Leading Iraqi political parties, many closely linked to Iran, will select a new Prime Minister in the coming days. The selection comes amid a report by Human Rights Watch that accuses Iraq’s government of being complicit in the killings of protesters since early November.
At the same time there have been a plethora of kidnappings and assassinations of activists, with media outlets also being intimidated. It is part of the use of militias to attack protests while enabling the government to express plausible deniability.
HRW says that “unidentified armed forces, apparently in cooperation with Iraqi national and locals security forces carried out a brutal spate of killings in Baghdad’s main protest area on December 6.”
The unidentified forces have been identified in some reports, including a recent article at Al-Ain.
The report says that beginning in early November members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a paramilitary unit that is made up of militias, began to detain protesters and hold them in a secret prison near Baghdad.
The article asserts that a man named Abu Zainab al-Lami, a member of the PMU, coordinated these attacks. His name was mentioned by Reuters in November as well.
The kidnappings took place throughout Iraq and men were renditioned to secret prisons in Baghdad, Kut, Tikrit and other areas. “PMU militias and officers from the [Iranian] Quds Force external wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps oversee these prisons,” the article claims.
The militias have formed “death squads” and these were responsible for some of the 500 killings since November. Militias accused of operating these death squads include: Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, the Imam Ali Brigades, Saraya al-Khurasani, Sayyid al-Shuhada and Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba, as well as the Badr Organization, Saraya Al-Ashura and Ansar al-Aqidah.
Since the start of the protests, the activists have said that at night they are targeted by men in black or by snipers, and that some of these have fired on them from the headquarters of local militias. In Missan, for instance, protesters killed an Asaib Ahl al-Haq commander after activists were shot. Qais Khazali and Hadi al Amiri of Badr vowed revenge in November. The US sanctioned Khazali earlier this month.
Iraq’s former prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned in November after security forces killed numerous people in Nasiriyah.
The protesters have also targeted religious shrines and Iran’s consulates in Najaf and Karbala. Most of the protesters are Shi’ites, but they have objected to the heavy-handed response and to Iran’s presence in Iraq. The country is full of rumors now, such as Iran is sending military vehicles to Iraq, or playing a hand in selecting the new prime minister.
Each week brings new attempts by the government to harass the protesters. It began with cutting off the Internet and trying to stop opposition or foreign media. Then the killings began.
Then tear gas canisters were used to kill protesters so as to make it seem like they were not being shot. Later, in early December, protesters in Baghdad were gunned down. The protesters have also responded by burning buildings, taking over highways, and lynching at least one person. The latest intimidation is kidnappings and killings of protesters. For instance, protester Mohammed Al-Doujaili was gunned down on Saturday. Human Rights Watch has focused on a December 6 incident in which protesters were killed. The group has also called on the US, UK and Iran to end military support for Iraq.
Iraq faces numerous hurdles now. ISIS is carrying out near-daily attacks in central Iraq. In Baghdad the protesters have taken over part of the city. The same is true in the south.
Major political leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr have sought to mediate, sending unarmed members of their militia to protect the protesters. Meanwhile, the US says that Iranian-backed forces are firing rockets at bases where they are present. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran over the weekend and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also spoken to Iraq’s Prime Minister.
This hasn’t achieved anything and Iraq is in such political crisis that the prime minister, who resigned, likely can’t do anything. Instead, religious leaders like Ayatollah Ali Sistani and militias have more influence. Iran can do as it pleases.
A few scapegoats have been held responsible for killings by the government, likely to hide the larger problem which is that militias were unleashed by pro-Iranian officials to intimidate the protesters.