The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Iraq, powerful militias assassinate protesters with impunity

Mourners carry the body of Iraqi anti-government activist Ehab al-Wazni during his funeral at the Imam Hussein Shrine in Karbala on May 9, 2021. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD — The killings take place in public and are captured on surveillance footage. Those videos are then watched by millions. But even if the gunmen are identified, no one is prosecuted, and the cycle starts again.

Across Baghdad and southern Iraq, a rising tide of attacks on activists and journalists is alarming what remains of a protest movement that has demanded the ouster of Iraq’s U.S.-molded political system and the usually Iran-linked armed groups that prop it up.

Mass street demonstrations were crushed last year with deadly force, often by paramilitary groups that the protesters have denounced. Now as some activists prepare to run in elections, prominent figures in the protest movement are being picked off while they walk the streets or drive home at the end of the day.

The assassinations, officials and human rights monitors say, underscore the reach of Iraq’s militia network — to punish citizens who dare to criticize it and control a political system meant to hold it accountable.

Early Sunday, videos showing the murder of one of Iraq’s best-known activists, Ehab al-Wazni, made their grim procession across millions of Iraqi cellphone and television screens. Black-and-white footage from hours earlier in the southern city of Karbala showed a gunman calmly approaching Wazni’s car. He stopped by the driver’s window, shot the activist at the wheel and ran off into the night.

Less than 24 hours later, news of another attack rippled through social media: This time the victim was in surgery after surviving a bullet to the head and shoulder. A photo posted to social media Tuesday morning showed journalist Ahmed Hasan lying in a hospital bed, his eyes closed and an oxygen mask on his face.

In Iraq, fear spreads among protesters as government cracks down

“It’s a message to us all,” said another Karbala-based activist, Saeed Askar, reached by phone after scrambling to move his family to another city overnight. “No matter what we do, the situation will always remain the same. Those death squads will always be in power.”

Iraq is experiencing a period of relative stability after decades when conflict repeatedly left ­civilians caught in the middle. In 2019, an anti-government protest movement occupied parts of Baghdad and southern cities for months as a generation raised in the shadow of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion decried the corrupt political system it had installed, as well as the influence of neighboring Iran.

At first, the protests appeared to weaken long-standing taboos against criticism of militia groups linked to Tehran. In scenes reminiscent of the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, protesters used sandals to beat photos of militia leaders, and graffiti denounced the men as killers.

That moment did not last: Iraq’s human rights commission says it has registered 81 assassination attempts against anti-
government activists and journalists since the protests began. At least 34 have been killed, almost a third of them after the appointment of a new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power vowing justice for the slain activists.

Mounting threats are now being made against their friends and associates. Disillusionment and fear have forced many into exile. “They came to my father two weeks ago and told him my name was on their list” said one photographer, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his family’s safety in Baghdad.

“I left Iraq and everything I love,” he said. “My work, my friends, my family. But they still came to my house.”

Activists say they now think twice about criticizing the militias publicly. Many have left social media. Others stay in what are effectively safe houses, or lie low as they move from place to place.

“Those who are carrying out these assassinations are very powerful armed actors who are beyond the control of the government,” said Belkis Wille, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The human rights situation in Iraq has really become dire when it comes to the safety and security of individuals who are openly critical.”

Iraq’s militia network, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), has a presence throughout the state. Representatives of the PMF — which encompasses groups linked to Iran as well as loyalists of powerful Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — are members of Iraq’s official security forces. They are lawmakers, cabinet members, senior civil servants and powerful business executives.

Experts say that this diffuse power makes the militias particularly hard to tackle and that arrests or even killings — as in the case of President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate their leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad last year — have done little to change their overall power.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Kadhimi vows justice for slain protesters

In a TV interview after Wazni’s killing, Kadhimi insisted that his government was making progress. He cited arrests in the city of Basra after another journalist, Ahmed Abdulsamad, was killed in January and claimed that “tens” of militiamen were in detention.

But high-profile arrests have often been followed by quiet releases, monitors say, and none of those detained are known to have been prosecuted.

The highest-profile assassination of all — that of prominent journalist and government adviser Hisham al-Hashimi — has not brought any arrests.

“Listen, you have to understand that their people are everywhere,” said a senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We can’t move against them easily.”

Attempts to rein in the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group backfired early in Kadhimi’s term when the arrest of 14 militiamen accused of rocket attacks on U.S. targets prompted fighters to storm Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, almost reaching the prime minister’s home.

Another group accused of targeting activists, Saraya al-Salam, is the armed wing of a political movement led by Sadr. Western officials say that Kadhimi may ally himself with the movement in an attempt to maximize his chances of reelection in the fall.

This week, Kadhimi said he was committed to seeking justice for slain activists and praised Sadr as the “master of the resistance.”

In a video posted to Facebook a week before Wazni’s death, the activist was thronged by demonstrators as he addressed a local police chief through a megaphone. Wazni, who had already survived one assassination attempt, reminded the security official that he had been receiving death threats.

“I’ve already sent you their names,” he shouted as he jabbed the air with his finger. “If I get killed, then the police haven’t protected me.”

Wazni’s slaying has cast fresh doubt on the ability of activist candidates — already underdogs — to participate in elections scheduled for October. The holding of early elections was one of the demonstrators’ key demands.

Another was an end to Iraq’s culture of impunity.

One party affiliated with the protest movement, Beit al-Watani, has said it will not field candidates. Others say they are still deciding.

“We demanded change in a peaceful way, but our conditions have not been met,” said Hussein al-Ghorabi, a lawyer who was a prospective candidate for Beit al-Watani. He has been unable to return to his home city of Nasiriyah since unknown assailants planted an explosive device outside his home, he said.

The explosion followed months of texts and phone calls from unknown phone numbers, warning him to keep quiet, the lawyer said. “People are getting killed; they’re getting kidnapped. If we participate in this election, then we are giving legitimacy to a government that is protecting the killers.”

An uprising in Iraq is the broadest in decades. It’s posing a threat to Baghdad and Tehran.

In Iraq, anti-American militias are not just Iranian proxies

Roar of hope. Silence of despair.