Hanan Salem / June 2022
In early 2020, Hussein Mahmoud fell into the “biggest taboo” when he called on social media for a protest against the Iraqi government in front of the house of Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, intending to support the demands of tens of thousands of young people protesting against the political class.
His stalkers would turn him from a mere protester demanding reforms into a “terrorist trying to assassinate” the highest Shiite cleric and the most influential man in the country, according to what was stated in a targeting campaign that was promoted on local satellite channels and social media.
Mahmoud accused deputies from allied Shiite parties that control the government of standing behind it: “They do not hesitate to accuse you of anything that comes to their mind if they sense your danger to their interests.” Later, when the campaigns targeting them intensified, Hussein and dozens of other activists were forced to flee to the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan region.
With the start of the protests at the end of 2019, Mahmoud transformed a popular food restaurant he owned near Tahrir Square in the heart of the capital, Baghdad, into a kitchen that provided the protesters with food and drink, as well as supplies to protect them from the tear gas canisters that the security services were throwing at them.
Then he contributed directly to the protests, as he attributed to himself the founding of “The protestors of the Tahrir Square group”, and said that 200 protest tents housed its members in the square. He also visited the protest squares in other governorates, such as Al-Haboubi Square in the city of Nasiriyah, and met with the coordinating leaders to unify the discourse.
The popular protests against the political class in Iraq started in Tahrir Square in Baghdad in October 2019 and then spread to the governorates of southern Iraq. Later, the protesters, mainly young people, became known as the “October revolutionaries” in the Iraqi street.
Security forces and militias belonging to groups participating in the government headed by Adel Abdul-Mahdi (known in the media as the third party) responded to them with live bullets, killed about 600 protesters, and injured 17,000 with injuries that caused 3,000 physical disabilities, in addition to the kidnapping of dozens and forcing hundreds of activists to seek refuge in the Kurdistan region or outside the country and Hussein Mahmoud was one of them.
Part of that large number of victims was not killed or injured during the suppression of the protests, but through direct assassinations with firearms and silenced pistols, which took place in different regions of the country, especially in the southern governorates.
To leave or to die
Hussein Mahmoud said in a loud voice with some emotion: “I was engaged in numerous clashes with the arms of the militias in Tahrir Square, I was subjected to campaigns of insult and betrayal on social media done by the electronic armies of militias and parties, and I was accused of the attempt to assassinate Al-Sistani, which meant shed my blood so I had to leave.”
The prominent activist who “dreamed of a homeland,” like dozens of his comrades, went to the cities of the Kurdistan region, where the independent security administration there is far from the hands of the militias. He left there for Turkey, but he soon returned to Sulaymaniyah in late 2020 due to the challenges related to his family and financial situation, and his feeling that he was alone there. “It will not offer me anything.” Then he decided to work with other activists to establish the “National Home” party, which included activists who participated in the protests and political, cultural, and social figures.
After being pursued and forced to leave their cities and families, dozens of activists found themselves isolated, lost, and unemployed without an income to afford their living costs in a new environment they did not know.
“The decision to leave, being the only option in the face of killings and kidnappings, not only negatively affected the protest movement, but also turned the lives of these people and their families around,” commented Sarkot Ali, a young man from Sulaymaniyah who was in contact with some fleeing activists because of his work in a civil organization.
Ali said that the hopes of the activists were quickly dashed in the face of the reality that appeared in front of them, “alienation, the loss of a source of income, and the failure of the protest movement.” “They hoped their trip would be short, but it will extend for years and be tough and bitter for many of them,” he added.
Ali noted that the failure of some Tishreen movements to form blocs or political parties with a strong and cohesive structure, the divisions that took place in some of the forces that were formed, and the failure of the movement activists to unite their efforts, whether in parliament or outside it, “dashed the hopes of many activists for a happy end to their sacrifices.”
Muntadhar Bakhit, a journalist, pointed out that the displacement of activists from their provinces has led to the dismantling of political movements that emerged from the protest, that Iraq could have witnessed.
He believes that most of the young activists had political ambitions, and “the displacement of the protest leaders and statements writers away from the enabling protest environment was like destroying these aspirations, and shifting demands from comprehensive change to holding the killers of the demonstrators accountable, which greatly affected the achievement of the main goals of October protests.”
A thought-out scenario
Ghaith al-Tamimi, an Iraqi writer and researcher, linked the departure of the activists and a plan to weaken the protest movement, which paved the way for it to spread terror through assassinations, kidnappings, arrests, and threats that have triggered activists and their families, and affected them psychologically and ultimately prevented the continuation of the protests.
