Iraqis struggle against authoritarian tactics, Iranian interference

While it is difficult to prove who’s behind the kidnappings and torture, several media sources suggested that Iran-backed Shia militias and political groups in Basra were responsible for the sporadic attacks.
Friday 27/12/2019
An Iraqi demonstrator takes part in a sit-in at Tahrir Square, Baghdad, December 26. (DPA)
An Iraqi demonstrator takes part in a sit-in at Tahrir Square, Baghdad, December 26. (DPA)

Iraqi activist Salman Khairallah and his friend Omar al-Amri were reported missing December 11. Their disappearance was noted after they tried to purchase tents for an encampment in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the main protest spot.

On December 17, the two activists were released and greeted with joy and tears of relief.

Since October 1, Iraqis have been demanding an end to chronic corruption, heightened public services and improved employment.

Khairallah is an environmental human rights defender and member of the Iraqi Social Forum. He works on water pollution problems in Iraq and the Protect Tigris campaign, which seeks to reduce pollution in the Tigris River. He is a regular participant in the Iraqi protests.

Amri is also a human rights defender and member of the Iraqi Social Forum. He works on social and economic rights in Iraq.

Such attacks are not new in Iraq. During the 2011 “Arab spring,” anti-government protests led to activists being arrested and attacked by unknown groups.

Hadi al-Mahdi, a radio presenter, was assassinated after filing a complaint against the then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in September 2011. The complaint was made because Mahdi said he was mistreated and put in arbitrary detention.

Another activist, Jalal Diab, co-founder of the Movement of Free Iraqis, was killed in April 2013. Diab stood as a candidate in local elections and advocated for the rights of black Iraqis, a minority characterised by dire poverty and neglect.

While Mahdi’s behaviour might have been considered a violation to “public order and morality” by the Iraqi government, Khairallah’s and Amri’s actions during the protests show that subjectivation, harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention without trial remain in Iraqi society.

It is worth noting that, although many media outlets flourished across Baghdad after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, attacks targeted local and international journalists and activists across the country. They have not ended.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said Iraq was the deadliest country in the world for journalists from 2003-08. In 2009, Iraq was the third-deadliest and the second-deadliest country in 2010 and 2011.

While it is difficult to prove who’s behind the kidnappings and torture, several media sources suggested that Iran-backed Shia militias and political groups in Basra were responsible for the sporadic attacks.

Allegations of Shia militias working with local authorities to crush the protests have been made. The charges were denied by the head of Sayyid al-Shuhada, one of several Basra militias.

Protesters made the allegations because they say Tehran is trying to preserve the influence it seized after the topping of Saddam’s secular regime and especially after US troops started to withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

The Iran-backed Shia militias’ influence on Iraqi politics and military deepened dramatically after Iranian forces helped the Iraqis defeat the Islamic State.

Despite the positive influence that the Iranian regime seems to think it's having on Iraq, it appears reality is different. Many Iraqis have been blaming Iran for crimes, including for the more than 300 civilians killed during the protests and for kidnappings in the past year.

The brutal crackdown by the Iraqi government, which comprises the sectarian appointment system, bears similarities with Saddam’s Ba’ath regime.

The Iraqi government has been using tactics similar to authoritarian regimes around the world, further damaging Iraqis’ trust in the US democratisation process that Iraq underwent after the 2003 invasion. Demonstrators have been killed and internet access shut down to prevent protesters using online platforms as a hub for anti-government information.

That the protests continue suggests that the Iraqis will not give up until their needs are met. At the same time, international organisations such as Amnesty International should continue calling on the Iraqi authorities to end the persistent campaign of intimidation against protesters.

Organisations should document security forces’ use of lethal force against peaceful protesters, their use of military-grade tear-gas canisters causing lethal injuries, as well as abductions and enforced disappearances.