Growing calls to boycott Iraq's legislative elections as activist murders go unpunished

On the left, a woman pastes a poster that says "No, I won’t vote" over an electoral candidate’s campaign banner, on September 21 in Baghdad. On the right, a man wearing a balaclava puts a poster on a lamppost calling for a boycott of the elections, on September 16, 2021.
On the left, a woman pastes a poster that says "No, I won’t vote" over an electoral candidate’s campaign banner, on September 21 in Baghdad. On the right, a man wearing a balaclava puts a poster on a lamppost calling for a boycott of the elections, on September 16, 2021. © Twitter / @Haydar_Saeedi

There are growing calls on social media in Iraq to boycott the legislative elections, due to take place on October 10. Many people are refusing to vote, in the face of entrenched corruption and the far-reaching power of pro-Iranian militias controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces, a paramilitary organisation created in 2014 to fight against the Islamic State group, and which is now accused of violence against civilians.

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The calls for a boycott of the upcoming elections come after a series of murders of pro-democracy activists. More than 70 activists have been murdered since protests began in October 2019 demanding an end to corruption and Iran’s influence over the country. The murders – which activists believe to have been committed by pro-Iranian Shiite militias within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – have gone unpunished.

The PMF is made up of between 60 and 70 armed Shiite militias. It was formed by the Iraqi government in June 2014 after the Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani called for a jihad against the Islamic State group after their invasion of Mosul.

No group has come forward to claim responsibility for the murders, but pro-democracy activists and the United Nations both believe that they were carried out by militias. The power of Iran-financed armed groups continues to grow in the country. 

Since August, Iraqis have been posting videos on social media using the hashtag #صرخة_عراقيين_للتغيير ("Iraqis shout for change"), which show activists putting up posters urging a boycott of the elections or tearing down the political posters of election candidates.

A woman puts up a small sign that reads "No, I won’t vote" underneath a political candidate’s banner, September 21, 2021.
A woman pastes a poster saying "no" on a banner for the State of Law Coalition, created by the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Baghdad, September 7, 2021.

‘We can’t vote in a climate of terror’

Samer al-Saïdi is the spokesperson for the campaign ‘Iraqis shout for change’. He lives in exile in Turkey.

I took part in the anti-government protests in 2017, and then those in October 2019. But on July 17, 2020, three men in a black vehicle, members of a militia, threatened me in the street. Ten days later, I left the country for Turkey. 

This campaign involves putting up ‘no’ stickers on electoral candidates’ posters everywhere in Iraq. We are making sure activists’ faces are hidden, to ensure their safety.  

 

A man wearing a balaclava sticks up posters calling to boycott the elections, on September 16, 2021.
A person hits posters with a shoe then pretends to spit on them. One of the posters features Sara Allawi, the daughter of the former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

We reject these elections because, in Iraq, guns are entirely unregulated by the state. Guns end up in the hands of PMF militias, who use them to threaten civilians. We can’t vote in a climate of terror.

Even the prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is powerless to stop the militias. In May this year, militias stormed a high-security area in Baghdad [where embassies and government institutions are located] after one of their commanders, Qasem Musleh, was arrested. He had been accused of murdering a well-known anti-government activist, Ehab al-Wazni. In the end, the government bowed under pressure from the militias and freed Musleh.

‘All of the militias have representatives in Parliament’

These armed militias are involved in politics and have representatives in government and the Parliament. 

For example, Hossein Mones, the leader of the newly-created "houkouk" movement [which means "rights" in Arabic], is taking part in the elections. He comes from the Hezbollah Brigades [Editor's note: a pro-Iranian Shiite militia, which is considered the most powerful militia in the PMF with around 10,000 members], which is on the US’s list of terrorist organisations.

A man uses a shoe to hit several election posters as well as an Iranian flag. The opposition has often accused Tehran of interfering in Iraq’s politics. ‘I will not vote for a PMF terrorist!’ he says.

The political group Al-Sadiqoun Bloc is also presenting electoral candidates – it’s the political branch of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq [a militia accused of massacring civilians in 2014]. The list is long. 

Killing protesters during demonstrations, targeted killings, kidnappings and torture – none of this has ever led to a serious investigation. Not one suspect has gone to trial. We will not vote as long as those who murder pro-democracy activists go unpunished. 

The country is rotten with corruption. The government’s anti-corruption commission has received 147 official complaints of political corruption, but not one case has been looked at. We know who is behind it all: the militias and their political branches.

In March, an AFP investigation revealed that PMF groups control a large number of land borders and ports, which goods pass through. These PMF factions often only allow goods through after receiving bribes or after redirecting import duties into their own pockets. According to official Iraqi statistics, since 2003, more than €410 billion have disappeared thanks to corruption – a figure twice as much as the country’s GDP.

Samer al-Saïdi says that despite the danger, activists in the "Iraqis shout for change" campaign will take to the streets in different towns across the country on October 1 to protest against the elections. The group has already held a rally in Baghdad.

Protest organised by members of the "Iraqis shout for change" campaign, in Babylon, September 12, 2021.

Some political parties and politicians have said they will boycott the elections as well, citing predictable widespread fraud and corruption during the vote.