Forces opposed to the protests in Iraq appear to have stepped up operations to kill protest activists and journalists covering the demonstrations following the escalation of the crisis between the United States and Iran in Iraq.
Hundreds of protesters have been reported killed since the protests began in early October. But there has been a subset of killings that has targeted protest activists who have been raising funds, providing ambulance services and mobilizing demonstrators. Journalists providing the public with information about the protests also have been killed in an apparent bid to curtail coverage.
Protesters called for massive Jan. 10 demonstrations, and that day, Dijlah TV correspondent Ahmad Abdul Samad and photographer Safa Ghali were shot dead in the center of Basra city during their coverage of the protests. Armed men shot them from a close distance and ran away immediately.
The US Embassy in Baghdad strongly denounced the "deplorable and cowardly assassination" of the two Dijlah TV journalists and called upon the Iraqi government to undertake a serious investigation and punish the perpetrators.
However, it is most likely that no such investigation will take place and that there will be no resolution, as has been the case in previous killings, amid high suspicion about the involvement of Iran-backed militias in these crimes. Iraqi authorities have not identified the groups carrying out the killings of activists. The speeches of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and various security officials have avoided mentioning these attacks.
On Jan. 4, a protest activist was killed by gunmen riding a motorcycle near Sadr City. Three days earlier, an activist was killed by unidentified gunmen southwest of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. On Dec. 22, activist Hassan Abdul Mohsen al-Bahadli survived an assassination attempt by unidentified gunmen who fired four bullets at his car; Bahadli has been recovering in the hospital since.
On Dec. 20, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in his sermon delivered by his official representative Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, lamented the killings of the activists. But his sermon and his constant assertion of the need to preserve the lives of activists has not prevented attacks from being carried out. Indeed, those responsible remain unknown to the public and seem to be able to move about easily and commit attacks whenever they please.
Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 24, 26 people playing active logistical and other important roles in the protests were killed, while three survived attempts to kill them, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
Half of the 26 were killed in Baghdad; the other deaths took place in a number of southern provinces.
While civil society activists thought worst-case scenarios could include arrests, kidnappings and threats, they were shocked when groups opposing the protests decided to resort to targeted killings.
Rights commission member Hemn Bajalan told Al-Monitor, “The activist killings in Baghdad and the southern provinces indicate that there are armed groups that are not affiliated with the government trying to abort the protest movement in Iraq, and we at the commission have pointed out that the killings affect field activists in the protest movement.”
He added that the rights commission, which has limited powers, is “working to pressure the government to identify perpetrators and we think that several parties are behind these attacks. We believe protesters are in great danger and the government should work to protect them and hold perpetrators accountable.”
On Dec. 20, activist Ali Asmi was killed in Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq, but he apparently was not the intended target. His brother, Salam Asmi, said the killers were after him, and addressed those responsible later that day, saying, “The person you killed was my little brother, not me. He was going to get married in a few months.”
The targeted killings have caused great terror among the protesters, some of whom found themselves forced to never return to their homes, especially those who protest in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad. They have often spoken of great worries about being followed by armed groups.
Bassel Hussein, a consultant for the Iraqi Center for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “I believe the process of killing protesters and activists has entered a new phase of direct, selective targeting of specific civilian activists for several reasons. Perhaps the most important of which is related to whether these protesters are dynamically active and have the ability to mobilize others, or are intellectually active and are able to influence and educate the demonstrators.”
He said, “The government has fallen short ever since the protests first started." He added, "Accusations have been made against government agencies that they either intentionally failed, or colluded, or participated in the crackdown on demonstrators.”
In previous protest in Iraq, the risks associated with demonstrating were being threatened or kidnapped — with the exception of one incident in 2011, where activist Hadi al-Mahdi was killed in Baghdad. He had been leading protests against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.