Antichrist’s Men assassinate protesters with impunity

In Iraq, powerful militias assassinate protesters with impunity
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Mourners carry the body of Iraqi anti-government activist Ehab al-Wazni during his funeral at the Imam Hussein Shrine in Karbala on May 9, 2021. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD — The killings take place in public and are captured on surveillance footage. Those videos are then watched by millions. But even if the gunmen are identified, no one is prosecuted, and the cycle starts again.

Across Baghdad and southern Iraq, a rising tide of attacks on activists and journalists is alarming what remains of a protest movement that has demanded the ouster of Iraq’s U.S.-molded political system and the usually Iran-linked armed groups that prop it up.

Mass street demonstrations were crushed last year with deadly force, often by paramilitary groups that the protesters have denounced. Now as some activists prepare to run in elections, prominent figures in the protest movement are being picked off while they walk the streets or drive home at the end of the day.

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The assassinations, officials and human rights monitors say, underscore the reach of Iraq’s militia network — to punish citizens who dare to criticize it and control a political system meant to hold it accountable.

Early Sunday, videos showing the murder of one of Iraq’s best-known activists, Ehab al-Wazni, made their grim procession across millions of Iraqi cellphone and television screens. Black-and-white footage from hours earlier in the southern city of Karbala showed a gunman calmly approaching Wazni’s car. He stopped by the driver’s window, shot the activist at the wheel and ran off into the night.

Less than 24 hours later, news of another attack rippled through social media: This time the victim was in surgery after surviving a bullet to the head and shoulder. A photo posted to social media Tuesday morning showed journalist Ahmed Hasan lying in a hospital bed, his eyes closed and an oxygen mask on his face.

In Iraq, fear spreads among protesters as government cracks down

“It’s a message to us all,” said another Karbala-based activist, Saeed Askar, reached by phone after scrambling to move his family to another city overnight. “No matter what we do, the situation will always remain the same. Those death squads will always be in power.”

Iraq is experiencing a period of relative stability after decades when conflict repeatedly left ­civilians caught in the middle. In 2019, an anti-government protest movement occupied parts of Baghdad and southern cities for months as a generation raised in the shadow of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion decried the corrupt political system it had installed, as well as the influence of neighboring Iran.

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At first, the protests appeared to weaken long-standing taboos against criticism of militia groups linked to Tehran. In scenes reminiscent of the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, protesters used sandals to beat photos of militia leaders, and graffiti denounced the men as killers.

That moment did not last: Iraq’s human rights commission says it has registered 81 assassination attempts against anti-
government activists and journalists since the protests began. At least 34 have been killed, almost a third of them after the appointment of a new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power vowing justice for the slain activists.

Mounting threats are now being made against their friends and associates. Disillusionment and fear have forced many into exile. “They came to my father two weeks ago and told him my name was on their list” said one photographer, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his family’s safety in Baghdad.

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“I left Iraq and everything I love,” he said. “My work, my friends, my family. But they still came to my house.”

Activists say they now think twice about criticizing the militias publicly. Many have left social media. Others stay in what are effectively safe houses, or lie low as they move from place to place.

“Those who are carrying out these assassinations are very powerful armed actors who are beyond the control of the government,” said Belkis Wille, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The human rights situation in Iraq has really become dire when it comes to the safety and security of individuals who are openly critical.”

Iraq’s militia network, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), has a presence throughout the state. Representatives of the PMF — which encompasses groups linked to Iran as well as loyalists of powerful Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — are members of Iraq’s official security forces. They are lawmakers, cabinet members, senior civil servants and powerful business executives.

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Experts say that this diffuse power makes the militias particularly hard to tackle and that arrests or even killings — as in the case of President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate their leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad last year — have done little to change their overall power.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Kadhimi vows justice for slain protesters

In a TV interview after Wazni’s killing, Kadhimi insisted that his government was making progress. He cited arrests in the city of Basra after another journalist, Ahmed Abdulsamad, was killed in January and claimed that “tens” of militiamen were in detention.

But high-profile arrests have often been followed by quiet releases, monitors say, and none of those detained are known to have been prosecuted.

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The highest-profile assassination of all — that of prominent journalist and government adviser Hisham al-Hashimi — has not brought any arrests.

“Listen, you have to understand that their people are everywhere,” said a senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We can’t move against them easily.”

