Hassan Maher holds up an Iraqi flag at an anti-government protest in Nasiriyah. Photo: courtesy of Hassan Maher
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Danger knocks on the doors in southern Iraq where activists say they continue to be threatened by Iranian-backed militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) for speaking out against the powerful groups.
Hassan Maher, who once played on Iraq’s national wheelchair basketball team, likes to call his Nasiriyah home Hassan Basketball. But a few days ago, his house was raided by Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), an armed group run by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It was a “terrifying” night, he told Rudaw English.
Eight cars carrying masked armed men surrounded his home on Wednesday night, their movement caught on surveillance cameras. Maher was not home. He had already fled several months earlier after receiving threats from the militias.
Maher, 25, who lives with a disability, joined anti-government protests when they began in October 2019. Thousands of people, mainly young, took over streets and squares in cities across southern Iraq, demanding improved government services and an end to corruption.
The protest movement brought down the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, but lost steam during the coronavirus pandemic. Small protests continue today. They no longer attract the massive crowds that came out in 2019, but they do draw the ire of the militias.
In November 2020, Maher was an eyewitness to bloody clashes between the Sadrist militia and protesters in Nasiriyah’s Habboubi Square.
“I started publishing videos documenting the Sadrists’ raid on Habboubi Square at the time, and I started receiving threats from various militias, including Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. But most of the threats were from the Sadrist militia,” Maher said.
He did not leave Nasiriyah despite the threats and continued to protest. But in December, the police stormed his house. Maher, by chance, was not there.
“I learned later that the accusation against me was setting fire to the provincial headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Nasiriyah and that the arrest warrant issued against me is based on Iraq’s counter-terrorism law,” said Maher.
After the raid, he fled the city and has not returned.
Hassan Maher when he played on Iraq’s national wheelchair basketball team. Photo: courtesy of Hassan Maher
He attracted the militia’s attention again this month with a social media post. On Saturday night, fire tore through Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib hospital, killing more than 100 people. The tragedy sparked anger across Iraq, much of it directed at the health minister, Hassan al-Tamimi, who has ties to the Sadrists. Maher joined calls for his dismissal.
“I was angry, so I wrote: Will the son of a bitch tweet?” Maher said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, cigarette between his fingers.
He believes this post was the reason for the Wednesday raid on his Nasiriyah home.
The gunmen threatened his brother and mother, saying they would “blow up the house on their heads” if Maher did not stop posting about Sadrists and their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr.
“I told my mother to submit an official request to the Nasiriyah court to disavow me, so that the Sadrists won’t kill her,” Maher said, his voice cracking.
Maher is now unemployed, living with friends and unsure of what lies in his future.
“If I write something about Muqtada al-Sadr, directly or indirectly, they will kill my mother. I no longer have hope in this country,” he said.
Muqtada al-Sadr was born in Iraq’s holy city Najaf on August 12, 1973 to a conservative Shiite family. His father, the Shiite leader Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was assassinated in February 1999, along with two of his sons. Sadr married in 1993, to the daughter of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a Shiite philosopher.
He rose to prominence after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, when he established the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that was involved in violent confrontations with US forces and sectarian clashes with Sunnis. He denounced the post-Baathist government of Iyad Allawi, formed in June 2004, as “illegal,” and launched a campaign of violence against the government.
In 2008, Sadr ordered his militia to suspend activities.
He reformed a militia, branded the Peace Brigades, after the 2014 rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS), calling on his fighters to defend shrines, mosques, and churches, in coordination with the government and to avoid fighting a “dirty” war.
Sadr is also influential in the political sphere, forming and leading the Sadrist movement, which is one of the most prominent Shiite political organizations. In the 2018 elections, Sadr’s Sairoon alliance won the most seats. Though he did not run for office himself, his electoral victory made him kingmaker in government-formation talks.
Sadr was a vocal supporter of reform and anti-corruption campaigns for years. When the protests broke out in October 2019, he sent members of his Saraya al-Salam militia to protect demonstrators. But a few months later, he changed his position and his forces became involved in suppression of the protests.
Sadr is known for his contradictory positions. In February, his spokesperson called protesters “Baathists and Daesh [ISIS].” And last week, he tweeted saying Iraq needs peace and called for outlawing militias.
“Sadr does not seek to change the current system but to dominate it,” said Bilal Wahab, Wagner fellow at the Washington Institute. “That public support, moreover, grants him greater autonomy from Iran, unlike his main political rivals. In short, he is pro-reform and pro-protests as long as they are his initiatives.”
The Saraya al-Salam militia is officially part of the PMF (known in Arabic as the Hashd al-Shaabi). They are accused of using threatening tactics against activists and dissenters elsewhere in Iraq.
In Diwaniyah province, Hussam al-Karaawi, a former member of Saraya al-Salam who defected after the October protests, said the militia raided his home. He posted a video on Facebook last Sunday purportedly showing Saraya al–Salam cars surrounding his house the night before, threatening him and terrifying his family.
“Where is the police chief? Where are the changes and reform Muqtada talks about? I want protection. They are threatening my house now. This is terrorism,” Karaawi said in the video.
In other videos he published on social media, Karaawi is seen talking about corruption in Diwaniyah Health Department, controlled by Sadrists.
In Najaf, activists say militiamen raided their homes in February, a day after protesters chanted slogans criticizing Sadr on the one year anniversary of the killing of tens of people by the cleric’s supporters.
Militiamen stormed the homes of four activists, terrorizing them and their families, according to Najaf activist Saif al-Mansoori.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has promised accountability for the violence, but has made little progress so far.
“Of great concern is the continued targeting and killing of activists and human rights defenders,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, head of the United Nations mission in Iraq, releasing a report into violence against protesters last August. “This is not random violence by a deliberate silencing of peaceful voices, coupled with the total impunity enjoyed by perpetrators.”
An annual human rights report released by the US State Department in January accused the Iraqi government of negligence in protecting its citizens and failing to take serious action against Iran-backed militias that are “engaged in killing, kidnapping, and extortion throughout the country.”
“Baghdad did not keep a tight grip on security forces,” the report added.