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Iraqi activists go underground after wave of attacks by pro-Iran militias

This screengrab from a surveillance camera shows six armed individuals trying to break into the home of activist Ammar al-Halafi in Basra, Iraq on the night of November 28.
This screengrab from a surveillance camera shows six armed individuals trying to break into the home of activist Ammar al-Halafi in Basra, Iraq on the night of November 28. © Twitter
Text by: Djamel Belayachi
7 min

There has been a wave of kidnappings, torture and killings of high-profile anti-government activists in Iraq in recent months. Protesters and experts blame pro-Iran militias within the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a paramilitary organisation created in 2014 to combat the Islamic State group. The Popular Mobilisation Forces have been accused of numerous instances of violence against civilians. At least seven activists have narrowly survived assassination attempts since November 20. Others have spoken out about the terror they must live with every day.

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A group made mostly of students began a protest movement in Iraq on October 25, 2019, calling for both an end to corruption and the political system that allocates government roles depending on religion and ethnic group. The protestors were also calling for an end to Iran’s influence in the country. Security forces carried out a bloody crackdown on the movement, firing bullets to disperse protests in locations like Baghdad’s iconic Tahrir Square. An estimated 600 people were killed in the period between October 2019 and January 2020, according to reports by Amnesty International

Activists have also faced the terror of kidnappings and targeted assassinations. Whether they are students, journalists or intellectuals, if they are active on social media or in the public eye during protests, they run the risk of being targeted by armed men waiting for them at the edge of a protest, hidden in a side street or in front of their homes.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team has recorded seven assassination attempts against activists since November 20.   

One assassination attempt after another 

Akram Aadab, one of the most prominent figures in the protest movement, survived an assassination attempt on the evening of November 25. He was standing with a friend outside of his home when two hooded men carrying guns with silencers burst out of a white car, shot at him and chased him into a supermarket where he sought refuge. 

A video shared on Twitter shows neighbours carrying the activist towards a hospital.

Screengrab of a video showing activist Akram Aadab being taken to the hospital.
Screengrab of a video showing activist Akram Aadab being taken to the hospital. © Twitter

       

The next day, he was able to walk again after doctors removed three bullets, as shown by a video posted on Twitter.

A few days later, on the night of November 22, unknown men fired shots at the front of the home of Ammar al-Halafi, an activist in Basra. No one was injured. Al-Halafi shared surveillance footage showing shots being fired from a car stopped in front of his home. 

A week later, al-Halafi shared more surveillance footage, this time showing six armed individuals breaking into his apartment building on November 28. In the comments section on the post, he said that they had again tried to kill him, without providing more details.

On the same day, in Al-Diwaniyah, a town to the south of Baghdad, a bomb exploded outside of the home of Ammar al-Khazali, another activist. His home was damaged. 

On November 20, Bashar al-Naïmi, an activist from Baghdad, was shot at by men armed with a pistol and a silencer, a common method according to Iraqi media outlets. Al-Naïmi was getting ready to leave Tahrir Square after having participated in a ceremony honouring a fallen comrade several days prior. He escaped with just a shoulder wound.  

In late October, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered the tearing down of the tents that protesters have maintained since the very start of the protest movement. Even so, activists continued to take to the streets, including our Observer Zouhair (not his real name). He protests regularly in Basra and is politically active on Instagram, where he has several thousand followers. Zouhair was kidnapped several months ago. He shared a video with our team showing the signs of torture on his body. 

'They subjected me to electrical shocks, hit me with a baton and shaved my head'

“It happened during a protest in late 2019 [Editor’s note: we aren’t giving any more details in order to protect our Observer’s safety]. When I was leaving the gathering in the morning, men in civilian clothes kidnapped me and tortured me for two days. They subjected me to electrical shocks, hit me with a baton and forcibly shaved my head. They told me if I didn’t stop protesting and sharing images online, they’d kill me. But I decided to continue until the people who assassinated other activists are arrested and tried.”

Fearing for their lives, some activists decided to stay away from both the protests and social media. Ammar (not his real name) gave up his job as a journalist because he feared for his life. 

'I haven’t seen my parents in eight months, but it is the price to pay to stay alive'

One day when I was covering the protests, I was kidnapped by four hooded men wearing black. They forced me into a black Chevrolet SUV before covering my eyes. They locked me up somewhere for four days without giving me any food. One of them burned my right leg with some kind of metal cylindrical object and said to me, “This way, you’ll repent and you won’t go to the protests anymore.”

When they let me go, I was in a terrible state. One of my jailers had violently kicked me in the stomach and so I had internal bleeding. I spent several days in a hospital, where I had serious surgery.  

I am still terrified, even today, especially when I see friends assassinated every day. I haven’t seen my parents for eight months. I don’t dare to visit them for fear that I will be recognised.

 

Ammar (not his real name) shared photos of his hospital stay with the Observers. One shows stitches across his abdomen. Another shows a circular burn on his leg.

Threatened by a battalion of trolls on social media

After taking office on May 7, PM al-Kadhimi announced that he would set up a special commission to investigate the murders of activists. But many activists and analysts believe that this is just an attempt to quiet the demonstrations and that the Iraqi government doesn’t have enough power to properly investigate militias supported by Iran. 

Omar Farhane, an activist exiled in Jordan, is the director of an independent NGO called the Iraqi Center for the Documentation of War Crimes. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that the assassins are part of a paramilitary group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is made up of more than 60 brigades. Some groups are Sunni Muslim, Christian or Yazidi, but the vast majority are Shia Muslim.

There is no concrete proof for now because the investigations aren’t going anywhere. But we spoke with the victims of attempted assassinations and kidnappings, and the names of certain militias came up frequently, including Iraqi Hezbollah [Editor’s note: This is considered to be the most powerful pro-Iranian militia and is included on the list of terrorist organisations drafted by the US State Department], Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq [Editor’s note: This brigade is accused of carrying out numerous extrajudicial killings of Sunnis in Iraq, including executing 50 people in Babil Province in July 2014],  Moqtada al-Sadr’s Blue Helmets, Saraya al-Salam and others.

The aim of these atrocities is to shut up the protest movement that is aiming to reduce Iran’s influence. Since the very start of the protest, we’ve heard accounts of men in civilian clothing infiltrating crowds of protesters, filming them and sometimes even stabbing them in the middle of the crowd. And that’s not to mention those who are shot point blank in front of their homes or in the street.

The online landscape can also be hazardous. Trolls with links to pro-Iranian militias attack the protesters online, claiming that they are “pro-American” or traitors, says Omar Farhane:

In order to scare the activists, they invested massively in social media. Batallions of trolls managed to shut down numerous accounts by reporting them. They shut down the Facebook account of the Iraqi Center for War Crimes. Lots of activists, including those who received death threats, created accounts under false names so they could keep communicating with each other.

Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi ordered on June 26 the arrest of 13 members of the Iraqi Hezbollah, accusing them of planning an attack against the US Embassy. This was the first such action against an armed faction of the powerful Popular Mobilization Forces. 

"Al-Kadhimi went after a pro-Iranian militia to save the US Embassy. When will he dare to do it to save the Iraqi people from assassinations?” said an activist who asked for anonymity.

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