Attempts to rein in the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group backfired early in Kadhimi’s term when the arrest of 14 militiamen accused of rocket attacks on U.S. targets prompted fighters to storm Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, almost reaching the prime minister’s home.

Another group accused of targeting activists, Saraya al-Salam, is the armed wing of a political movement led by Sadr. Western officials say that Kadhimi may ally himself with the movement in an attempt to maximize his chances of reelection in the fall.

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This week, Kadhimi said he was committed to seeking justice for slain activists and praised Sadr as the “master of the resistance.”

In a video posted to Facebook a week before Wazni’s death, the activist was thronged by demonstrators as he addressed a local police chief through a megaphone. Wazni, who had already survived one assassination attempt, reminded the security official that he had been receiving death threats.

“I’ve already sent you their names,” he shouted as he jabbed the air with his finger. “If I get killed, then the police haven’t protected me.”

Wazni’s slaying has cast fresh doubt on the ability of activist candidates — already underdogs — to participate in elections scheduled for October. The holding of early elections was one of the demonstrators’ key demands.

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Another was an end to Iraq’s culture of impunity.

One party affiliated with the protest movement, Beit al-Watani, has said it will not field candidates. Others say they are still deciding.

“We demanded change in a peaceful way, but our conditions have not been met,” said Hussein al-Ghorabi, a lawyer who was a prospective candidate for Beit al-Watani. He has been unable to return to his home city of Nasiriyah since unknown assailants planted an explosive device outside his home, he said.

The explosion followed months of texts and phone calls from unknown phone numbers, warning him to keep quiet, the lawyer said. “People are getting killed; they’re getting kidnapped. If we participate in this election, then we are giving legitimacy to a government that is protecting the killers.”

Antichrist’s Sairoon slams British ambassador’s comments on elections

Sairoon slams British ambassador’s comments on elections

British ambassador to Iraq Stephen Hickey speaks to Rudaw in February. File photo: Rudaw
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ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – An Iraqi political coalition supported by the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, rejected on Tuesday recent comments by the British ambassador to Iraq, who said Iraq cannot hold free elections while activists continue to be targeted,

“All members of the diplomatic corps of all countries present in Iraq must respect Iraqi sovereignty and not interfere in Iraqi affairs,” read the Sairoon Alliance statement published to Facebook.

In an interview broadcast on Sunday on al-Arabiya, British ambassador Stephen Hickey said that Iraq will not be able to hold “fair and transparent elections” without protection for activists, who continue to be killed and threatened by Iran-backed militias.

“Without protection for activists, there will be no chance for fair and transparent elections in Iraq,” Hickey said.

“It is very necessary to have concrete measures against the armed factions and individuals responsible for the attacks against activists,” Hickey said, stressing that there is a strong Iraqi political will to confront the factions.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 10.

An Iraqi journalist was shot in the head in Diwaniyah, southern Iraq, early Monday morning, just 24 hours after prominent activist Ihab al-Wazni was assassinated in Karbala.

There have been 81 attempted assassinations of activists since the anti-government protest movement began in October 2019, according to Ali al-Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission of Human Rights. Thirty-four activists have been killed.

Iranian-backed Shiite militias are accused of being behind the killings. After Wazni’s murder, angry demonstrations took place in Karbala, Nasiriyah, and Diwaniyah. Militias supported by Sadr are among those accused of targeting activists.

Current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi came to power with a promise to meet protester demands and bring the killers to justice, but he has not been able to end the violence. Ten protesters have been killed during his time in office, according to Bayati. Another at least 80 activists are missing.

“Four investigation committees have been formed to investigate assassinations, but with no results,” Bayati said, accusing the government of being “unserious and unwilling” to reveal who are carrying out the killings.

Antichrist’s Men are destabilising Iraq’s disputed regions

Iran-backed PMFs are destabilising Iraq’s disputed regions

These groups are undermining efforts to improve Erbil-Baghdad relations and reestablish security in the north.

Kamaran Palani
On April 15, a drone laden with explosives targeted military facilities hosting US troops in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), but resulted in no casualties. On the same day, rocket fire on a Turkish military base in Mosul’s Bashiqa region killed one Turkish solider.

