Major Uptick in Assassinations of Iraqi Opponents of Iran
Reformers are being gunned down by Shi’ite militias loyal to Tehran, experts say
The dangers Iraqi activists face in calling for government reforms and speaking out against Iranian influence are intensifying.
In the span of seven days, two prominent advocates were killed as a result of three separate attacks on anti-Tehran activists.
Reham Yacoub, a women’s protest leader, was killed last week in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, leading to demonstrations over the weekend that culminated in a parliament annex being set on fire.
Five days earlier, Tahseen Osama, another organizer, was gunned down, touching off several days of protests where the police shot demonstrators with live ammunition.
As a result of the excessive violence, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi fired the heads of the Basra police and top security officials.
Their deaths fall on the backdrop of the killing of Hisham al-Hashimi, an anti-corruption reformer opposed to Iran’s sway over Baghdad, on July 6.
“From the beginning of the widespread demonstrations [in October against corruption and Iranian power in Iraq], protesters and activists have been targeted by pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, and this is verifiable,” Dr. Jonathan Spyer, research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Middle East Forum, told the Media Line.
“There appears now to be a singling-out of prominent critics of the Iranian role in the country by what looks like Shi’ite militias as well,” he added. “This latest killing in Basra appears to be the latest example of this phenomenon.”
Spyer contends the militias’ assassinations campaign is meant to send a clear signal to these activists:
“They’re to frighten people from taking a stand in that regard and thus convince people it’s futile to resist the Iranian domination of the country.”
The activists are amplifying the voices of many Iraqis who oppose Iran’s influence over their political affairs.
“The Shi’ite militias and Iran play a very large role, and the American attempts to reduce it have been only marginally successful at best,” Robert Jervis, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University, told The Media Line. “The militias and Iran have shown themselves willing… to use violence against domestic opponents. This is a very bloody environment.”
However, no one knows for sure who is behind the recent spate of activists’ murders.
While these pro-Iranian groups do not take credit for the attacks, Spyer said, “The fingerprints seem very clear.”
They’re to frighten people from taking a stand in that regard and thus convince people it’s futile to resist the Iranian domination of the country
However, Muhammad al-Waeli, an Iraqi analyst who focuses on leadership and reform, is more hesitant on where to place blame for the attacks.
“One cannot say any act of violence that happens pertains to the militias, and the way people are referring to them today, the media, that’s inaccurate,” he told The Media Line. “It’s not enough to say it was the militias. What is required is to point to certain perpetrators and link them to certain groups, so that accusations are supported by strong evidence and any action against them is supported by the full force of the law.”
“If we want really to solve Iraq’s problems, we have to be aware of the nuances in the Iraqi situation,” he added.
The “nuances” Waeli is referencing involve the intricate system of Iraqi militias. The Iraqi government sanctions some groups, like the Popular Mobilization Forces, while others are run illegally, often by Iran.
While the protests over corruption largely died down during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, they did not completely stop and will not for the foreseeable future.
“Most of the demands are actually related to the internal situation of Iraq. It has to do with a lack of services and a lack of representation,” said Waeli, who argues that the protesters should not be characterized as “pro-American,” or “pro-Iranian.
“The demonstrations are not likely to stop, because the demands are real and haven’t been met,” he said.
Although the government has publicly stated it will investigate the activists’ assassinations, public outrage is still strong, which could destabilize the already shaken Iraqi administration.
Kadhimi assumed office on May 7, becoming the third prime minister in a little over three months.
“The government and security forces must do what it takes to capture these criminals and assure the people that they will take control; such a feeling does not exist right now,” Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council group of experts, told The Media Line.
“The protesters, in general, have given this government the benefit of time and it is not clear that will last long unless the government starts to deliver on the promises it made to them,” he said.