Iraq PM, Kurdish chief in war of words over independence vote

Abadi said in Baghdad, a staunch opponent of the Kurdish move, that he would not negotiate on the back of the referendum result — expected to be a resounding “yes”.

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But in Kurdish regional capital Arbil, Barzani in a televised address urged the Iraqi premier “not to close the door to dialogue because it is dialogue that will solve problems”.

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“We assure the international community of our willingness to engage in dialogue with Baghdad,” he said.

“The referendum is not to delimit the border (between Kurdistan and Iraq), nor to impose it de facto,” Barzani added.

72 hour deadline

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday gave authorities in Kurdistan 72 hours to give the central government control of airports, a day after the autonomous region voted on independence.

Speaking at a news conference, Abadi said his government would ban “international flights to and from Kurdistan” in three days unless the airports are placed under its control.

Two airports operate in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, at regional capital Arbil and in second city Sulaimaniyah.

The Kurdish referendum went ahead despite both Iraqi and international opposition.

Big ‘yes’

Iraq’s Kurds were Tuesday expecting the announcement of a big “yes” vote for independence, as authorities in Baghdad weighed how to respond to a referendum they considered illegal.

Large numbers turned out in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region for Monday’s vote, which went ahead despite fierce objections from Baghdad, Turkey and Iran.

Votes were still being counted on Tuesday, with results expected by the end of the day and no doubt of an overwhelming outcome in favour of independence.

The vote is non-binding and will not lead automatically to independence, but is seen by the Kurds as a major step towards a long-cherished dream of statehood.

In the regional capital Arbil, a night of fireworks, flag-waving and dancing in the streets followed the vote.

“We made a Kurdish state today,” Arbil resident Ahmad told AFP during the celebrations.

“We’re Kurdish people, we’re not Arab, we’re not Persian, we’re no one else… We’re Kurds and we’ll remain Kurds forever.”

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The referendum took place peacefully, but has increased tensions between the Iraqi Kurds and their neighbours, raising fears of potential unrest.

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared before the vote that he would take “necessary measures” to protect the country’s unity and he was due to address parliament on Wednesday.

Iraqi lawmakers voted on Tuesday to send troops to disputed areas where the referendum took place but there have been no signs of a deployment so far.

Turkey warns of ‘ethnic war’

Analysts say Baghdad is deeply concerned by the vote but unlikely to seek a confrontation with the Kurds for now, especially as Iraqi forces continue to battle the Islamic State group in its final bastions.

Turkey, concerned the vote will stoke the separatist ambitions of its own sizeable Kurdish population, repeatedly condemned the vote as wrong-headed and dangerous.

On Tuesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the Iraqi Kurds and their longtime leader Massud Barzani risked sparking an “ethnic war”.

“If Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war,” Erdogan said in a televised speech.

Erdogan warned on polling day that Turkey would shut its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and threatened to block key exports that flow from the region through Turkish territory.

He even suggested the possibility of a cross-border incursion similar to the one Turkish forces have carried out against IS and Kurdish fighters in Syria.

The vote took place in across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan — Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk — as well as in disputed border zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

0:00 Iraqi Kurds defy Baghdad in historic independence vote Share Iraqi Kurds defy Baghdad in historic independence vote   

Kirkuk curfew lifted

A curfew was lifted early Tuesday on parts of the city of Kirkuk, where it had been imposed on the city centre and non-Kurdish neighbourhoods due to fears of unrest connected with the vote.

An AFP journalist saw heavy traffic and shops opening as normal in the city of about one million, which is outside the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan and divided between Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen populations.

Officials reported that turnout for the referendum stood at 72 percent, with 3.3 million of the 4.58 million registered voters taking part.

Participation was lower in some parts of the region and was at only 50 percent in Sulaimaniyah province, the home base of political forces opposed to Barzani.

Barzani’s opponents have accused the longtime regional chief of seeking to empower himself through the vote and said he should have accepted a UN-backed plan to put off the referendum in favour of negotiations with Baghdad.

The United Nations and United States urged Barzani to cancel or postpone the vote, with Washington especially concerned it could hamper the fight against IS in which Kurdish peshmerga forces have been vital.

Some five million Kurds took to the polls across three provinces in the historic independence referendum.AAP

Largest stateless people

Issam al-Fayli, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said he didn’t expect any immediate confrontations.

“The Iraqi government will take its time to make decisions, taking special account of the opinions of military leaders because the current priority for Iraq is the war against Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic name for IS.

“There will be some minor incidents but the crisis should in the end remain under control.”

Turkey was also likely to remain cautious, said Dana Nawzar Jaf, a researcher on Middle East politics at Durham University in England.