The attacks, attributed to pro-Iran factions based in Iraq, have been widely seen in the context of the US-Iran and Turkey-Iran rivalries in the region. However, such analysis ignores an important development linked to these incidents: the attempt of Iranian-backed paramilitaries in northern Iraq to consolidate their power in territories disputed between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The presence and growing strength of these groups have profound implications not only for the future of Baghdad-Erbil relations, but also for inter- and intra-communal relations in these ethnically-diverse regions. Since their arrival, Iran-backed paramilitaries have transformed the nature of the dispute over these territories from a conflict between two governments, to a very complex situation characterised by deep militarisation of ethno-religious and sectarian identities in Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates.

Militarisation of ethno-religious and sectarian groups

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave an opportunity to Iran to massively expand its influence on the internal affairs of its neighbour. Apart from developing a network of supporters within civilian power structures, Iran also trained and armed a number of paramilitaries, including the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah, and Saraya al-Khorasani.

With the expansion of ISIS into Iraqi territory in 2014 and the fatwa to initiate a popular mobilisation issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority among Iraqi Shia, these armed groups became part of the so-called Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMFs). They spearheaded the fight against ISIS and enjoyed quite a bit of popularity.

The PMFs arrived in the disputed areas of the north in October 2017, after they, along with regular Iraqi forces, attacked the Kurdish Peshmerga in the aftermath of the independence referendum conducted by the KRG. Although allegedly acting under orders from Baghdad in the beginning, Iran-backed PMFs have since pursued their own political and military goals.

The pro-Iranian armed groups have sought to establish themselves more permanently in Nineveh and Kirkuk thus extending the military reach Tehran has over Iraqi territory. By recruiting fighters from local communities and creating new factions, the PMFs have militarised and politicised ethno-religious and sectarian identities.

In Nineveh’s district of Hamdaniah, Telkaif and Bashiqa, they established the 30th Brigade, dominated by members of the Shabak community, an ethnic and religious minority, which follows the Twelver Shia-ism. They also set up the 53rd Brigade for Shia Turkmens in Telafar, which includes a Yazidi Lalish unit for Yazidis in Sinjar. They also created the 50th Brigade for Assyrians in Hamdaniah district.

In Sinjar in the western Nineveh province, pro-Iranian PMF factions have also supported the Sinjar Resistance Units, formed during the fight against ISIS and initially equipped and trained by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). They formally joined the PMF’s al-Nasr al-Mubeen Brigade in 2018.

In the provinces of Kirkuk, there has been a similar proliferation of local armed groups. In Taza district, the Iran-backed paramilitaries set up the 16th Brigade by arming and training local Shia Turkmens. They have also recruited Shia Turkmens for the 52nd Brigade. The pro-Iran PMFs have also tried to create a faction for the Kaka’i community, a religious Kurdish-speaking minority based in Daquq and Kirkuk, but have not been fully successful yet.

Other political and military forces, including the KRG, armed groups associated with Sistani and Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and some local Sunni politicians, have also tried to establish and support their own factions in the disputed territories.

Apart from gaining influence over local communities through military presence and recruitment, pro-Iranian PMFs have deployed shadow administrations, building security, social, political and economic structures that rival and undermine formal ones. They have engaged in not only the control of the movement of people and goods but also in “taxing” local businesses. They have also gotten involved in religious affairs, controlling Sunni religious sites and endowments and supporting newly created Shia endowments.

These activities by the pro-Iranian groups have exacerbated intra- and inter-communal tensions. For example, in Kirkuk city, Sunni Turkmens outnumber Shia Turkmens, but backing from the PMFs has emboldened Shia Turkmens, who have become more politically assertive. This may lead to new intra-Turkman fractures as the Shia consolidate power in the centre of Kirkuk. A similar dynamic is playing out in the district of Telafar among Turkmens.

Among the Yazidis, intra-communal divisions are also growing deeper. Areas that fall under the influence of pro-Iranian PMFs and the PKK have challenged the traditional power structures of the community. This was reflected in the tensions over the election of a new Yazidi leader after the passing of Tahsin Said Beg in 2019.

In July that year, following months of debate that reflected deep internal divisions within the community, Yazidis in Sheikhan, backed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, appointed his son, Hazim Tahsin Beg, as the new prince. In response, PKK and PMF-affiliated Yazidis in Sinjar threatened something akin to secession, vowing to appoint a leader of their own choosing.

