Kidnappings, killings and threats: Inside Iraq's authoritarian turn

Kidnappings, killings and threats: Inside Iraq's authoritarian turn
Comment: The Iraqi authorities' efforts to stifle freedom of expression borrow from authoritarian regimes around the world, writes Taif Alkhudary.
6 min read
26 Nov, 2019
'Security forces have launched a widespread campaign of psychological warfare against protesters' writes Alkudhary [Getty]
On 7 November, a young Iraqi protester by the name of Mary Mahmoud was kidnapped from Tahrir Square in Baghdad.

She had spent the day posting scenes from the protests on social media and distributing fuel money among tuk-tuk drivers.

While such kidnappings are a common feature of life in Iraq - part and parcel of the violence that has been unleashed against protesters by the Iraqi authorities and associated militias, the events that would follow Mary's release are indicative of growing authoritarianism in the country.

Violent crackdown

Since 1 October, Iraqis have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands demanding jobs, basic services and an end to endemic state corruption. Their demands have since become more revolutionary in vision and scope, converging around calls for an end to the post-2003 political order.

At the centre of their criticism, is the ethno-sectarian apportionment system, imposed on Iraqis by the US and politicians living in exile. This divides state wealth and power between three main sects - Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds - and enables rampant corruption and the interference of regional and western powers in internal Iraqi affairs.

Some of those kidnapped reappeared after a few days or weeks in random locations in the middle of the night, unsure where they were, or who took them

The Iraqi authorities and associated Tehran-backed militias, popularly known as Hashd al-Shaabi, have responded to the mass protests with unprecedented levels of violence. They have opened live fire on protesters, deployed snipers and used military-grade tear gas grenades as projectiles, killing over 350 people and leaving 16,000 others injured.

In addition, they have 
targeted medics and fired tear gas into hospitals, ambulances and makeshift medical tents.

Psychological warfare 

Not content with the excessive use of physical violence, security forces have also launched a widespread campaign of psychological warfare against protesters. They have carried out night-time raids, arresting protesters en masse, particularly in areas from which the most demonstrators have been drawn.

While some have vanished without a trace, others were subjected to 
torture and only released after being forced to sign pledges promising to stop participating in protests.

The security forces have also increasingly resorted to enforced disappearances as a way of creating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia among demonstrators. They have targeted medics, lawyers and journalists in particular.

Such cases often follow a similar pattern. protesters are typically stopped in public spaces by armed men wearing masks and civilian clothes, who force them into unmarked cars and take them to unknown locations.

Some of those kidnapped reappeared after a few days or weeks in random locations in the middle of the night, unsure where they were, or who took them. The fate and whereabouts of others, remains unknown.

In addition, activists and journalists have received warnings that their names would be added to blacklists if they did not stop criticising the authorities. Security forces have also infiltrated demonstrations, deliberately inciting violence and surveilling activists.

Despite constant reports of kidnappings, arrests and killings, definitive figures and exact information on the identities of those ordering attacks is difficult to come by.

This is a new phase in the way that enforced disappearances are being used in Iraq

Security forces have deliberately tried to obscure the chain of command through deploying different groups, who are often clad in civilian clothes, to attack protesters in different cities on any given day. In addition, the Iraqi authorities have systematically prevented information about human rights violations in the context of protests from getting out, including through sustained internet blackouts and the muzzling of government institutions. Most recently, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission issued warnings to five TV channels and decided to close nine others, as a direct result of their coverage of demonstrations.

Growing authoritarianism

The use of violence and psychological warfare against protesters in itself is nothing new in Iraq.

During demonstrations in Basra in 2018, Tehran-backed militias opened live fire on protesters and created a system of informants to monitor protest leaders and track and control of their movements. Similarly, the use of enforced disappearances in Iraq has existed at least since the time of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, making it the country with one of the highest numbers of missing people in the world.

However, what differentiates the reaction to protests this time round is not only the scale of the violence and intimidation being used against demonstrates, but also the fact that it is the Iraqi authorities themselves - not just Tehran-backed militias -  who have closed ranks and openly deployed excessive force against demonstrators.

This is indicative of Hashd al-Shaabi's tightening grip on the country following their success at the polls in 2018.

In addition, since the beginning of protests, intimidation and fear tactics have been increasingly used against women activists. This is not only the result of their greater participation in civic life, but also marks a new phase in the way that enforced disappearances are being used in Iraq.

Historically, the practice has largely been deployed against men and boys, in part because religious affiliation is seen to be passed down through the paternal line.

As such, it has been used by different groups as an effective tool to weed out 'unfavourable' sects at any given time. The use of enforced disappearances in the context of the current protests however is no longer largely a byproduct of sectarian rivalries, but directed at anyone who poses a threat to the status quo.

Moreover, the methods being used by the Iraqi authorities to stifle freedom of expression borrow from those deployed by authoritarian regimes around the world.

Mary's case is among the most sinister examples of this. Following her release in mid-November, the protester gave what seemed to be a coerced 
TV interview.

In it she claimed that her kidnappers had taken her for questioning to ensure that she was not being supported by foreign entities. The irony of this line of questioning cannot be overstated in a country marred by foreign interference at every level.

She ended the interview by stating that she would not be returning to protests. This is reminiscent of tactics used in despotic states, which regularly force activists to publicly deny that they have been subjected to human rights violations and force them to suspend their activism as a condition of their release.

The multi-tiered campaign of killings, kidnappings and threats launched against protesters is symptomatic of growing authoritarianism in Iraq.

All this goes to show, is that very little has changed for most Iraqis 16 years on from the fall of Saddam's dictatorship. 

Taif Alkhudary is an Iraqi-British journalist and research assistant at the LSE Middle East Centre, where she works on the post-2003 political system in Iraq.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.