Amid a Spate of Activist Killings in Iraq, Protesters Have Found Unexpected Allies

For two years, Iraq’s mass protest movement has been plagued by unsolved murders. As October’s election nears, they are making common cause with those who previously opposed them

Amid a Spate of Activist Killings in Iraq, Protesters Have Found Unexpected Allies
Protesters from across the country gathered in Baghdad demanding accountability after a recent rise in targeted assassinations / May 25, 2021 / Taha Hussein Ali / Getty Images

The family house of Ehab al-Wazni lies at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac in a warren of low-slung houses, one of the many nondescript residential blocks that make up the city of Karbala, southwest of Baghdad. The crumbling, sun swept facades bear no resemblance to the elegant, gilded spires of the Imam Hussein shrine at the edge of town, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. Dusty and desolate in the sweltering summer heat, the alleyway hints at menace.

Wearing a black abaya and a worried look on her pale face, Ehab’s mother Samira keeps a watchful eye on the TV in the corner of the living room. Security cameras project onto its screen, picking up any movement outside. Their reach falls just short of the spot where her son was shot on May 8, felled by two bullets to the chest, three to the head.

Ehab had been one of Iraq’s most prominent political activists. In October 2019, a wave of protests had swept the country, fueled by anger at government corruption and failure to provide basic services or jobs.

Radiating from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the protests came to be known by the Arabic word for October: Tishreen. It was the young who took to the streets. With around 700,000 people entering the job market each year, at least 1 in 4 young Iraqis are unemployed. But the discontent went beyond economic grievances. A generation that had grown up with sectarian conflict after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion had wearied of rule of law being trumped by the rule of the gun. They were fed up with the outsized role of sectarianism in society and politics, and theocratic Iran meddling in Iraqi affairs.

In Karbala and beyond, Ehab had fanned the flames of dissent by spending countless hours on the streets and on social media.

“Ehab was the engine of the protests. He was trying to unify the movement. He encouraged protests all over Iraq,” his brother Ali al-Wazni said.

Ehab’s murder was only one of a tragic and unbroken string of killings. As the largely peaceful demonstrations spread throughout the country, the protesters were met with a hail of bullets and teargas canisters. At least 700 perished at the hands of police and shadowy militia groups over the past two years.

There is little doubt among the protesters that the militias are behind Ehab’s murder. Formed in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the militias grew as a Shiite insurgent force and engaged in a brutal civil war with Sunni extremist groups. They consolidated their position during the war on the Islamic State group, when they were crucial in defeating the terror group. Many have deep ties to Iran and have formed their own political parties. Woven into the fabric of power, the militias have an interest in propping up the system. More powerful than the state itself, they are a law unto themselves and have few consequences to fear.

Ali said Ehab had received threats through fake Facebook accounts in the days leading up to his death. But he believes he knows who is responsible for his brother’s death. Shortly after his assassination, police arrested an influential militia commander named Qassem Musleh. Ehab had made him an enemy by storming into a meeting Musleh was holding with tribal elders in Karbala. The militiaman wanted the elders to pressure their offspring to stop protesting and return to school.

“If you can bring them back from the dead, the students will go back to school,” Ehab shouted in a video clip of the incident.

“We will take you out,” Musleh hissed at him, according to Ali. Musleh was released just two weeks after his arrest, with police citing lack of evidence. Like all activist killings, Ehab’s murder remains unresolved.

Relentless violence and the coronavirus pandemic eventually caused the protests to fizzle out. But the death of Ehab and others show that activists remain in the assassins’ crosshairs.

Some murders gain little attention outside Iraq. Dr. Reham Yacoub, a human rights activist and protester, was shot in Basra in August last year. The Baghdad-based activist Salah al-Iraqi was gunned down in December. Even family members are not off-limits. Ali Karim, the son of women’s rights advocate Fatima al-Bahadly, was kidnapped and killed on July 23.

