29 October 2020
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After assassinations and kidnappings, Iraqi activists ask if they should take up arms

Tuesday, 01 September 2020 21:26
Iraqi extremism expert Husham Al Hashimi was shot dead outside his home in Baghdad on Monday night. AFP Iraqi extremism expert Husham Al Hashimi was shot dead outside his home in Baghdad on Monday night. AFP

In a short video, a masked man talks Iraqi activists through some safety precautions that could help prevent them being assassinated.

“Follow me carefully,” said the man, sitting behind the wheel of a car wearing a black baseball cap, gloves, a mask and a flak jacket.

“Through security cameras, check if there is anyone or a motorcycle in the street before leaving your home or office … when driving, keep watching your back out with the three mirrors,” says the man, whose only identifying feature is the tattoo on his right arm.

Holding a pistol in his hands, he continued: “The most important thing is to keep your pistol loaded and put it in the side door pocket … and lay down on your back seat when the shooting starts.”

 The ominous calls for self-protection and to take up arms come after a wave of attacks on civil society activists in Iraq’s months of anti-elite, pro-reform protests.

Even as some advocate arms to prevent further killings, other protesters reject such calls as being counter to the peaceful movement for change in Iraq.

Demanding jobs, better services, an end to the endemic corruption and overhauling the political system, the protests triggered in October 2019 by a few people in Baghdad spread to other cities in central and southern Iraq.

Leaderless protests have been the biggest and most effective tactic in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. What makes them unprecedented is the persistence shown by protesters despite repeated crackdowns.

The government said that as of July 30, 560 protesters and members of security forces had been killed in the violence. Tens of thousands were also wounded, many with live ammunition.

Dozens of activists have reported intimidation and there have been dozens of kidnappings and targeted killings, say local and international human right watchdogs.

Activists accuse Iran-backed Shiite militias of being behind the assassinations in a bid to subdue the protests. The government and militias blame “third parties”, without specifying who they are.

“We are being slaughtered like sacrifices by the uncontrolled militias,” said cleric Asaad Al Nassiri, a prominent activist in the southern city of Nasiriyah who advocates the calls for arms.

“When the government is unable to protect us, what can we do to protect ourselves,” he told The National by phone. “It is the legitimate right for everyone to take up arms to protect himself, his family and fellow protesters when facing death threats.”

The latest round of assassinations started on July 6 when an unknown gunman murdered prominent pro-protest security analyst Husham Al Hashimi as he parked his car in front of his home in Baghdad.

In the southern city of Basra, activists Reham Yacoub and Tahseen Osama were both gunned down in separate incidents in the span of a week last month.

Mr Al Nassiri blames the killings on political factions and Iran backed militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces – paramilitary forces nominally under the control of the state but with significant independent power.

He said the factions see the activists as “a seed for a future political movement and national projects who will rival them in the elections.”

But the call to arms has divided the protesters.

In a statement issued last week, Baghdad protesters said they were “shocked” at the “suspicious calls … that intend to end our peaceful revolution and to drag our beloved country into chaos and internal fighting.”

But Mr Al Nassiri clarified that he is not advocating the formation of rival militant groups and arms should only be used by well-trained protesters who have a licence.

He said the light arms would never be used against the security forces, but against “the militias who want to kill us”.

Alarmed by the calls, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi said on Sunday it was the “the government responsibility to redress” the killings and they would move against any attempt to take up arms.

Militia leader Qais Al Khazali of the influential Iran-backed Asaib Ahl Al Haq said the aim behind the call to arms “is to target the leaders and members of resistance factions”. The comment indicated that it, too, would respond to any escalation.

But Mr Al Nassiri said the ball is in Mr Al Kadhimi’s court.

“If the government … manages to stop the uncontrolled militias from killing us, the protesters will not need to take up arms to defend themselves,” he said.

Source: The National

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