Assassinations of Iraqi activists create a ‘climate of fear’ ahead of the elections

Analysts said Iraqi militants linked to well-established political parties have killed and kidnapped dozens of political activists, creating a climate of fear ahead of parliamentary elections in October.

Despite government promises to protect activists and punish attackers, analysts said powerful paramilitary groups aimed to discourage voting and intimidate the two-year-old popular protest movement that wants political change in the oil-rich country.

The United Nations documented the targeted assassinations of 32 “protesters and critics” between October 2019 and May 2021, while another 16 people survived attempted murders. Twenty others are missing after being kidnapped. About 500 people were killed during the violence in the October 2019 demonstrations, which toppled the previous government.

“We can’t say there is a single outlet behind all the kidnappings and killings,” said Laheeb Heigl, a senior analyst at Crisis Group based in Baghdad. But “for activists and those trying to establish political parties. . . It is very clear that politically connected paramilitary groups are driving this kind of intimidation. They want to dissuade them from participating in official politics.”

Hegel added that this pattern of violence “contributed to creating a climate of fear.”

Mourners carry the body of Ihab al-Wazani at the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, after he was shot by men on motorbikes outside his home. © Mohammed Sawaf / AFP / Getty

No one has been charged with any of these crimes. Some fledgling parties have already boycotted the elections taking place for the first time since the October 2019 protests. An Iraqi activist in hiding because he fears being attacked said he felt the attacks on activists were “because [political elites and militias] They felt the danger of the activists in the elections.”

Shiite militias have thrived in the chaos that followed the US-led ouster of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. Their power and popularity was bolstered by their role in the fight against Sunni jihadists ISIS, which began in 2014. But with allegations of militia criminality emerging after ISIS’ defeat in 2018, public opinion has turned against the militias, which are now under a state-sponsored security umbrella called the Hashd. Popular or Popular Mobilization Forces. Demonstrators criticized Shiite militias for their association with Tehran, which used the Revolutionary Guards to support Iraqi groups that regularly attack military bases hosting US forces.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi expressed support for the protesters but faltered in efforts to rein in the militias. © Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office / Reuters

Iraq’s unelected Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was inaugurated after protesters ousted his predecessor, has voiced support for the protest movement, but has faltered in his efforts to rein in militias with real political influence. Their success at the polls in 2018 means armed groups “have more state power than the prime minister. They have access to more MPs… More access to the judiciary, more access to justice,” said Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House. of access to the main political players.” Not a handful of militias are able to intimidate the prime minister. “They are within the state system.”

Protesters had hoped that a New electoral lawratification in late 2020 and increasing the number of constituencies, would loosen the grip of entrenched political parties on power. But analysts warn that larger parties, with deeper pockets and stronger local ties, will still have the upper hand.

“The same parties that take advantage of the low turnout are trying to make people depressed and disappointed about the possibility of achieving change,” said an Iraqi political adviser, who asked not to be named. “We believe that even [latest] The assassinations can be explained hereby.”

With continued brazen attacks on activists, often carried out in broad daylight or captured on CCTV, the public’s trust in the Iraqi government has waned. Only 22 percent of Iraqis said they trust their government when I asked in April by the Obstetric Research Group and Gallup International.

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