Iraqi activism fights to survive amid killings and threats
BAGHDAD – “Who killed me?” the panels posed, alongside images of dead men and women, among the 80 or so Iraqi activists murdered since late 2019. Young protesters held up the posters on Tuesday in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, illustrating both the lasting spark and the decrease in the strength of the anti-government protest movement Iraq.
Protesters (publicly) and Iraqi officials (privately) say they know who killed many militants: Iranian-backed militias who essentially crushed a grassroots anti-corruption movement that blames Iranian influence, and militias, for many Iraqis. ailments. In a country where militias – which are nominally part of the security apparatus – operate with impunity, the assassins have gone unpunished.
The several thousand young men gathered in Baghdad’s central square on Tuesday were the biggest protest in the Iraqi capital since the anniversary last October of the protests that swept Baghdad and southern cities. and bring down a government. The move is motivated by anger over the government’s inability to make promised reforms, including curbs on Iran-backed militias.
But in the shadow of assassinations, kidnappings and intimidation of people critical of the Iraqi government and Iranian interference, turnout on Tuesday was far lower than organizers had hoped.
At least two protesters were killed in clashes with riot police. An Iraqi security commander, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said they were allegedly shot dead by security forces. Several other protesters were injured.
The protest began peacefully, with buses full of young men from the south joining local protesters, waving posters and Iraqi flags and chanting as they circled the square. Mylar balloons with the Iraqi flag floated above.
Towards sunset, hundreds of riot police stormed in to drive protesters away from a bridge leading to the Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are clustered. A few protesters responded by throwing stones as police chased protesters through the alleys. Security forces said protesters later set security vehicles on fire.
“We expected more people to come, but some people are scared – scared for their work and scared for themselves,” said one of the longtime activists, Dr Mohammad Fadhil, a doctor from the Diyala Province, speaking before the clashes erupted.
Another protester, Hani Mohammad, said he was threatened by a group of fighters three days earlier.
“They came to my house,” Mohammad said, naming one of the largest Iranian-backed militias, whom he did not want to name publicly for fear of reprisal. He said he had already run away.
A year after taking power, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has largely failed to implement the reforms he promised in response to the 2019 protests, including by curbing militias backed by the Iran, who are also accused of attacks on the US embassy and military installations.
Among the activists who have been killed are protest leaders in the holy city of Karbala, a female doctor in Basra and a prominent security analyst in Baghdad, Hisham al Hashimi, who advised the prime minister. Many of them were shot dead in the streets in full view of security cameras or the police, some in the middle of the day.
Although at least one commander has been relieved of his duties, no one is known to have been prosecuted.
“What is the main purpose of these murders? This is to deter the formation of leaders within the protest movement, ”said Randa Slim, senior researcher at the Middle East Institute. “So you target the key leaders who have the potential to rally the masses, you eliminate them, and then you create fear among the rest.”
She said there was little chance that Iraqi political leaders would reform the system that raised them to power, or repel Iran’s pervasive influence, and that intimidation and lack of support left the protest movement too weak to create change.
“You need leadership, you need organization, you need a political mechanism, you need funding for this,” Ms. Slim said, listing the elements that the diverse movement lacks.
Ali al Bayati, member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, said: “The security establishment is not serious in its efforts, from investigations carried out in security institutions to bringing the matter before the courts. ”
The UN envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, told the UN Security Council this month that many protest leaders were being hounded with “ rampant impunity ” ahead of the snap elections that ‘they had claimed.
In addition to those murdered, more than 560 protesters, the vast majority of them unarmed, have been killed by security forces and armed men during the protests themselves since 2019. Most have been shot dead with live ammunition. or killed by tear gas canisters that turned into deadly projectiles after being fired directly into the crowd.
Ahead of Tuesday’s protest, one of the main Iranian-backed militias, the Hezbollah Brigades, launched what many perceived to be a veiled threat to protesters, saying it and other paramilitary forces “must protect these young men who are deceived ”. cannot be used by enemies, including the United States. He accused the protesters of wanting to delay the elections scheduled for October 10.
The assassinations have had a chilling effect on the political campaign. The popular movement that began in 2019 aimed to end the corrupt government system in place since 2003, where government ministries have been split between powerful political blocs and militias.
Activists originally viewed the upcoming election as a chance to come away with new faces, but now they seem likely to bring the same factions back to power.
“There is no party of integrity I can vote for,” said Hadeel, a 19-year-old university student who demonstrated in Baghdad’s Nasour Square on Tuesday. She didn’t want to give her last name.
“After the elections, we won’t even be able to protest because the government will be stronger than before and the militias will have even more power.”
Despite the danger, Thursday’s protests could be the harbinger of a painful summer in Iraq.
The 2019 protests spread from the southern coastal city of Basra, where citizens took to the streets to demand public services. Iraq last year saw record high temperatures of over 125 degrees, putting their lives at risk, leaving many people choking without electricity or even clean water.
This summer, a lack of winter rain, poor water management and water-related conflicts with neighboring Turkey and Iran are expected to lead to even worse shortages for millions of Iraqis, a misery that could fuel new mass demonstrations.
Among protesters on Tuesday, there was little fear that the coronavirus would ravage Iraq, where only about 1% of the population has been vaccinated. No one in the protests was seen wearing masks, and social distancing in crowded squares was impossible.
“We know the virus exists,” said one of the protesters, Hamza Khadham. “But the government’s violence, injustice and oppression against the people are more dangerous than the coronavirus.”
Falih Hassan, Awadh al-Taiee and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting.