More than 500 Iraqi protesters have been killed by security services and militias with little indication that those responsible will be brought to justice.
Human Rights Watch released a damning report on Monday, blaming the Iraqi government for dozens of protester deaths that occurred in a coordinated attack in the capital Baghdad by pro-regime militants closely aligned to neighbouring power Iran. Casualty estimates range between 29 and 80 killed, and a further 137 injured to varying degrees of severity. The Iraqi health ministry has also announced that the death toll is now at 511 people and this figure is set to rise – a devastating butcher’s bill when one considers that people are literally being slaughtered because they want a say in how their country is run.
But this is hardly the first time that the “democratic” Iraqi state has used or sanctioned incomprehensible levels of deadly violence, and it certainly will not be its last.
Pro-Iran Shia militias running rampant
On 6 December, unidentified gunmen stormed Khilani Square, 600 metres north of Tahrir Square, and proceeded to shoot and kill dozens of demonstrators who have been on the streets for three months calling for a complete overhaul of Iraq’s political system that is absolutely riddled with corruption, nepotism, and sectarian-based interest groups.
HRW claimed that power to the area was cut, plunging the location in darkness, and allowing the militants to kill with little fear of being recognised. While Iraq’s electricity minister, Luay Al Khatteeb, denied the reports and suggested the power outage was due to power cables being shot by unidentified gunmen, the fact remains that the power being cut was directly linked to the attacks on the protesters. Protesters reported that the only light they could see was from the muzzle flashes of the militants’ gunfire as they were mowed down mercilessly.
Even more damning is the fact that both Iraqi military and police units withdrew from the area, allowing the militiamen free reign to run roughshod over the protesters and to set a bloody example of what would happen if the demonstrators dared to defy the new political order that is beholden to the Iranian regime. This they did with gusto, even storming a nearby parking garage armed with machetes and knives as they set about stabbing and hacking at protesters.
It does not end there, either. Two human rights organisations reported that at least 300 protesters had been abducted by Shia militias and detained in secret prisons. Needless to say, these secret prisons are controlled by pro-Iran groups and not the federal government which does very little to secure the release of illegally held prisoners. While the United States government did not specify exactly who they thought was behind these arrests and attacks, they did say “they’re not all local, let’s just put it that way,” in a not-so-subtle nudge towards Iran who has the most power and influence in Iraq today, eclipsing even that of the US.
Such brutality is almost inconceivable to many living in more functioning democracies in the West. When protesters hit the streets in Paris, London, Berlin, or New York City, it can be possible to see instances of police brutality. However, these usually involve beatings which, while illegal and unconscionable, rarely descends into full-scale carnage. Not so in Iraq, where simply calling for democracy to take root within an alleged democracy can earn you death or torture.
Sectarian cleansing of the Sunni Arabs
But none of this should be new to anyone. While the vast majority of the demonstrators are from the Shia Arab demographic on this occasion, previous nationwide protests were largely dominated by the Sunni Arabs who felt they were being unfairly targeted for state-sponsored sectarian persecution.
Their protest camps were subjected to horrifying levels of murder and mayhem. Take Hawija, for example, where a protest site was cleared out in 2013 with such force that even disabled and wheelchair-bound protesters were not spared. 51 people lost their lives in that massacre, and no one lifted a finger, neither in the Shia-dominated federal government nor in the international community which abandoned its responsibility with such utter disregard for our collective humanity. Such actions directly led to the rise of the Daesh terrorist group which later stormed through the area and even took control of Hawija.
During the fightback against Daesh, Sunni Arab civilians were again all tarred with the same extremist brush and Shia militias fighting under the banner of the state-sanctioned and Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) were given the green light to do whatever they wanted. In the battle for Fallujah in 2016, just west of Baghdad in Iraq’s sprawling desert Anbar governorate, these militants set about abducting 643 men and young boys. The Iraqi government promised a probe into these human rights abuses, but nothing was ever done. Days ago, all 643 corpses were found rotting in a mass grave, victims of a sectarian force that directly answers to the prime minister’s office, and an insouciant international community that considers Iraqi blood to be amongst the cheapest around.
Human rights organisations have repeatedly called on governments who provide military and law enforcement training and support to Iraq to boycott Baghdad until it changes tack. As Sarah Leah Witson of HRW said, “The US, UK, and Iran can’t have it both ways, calling on the Iraqi government to respect the rights of protesters while supporting the Iraqi forces killing protesters or standing by.”
But the sad reality is that these foreign powers can have it both ways, and they currently are. The flow of arms and training into Iraq’s repressive and bloodthirsty state security institutions will never cease so long as there is money to be made and power to be won. The state, though dominated by the Shia Arabs, does not represent them anymore than it represents the Sunni Arabs or even the Kurds. The state serves the interests of foreign powers, particularly Iran, and none of those powers have an interest in a stable Iraq that is truly free and democratic. Until that changes, death will continue to be visited upon all who dare to demand change.
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