“Turkey right now is not willing to cause a collapse of the KRG. The KRG represents a buffer zone between Turkey and Iran and represented Turkey’s strongest ally in Iraq,” he said.

Iran, which like Turkey has a large and restless Kurdish population, also opposed the referendum and on Sunday announced it was blocking all flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan at Baghdad’s request.

Left without a state of their own when the borders of the Middle East were redrawn after World War I, the Kurds see themselves as the world’s largest stateless people.

The non-Arab ethnic group number between 25 and 35 million people spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

New Alzheimer’s drug fails at last test

A new drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease has failed to pass its final stage tests.

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Despite earlier promise, the drug RVT-101, also known as intepirdine, has not produced benefits to people living with Alzheimer’s disease, the Axovant Sciences pharmaceutical company announced.

The trials began in 2015 and new hope was offered to around half a million people in the UK living with Alzheimer’s.

Axovant Sciences said it was “deeply disappointed” by the results and “saddened” for the millions of patients and their families, while Alzheimer’s Research UK’s chief scientific officer Dr David Reynolds described it as “clearly a setback” for those affected by the disease.

“The 15-year wait for a new Alzheimer’s drug does not end today,” Reynolds said.

“In recent years science has made huge leaps forward in tackling diseases like cancer and HIV/Aids, and despite setbacks like this, we will be able to tackle diseases like Alzheimer’s if we continue to invest in research.”

RVT-101 was designed to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s by boosting levels of chemical messengers in the brain.

The unsuccessful trial involved 1,315 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease who received either a daily pill containing 35mg of RVT-101 or a placebo pill, alongside the current Alzheimer’s treatment, donepezil.

After 24 weeks of treatment, people who took the daily dose of RVT-101 did not show signs of a benefit compared with people who took donepezil alone.

Axovant will not be submitting the drug for regulatory approval for the treatment of mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s.

No sufficient progress in Brexit: Tusk

European Council President Donald Tusk says Brexit talks haven’t yet made sufficient progress to begin negotiating a new relationship between Britain and the European Union.

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After meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Tusk said he believed Britain had finally abandoned an unrealistic “having a cake and eating it” approach to Brexit.

Britain triggered a two-year countdown to Brexit in March, but since then talks have made little progress. Negotiators are meeting in Brussels this week for a fourth round of discussions, as EU officials warn Britain that time is running out.

Britain wants to start discussing future trade and security relations with the bloc, but EU officials say that can’t happen until there has been “sufficient progress” on the terms of the divorce.

In a bid to break the logjam, May made a conciliatory speech in Florence, Italy, last week, saying the UK would be willing to pay into EU coffers during a two-year transition phase after it formally leaves the bloc in March 2019.

“I feel cautiously optimistic about the constructive and more realistic tone in the prime minister’s speech in Florence and of our discussion today,” Tusk said after meeting May at 10 Downing St.

“There is no sufficient progress yet, but we will work on it.”

Other EU officials also gave a cautious welcome to May’s speech, but say more detail is needed.

Chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Monday he was “keen and eager” to understand how May’s words would be turned into a negotiating strategy.

The EU says it won’t discuss future relationships until it has guarantees on Britain’s outstanding financial commitments, the rights of more than 4 million EU and British citizens affected by Brexit and the status of the Irish border.

‘I only have horizons’: Macron delivers passionate EU speech

The 39-year-old leader spoke for more than an hour and half in front of students at the Sorbonne university in Paris in a passionate speech that contained a raft of proposals for the 28-member European Union.

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“The Europe that we know is too weak, too slow, too inefficient,” he said. “But Europe alone can give us the ability to act in the world faced with big contemporary challenges.”

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Macron’s proposals for a post-Brexit shake-up included a finance minister, budget and parliament for the 19-member eurozone, as well as a European “rapid reaction force” to work with national armies.

Macron is desperate for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s endorsement of his reform agenda, but his plans were dealt a blow by Sunday’s election in Germany that saw eurosceptic parties make gains.

Merkel must now try to form a government likely to include the Free Democratic Party (FDP), whose leader Christian Lindner is an outspoken critic of Macron’s European agenda and who considers a eurozone budget to be a “red line”.

‘Only horizons’

Macron appeared to respond to Lindner directly on Tuesday, saying: “I don’t have red lines, I only have horizons.” 

But he also steered clear of defining how big any future eurozone budget might be, having previously said he wanted it to be the equivalent of “several points” of eurozone GDP which could amount to several hundred billion euros.

