Rest in Power: Reham Yacoub's assassination casts its long shadow over Iraq

Rest in Power: Reham Yacoub's assassination casts its long shadow over Iraq
Comment: Reham Yacoub's assassination is evidence of an increasingly restricted space for free speech and protest in Iraq, write Taif Alkhudary and Hayder Al-Shakeri.
6 min read
'As an outspoken woman, Yacoub posed a threat to those in power' [Twitter]
Last week, Reham Yacoub, an Iraqi civil activist who has been vocal in the Iraqi protest movement, was assassinated in Basra City, southern Baghdad.

She was attacked in her car by gunmen on motorcycles carrying assault rifles. Her assassination is part of a worrying trend of assassinations of activists across Iraq, and specifically Basra. This is not only indicative of a rigorous campaign of repression in Basra since 2018, but also the rapid shrinking of civil space across Iraq. 

Yacoub was an outspoken woman human rights defender. She established a gym for women in Basra, a space that is usually off limits to women in the conservative southern city. She also established "The Pride of My City" initiative in 2015, encouraging women to go "free walking" around Basra.

In addition, she has participated in protests in Basra since at least 2018, with 
videos circulating on social media depicting her passionate rebuke of the Iraqi government for its failure to provide basic services to its citizens. 

Basra protests 

Basra, home to over 70 percent of Iraq's oil reserves, is the most resource rich city in the country. Despite this, it suffers from a severe lack of basic services, which over the years has made it a hotspot for anti-government protests.

In 2018, for example, 
over 118,000 people were hospitalised for water related illnesses due to the contamination of the city's main water source. In addition, chronic shortages of electricity against a backdrop of rising global temperatures, have ignited a regular cycle of demonstrations against the systemic government corruption which prevents Iraqi authorities from providing even the most basic of services to its citizens. 

This is not only indicative of a rigorous campaign of repression in Basra since 2018, but also the rapid shrinking of civil space across Iraq

While anti-government demonstrations have been prevalent across Iraq since 2009, the mass demonstrations that began in Basra in August 2015 were among the most significant. The protests initially erupted in the context of electricity shortages and against a lack of public services, but quickly developed a critique of financial and administrative government corruption and the ethno-sectarian apportionment system. 

After a protester by the name of
Muntadhar Ali Ghani al-Hilifi was shot dead in the city, the demonstrations spread across the country with one million people taking to the streets of Baghdad in September of that very year. 

Against the backdrop of the water crisis, Basra was once again a hotbed for protests in the summer of 2018. This time, along with the usual calls for basic services, protesters also called for an end to Iranian influence, after Iran - which at the time provided 1,200 megawatts of electricity to the city - decreased its supply.

Armed groups, including government affiliated militias used excessive and indiscriminate force against protesters leaving many dead or with life threatening injuries. Concurrently, protesters burned down government buildings, political party offices, buildings associated with militia groups and the Iranian consulate. 

In response to the widespread violence that Basra saw in 2018,  a new strategic model of repression was developed in the city to limit civil society activity and demonstrations. At the heart of this new model was the assassination of key activists and the use of arrests and threats against others, leading many to flee the city, or even Iraq altogether. 

This became clear as protests erupted in Baghdad on October 1, 2019 and began to slowly filter through to Basra with protesters occupying squares across the city and bringing key oil infrastructure to a halt.

Read more: Without accountability, al-Hashimi's assassination will not be the last

The first well-known activists to be assassinated during this period were Hussein Adel Madani and Sara Madani, who were 
killed by masked gunmen who stormed their home in the middle of the night and shot them as they were sleeping with their two-year old daughter next to them. 

Since then, this pattern of assassinations against key activists seems to have repeated itself across the country. Last month Iraqi analyst and political commentator, Hisham Al-Hashimi was assassinated by armed men on motorbikes outside his home in Baghdad. 

On August 14, masked gunmen shot and killed Basrawi activist Tahseen Osama who had been active in the latest wave of protests. Finally, on August 17, an 
unsuccessful assassination attempt was carried out against three other activists in Basra, including civil society activists Fahd Al-Zubaidi and Abbas Subhi, who had also been recently involved in protests, and Lodya Remon Albarti, the Basra coordinator for the Iraqi Social Forum.

In this grim context, Yacoub's assassination makes her only the latest in a longline of activists who have lost their lives for demanding their most basic rights.

Foreign interference

The latest wave of demonstrations in Iraq has been accompanied by an organised disinformation campaign by political leaders and government-affiliated militias, accusing protesters of being supported by foreign forces and spying for the US, among other charges.

This campaign gained strength following the 
assassinations of Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, deputy head of Iran-backed militias Al-Hashd Al-Shabi, on 3 January by a US drone strike in Baghdad.

As a result, political figurehead and influential militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr moved from supporting protests to explicit anti-US rhetoric. Militia group Kataib Hezbollah 
issued a statement where, in reference to protesters, they called for "the expulsion of the American enemy and its followers from Iraqi lands".

This was the context when Yacoub, whose photos with the US consul general in Basra were circulated on social media, became the subject of an online hate campaign which aimed to delegitimise her work. She also received numerous anonymous threats since 2018, including charges of being backed by foreign forces.

More than this however, as an outspoken woman in a conservative society, Yacoub posed a threat to those in power and they used her outspokenness as if it were evidence of her foreignness, when in fact Iraqi women have long fought for their rights in a society and socio-economic context where this has never been easy.

It is not a coincidence therefore that Yacoub's assassination came at the same time that the Iraqi Council of Representatives is in the process of legislating a bill against domestic violence, which has been rejected three times since 2011 due to objections and delays from religious parties and their political representatives.

They used her outspokenness as if it were evidence of her foreignness, when in fact Iraqi women have long fought for their rights

In the midst of heightened tension about the role of women in Iraqi society, it is not surprising that someone like Yacoub was seen to pose a threat so large that it had to be eliminated altogether. However, this is only a testament to the power of her work. And if previous protests are anything to go by, such repression will only bring demonstrations back even stronger. 

In the midst of the growing campaign of assassinations and continued throttling of Iraqi civil space, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi has pledged to bring those responsible for the killing and injury of activists to justice.

In perhaps an attempt to demonstrate just how serious he is to this commitment, following the conclusion of strategic talks with President Donald Trump in Washington DC, Khadimi flew straight to Basra to offer Yacoub's family his condolences.

However, for many Iraqis this move will prove to be nothing more than an empty PR stunt for a struggling new prime minister, if Yacoub's killers are not held to account.

Taif Alkhudary is a research assistant at the LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @ALKTaif

Hayder Al-Shakeri is a development practitioner and commentator on Iraqi affairs. He currently works with a Geneva-based NGO on cooperation programmes between Arab countries. 

Follow him on Twitter: @HayderSH

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.