Undermining government power

The dispute between Baghdad and KRG over territories goes back to the constitution-drafting process initiated after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a result of the 2003 US invasion. The constitution outlined the borders of the semi-autonomous KRI, but left the status of the province of Kirkuk and many districts of Nineveh, Salahaddin and Diyala, where Kurdish communities live, unresolved. Referendums to decide on the fate of these disputed territories were never carried out.

Throughout the years, this dispute has been complicated by a number of factors, including disagreements over budget and persistent insecurity. The presence of Iran-backed PMFs, however, has put more strain on Baghdad-Erbil relations and directly undermined efforts to make progress on this key issue.

When Adel Abdul Mahdi headed the Iraqi government in 2018, there was a renewed push to resolve disputes with the KRG. The central government negotiated with Erbil the creation of joint coordination centres in many areas in Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces. But Iran-backed PMFs actively sought to undermine these efforts.

In October 2019, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior and the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga reached a final agreement to create five joint coordination centres in Kirkuk, Mosul, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Kask. Days later, the Ministry of the Interior, under the influence of PMFs, reneged on the agreement. Under the current government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, only two such centres in Baghdad and Erbil have been created.

Iran-backed paramilitary groups also tried to sabotage the Sinjar Agreement, signed in October 2020 between Erbil and Baghdad with the support of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. The deal was meant to jumpstart the stabilisation process for Sinjar by addressing two key issues: the existence of multiple armed actors and two rival administrations for the district. But seven months on, no progress has been made on the ground to implement the agreement.

Some have attributed the failure of the agreement to the lack of engagement and inclusion of all sectors of Sinjar and Yazidi society. The truth, however, is that the major barrier is the Iranian-backed militias’ rejection of the essence of the agreement – the establishment of government monopoly over the use of force – and refusal to withdraw.

It is not in the interest of pro-Iran groups for the KRG and the central Iraqi government to re-establish control over Sinjar because they stand to lose not only politically, but also economically. PMFs present in Sinjar directly profit from cross-border smuggling by imposing a taxation system on imports from Syria including animals, agricultural products, etc.

The recent attacks against US and Turkish forces are likely a result of the Iran-backed groups’ intransigence in the face of growing pressure for them to withdraw from the north and west of the country. There is also growing anxiety among them that their popularity is shrinking – something that became apparent during the popular anti-government protests in 2019-2020 in Baghdad and Shia-majority cities of the south.

The Iran-backed PMFs are, therefore, desperately looking for “new enemies” in the face of US-allied KRG and Turkey in order to continue justifying their presence in the disputed regions and sustain the current security and power structure.

By undermining efforts to conclude and implement agreements between Erbil and Baghdad on the disputed areas, the Iran-backed armed groups are precluding the re-establishment of strong civilian power centres that could pave the way for stabilisation and reconstruction of these areas. This corresponds with Iran’s overall strategy for Iraq – to keep it in a constant state of uncertainty, with weak state institutions and control.

As long as the Iraqi government is unable to rein in these powerful non-state actors, it will not be able to steer the country towards stability and socio-economic development. Their continuous presence in disputed areas is causing tensions that in the near future could result in renewed conflict.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Iraq’s biggest pro-vax influencer: Antichrist

Iraq’s biggest pro-vax influencer: Muqtada al-Sadr

WaPo May 07, 2021 6:00 PM ET
The image of influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with his robe unbuttoned and receiving the coronavirus vaccination has boosted sluggish efforts to halt the virus here, encouraging Iraqis to get their dose amid widespread skepticism. Two months after Iraq received its first doses, the number of daily vaccinations has slowed to a trickle even as infections rise and doctors implore citizens to protect themselves. The cleric’s intervention prompted hundreds of his followers to line hospital corridors in search of their own vaccinations — and the visibility of even this small increase underscored just how troubled Iraq’s vaccination effort has become. “I’d decided not to take the vaccine after hearing so many rumors about how it might change my genetics. But when I saw our commander getting it, I realized I’d been wrong,” said Fadhil Abbas, sitting at home in Baghdad’s Sadr City, a hub of support for the cleric.