Others, like the assassination of Husham al-Hashimi, a well-known political analyst and adviser to then-interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, get column inches in the international press. Like Ehab, he was shot while behind the steering wheel. Few doubt that the man caught on CCTV emptying an assault rifle into his parked car was a militia gunman.

As the killings continue, fear weighs heavily on the protest movement.

“I have no contact with most of my friends because they changed their phone numbers. A few friends stayed in contact, but most tried to lessen their activities and go into hiding for a while. Some went to Erbil (the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq) or left Iraq,” said Zainab.

For months, the diminutive 25-year-old trained her camera on the youthful crowd that had gathered on Tahrir Square on the banks of the Tigris. A tense standoff between protesters and police guarding the bridge leading to the former Green Zone had produced a steady stream of casualties.

“A lot of people I photographed are now dead,” she said.

Zainab, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals, also tended to protesters wounded by gunshots or teargas canisters. It was a throwback to a childhood marred by sectarian violence that had made her determined to change the country she grew up in.

“We saw terrible things as children. After Saddam fell, the assassinations started. My neighbors were killed because they had a Sunni name. We saw the dead bodies on the way to school,” said Zainab. “Since we were little kids, we wanted to change something.”

The protest movement fell short of its goals, but it did bring down Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and forced early elections scheduled for October this year.

Reformist parties, forged during the protests, are hoping to bring about change through the ballot. It is an uphill struggle. In Iraq, power and resources are divided according to the “muhasasa” system, which gives different sects, religions and ethnicities a share in government positions proportionate to their size. The system has entrenched sectarianism and cronyism and has spawned disillusionment among voters.

Alaa al-Rikaby wants to change that.

“There are about 20 million eligible voters that are not affiliated with the established parties,” claimed the former clinical pharmacist, who heads the Emtidad party branch in the southern city of Nasiriyah. “Right now, they are without hope and don’t want to take part in the elections.”

Like many young Iraqis who want to bring about change to their country, al-Rikaby aimed to run an election campaign. Instead, he is a man on the run.

“It was very common to be kidnapped and tortured and killed in this province. That’s why I left my home. Now I am back, but I’m still worried. You have to expect an attack at any time,” he said.

With a fraction of the campaign budget and always looking over his shoulder, al-Rikaby has been relying on grassroots campaigning and social media to get his message across. Although he has claimed that Emtidad can draw on about 20,000 campaign helpers across 10 governorates, enthusiasm in the Tishreen movement for the upcoming election is low. A history of new parties being co-opted into the political elite taints newcomers by association.

“When you are an Iraqi and live under a deadly dictator like Saddam, and then you spend 18 years living with this corruption, you think that everyone will get infected with this disease,” al-Rikaby admitted.

At 47, al-Rikaby is an outlier in the youthful protest movement. His job at a toxicology consultancy has also set him apart from a young generation that faces dire employment prospects. But he felt compelled to join the protests in his native Nasiriyah. The drab city lies adjacent to the oil wells that pump millions into Iraqi state coffers every day. But it has benefited little from the hydrocarbon wealth extracted in its vicinity. As in the rest of Iraq, a creaking grid provides electricity for a few hours a day when temperatures surpass the 50-degree Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) mark in summer. Drinking water is also in short supply, mainly because of pollution and neglect; refuse litters the side of pockmarked roads.

Al-Rikaby quickly became a leading voice for change in a city that was dubbed the “capital of protest.” He was horrified by the violent reaction to the demonstrations that saw dozens cut down by gunfire. In conversation, he gives off the air of someone who knows his days are numbered.

“Anyone scared of getting killed is not forced to go into politics,” he remarked dryly.

But he is also determined to keep up the fight.

“We have been attacked by these militias so many times, many of our young protesters were killed in cold blood. Change will come through the election box,” he said.

Its enforcers may have prevailed for now, but the political elite has been rattled by the Tishreen protests. Not since a failed insurrection at the end of the first Gulf War had the Shiite majority population risen in large numbers. With young people in the center and south of the country demonstrating against a Shiite-dominated government, analysts have described it as Iraq’s first intra-Shiite conflict.