Al-Tamimi believes that emptying the arenas of influential and stubborn names in the protest field “was a thought-out scenario that produced leaders and political forces that do not meet the aspirations of the demonstrators,” and created a state of fragmentation, division, and despair. Its results appeared when the protesters and about 65% of Iraqis boycotted the parliamentary elections in October 2021.
Media funded by militias and close to the authority justified the use of violence against protesters and targeting them which created terror and achieved the goal of distancing activists from their environments, by accusing the protesting youth of executing the directives of embassies of some countries and receiving financial support from the Americans, or being motivated by the Arab Socialist Baath Party (The regime before 2003) to create chaos, said Gharbi Abd al-Hussein, a researcher on Iraqi affairs.
“Such accusations constantly led to the assassination of protesters or their kidnapping by armed groups. Surveillance cameras filmed some of their crimes, but the perpetrators were not held accountable and remain unknown until this hour, although they are known to everyone,” he added while making his index finger and thumb into the shape of a pistol.
And as proof of the veracity of what he said about the authority’s parties accusing the demonstrators of collaborating with America, al-Hussein said: “Protesters’ deaths increased dramatically after the killing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Qassem Soleimani, by an American drone on his convoy near Baghdad International Airport on 3/1/2020.”
After that attack, the accusation of implementing foreign agendas against protesters and the justification for targeting them has grown, also, many of the factions of the militias (third party) that receive direct support from Iran, are now saying they are working to protect the new regime (power) in Iraq.
When the threat of liquidation turned into an existing reality that the protesters, along with pro-activists and journalists, faced, they had no choice but to search for a safe haven. The Metro Center for Press Freedom alone monitored the asylum of 71 journalists, bloggers, and activists in the Kurdistan region in 2020.
The center stated that these people were forced to leave their provinces and live in the provinces of the region (Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in particular) to escape persecution and targeting.
Akram Khader Azab, an activist in the demonstrations, found that this number is little compared to the large number of persons that he believed had escaped the fate of death by militia members, as was going to happen to him on the evening of his return to his home near Firdous Square on November 25, 2020, when unknown gunmen targeted him in a hail of bullets from their pistols with silencers, three of which hit non-lethal parts of his body.
Before his involvement in the demonstrations, Akram worked as a national diesel generator operator. Driven by his love of culture, he frequented the demonstrations’ forums and reading clubs in the capital and had his own opinions that oppose the political and economic situation in Iraq.
Later, when the October 2019 protests broke out, he was one of the first promoters of the hashtag (I am coming down to take my right). He was camping out with hundreds of others in Tahrir Square and gave the protesters logistical support, he also appeared frequently in the media to speak about their demands: “When I woke up in the hospital, hours after I was targeted, I decided to leave Baghdad, because staying there would have meant certain death, from which I had just miraculously escaped. A few days later, I left for Erbil, and here I am unemployed for about a year and a half, and I do not know what the days will bring me.”
Akram is concerned about the issue of returning to Baghdad, except when it will be free of militias. As well, he rejects the idea of leaving the country. He also refused to join political organizations that invited him to join them because “politicians are the cause of the ruin we are in, so how can I be one of them!”.
Like him, Mahdi Al-Muhanna, an activist from the city of Najaf who resides in Erbil governorate, believed that there are great dangers surrounding his return to his city, from which he fled forcibly, and that there is no point in emigrating either. He emphasized the last phrase, stressing that emigration means cutting off from your world and giving up everything.
Al-Muhanna supports the view that “the activists leaving from their provinces contributed to the dissolution of the protest movement and left it in unscrupulous hands, which led to its decline,” but they had no choice under the government’s inability and surrender to the militias.
Al-Muhanna was preparing a poem in the square late at night to read it at a ceremony commemorating the Najaf massacre, which was known as the Sadrin Square massacre that took place on February 5, 2020, (when gunmen affiliated with the Sadrist movement known as “the owners of the blue hats” that targeted hundreds of demonstrators, killed 23 of them and wounded 182), when he was surprised by unknown people attacking his house with Molotov cocktails: “Perhaps they did this to prevent me from participating in the ceremony, or because of my work as a coordinator for an international organization in Najaf before the outbreak of the October 2019 protests, or because of my political views opposing the political class in Iraq.”
Many reasons he finds sufficient to target him. He established, after a period of the October protests, the “Non-Violence and Hut of the Revolution” group, which adopted the issuance of most of the statements that were read out in the Najaf protest square. He was also the supervisor of an electronic platform, followed by more than 30,000 people, that reported the news of all the protest squares, by creating a network of journalists distributed to many governorates.
