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WHEN a leader loses half his realm and his government’s main source of revenue and shatters his people’s dreams of independence, all in a couple of days, an apology might seem in order. But Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, is not offering one. In the face of a lightning Iraqi advance, Kurdish forces retreated this week from territory they had occupied since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Mr Barzani blamed “traitors” and said he would fight another day.

The sudden collapse of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and with them the Kurds’ cherished dream of statehood, contrasts awkwardly with the inflated promises Mr Barzani made before the rout. Last month he insisted on staging a referendum on Kurdish independence, not just within the Kurdistan region’s original borders, but also in areas his forces had captured in the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS) since 2014. These included the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which would have been the cash cow of a...

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WOOD’S CYCAD is a striking plant, tall with a shaggy green crown and bright orange cones. But despite its good looks, it will never find a mate. “The loneliest plant in the world, right here,” a guide tells a golf cart full of visitors touring the Durban Botanic Gardens. Found in a Zululand forest in 1895, it is the only cycad of its kind, and a male. Without a female it will never reproduce sexually, though offshoots have been used to make clones of it. The sense of its isolation is magnified by the security cameras trained on the plant to thwart thieves.

Cycads, which resemble spiky palm trees and bear pineapple-shaped seed cones, trace their lineage to the time of the dinosaurs. But some species might not be around much longer. They are the world’s most threatened plant group, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

South Africa’s cycads, most of which are found nowhere else in the world, are especially threatened, despite laws...

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CRITICALLY ill in a hospital in Nairobi, Tundu Lissu, the chief whip of Tanzania’s main opposition party, Chadema, is a lesson to those who would criticise the Tanzanian president, John Magufuli (pictured). On September 7th Mr Lissu was gunned down in broad daylight near his house in the sleepy administrative capital, Dodoma, after returning from a session in parliament. The attempted assassination came just two weeks after he was arrested—for the sixth time—for such things as insulting the president. It is not clear who was behind the attack. A month later, the government has yet to make any arrests. Mr Lissu had previously complained about being followed, and said he worried he might be killed. “This cowardly attack on one of Tanzania’s most fearless and prominent politicians raises concerns about the safety of all dissident voices in the country, at a time when space for dissent is quickly shrinking,” said Amnesty International, a human-rights group.

Tanzania, a country of 55m...

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Doh! The embargo isn’t working

THE largest insurer in the Gulf should have taken out a policy on itself. Last year Qatar Insurance collected about 110m rials ($30m) in premiums from its Abu Dhabi office. But in September it announced that, because of a diplomatic dispute, the United Arab Emirates (UAE)would not renew its business licence, forcing it to close its branch in the Emirati capital. Its stock price has fallen by 30% since the beginning of the summer.

It has been more than four months since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt closed their borders and cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. The so-called quartet wants the little gas-rich emirate to stop supporting Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and to shut down Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s most popular broadcaster, which Qatar sponsors. The dispute has become personal, with diplomats hurling insults in Cairo last month. Officials in Doha,...

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The wreckage of Raqqa

THE bodies of the dead would hang for days from the railings in the main square of Raqqa. It was a macabre reminder to residents that Islamic State (IS) had declared the capital of its so-called caliphate in the Syrian city. Signs around the victims’ necks revealed their crimes. Dozens were executed for spying; others for smoking or listening to music.

This week that reign of terror ended. On October 17th, after four months of heavy fighting, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an army of Kurds and Arabs, took the square. Tying yellow and green flags to the railings where the bodies once hung, they stomped and shouted to celebrate.

The capture of Raqqa highlights how over the past few years the SDF has become the most effective American-backed force in the fight against IS in Syria. Its parent group, the left-wing Democratic Union Party (PYD), now controls a swathe of territory running almost the entire...

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“THIS is the best you can find anywhere, and not just in Sudan,” says Ali Alsheikh, gesturing at the deep-green field behind him. His farm, which exports animal feed, belongs to DAL Group, Sudan’s largest conglomerate. Here, an hour’s drive south of the capital, Khartoum, one can glimpse a better economic future for Sudan: high-tech, capital-intensive and outward-looking.