Vaccination of Antichrist blow to Iraq’s vaccine hesitancy

Vaccination of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr blow to Iraq’s vaccine hesitancy

May 6, 2021 at 5:13 a.m. MDT

BAGHDAD — The image of influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with his robe unbuttoned and receiving the coronavirus vaccination has boosted sluggish efforts to halt the virus here, encouraging Iraqis to get their dose amid widespread skepticism.

Two months after Iraq received its first doses, the number of daily vaccinations has slowed to a trickle even as infections rise and doctors implore citizens to protect themselves.© 1996-2021 The Washington Post

Antichrist’s Public COVID Vaccination Prompting Others to Follow Suit

Iraqi Shiite Cleric’s Public COVID Vaccination Prompting Others to Follow Suit

By Julia Marnin On 5/5/21 at 11:15 AM EDT

An Iraqi Shiite cleric’s public COVID-19 vaccination has caused hundreds of his followers to head to clinics to get vaccinated, as fear and rumors have stunted Iraq’s vaccine rollout among a second wave of infections, the Associated Press reported.

Public images of populist Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr getting vaccinated last week circulating online has prompted many to put aside their distrust of the Iraqi government, which called for its citizens to get vaccinated.

“I was against the idea of being vaccinated. I was afraid, I didn’t believe in it,” Manhil Alshabli, 30, told the AP. “But all this has changed now.”

“Seeing him getting the vaccine has motivated me,” Alshabli added and compared watching al-Sadr get vaccinated as soldiers watching their leader in the front lines of a battle.

After al-Sadr received his shot, those loyal to him launched a vaccination campaign and urged others to do the same while posting photos of themselves holding posters of al-Sadr as they received their vaccines.

Many of al-Sadr’s followers, including Alshabli, received their vaccinations in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, and daily rates of infections decreased last week.

Iraq’s Health Ministry shared the photo of al-Sadr getting vaccinated on its Facebook page as a post of encouragement.

The Health Ministry has encouraged that the vaccines are safe, but many Iraqis do not trust the nation’s healthcare system. Out of Iraq’s population of 40 million, fewer than 380,000 citizens have been vaccinated against the virus.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr
Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (R) drives a car as he joins anti-government demonstrators gathering in the central holy city of Najaf on October 29, 2019. After photos of al-Sadr getting vaccinated last week circulated, it prompted hundreds of his followers to follow suit, the Associated Press reported. Haidar Hamdani/AFP via Getty Images
Al-Sadr followers becoming vaccinated underscores the power of sectarian loyalties in Iraq and a deep mistrust of the state.

New case numbers spiked to over 8,000 per day last month, the highest they have ever been. The surge was driven largely by public apathy toward the virus. Many routinely flout virus-related restrictions, refusing to wear face masks and continuing to hold large public gatherings.

5,068 new cases were reported on Monday.

Iraq’s centralized system, largely unchanged since the 1970s, has been ground down by decades of war, sanctions and prolonged unrest since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Successive governments have invested little in the sector.

Many avoid going to public hospitals altogether. Last month, a massive blaze tore through the coronavirus ward in a Baghdad hospital, killing more than 80 people and injuring dozens. Iraq’s Health Minister Hasan al-Tamimi was suspended for alleged negligence, and resigned Tuesday over the incident.

Faris Al-Lami, assistant professor of community medicine at the University of Baghdad, said the government is widely viewed as corrupt and that its actions since the start of the pandemic only deepened the public’s mistrust.

He cited certain early practices, such as using security forces to take patients from their homes as if they were criminals, and holding up the burials of those who died of the virus for several weeks.

Al-Lami also pointed to what he said are current problematic policies. For example, he said high-risk patients, such as those with chronic or immunodeficiency diseases, have to wait inside hospitals to get their shots, putting them at high risk of infection. Meanwhile, people with personal connections can get them easily.

He said it’s a positive development when the vaccination of a political or religious figure encourages people to get their shots. “But the ideology that is based upon blindly following anyone’s decision is a disaster in itself,” he said.

Iraq received 336,000 new doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in late March and Iraqis above the age of 18 are qualified to get the jab. Last month, the first shipment of Pfizer doses arrived in the country, with 49,000 shots.

“All the vaccines that arrived in Iraq are safe and effective … but until this moment, there are some citizens who are afraid of taking the vaccine as a result of malicious rumors,” said Ruba Hassan, a Health Ministry official.