On 2/25/2021, Mahdi took the stage in front of a crowd of protesters in Najaf Square and read a poem condemning the killers of Safaa Al-Saray, Muhannad Al-Qaisi, and Omar Al-Saadoun, who were among the prominent faces in the protests. As soon as cheers rose around him, condemning the violations against the youth, a group of armed men appeared and threatened to shoot the crowd, forcing them to disperse and hide, and among them were poets who had come from other provinces.
Mahdi felt that the threats to kill him had become serious, so he left for the city of Kut, but he did not stay there for long because the threats pursued him, so he fled to the capital, Baghdad, and a few days later he moved to Erbil with the help of one of the organizations for the protection of human rights defenders, which paid his living cost in Erbil for some time before he got a job opportunity in another organization and settled in the city.
The security forces did not protect us
From Sulaymaniyah, Saeb Faleh, an activist from Maysan, said that returning home is still impossible for many because of what they might be exposed to. Being a protester against the authorities or even a political opponent may mean losing your life in Iraq.
He considers himself one of the first protesters against the policies of successive governments. In 2011, he and a group of his friends founded an organization concerned with monitoring human rights and supporting democracy called “Adoption.”
The organization’s activity focuses on building the capacities of youth in the Maysan Governorate, monitoring and documenting human rights violations there. Saeb said, “the organization received threats from time to time, but its members insisted on continuing because of its activity.”
On October 2, 2019, Saeb was shot in the hand while he was filming the exposure of demonstrators to live bullets in the protest square in Maysan Governorate. “What happened didn’t stop me from continuing my activity, which I come back to it in the following days,” he said with pride.
However, “Adoption” faced later campaigns of defamation and betrayal through social media, which were led, according to Saeb, by “supporters of corrupt parties.” Not only that but Majeed Al-Zubaidi, one of the founders of “Adoption”, was subjected to an assassination attempt when he was on his way to his home from the protest square on October 30, a bullet wounded his stomach.
Saeb said with a sarcastic smile on his face: “After what happened, members of the security services admitted that they were unable to protect the members of the group and that our lives had become in real danger.”
Memories of those difficult days, as he describes them, are still fresh and strong in his mind, especially after the threats turned into reality when gunmen assassinated, on the sixth of December 2019, the director of “adoption” programs, Amjad Al-Dahamat, who was only 500 meters away from the Maysan Police Headquarters. Saeb and seven of his companions were forced then to leave the province and go with their family members to Baghdad and from there to Turkey, where they stayed for about a year, they returned to the country under the pressure of the hardship of life and resided in Sulaymaniyah.
Saeb then participated in the formation of political movements and parties emanating from the Tishreen (October) protest movement and contributed to writing their internal systems, but he did not belong to any of them.
“What happened to us has ended all the hopes of our return to Maysan, especially since targeting the members of the organization continued even after the end of its activities there, as our colleague Jawad Al Harishawi miraculously survived an assassination attempt in less than twenty days after we left.
He added as his eyes sparkled:” Perhaps they want to sow terror in the province by targeting us, it’s a reminder that they control everything and will not allow any movement that opposes them to exist.”
They secretly visit their families
Another activist, who declined to be named to protect his family, said, “The militias are stalking them. Yes, there has been something like a truce for months, because the factions, brigades, and others are preoccupied with the conflict with the Sadrists and do not want to open a front against their interests, but at any moment, assassinations may return, and nothing has changed”.
The activist, who visits Baghdad intermittently, like other activists, added “Nothing can deter them. Security and law do not exist, and all assassinations executors have escaped accountability and they are free to move fearlessly.”
The activist blamed Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi because he did not seem to be firmer with confronting the militias, controlling security, and enforcing the law, despite the popular, regional and international support that he received at the beginning of his mandate. “He did nothing while the militias were killing the protesters and the survivors did not find support, even the rights of the victims’ families are forgotten today, and the majority of the wounded suffer from neglect and plunge a whirlpool of the requirements of their treatments.”
He continued: “They say that the prime minister is incapable of protecting himself, so how can he protect the activists? This is true because he did it himself,” noting that cultural figures met Al-Kazemi recently and quoted him about his deep dissatisfaction, despair, and complete inability to do anything.
Stalled security investigations, the impunity of almost all the perpetrators of the assassinations, and the assurances of the security services of their inability to protect the leaders of the protests and civil activists, in addition to their inability to protect themselves personally, show the scale of the danger they could face if they returned to their provinces.