On October 12th, as a reward for “positive actions” by Sudan’s government in thwarting terrorism and allowing aid to reach war victims, America lifted sanctions first imposed by Bill Clinton in 1997. These included a trade embargo, a freeze on state assets and curbs on financial institutions dealing with Sudan. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, is still wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide. But for most Sudanese this is a milestone. “The whole country issued a large sigh of relief,” says Ahmed Abdelatif, a businessman.

Sudan’s economy has done poorly since...

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IT IS not as bad in South Sudan as people think, insists Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, the petroleum minister. The UN may claim that a third of the population have fled their homes, but that is an exaggeration, says the sharp-suited former diplomat.

Why, then, does he think the refugee camps are so full? Some people go there for the services, such as free food, he explains. Others have been scared by fake news, peddled by insurgents. “People are saying: ‘The Dinka [the largest ethnic group in South Sudan] are coming to kill you. You must leave!’” Seated in his plush office in Juba, the capital, Mr Gatkuoth scoffs that, when he was a rebel during South Sudan’s long war to break away from Sudan, his comrades used similar propaganda, telling people that the Arabs were coming to burn their villages and rape their children. “It was very effective,” he recalls.

At camps for displaced people near Wau, one of South Sudan’s largest cities, no one agrees with Mr Gatkuoth’s account of...

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THE old town of Mosul is a wasteland. So are many other cities and towns that have been mangled by the wars in Iraq and Syria. There is so much broken concrete and twisted metal in Aleppo, the Syrian city pounded by Russian and regime warplanes during the bloodiest battle of its civil war, that the World Bank reckons it will take at least six years to clear the wreckage.

In fact, the Herculean task of cleaning up the detritus of war has become one of the biggest obstacles in the region’s struggle to patch up its shattered cities. Part of the problem is that the debris contains unexploded bombs, heavy metals such as mercury and other sorts of toxic waste, all of which need to be dealt with gingerly. The other part is just that there is so much rubble.

Simply trucking the debris 10km from Mosul is expected to cost around $250m. With few funds available, much of the rubble is just being scooped up and dumped into seasonal waterways, increasing the risk of...

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IN THE evening Adil Jumaili and his daughter stand beside the Tigris river in Mosul and stare at the wreckage on the opposite bank. Two twisted cars lie where their home once stood. It was destroyed, along with 8,000 other buildings, when Iraqi forces recaptured the city from the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) in July. The hospital at Mosul’s edge, once amongst Iraq’s finest, has been flattened. So, too, has the government complex, all the schools and the medieval alleyways lined with madrassas and monasteries.

Precision bombing by Western aircraft spared much of eastern Mosul, which is recovering fast. But western Mosul proved harder to retake. Block-by-block fighting and so-called “annihilation tactics” (a decision to wipe out IS fighters rather than let them flee) destroyed much of the area. Bodies are still being pulled from the ruins and the smell of putrefaction hangs in the air. Nearly 6,000 civilians died in the fighting, says Amnesty International, a human-rights group.

Mosul may be the best known of the cities recaptured from IS. But the sense of neglect is palpable across the areas populated by Sunni Arabs. Fallujah, some 400km to the south, was not as badly damaged in the month-long battle to liberate it. But a year later its residents still complain of mistreatment by the central government. “We are living in a big prison,” says one....

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FOR three years American forces have quietly worked in tandem with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to roll back Islamic State in Iraq. It was as unlikely an alliance as any imaginable. A decade ago IRGC operatives orchestrated attacks on American soldiers in Iraq. Crowds still gather in Iran to chant “Death to America!” Yet as American planes struck from the sky, Iran managed the advance on the ground. All this may be about to change.

As The Economist went to press, President Donald Trump was threatening to list the IRGC as a terrorist organisation and to “decertify” the nuclear deal that America and five other global powers signed with Iran in 2015. The agreement lifted some economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limitations on its nuclear programme and close scrutiny of it, designed to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

Mr Trump’s denunciation of the deal—he has warned of a coming “storm”—has been met with similar bluster...