The Health Ministry has introduced measures to push Iraqis to get the shots. They include travel restrictions for those unable to produce a vaccination card and dismissals of employees at shops, malls and restaurants. While the measures have led more people to seek out vaccinations, they have also confused and angered a still largely reticent public.

Restaurant owners said they were blindsided by the measures, uncertain if it meant they would face closure if they refused them.

“There is no clear law to follow,” said Rami Amir, 30, who owns a fast food restaurant in Baghdad. “I don’t want all my staff to be vaccinated because they might have severe side effects or complications,” he said, echoing widespread skepticism.

Omer Mohammed, another restaurant owner, said applicants for a new job at his eatery dropped out when he said vaccination cards were a necessary prerequisite.

Medical professionals were prioritized to receive the vaccine and were able to pre-register in January when Iraq received its first shipment of 50,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.

When recent medical school graduate Mohammed al-Sudani, 24, went to get vaccinated this month he said the process was “bittersweet.” He showed up with no previous registration for the AstraZeneca vaccine. He didn’t need it. There was barely anyone there.

The next week he brought two of his aunts to the same center. There were only two other people in the waiting room.

“The nurse came in and asked them to call their relatives and friends to come to raise the number to at least 10 people because the jabs inside the vaccine kits were only valid for 6 hours,” he said.

It was a different scene in hospitals that carry Pfizer shots. Tabark Rashad, 27, headed to Baghdad’s al-Kindi hospital last week. The waiting room was crowded with dozens of people, sparking infection concerns.

“I went to protect myself against COVID-19, not get it in this room,” she said. “It was chaos.”

A follower of Muqtada al-Sadr
A follower of populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr holds a picture of him while receiving a dose of the Chinese Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 4, 2021. Iraq’s vaccine rollout had been faltering for weeks. Apathy, fear and rumors kept many from getting vaccinated despite a serious surge in coronavirus infections and calls by the government for people to register for shots. It took al-Sadr’s public endorsement of vaccinations — and images of him getting the shot — to turn things around. Hadi Mizban/AP Photo

‘No hope in this country’: Iraq’s activists in Antichrist’s crosshairs

‘No hope in this country’: Iraq’s activists in Sadr’s crosshairs

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.

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?

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.”

‘Total impunity’

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.

Antichrist and America move closer in Iraq

Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and America move closer in Iraq

Two former foes find their interests converging. For how long?

May 1st 2021

IRAQ’S HEALTH ministry did not think to install smoke detectors or a sprinkler system when it renovated the Ibn al-Khatib hospital in Baghdad last year. So when oxygen tanks for covid-19 patients exploded on April 24th, the fire spread fast, killing at least 82 people. The blaze also singed the reputation of Muqtada al-Sadr (pictured), the volatile Shia cleric whose political party, Sairoun, controls the ministry. Rivals accuse him of siphoning funds that should have gone to the hospital.

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Mr Sadr’s evolution from warlord to protest leader to pillar of the establishment has been remarkable. Having once led demonstrations against corruption, he is now the target of them. And his relationship with the public is not the only one transformed. As his power has grown, his interests have changed. Lately that has moved him closer to America, a former foe.

Saddam Hussein was “the little serpent”, but America “is the big serpent”, said Mr Sadr not long after America toppled Iraq’s most homicidal dictator in 2003. During the ensuing years Mr Sadr’s militiamen attacked the American troops who occupied Iraq, killing hundreds of them. But today, as America draws down its forces (only 2,500 remain), Iran poses a bigger challenge to Iraq’s independence. It wields influence through local militias and the politicians it backs. America sees Iran as a threat and, increasingly, so does Mr Sadr.

The cleric’s relationship with Iran is complicated. He has spent years of his life in Qom, Iran’s holiest city, studying and seeking protection from armed rivals in Iraq. Iran has at times seen him as a useful ally. But he has also championed Iraqi nationalism. When protests against corruption and Iranian influence broke out in Iraq in 2019, Mr Sadr’s forces backed them—at least at first. When it seemed as if the protesters sought to sweep him aside as well, his forces helped violently to quash the protests. Some Iraqi officials hold Iran responsible for a drone attack on Mr Sadr’s home in 2019.