Among his propositions was a new type of tax on technology giants like Facebook and Apple — based on how much value they create in a country rather than their profits — and taxes on financial transactions across the bloc.

An EU-wide agency to handle asylum requests, a beefed up common border force and a European innovation agency were among other ideas for EU organisations that would require further pooling of national sovereignty. 

He even raised the prospect of major changes to the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU’s giant farm subsidy programme, which has historically been defended by France and its powerful agricultural lobbies.

Opposition inevitable

Macron’s vision for a new phase of European integration, a process which started in the post-war era and led to the creation of the EU, is likely to run into objections in some countries. 

Nationalist governments in Poland or Hungary do not share his desire to send new powers to Brussels, while his plan for harmonised corporation tax will ring alarm bells in low-tax countries such as Ireland.

Addressing the issue of Britain’s planned departure from the European Union — the most vivid illustration of growing nationalist feeling in the bloc — Macron appeared to leave the door open for London to rejoin or change its mind.

“In a few years, if they want, the United Kingdom could find its place… In this reformed and simplified EU that I’m proposing, I can’t imagine that the United Kingdom could not find its place,” he said.

Along with Brexit and the German elections, Macron’s proposals are likely to top the agenda at a two-day summit of all 28 EU members in Estonia from Thursday.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the speech, saying the bloc required “courage” to move ahead.

Macron’s style is also likely to be widely discussed by his European partners and his pitch for the leadership role for the continent has grated with some policymakers in Germany since his election in May. 

One person close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused him of acting like a “Sun King” with a “God-given right to rule” in recent comments to AFP on condition of anonymity.

But the former investment banker was undeterred Tuesday, saying European leaders needed to revitalise the project to take the sting out of rising right-wing nationalism on the continent.

“We don’t have a choice,” he said.

He made frequent references to the European wars of the 20th century just days after the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AFD) shocked Europe by winning 93 seats in parliament.

“Europe enabled us to turn our backs on the wars. We need to find this ambition again,” he said.

French officials considered that now was the best time for Macron to lay out his vision for Europe as Merkel begins cobbling together a coalition which will agree a detailed roadmap for the four-year term ahead.

“It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss,” a French presidency official told a briefing on Monday.

Bachar Houli adds cultural touch to AFL Grand Final preparations

The Bachar Houli Academy launched in 2012 is a week-long program which provides pathways for young Muslim men across the country aspiring to play AFL football.

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This year’s group is made up some of Victoria’s most promising exponents of the game, and according to former St Kilda player Ahmed Saad,  the 15-to-18-year-olds are at a pivotal time in their lives.

“I think that’s when they start going to the cross-roads – alcohol, drugs, going out a bit too much… the kind of stuff you don’t want your kids to get involved in,” Saad told SBS World News.

This year’s crop of AFL hopefuls take part in the Bachar Houli Academy program.SBS World News

“Sport creates a camaraderie, relationships… commitment and discipline as well.”

In addition to providing a unique football development opportunity, the Bachar Houli academy teaches participants about their religion, culture and off-field leadership.

Adam Kaddour, whose parents are Lebanese-Muslims, said the program provided him with some timely advice.

“Coming into the academy I did have a few questions into my own identity and myself as a Muslim – I’ve been able to speak with them one-on-one and find out more about my religion.”

For Sudanese-born 17-year old Amar Elnour, it provided a more practical – but equally important – skill.

“Coming to the Academy I was a really quiet person, I wouldn’t be able to get up in front of groups and talk, but Ahmed and Bachar have egged me on [encouraged me], and pushed me to take a leadership role in the group, so now I’ve got confidence to talk in front of large groups.”

For the aspiring athletes who participate in the academy, physical training is also crucial.

“Coming into the academy I did have a few questions into my own identity”: Adam Kaddour.SBS World News

Activities can involve early morning beach runs, football skills sessions and sprints.

In the AFL’s biggest week, their highlight was undoubtedly enjoying a barbecue cooked by none other than Lebanese-born Bachar Houli.

A key component of Richmond’s flag-effort this Saturday, the defender couldn’t be happier sharing his big week with academy hopefuls.

“When you see the older boys that have been involved for two or three years, they come back as true leaders and they’re actually leading the charge, so when you see that sort of leadership it makes you proud to see the program’s actually working,” Houli told SBS World News.

And Amour Elnour says he speaks for all Houli Academy participants when he describes what a Richmond win would mean. 

“I’m an Essendon supporter but definitely this week I’ll be barracking for Richmond and Bachar – especially Bachar, he’s done a lot for me and it would be great to see him achieve something so big as to win the AFL Grand Final.”

Seventeen-year-old participant, Amar Elnour.SBS World News

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