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Odinga’s poker face

IN THE rickety wooden markets in Nairobi, where traders sell old books, second-hand clothes and kitchenware, walking away is a buyer’s last negotiating ploy. If he is lucky, he will be chased down the street and offered a better price. Raila Odinga, Kenya’s softly-spoken opposition leader, seems to be hoping a similar strategy may rescue his electoral chances.

On October 10th Mr Odinga withdrew from a re-run of the presidential election scheduled for October 26th, arguing that if it went ahead then it would not be free or fair. Courts had already annulled the presidential part of a wider set of elections held on August 8th, after finding problems with the way it was run. But no reforms have been made to the electoral process since then, he argued.

It had already been clear for several weeks that Mr Odinga did not plan to contest the election. His coalition of parties, the National Super Alliance (NASA), had...

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FOR centuries the city of Harar, on the eastern fringes of the Ethiopian highlands, was a sanctuary, its people protected by a great wall that surrounded the entire city. But in the late 19th century it was finally annexed by the Ethiopian empire. Harar regained a bit of independence in 1995, when the area around it became the smallest of Ethiopia’s nine ethnically based, semi-autonomous regions. Today it is relatively peaceful and prosperous—and, since last month, a sanctuary once more.

In recent weeks thousands of Ethiopians have poured into areas around Harar, fleeing violence in neighbouring towns (see map). Nearly 70,000 people have sought shelter just east of the city. Several thousand more are huddling in a makeshift camp in the west. Most are Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Its members clashed with ethnic Somalis in February and March, resulting in the death of hundreds. The violence erupted again in September, when more than 30 people were killed in the...

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Mr Hamdallah (right) tries to shake loose some concessions

IT MUST have felt like déjà vu for Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian prime minister, as he crossed the heavily-fortified border into Gaza on October 2nd. It was his first visit in two-and-a-half years. There were speeches, rallies and lofty promises to end the schism that has paralysed Palestinian politics for more than a decade. It was like a replay of a trip he made in 2014 to inaugurate a new unity government— which fell apart within weeks.

The Palestinian territories split in 2007, a year after Hamas, the militant Islamist group, won a majority in parliament. It seized control of Gaza after months of bloody fighting with its nationalist rival, Fatah. Since then Hamas has run the coastal strip as a separate fief, with its own civil servants and police. The two parties have signed six reconciliation deals meant to end the split, but none held. Hamas was loth to give up its enclave.

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IN 2010 Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, visited Yoni, a village in Sierra Leone. Mr Yang had a job to do: hand over a fancy new school, financed by Chinese aid, to the local authorities. Sierra Leone certainly needed more schools, but some wondered why the Chinese chose the middle of the bush for the project.

It just so happens that Yoni is the home village of Ernest Bai Koroma, Sierra Leone’s president. Yoni’s residents, note Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, two economists, live in new houses that would pass for “palaces” by the standards of rural Africa.

Scholars have long had a hunch that Chinese aid could be more easily manipulated than the Western sort, which often comes with strings attached. A Chinese white paper in 2014 stated that the government would not impose any “political conditions” on countries asking for help. The commerce ministry, China’s lead aid agency, says most projects are initiated by recipient states. This approach...

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FUNERALS can bring estranged parties together. And if anyone’s could heal the fissure between leaders in Baghdad and those in Iraq’s Kurdish enclave, that of Jalal Talabani should be the one. Mr Talabani died on October 3rd in Germany, aged 83. For 60 years “Mam”, or uncle, as Arabs and Kurds alike called him, made a career out of bridging differences.

After Saddam Hussein fell in 2003, he became Iraq’s first non-Arab president. A Sunni preacher’s son, he kept excellent relations with Shia politicians, particularly in Iran. He kissed both Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and America’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. For years he battled his Kurdish rival, Masoud Barzani, pitting his humble origins and leftist leanings against the Barzanis’ tribal heft. (In 1996 Mr Barzani even summoned Saddam’s tanks to invade Mr Talabani’s eastern fief, Sulaymaniyah.) But in recent years Mr Talabani, ever the conciliator, endorsed Mr Barzani’s extended presidency of the...