The official spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Brigadier General Khaled al-Muhanna, said it is not possible to provide the necessary protection for returning activists, “except for those who specify the party that threatened them,” and that there are only specific groups that can possess weapons with a license, such as lawyers, journalists, and doctors, and civil activists are not among those groups.
However, some Tishreen movements getting into Parliament may be a glimmer of hope, as Manar Al-Obeidi, a member of the “Imtidad” political movement emanating from the protest squares, which won nine seats in the parliamentary elections that took place in October 2021, indicated that the file of threatened activists and those living in the Kurdistan region is of interest to them, and it falls within the file of the rule of law and the restriction of weapons to the state, which the movement is working on: “We have always called for limiting weapons to the state since we were in the protest squares, and now we will transfer our call to the Parliament. We will endeavor to realize it even if it is very difficult. We will do everything we can for the activists to return to their activities as before.”
However, the movement, which was a hope for many activists, suffered at the start of its parliamentary work from crises due to the disagreement in visions between its deputies. It was hit by defections and became unable to take any serious action in a parliament that, in turn, was split into two parts, the first led by the coordinating framework, and the second led by the Sadrist movement.
I will only cost them a bullet
“I still feel terrified every time I see a car similar to the one that shot me in Basra,” said young Ludia Raymond Alberti, while putting her hands over her eyes.
Like many other activists who rejected the status quo in Iraq, she was subjected to pressure and threats, which translated into an assassination attempt that she survived, and she had no choice but to move from one city to another until she settled in Sulaymaniyah.
Ludia was good at handicrafts and worked as a project coordinator for some international and local organizations in Basra. She participated in the 2018 protests and appeared in videos on social media, chanting against the militias and the local and central governments. Because of that reason, she received a flood of warnings and threats to silence her and keep her away from the protests.
However, according to her, she did not leave Basra until she was subjected to a “distrust campaign” due to the spread of a picture of her with the American consul on Facebook. As a result, she traveled to Erbil to stay there for two weeks until the situation in Basra calmed down. She returned to her previous job till the outbreak of the October 2019 protests, she then left her job and devoted herself entirely to supporting the demonstrators logistically.
Ludia is proud of the fact that she was one of the most prominent female figures participating in events condemning the killing of demonstrators, and documented many cases of human rights violations and the exposure of protesters to live bullets in the Basra protest square. “I was subjected to many threats, but I did not take them seriously,” Ludia said, pointing to her phone before raising her head and saying intermittently, “One day, someone I did not know called me and said that I would only cost them one bullet.”
She stopped talking for a while, then brings her hands together close to her chest: “They wanted to scare me to shut me up, and when I refused, they tried to kill me… something unbelievable. They tried to kill me, and they almost succeeded in doing it.”
She recounted how she was going with two companions to the condolence of a friend of theirs who had been assassinated two days before, when she was subjected to an assassination in front of her house, as a result, she was wounded in one of her legs: “I left Basra permanently on that day and came to Sulaymaniyah to face estrangement, loneliness, and the fear of catching and killing me. They watch all your movements and follow you without worrying about the government, so nothing deters them.”
Ludia lives now in one of the Sulaymaniyah churches without a job that secures her needs, and she lives on what she receives from her family in Basra. She cannot immigrate to Europe, as some of her colleagues did, because she is unable to afford the costs of travel, and she cannot return to Basra, as death squads are waiting for her there, and nothing has changed that can encourage her to return. What happened is that many activists left the city, while others have pledged to remain silent.
(A.A.), a photojournalist who documented many stories of activists fleeing from the death squads and who found refuge in the cities of the Kurdistan region commented: “Their stories are similar, threats, kidnapping and assassination attempts, to intimidate and silence them forever, or forcing them to go out to empty the protest squares of their fuel.” He added: “Despite everything, most of them are still proud of what they have done. They succeeded in shaking the political class and toppling the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi, even if this came after enormous sacrifices, with hundreds of their comrades have been killed and wounded, in addition to their displacement, so they became lost in strange cities without work and hope for near decisive change.”
While dozens of young activists bemoan the outcome of their “uprising” and talk painfully about the crises of the “Imtidad” movement and about the disputes affecting the “National House” party, which is one of the largest political parties that did not participate in the elections, the young activist (A.T) still expresses some optimism. He believes that the despair felt by some activists will not prevent the start of new waves of protest, in which activists inside and outside the country who are feeling nostalgic for their cities and the protest squares there, will participate “driven by the hope of building a homeland and creating a new path for the political process.”
This report was produced with support from the NIRIJ Network for Investigative Journalism