Female Iraqi activist gunned down as US-connected activists targeted

In 2018, Yacoub told The Arab Weekly that she had received threats from Iran-backed militias.
Thursday 20/08/2020
A policeman inspects the car of slain activist Reham Yacoub in Basra, Iraq, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. ( AP)
A policeman inspects the car of slain activist Reham Yacoub in Basra, Iraq, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. ( AP)

BAGHDAD –A female activist was killed on Wednesday and three others wounded when unidentified gunmen opened fire on their car in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, security and health sources said.

It was the third incident this week in which gunmen targeted an anti-government political activist, after one activist was killed and four others had their car fired upon in a separate incident.

Reham Yacoub was gunned down on Wednesday by assault rifle brandishing gunmen on the back of a motorcycle, the sources said.

Yacoub, an Iraqi nutritionist, media personality and activist in the local protest movement since 2018, had led several women’s marches.

In 2018, Yacoub told The Arab Weekly that she had received threats from militias after she was photographed in the US consulate in Basra. 

“I received dozens of threats,” she said. “I often receive messages from Iranians via my social media who accuse me of the Iranian consulate’s torching and accuse me and other activists of being linked to the US to encourage riots in Basra.”

“All that happened after the Iran-based Mehr outlet released a report accusing me and other activists to be linked to the US to encourage riots in Basra.”

An article by Iran’s Mehr news agency, published September 2018, had accused Yacoub of cooperating with the US consulate in Basra and giving women in the city “riot-related training.”

“Under the guise of exercise and jogging, [Yacoub] gives [Basra]’s women riot-related training so they can be an important element of future demonstrations,” the article said.

Yacoub herself received “training” from US diplomats, the article claimed, concluding that Yacoub and other activists in Basra are part of a US plot to harm relations between Baghdad and Tehran and to “destroy the image” of Iran-backed militias in Iraq and the region.

Leaders of Iran-backed militias in Basra have long accused protesters of colluding with the United States, a favoured excuse used when targeting perceived anti-Iran sentiments with deadly force.

On Thursday, human rights monitors sounded the alarm over a recent spike in assassinations targeting civil rights activists in Iraq's south.

“It seems that there is a well-programmed cleansing of activists who were influential in the last protest movement,” said Ali al-Bayati, spokesman for the semi-official Iraqi Independent High Commission for Human Rights.

Al-Bayati said the government was also complicit in the killings because of its “silence” and “inability to take real action to stop it.”

According to the commission, there have been six assassination attempts targeting activists, with two killed in Basra in the month of August alone. That represents a jump as the commission recorded 16 attempted targeted killings in the 10 months after the uprising started in October.

A recent government investigation said 560 protesters and security forces were killed during the October movement. The probe drew criticism from activists who said it fell short of naming the perpetrators, who are widely suspected of having links to Iran-backed militia groups.

The most recent wave of violence began when activist Tahseen Osama was assassinated on Friday, prompting a return of street demonstrations for three days in which security forces opened live fire on protesters who lobbed the governor’s house with rocks and petrol bombs and blocked several main roads.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi subsequently sacked the Basra police and national security chiefs on Monday and ordered an investigation into the violence which calmed protesters down.

“We dismissed Basra Police Commander and a number of security people due to the last assassination operations and we will do all that is necessary and let the security forces do their duties,” Kadhimi tweeted after Wednesday’s attack.

“Colluding with the killers or submitting to their threats is unacceptable.”

Iraqi activists accuse Iran-backed militias of targeting protesters with kidnappings, intimidation, attacks and assassinations. 

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the Baghdad government to redouble efforts to rein in pro-Iran militias.

“There is still work to do,” Pompeo told reporters at a State Department news conference with Iraq’s foreign minister Fuad Hussein.

“Armed groups not under the full control of the prime minister have impeded our progress. Those groups need to be replaced by local police as soon as possible. I assured Dr Fuad that we could help and we would help.”

The recent wave of violence in Iraq will put further pressure on Kadhimi’s government to tackle the issue of militias and that of Iran’s influence on politics and security in the country.

This comes as the Iraqi prime minister is set to meet with US President Donald Trump on Thursday for talks that the White House says will focus on Iraq’s stability and security and boosting the nation’s economy.

Kadhemi took office in April at a time of strained US-Iraq ties, becoming the third Iraqi head of government in a chaotic 10-week period that followed months of deadly protests in the country. 

Four months before he assumed office, a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed top Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, prompting Shia legislators to demand US troops leave Iraq.