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TRAVELLERS to Lebanon have long bemoaned the state of the country’s roads. Writing in the 1850s, an Irish banker, James Farley, called the route from Beirut to Damascus a “wretched mule path”. The perilous journey over rough mountain passes took four days, as long as you dodged bandits and avoided the winter snow. The mules have gone but the sorry state of the country’s roads persists. Years of political chaos, low investment and more recently the influx of 1.5m Syrian refugees, which has sapped resources, exacerbated the problem. Could a revival of railways save the day?

The fate of Lebanon’s rail network tracks the rise and fall of the country’s fortunes. Built by an enterprising French count when Beirut was still ruled by the Ottoman Turks, the first line opened in 1895, cutting the trip to Damascus to nine hours. Tourism, trade and a nascent wine industry set up by a French road engineer flourished. When T.E. Lawrence’s band of saboteurs blew up parts of the Turks’...

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AS LIBERIA prepares for a general election on October 10th, people are making their preferences known. Some wear T-shirts with the faces of candidates on them. Crowds of exuberant supporters block roads. The country was devastated by civil war for the best part of 14 years until 2003. But aside from a few scuffles, the campaign has been peaceful. People feel excited, not adversarial. Liberia is set to have its first transfer of power from one elected president to another since 1944.

It is still not clear who among the 20 candidates will succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president, who won a Nobel prize for securing Liberia’s peace. “Continuity” is the message of her Unity Party (UP). Its candidate is Joseph Boakai, Ms Sirleaf’s mild-mannered vice-president, who is seen by many as a safe (and uncorrupt) choice. But although Ms Sirleaf has said she backs Mr Boakai, she did not appear at his campaign launch. And in September she told the UN General Assembly that her stepping down “...

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THE Kurds of Iran are calling for independence just as lustily as their cousins in Iraq, perhaps even more so. While the mood in the streets of Iraq’s Kurdish cities was generally subdued and nervous after their referendum on independence on September 25th, wilder celebrations erupted across the border in Iranian Kurdistan. In the Kurdish cities of Baneh, Sanandaj and Mahabad demonstrations lasted for two days, even as armoured cars drove through the streets heralding a wave of arrests. Crowds sang the anthem of the Republic of Mahabad, the Kurdish state that briefly held sway in north-western Iran in 1946. Kurdish flags flew from lampposts.

Some Iranian Kurds talked dreamily of a state they call Rojhelat, or East Kurdistan, which would slough off the “occupation” by Ajamastan, a pejorative term for Iran. “There’s a new self-confidence among Kurds,” says Luqman Sotodeh, a prominent Iranian Kurd. “The whole world stood against the referendum, but the Kurds held it regardless.” Kurdish officials say that over 90% of voters backed independence.

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SINCE the dawn of Islam, Shias have been trying to penetrate Egypt. Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the first imam of Shia Islam, sent a loyal follower to govern the area. But no sooner had he arrived than he was captured by Sunni opponents, sewn into the belly of a donkey and burnt. Later the Fatimids, a Shia dynasty, captured Egypt and ruled it for two centuries. But Saladin overthrew them and, according to Shia lore, massacred thousands while levelling much of Cairo. “Kharab al-Din,” spits a Shia librarian in Alexandria, twisting Saladin’s name to mean destroyer of religion.

Since then Shias in Egypt have pretended to be Sunnis. Some cloak their traditions in the mystical rites of the Sufis. They join their moulids, or birthday celebrations, for saints and camp at the shrines of the prophet’s relatives. Holy men can be found beating themselves into a trance, recalling past Shia practices. Many Sunnis, in turn, have adopted Shia...

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This one’s tired and needs a rest

DURING the violent birth of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister, allowed 400 ultra-Orthodox Jews (also called Haredim) to avoid compulsory military service to pursue a life of Talmudic study. He may have thought they were too few to matter, or that their endangered traditions should be nurtured after the Holocaust. Seven decades on, however, the number of such yeshiva students has exploded to 60,000. They are still allowed to dodge the draft, and many do not work, either. Other Israelis resent this.

The clash between those who serve God and those who serve their fellow citizens was on display on the streets of Jerusalem on September 17th. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters had gathered to denounce a decision by Israel’s high court—the third in two decades—that the exemption of yeshiva students from military duty was unconstitutional because it enshrined...

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