On December 22, 2019, the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq announced the assassination of 26 activists who participated in anti-government demonstrations that began on October 1. Half of the assassinations took place in the capital, Baghdad, and the rest in the country’s southern provinces. On December 10, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced that three journalists have been killed and two more kidnapped during the protests.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who was forced to resign on November 29 in the face of continued protests, confessed that the security forces used live rounds against the demonstrators. A statement by the Iraqi Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari, which placed the blame for the deaths on November 15 on a “third party,” stirred even more controversy. Even though the government has not provided a satisfactory explanation on the assassinations of activists and journalists, eyes turned toward Iran, which is notorious for its treatment of opposition journalists and activists at home.
As Iraq Burns, World Leaders Stay Silent
Given the role played by the Iranian-backed militia groups in the protests and their past record of interference in Iraqi affairs, there is a possibility that Tehran could be behind the assassinations in order to protect its political power in Iraq.
According to the RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Iran is ranked 170 out of 180 countries around the world. It is already known that the Iranian intelligence, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other state apparatuses have subjected journalists to harassment, arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences to suppress information that goes against the regime narrative. Indeed, RSF claims that at least 860 journalists and citizen-journalists have been imprisoned or executed since 1979, making Iran one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the last 40 years.
In addition, the Committee to Protect Journalists singled out Iran as one of the countries with the highest number of journalists under arrest, with 11 imprisoned in 2019 alone.
In post-revolution Iran, assassinations and executions have become the most effective methods of repression. The regime in Tehran, which crushes all domestic opposition, has been increasingly expanding its oppression methods to the diaspora and to countries where it wields influence, like Iraq. The high number of journalists and activists who have been killed during the protests since October 1 in Iraq, which ranked 156 in 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, indicates the dangerous reality on the ground.
Iran-backed militias are used to harass activists and journalists who may pose a potential threat to Iran’s interests in the country. The Iranian-backed Shia militia group, the Popular Mobilization Forces — the PMF, known in Arabic as Hashd al-Shaabi — has already gained a considerable strength in the Iraqi security bureaucracy and an ability to act independently of the Iraqi authorities. Considering the open involvement of the PMF in the protests, it is likely that the group might be behind the assassinations and kidnappings.
The protesters chanted “Iran out,” demanding the scaling down of Iranian influence in Iraq. Furthermore, Iranian consulate buildings in Najaf and Karbala — two cities considered holy by the Shia — were set on fire several times, along with the buildings of the Iranian-backed militia and political parties. The high number of casualties, with some 460 killed and a further 25,000 wounded during the protests, has been attributed to the use of sniper fire by the PMF.
The investigation carried out under the leadership of the minister of planning, Nuri al-Dulaimi, regarding the killing of 157 people who lost their lives in the first wave of protests, found that 70% of the civilian deaths were caused by bullets that hit the head and chest. The claim that the snipers were organized by the PMF was confirmed by the detention of a sniper from Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, the 14th brigade of the PMF. On October 10, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights stated 300 protesters are missing, while the public believes they are kept in the PMF’s secret prisons.
Turning Instability into Opportunity
The attacks on six television channels broadcasting in Baghdad by the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Saraya al-Khorasani militia groups — both of which operate under the umbrella of the PMF — highlights the role of the PMF in suppressing the media. Falih al-Fayyadh, the national security adviser and the head of the PMF, stated that group was ready to implement government orders to prevent “a coup d’etat or a rebellion,” marking the role of Iran and the PMF in suppressing the protests.
The claim that the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia affiliated with the PMF killed a large number of protesters in Maysan, a governorate in southeastern Iraq, also validated that Iran-backed organizations may be behind the deaths. In this context, Iran’s involvement in the protests in Iraq is a part of Tehran’s strategy of turning instability across the Middle East into an opportunity for itself. It can also be interpreted as an attempt to destabilize the Iraqi government.
Although the PMF denies any involvement in the protests and attacks on activists, its past actions have reinforced suspicions. On February 2, 2019, 51-year-old Iraqi Shia activist and novelist Alaa Mashzub was assassinated in Karbala. Mashzoub was killed in a hail of bullets just two weeks after he criticized the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, via his social media account. On February 8, Aws al-Khafaji, the leader of Shia militia group known as the Brigade of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas was arrested by the PMF militias after he appeared on a local television channel to talk about Mashzoub’s assassination, suggesting it was carried out by those who defend Tehran’s interests in Iraq.
Tehran has a record of targeting Iranian figures in Iraq who are critical of the Iranian government. The exiled activist and former journalist Ruhollah Zam, for example, was captured by the Iraqi National Intelligence Service and handed over to Iranian agents. Asaib Ehlil al-Hak, one of the groups in the PMF, was claimed to have an active role in the process of capturing Zam because of his criticism of Iran in his work. This is a proof that Iranian influence is not merely confined to the militias in Iraq but has already spread to the Iraqi security forces.
The claims that the assassinations of activists and journalists in Iraq were carried out by Iran with the motivation to preserve its political power and influence in the country gains substance given its past record. Iraq has an undesirable history of assassinating journalists: The International Federation of Journalists calculates that more than 400 have been killed since 2003. More attention has to be given to the protection of the integrity and the future of journalism and political activism in Iraq. Iran, as one of the influential powers in Iraq, has to be curtailed to prevent further deaths, especially given its involvement in the recent events.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.