in the western Rabweh neighborhood, wounding 25 people, the source said.
“We were terrified because the sound of the explosion was enormous,” a lawyer who was in the courthouse during the first attack said.
“We took refuge in the library which is on a higher floor,” the lawyer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was a bloody scene.”
State television broadcast scenes from the building showing blood smeared on the floor of the lobby but also splattered across its ceiling.
It interviewed a man receiving treatment with a bandage over his eye who said the attacker was wearing a military jacket.
Damascus was already reeling from Saturday’s bombings, which mainly killed Iraqi pilgrims in the city to visit Shia shrines.
That attack was claimed by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, part of a terrorist alliance that controls large parts of the northwestern Idlib Province.
Terrorists suffered a series of reversals during the sixth year of the war, including being forced from their onetime stronghold of east Aleppo in December.
The loss was an especially difficult blow to terrorists who had imagined marching on Damascus in the early days of the war.
The conflict began in 2011, killing more than 320,000 people, with over the half the country’s population displaced either within Syria or becoming refugees.
The war has also ravaged the country’s infrastructure and set the economy back decades.
Dutch vote in key test for far-right
Millions of Dutch voters went to the polls Wednesday in a key test of the “patriotic revolution” promised by far-right MP Geert Wilders, as final opinion polls showed his support deflating.
Following last year’s shock Brexit referendum, and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the Dutch vote is being closely watched to gauge support for populism in Europe ahead of key elections in France and Germany this year, AFP reported.
Wilders voted in a school in The Hague, mobbed by television cameras, just after final polls showed he was trailing the Liberal VVD party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
“Whatever the outcome of the election today the genie will not go back into the bottle. And this patriotic revolution, whether today or tomorrow, will stay,” Wilders said.
Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters were still hesitating between 28 parties in the running.
“This is a crucial election for The Netherlands,” Rutte said as he voted. “This is a chance for a big democracy like The Netherlands to make a point... to stop this domino effect of the wrong sort of populism.”
Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country – one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding father of the European Union.
Final polls appeared to show Rutte consolidating a lead over Wilders, crediting the VVD with 24 to 28 seats – well down on its 40 outgoing seats.
After months leading the polls, Wilders has slipped recently and was seen barely clinging onto second place with between 19 and 22 MPs – up on the 12 MPs his Freedom Party (PVV) had before.
Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques, ban sales of the Qu’ran and leave the EU.
“I see this rightwing populist making gains and I will not live in such a world,” said Esther Zand, 52, who voted for Labour. “He’s a rather irritating gentleman,” she added of Wilders.