Scarred by years of deadly sectarian conflict, Iraq’s young generation is also increasingly unwilling to accept religion and sectarianism as an excuse for bad governance.

“Protesters called for a new kind of national identity to which they could belong free of sectarian differentiation,” the Crisis Group wrote in a recent report on the Tishreen movement.

On social media, the hashtag “nurid waten” (“We want a homeland”) became an online rallying cry for the protests.

The conflict between religious conservatism and youthful rebellion played out long before the Tishreen protests in Najaf, a city known for being the seat of the marjaeya — the Shiite clerical establishment in Iraq — as opposed to a hub of progressive thought.

Indeed, in 2012, a group of university students founded Moja, Arabic for Wave, a civil society group intent on pushing a secular agenda.

“When I grew up, I noticed all the corruption and destruction in my country: I don’t have electricity, a health system or respected universities. I wanted to find the source of this corruption. I found that the ruling parties are Islamic, and they operate under the mantle of religion,” said Yaser Mekki, one of Moja’s founders.

The group was provocative. One of its first actions was to erect a Christmas tree on a major road in the staunchly Muslim city. The aim was to foster religious tolerance, but the stunt drew the ire of the marjaeya.

The clerics started smear campaigns, claiming that the young activists were gay or had sex outside wedlock. They tried to have them thrown out of Najaf university.

But over time, the cleric’s anger mellowed, and then turned into curiosity.

“At first they fought us, but then they changed their approach and started a dialogue,” said Mekki, who was able to finish his studies and now heads a clinic in Najaf.

The discussions between the clerics and the activists continue to this day. They have helped shape the marjaeya’s position on the Tishreen protests. In his Friday sermons, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Iraq, denounced the violence meted out against the protesters. He also supported their calls for reform and early elections.

“I told the clerics that this is a historical moment. You should not squander it. The protesters are looking at Sistani with respect. But if he doesn’t stand up for them, the fire might burn him,” said Mekki.

The awkward alliance between the conservative clerics and the secular protest movement is strengthened by a common cause: to roll back Iran’s hegemony.

The awkward alliance between the conservative clerics and the secular protest movement is strengthened by a common cause: to roll back Iran’s hegemony. It is no surprise that the secularists resent the Islamic Republic’s sway in the corridors of power in Baghdad, but this has also long been a thorn in the side of the marjaeya, who continue to reject Tehran’s theocratic rule. Al-Sistani and his Najaf base believe that clerics should not become active in government. They disapprove of Iran’s use of Shiite Islam to further its geopolitical goals in Iraq and the wider region. And they are angry at the Iraqi parties that bolster this alliance by using faith and sectarian identity — while furthering personal ambitions and lining their pockets from the government’s coffers.

“We are not against Iran, but we don’t want to become like Iran. We are a different color of Shiites than Iran, and we have a different approach to government here,” said Mohamed Ali Bahr al-Ulum, a senior cleric in the Najaf establishment.

The protesters also blame Iranian meddling for many of the problems in the country, a conviction only heightened by the violent crackdown by Iran-backed militias.

“That is the essence of the problem: [The ruling parties] did not follow Sistani’s idea of governing, independent from Iran. That is one of the reasons the protests started, and why we supported them,” said al-Ulum.

The marjaeya, the reform parties and activists like Mekki have pinned their hopes on gradual change. They see the October elections as a first opportunity to chip away at the old power structures.

These hopes are dampened by prospective voters: Most Tishreen protesters dismiss the idea that the ballots will deliver. That does not mean they have accepted defeat. But more than anything, they want to leave a bloody past behind.

“We want something bigger than weapons or bullets,” said Zainab. “We don’t need elections; anyone can buy votes. We need a revolution, a peaceful revolution. People need to start realizing that their situation is not going to change if they don’t change themselves.”

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