Mourners carry the coffin of Wissam Al Gharawi in Basra, Iraq. (AP)

By Track Persia

November 30, 2018

Recent months have witnessed important developments in Iraq, the rising number of assassinations of young Iraqis, mainly activists or females representing beauty models. Most of the murdered activists had taken part in protests over the lack of clean water, power cut and unemployment, particularly in Basra, Iraq’s oil capital and main port.

Those who survived assassination attempts believe the attacks are part of what they describe as a campaign of intimidation by the powerful Iranian-backed Shi’i militias.

In recent weeks, people of Basra have repeatedly taken to the streets to protests the failing government services, including water contamination that affected the health of thousands of people living in the city.

Some of the protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and torched government buildings, headquarters of pro-Iranian militias and parties and Iran’s consulate in Basra, reflecting the growing resentment over the Iranian control over the city’s affairs.

Commenting on the protests which erupted in last summer in Basra and spread into other southern areas, Iraq’s former Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi conceded that the corruption may have played a part in escalating the violence in Basra. “We need to establish if corruption has played a role in the crisis that Basra is currently encountering,” Mr Al Abadi had said in September.

The people first took to the streets after regular blackouts appeared to grow worse and, in Basra, murky water began flowing out of taps. Health authorities said tens of thousands of residents were hospitalised in the summer months for stomach illnesses.

Assassinating  a young cleric 

The recent assassination targeted a Muslim cleric Sheikh Wissam Al Gharawi who was killed outside his home ten days ago. Suspicions over his killing turn towards the powerful pro-Iran Shi’i militias in Basra because Gharawi used to demonstrate over the poor public services in the city. In a widely shared video on Iraqi social media, the cleric is shown at a protest saying that clerics would issue a fatwa within days on taking up arms.

A member of the parliamentary Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) Dr Ali Al Bayati said: “The killing of a Muslim cleric who demonstrated over poor public services in Basra undermines the pillars of democracy in Iraq.”

“Unfortunately, peaceful demonstrations in Iraq have always been accompanied by arrests of demonstrators and lawsuits against them by political parties,” said IHCHR’s Dr  Al Bayati. “Every peaceful and civilian demonstration led by a group of young activists is followed by the forceful disappearance of a number of these young people…Some of the corrupt parties that are ruling Iraq…are killing ringleaders of opposition movements [and] arresting demonstrators in the name of the law….They are firing demonstrators from their daily jobs as well as sending delegates to the demonstrations to carry out acts of sabotage and frame them for it.” Dr Al Bayati added

Killing and kidnapping civil rights activists

In September, Soad Al Ali, one of the protest organisers in Basra, was killed by a gunman. Suspicions again turned towards the pro-Iran militias. However, the Iraqi police said that her killing was over personal matter. Ms Al Ali was killed after protesters began directing their ire toward Iran, which they saw as exerting undue influence over national politics.

Dozens of activists have been killed by Iraqi security or the Shi’i militiamen since the eruption of the protests last summer. Iraq activists believe dozens of others are still being held but say it is difficult to track them.

Some activists have spoken to foreign media about their ordeals. Mahdi Salah Hassan, 26, said he had been arrested by security forces from a protest tent in early August. He said he had been handcuffed, blindfolded and initially held in a room with 33 other protesters. During three days of violent interrogation, Hassan said he was slapped on the face, hit with a cable on his feet and back and hung by the arms from the ceiling. He was then transferred to two other lockups, each holding several dozen protesters. When they released him after six days, they told him “Don’t take part in protests or you won’t see the sun,” he said. Still, he said he’ll continue to protest.

Two other activists, Ahmed al-Wihaili and Sara Talib, both 23, said they were threatened. Al-Wihaili said an anonymous caller warned him that “you only cost us the price of a bullet.”

Talib said she came home one day to find her door open and her belongings strewn across the floor. During one protest, someone approached her and told her to go home because she was putting her life in danger.

Several female activists have also spoken to foreign media about their kidnapping and intimidation by the militias. In September Hajar Youssif told AP that militiamen had kidnapped and beat her to warn her and other protestors to stop taking to the street. Youssif was kidnapped on her way home by a militiaman posing as a taxi driver. The militiamen beat her and pulled off her Islamic headscarf, she said. “At the end, they grabbed me by my hair and warned me not to take part in the protests before blindfolding me and dumping me on the streets,” she said, her cheeks still bruised.

These militias joined the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashed Al- Shaabi, which was integral to fighting Islamic State (IS) militants. Shortly after IS militants captured much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, tens of thousands of Shi’i men answered a fatwa by the top Shi’i cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Many volunteers were members of Iran-backed militias active since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, while others formed new groups. These fighters are credited with helping government forces defeat the extremists. But during the war, the militiamen were also accused by Sunnis and rights groups of abuses against the Sunni community, including killings, torture and destruction of homes.

Encouraged by the victory against the IS, many of these most feared militias formed a wider Iran-backed bloc ‘Fatah’ to take part in May general elections and won 48 seats in the 329-seat parliament. They insist on naming the ministers of the most important ministries such as the minister of interior, and this has led to the ongoing impasse of forming the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Assassinating Iraqi beauties

In addition to the assassinations of female activists, the past month has witnessed the death of a number of females in a series of assassinations known as the “assassination of Iraqi beauties”.  The targeted victims were either working in the beauty industry or they were presenting themselves as models of beauty. Two of Iraqi well-known cosmetic experts and a beauty model were killed in mysterious circumstances in the recent months.

Former Iraq’s beauty queen, Tara Fares, was also a victim of this ongoing assassination campaign. She was shot in the capital Baghdad. The Shiite militiamen are widely believed to be behind of these assassinations because the victims in their views were too liberal in a conservative society like Iraq.

A number of Iraqi activists have recalled similar events carried out by parties within Iran in the 1990s. In his article, Iyad Jamal Al-Din, a prominent Iraqi intellectual, politician and religious cleric, accuses what he calls, the supporters of wilayat al-faqih, or Iran’s Supreme Leader, of being behind these assassinations.  He refers to the series of assassinations of young Iranians in 1997 during the office of Mohammad Khatami. The bodies of the victims were usually found slaughtered, in Tehran. The suspicions turned towards Iran’s Basij, an armed militia of IRGC, according to Jamal Al-Din.

“Khomeini has been obsessed with the issue of “cultural invasion” for decades. Any Iranian writer or intellectual who advocated democracy, liberalism, civil society and secularism were considered as the soldiers of the American cultural invasion, and they must be eliminated, hence the serial killing started.” Jamal Al-Din writes.

He states: “Who knows Iran well, will know that the series of assassinations that plague Iraq these days is a repeat of the series of assassinations occurred in Tehran in 1997 to counter the American cultural invasion, in Iran.”

“Khomeini, his regime and the Islamists, in general, are well-armed, but they have no means to confront the Western cultural invasion, other than assassinating the likes of Tara Fares which they accuse of destroying ‘ethics and values’ of the ideal society!”, Jamal Al-Din added.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.