Iraq's reign of fear: Inside the violent power struggle killing Basra's activists

Iraq's reign of fear: Inside the violent power struggle killing Basra's activists
An alleged cover-up of the killing of local activists in Basra reveals how a corrupt political network in southern Iraq is ready to do anything to remain in power.
6 min read
03 September, 2020
Activists on the ground in Basra are facing a wave of assassinations. [Getty]
On 19 August, prominent Iraqi activist Riham Yaqoob was murdered on al-Tijari street in Basra by unidentified gunmen. 

Although the killers were not arrested, their destination following the shooting is well known to the police department in the city. 

The footage is very clear. From security camera recordings it is easy to trace Riham's killers after they left the crime scene and drove down the streets of Basra before entering the courtyard of a building.

"It's the former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein, and today, it's a headquarters that belongs to the Hashd al-Shaabi," an officer from the Basra police department, who wished to remain anonymous, told The New Arab

The Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, is a paramilitary group that enjoys close ties with the Iranian government. "It's all on footage, but when the investigators reported to their superiors that they had tracked the killers all the way to the palace, they were ordered to abandon their research. They were threatened to do so," the police officer claimed.

The fact that the Hashd al-Shaabi is allegedly behind the killing of Riham comes as no surprise to many in the city. For months now, there has been a power struggle in southern Iraq between political and military forces affiliated to Iran and a vibrant popular movement that took to the streets to oppose the corruption they associate with those factions. 

The killing of activists is a way for Iranian-backed militia groups to silence dissident voices that might propose an alternative to their hegemony

Silencing dissident voices

The killing of activists is seen as a way for Iranian-backed militia groups to silence dissident voices that might propose an alternative to their hegemony. "[Before], the killings were not that frequent, but now, [these groups] do not want to lose the upper hand in terms of control of society," an activist from Basra who chose to remain anonymous told The New Arab.

The Iraq Report: Anti-corruption activists assassinated
with impunity

"They want to keep the monopoly on public opinion. Their main targets are journalists and activists because they are considered the main threat to their ideology at this level"

Darem Kadhim, an activist and close friend of the late activist Riham Yaqoub, has the same views concerning the recent surge of murders. "These assassinations are increasing [...]. They take place during and after protests. [Until now], the judiciary system has not taken any action against these killings." Kadhim was also close to Tahseen Osama, another activist murdered in the same week as Riham Yaqoub. 

"Assassinations were almost non-existent until the demonstrations last October. After that, a phenomenon emerged and our office recorded eight cases of assassinations alongside seven failed attempts. The month of August alone witnessed six cases," Mahdi Al-Tamimi, the director of the Office of United Nations Human Rights Commission (OHCHR) in Basra, said.

The power struggle with Baghdad

Activists on the ground in Basra are defenceless in the wake of this assassination campaign. Although the central government has pledged to locate the murderers and bring them to justice, local institutions are all seemingly working against the victims. 

A power struggle has emerged in southern Iraq between political and military forces affiliated to Iran and a vibrant popular movement that took to the streets to oppose corruption

"The chiefs of the local intelligence department (Basra police force Col-General Rasheed Flayeh) and the military forces (Basra military operation centre Col-General Qassim Nazzal) were affiliated to the Badr Organisation, which is part of the pro-Iran axis," an officer from Basra police department told The New Arab. In order to prevent this conflict of interest, the recently elected Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who leads a transitional government, has replaced them with more reliable personnel.  

Nonetheless, the struggle is far from over. "Since the change in local security leadership, they have ordered more CCTV cameras to better monitor the streets and to maintain security during protests, but the governor of Basra, As'ad al Eidani, prevented the deal from succeeding," explained the policeman. 

The Iraq Report: Hisham al-Hashimi's killing sends a grim message to opponents of Shia militias

Political analyst Mohammad Al-Jabri provided some insight on the sensitivity of surveillance in Basra. "This major camera surveillance project has been disrupted for years. If properly used, it would have exposed and prevented many assassinations and crimes in the city. Incidents taking place in the governorate are never solved, like the assassination of journalists Ahmed Abdul-Samad and Safaa Ghali, even though their assassination took place near the Basra police headquarters."  

In a last attempt to regain security control in Basra, the prime minister ordered the deployment of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) in the city. The CTS is seen as a loyal force to the head of state and answers directly to him. Yet, this push into the stronghold of the Hashd al-Shaabi was seen as a provocation. "The arrival of the CTS brings the risk of igniting fire to the whole country," the police officer said.

I think that the assassination of Riham aims at terrorising other women that wish to reform society

While political actors keep fighting for power in the tormented province, the friends and relatives of Tahseen and Riham are still mourning their recently buried loved ones. "Riham was a distinguished woman; her club was a place for women to gather. After every exercise, girls and women were encouraged to study and other personal activities," Noor, a friend of Riham, recalls. "She used to say that it is natural for a woman to be a worker, have education and that her goal in life should not be only to get married and have children". 

"We are shocked. [Riham] worked hard to help people around her. We call on the security forces and the government to reveal who carried out the assassination and of course put an end to this suffering," Dr. Yassin Habib, the uncle of Riham Yaqoub, told The New Arab

Elections ahead

The rise in tensions is also linked to upcoming elections that will decide the composition of the next government. Many activists that rose to fame in just a few months during the anti-corruption protests are setting up a non-partisan coalition to oppose the stalemate between the traditional establishment.  

"I think that what happened in Basra is closely related to setting the date for the elections. Riham and Tahseen were part of a social project that was intending to enter the political process through the Basra Civil Youth Organization. The assassinations were a message to the rest of the protesters who intend to enter electoral lists and parties in the next stage," Muntadhar al-Karakushi, a media activist who was friends with both victims, told The New Arab

Deterring activism through violence seems to have been successful, for now. "I think that the assassination of Riham aims at terrorising other women that wish to reform society," al-Karakushi added. 

"In one of the protests, we learned that many families prevented their daughters from visiting Riham's club. I think that with the approaching elections, the street will be more heated and fuelled."

Mohammed Shiaa is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue

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