Mr Sadr seems to view Iranian influence in Iraq as a threat to his own power. That helps explain why he recently welcomed a statement by the American and Iraqi governments reaffirming the presence of American forces in Iraq. He also denounced rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias on America’s embassy in Baghdad and on an airfield in the north used by American forces. He has even offered to deploy his own militia, the Peace Companies, to guard Western embassies. Iraq’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, America’s allies and Iran’s enemies, should be strengthened, he says.

Mr Sadr rejects direct talks with America, but they share many interests. Both backed Daewoo, a South Korean conglomerate, in its bid for a multi-billion-dollar contract to develop the port of Faw in the south-east. It beat a Chinese firm supported by a rival Shia militia leader. Mr Sadr is also mulling an electoral pact with Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians who are close to America. He already lends his support to Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the prime minister, who is backed by America and who has tried to limit Iranian influence. Mr Kadhimi has faced opposition from Iranian-backed parties. But Sairoun, which is the largest party in parliament, protects him from a vote of no confidence.

“Iraq is in chaos, Iran is filling the vacuum and Sadr’s is the only strong force that can resist,” says an Iraqi official. Some in the West agree. Mr Sadr was spared when America placed sanctions on Iraqi militia leaders with ties to Iran in 2019. Under President Donald Trump, American officials tried to engage the Sadrists through Iraq’s ambassador in Britain, who is Mr Sadr’s brother-in-law. President Joe Biden is still formulating his Iraq policy and may seek to ease tensions with Iran. But some in the administration are encouraging America’s political allies in Iraq to align with Mr Sadr before an election in October. “Ride Sadr while you destroy the Iranian-backed elements, and then in eight years think again,” says a Western analyst.

Others think that would be a mistake. “You can’t trust him,” says one of the protesters whom Mr Sadr turned against. The loudest warnings come from Mr Sadr’s former confidants. Sheikh Assad al-Nassiri, a cleric now in hiding, thinks Mr Sadr’s aim is to capture the state. Ghaith al-Tamimi, a cleric who was defrocked for disobedience to Mr Sadr, says Western backing for him would be “a monumental strategic blunder”. He worries that “it will end democracy in Iraq and surrender the country to a dictator worse than Saddam Hussein.” ■

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The enemy of my enemy”

Antichrist Accuses Parties of Undermining Security in IraqBaghdad – Asharq Al-Awsat

Sadr Accuses Parties of Undermining Security in Iraq
Baghdad – Asharq Al-Awsat

A number of outlaw militias continue to launch missiles in Iraq, especially targeting the Green Zone, trying to threaten security in the country to delay or prevent elections and prolong the US troops’ presence, according to the leader of Sadrist movement.

Muqtada al-Sadr pointed out in his last tweet that no one knows if these are the same groups that launched attacks in the past or new parties are now involved in the incidents.

He indicated that the attackers want to prove the effectiveness of their missiles and their ability to attack farther targets.

The aim of the launch is not to hit the target, because that would completely change the rules of engagement. Rather, the goal is to remind the target of their existence, according to Sadr.

The only time armed factions were able to approach the US embassy in the heart of Baghdad, was at the end of 2019 when they tried to storm the Green Zone.

In response, the US launched a drone attack against the commander of al-Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad airport. The missile also killed the leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was receiving Soleimani.

Sadr accused some parties of wanting to disturb the security for many reasons, notably delaying or canceling the elections, and prolonging the presence of the occupying forces.

He called for a comprehensive peace without weapons or violence and foreign agendas, indicating that “Iraq needs peace.”

The presence of US troops for another period justifies the presence of the militia, which usually launches a few missiles now and then.

MP of Saeroon, of the Sadrist movement, Salam al-Shammari, confirmed the movement and the bloc’s refusal to make Iraq an arena for settling regional and international scores.

Shammari asserted that the Iraqi people want to live in peace and security, stressing the need for diplomacy to highlight the role of Iraq as an effective force, without allowing any state to interfere in its domestic affairs.

What Will The Antichrist Do To Get Washington’s Backing?

What Will Iraq’s Sadr Do To Get Washington’s Backing?- Analysis

Al Bawaba NewsApril 19, 2021

Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr. Photo Credit: Tasnim News Agency.

Informed Iraqi sources said that the Sadrist movement has begun to prepare for the upcoming Iraqi elections and that it will present itself to the US as a “moderate” movement and the best option in the Iraqi Shia community.

