Human Rights Watch warned this week that gunmen in Iraq can wander the streets with impunity and kill civilians. In the oil city of Basra in the south of the country, two prominent activists were murdered last week, after which major protests broke out.
The recent assassinations in Basra have fuelled anger among civilians, but it’s been restless for a long time. “Civilians have been lacking clean drinking water and electricity for years, even though Basra is a rich oil city,” says Dutch-Iraqi Arab Laila al-Zwaini. “The lack of these basic facilities frustrates them enormously, especially since it can get up to 50 degrees there in the summer”
There have been major protests in Iraq since October, known as the October Revolution. They were never completely gone, but were less visible the last weeks because of the coronapandemic. Angry citizens are taking to the streets because of the bad economic situation in the country, the high unemployment and the lack of social services. They mainly want to get rid of the corrupt political system. An estimated 700 demonstrators and dozens of government activists and critics have been murdered.
The refugee Iraqi journalist Noor Alattar (22) knows the dangers in the country only too well. “In Iraq I had been murdered a long time ago,” he tells the CCeit. Alattar fled to the Netherlands in the summer of 2017. “Unfortunately, I left Iraq, but I didn’t choose that. I was forced to flee. I was abducted, tortured and sexually abused.” In the Netherlands he continues his work through social media, with the result that he is still threatened.
Watch the story of the 22 year old journalist here:
There is a lack of clarity about the groups that carry out the assassinations and threaten journalists and activists. “Some of these groups are controlled by Iran,” says Al-Zwaini. “That country doesn’t want to lose its influence in Iraq and is trying to put pressure on the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Those militias want to show who’s boss. At the same time it’s also ‘mafiosi’ who want to keep their obscure sources of money.”
Since he took office in May, the new prime minister has been seeking rapprochement with the demonstrators and is trying to reduce the influence of pro-Iranian militias. “Even though demonstrators distrust him, they have no one else to turn to,” Al-Zwaini says. “Being Prime Minister of Iraq is a very complex and precarious job, yet I get the impression that he is doing his best to win over the protesters more than the previous prime ministers.
For example, Al-Kadhimi fired the police chief in Basra and brought forward the elections, which were important demands from the demonstrators. But the recent assassinations make his position increasingly difficult, because he is unable to track down the perpetrators. “The militias are doing everything they can to drive the prime minister and the demonstrators apart,” says Al-Zwaini.
22-year-old Alattar has little faith in the new Prime Minister. “He knows very well who the assassins are, but he won’t do anything about it.” Alattar points directly to Iran. “It’s the same people who threaten me. Iraq is largely run by politicians with ties to Iran. That country is trying to expand its economic and political influence in Iraq,” he says. “That’s why they’re supporting these militia and sending weapons.”
Despite the threats, the journalist doesn’t think of quitting. “My message is clear. I will continue and expose the killers who are trying to silence us. Even if they kill me, my message will remain and will be continued by my courageous colleagues.”
Looking at the demonstrators in Iraq, Al-Zwaini sees the same combativeness. “As bad as the situation is, the youths are not stopping.” Moreover, she sees that the protesters are becoming more and more streetwise. “In the absence of protest leaders, they are teaching themselves how to overthrow a system. These protests won’t just stop.”