Iran-backed militias accused of violently quashing Iraq's protest

Protesters said some snipers who fired on protesters were thought to be Iranian.
Friday 15/11/2019
Anti-government protesters try to sneak past as security forces close the bridge leading to the Green Zone during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, October 26. (AP)
Anti-government protesters try to sneak past as security forces close the bridge leading to the Green Zone during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, October 26. (AP)

BAGHDAD - Iraqis are growing increasingly frustrated with Iran-backed militias attempting to stifle protests against government corruption and mismanagement, Iraqi demonstrators and activists said.

Since October 1, demonstrators have taken to the Iraqi streets to raise their voice against corruption, unemployment and poor public services. They demand a change in the constitution, the resignation of the prime minister, early elections and for the government to stop the violent crackdown against protesters.

Protesters have faced suppression from the state and Iran-backed militias, they said. More than 320 people have been killed since the protests began, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said.

Iran-backed militias have played a central role in antagonising protesters, witnesses said, helping arrest or violently suppress dozens with impunity. Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who heads Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, was accused of being directly involved in quashing the protests.

In the southern Iraqi city of Maysan, a group alleged to be linked to Iran-backed militias killed activist Amjad Al-Dahhamat near the police directorate.

Protesters said some snipers who fired on protesters were thought to be Iranian.

“The snipers alleged to be linked to Iran and the Iraqi riot forces both shoot us with live bullets and tear gas” said Mohammed Abdulrazzaq Ali, a 33-year-old activist from Baghdad. “I heard one of the snipers wearing black speak Farsi. That was when I knew they were Iranian.”

“The Iraqi government knows them well but did not want to release that in media and the government accused us of being vandalisers,” he said. “How are we the vandalisers? Are we the ones who killed the peaceful protesters? Where is this peace that the government claims?”

“It is a revolution of a people, not a million people, but of the entire people. We do not have representatives,” he added.

Other demonstrators fled their homes after threats from militias, they said.

“I received a phone call from an unknown number threatening me against going back to Tahrir Square,” said a Baghdad protester, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. “I do not know their identity or how they got my personal phone number.”

“The caller told me, if he finds me in any protest, he will kill me” the protester said. “My wife and I decided to flee to Turkey to save our lives. I will leave Iraq, my home, but my heart will stay in Baghdad and with the protesters.

“I will continue to protest but do so online to help raise my people’s voice to the whole world. It is the least I can do for my country.”

He and many others view the militias as a threat to peace and stability in Iraq.

“The militias, which are supported by Qassem Soleimani, are more powerful than the Iraqi government,” said Iraqi political analyst Ghanim Abed. “Iran’s interference in Iraq’s political system is clear. It has named the three ministries and other politicians to be under its wings.

“Despite the curfew imposed on Baghdad and other regions by the authorities, the protesters are breaking this curfew to express their refusal to Iran’s presence.

“The government announced that 7,000 IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) militants entered Karbala to protect the visitors of Arbaeen but they did not go back home and stayed in Iraq to curb the protests.

“The snipers targeted the protesters at the head and chest. The government was unable to protect the protesters and it does not arrest the killers,” added Abed.

The violence has not stopped protesters across Iraq from venting frustration with Iran, chanting slogans like: “Out, out Iran; Baghdad free, free.” Others set fire to the outer wall of the Iranian consulate in Karbala.

Protesters stormed the headquarters of Iran-supported political parties and organisations. Others burned images of Iranian figures such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Soleimani.

The Iraqi Defence Ministry said at a news conference that those responsible for killing protesters were not affiliated with the government and that the Iraqi government had not imported tear gas used against demonstrators, as had been alleged.

Iran-backed militias have played a prominent role in Iraq for years.

Two years after the Islamic State (ISIS) seized Mosul in 2014 and the Iraqi military collapsed, parliament passed a law allowing the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) to fight the terror group.

Iran provided the PMF with finances and heavy weaponry and embedded their leaders within the group. This helped the PMF fight ISIS and gave the group greater influence in Iraq’s political sphere.