The sources told The Arab Weekly that the Shia political spectrum is now divided between the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Forces, accused by the US of responsibility for attacks targeting its forces in Iraq; the Dawa Party, which is internally splintered and the remnants of smaller formations, such as the Al-Hikma groups.

In this context, the Sadrist movement finds itself to be the strongest and most influential political faction, despite the fact that many forces within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) were originally offshoots of the Sadrist movement.

An Iraqi source familiar with the movement’s internal discussions said, “The time for propaganda against American occupation is gone after the Sadrist movement had a taste of power. It has benefited from the quota system through the appointment of cabinet members in various positions and subsequently gained a level of influence within Iraqi state institutions that is similar to that wielded by the Dawa Party.”

He added that, “The leader of the movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, realises that the options of the United States are limited. There is no way to deal with the PMF, which is almost completely under the thumb of the Iranian Quds Force, nor with the Dawa Party, whose fortunes are eroding and which stands accused by many of its followers of corruption, nor with the smaller Shia groups that enjoy more popularity in the media than among political activists. The Sadrist movement has become the ‘moderate tendency’ despite all that happened during the past few years.”

On Monday, Iraqi President Barham Salih signed a decree to hold early elections on October 10.

Despite the endeavours of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to co-opt a large segment of the Shia electorate within the civil state, the Sadrist movement is betting on its popularity among the poor in major popular neighbourhoods of Baghdad, in addition to segments of the population in the central Euphrates and southern Iraq regions that are dissatisfied with the government.

Kadhimi has yet to flesh out his personal political plan even though time is running out for him.

It is unclear whether he will enter the election race as a separate political movement or whether Iran will allow him to operate politically outside the Shia grouping that is loyal to Tehran. This is especially so because the Iranians consider him to be close to Washington and to the West and hold him responsible for opening the door for the return to Iraq of the pan-Arabist policies.

The Kadhimi government has vowed to ensure “a fair voting election process under international supervision, far from the influence of arms,” but it would be difficult for the PMF militias to leave the scene without putting up a struggle.

The position of the Sadrist movement in relation to the political system in Iraq has evolved from attacking it for lack of legitimacy, when not prohibiting it altogether, to infiltrating Iraqi state institutions, the army and security services and exerting partial control over the powers of the prime minister.

The United States does not seem totally opposed to the option of backing to Sadr, as long as he is able to curtail the domination of the Popular Mobilisation Forces over the state, or confront Kadhimi’s reluctance to thwart the PMF’s daily challenge to the authorities in line with the Iranian policy of targeting US forces in Iraq with “light” strikes that do not provoke President Joe Biden’s administration and push it to a tough response against Iran or its militias.

Sadr often tries to suggest that he is outside the Iranian orbit in Iraq and that he deals with Tehran as an equal.

He stresses also that his late father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, saw himself as an Arab standing up to Iran’s hegemony over the supreme Shia authority of Iraq and whoever assumed it.

With the elections approaching, Nuri al-Maliki, who heads the State of Law coalition, is seeking to flirt with Sadr and bring him into the fold of Iran’s allies, minimising his differences with the populist leader.

Maliki said, “my hand is extended to whomever wants to reconcile with me, and I do not want disputes, and I do not want the continuation of the dispute, neither with Muqtada al-Sadr nor with anyone else,” denying “the existence of mediation for reconciliation with Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr.”

Iraqi observers believe that Sadr may achieve good results in the upcoming elections by billing himself a “moderate” and keeping his distance from Iran. But he will nevertheless remain part of the “Tehran system” which controls the Iraqi scene and uses it regionally for its own purposes.

Iraqi political analyst and writer Mustafa Kamel, believes, “Sadr is Iran’s most dangerous agent in Iraq (…) and the role assigned to him is limited to reshuffling cards and providing a lifeline to the political system, and this is the secret of his fluctuating positions and wavering between right and left.”

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Kamel added that Sadr might win the elections “not because he enjoys support among the Iraqis, as he is widely rejected by them,  but because overt and covert bargaining, influence-peddling and foreign interferences might push him to the fore”.

He pointed out that, during the past few years, Arab efforts have been devoted to polishing Sadr’s image but he has failed to play a national leadership role as he quickly reverted to his usual sectarian and chaotic course.