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Iraq: Thousands demand accountability over killing of activists, journalists

At least one protester killed as Iraqis take to the streets to decry recent spike in killings targeting outspoken activists and journalists
Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Baghdad to demand the disclosure of the killers of activists and journalists who were assassinated during the past two years.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Baghdad to demand the disclosure of the killers of activists and journalists who were assassinated during the past two years (AFP)

Thousands of Iraqis gathered in the capital Baghdad on Tuesday to demand accountability over a spike in targeted killings of prominent activists and journalists.

Carrying banners that read, "Stop the impunity" and "Who killed me?" the demonstrators also carried pictures of dozens of protesters killed during anti-corruption rallies that erupted in October 2019 and lasted until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those protests, which erupted due to widespread corruption, a lack of jobs and an out-of-touch political class, resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

His successor, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has pledged to investigate the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of protesters.

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On Tuesday, demonstrators converged on both Tahrir Square - the heart of the protest movement - and al-Nisour Square, where they expressed outrage that despite launching several investigations into the killings, Iraqi authorities had not named any perpetrators.

The protesters believe the killers are linked to Iran-backed groups and that the government is powerless and unwilling to identify them.

Security and medical sources told Middle East Eye that the protest was largely peaceful until protesters tried to cross from Tahrir Square to the highly fortified Green Zone along al-Jumhuriyah bridge.

At least one protester was reported to have been killed in the clashes. Protesters told MEE that after security forces used tear gas to disperse the crowds, demonstrators responded by throwing stones.

"Things were smooth and the situation was calm, but the attempt to cross the bridge triggered the escalation," Ahmed, one of the demonstrators who declined to give his surname, told MEE.

"Iraqi forces initially pushed [protesters] away from the bridge, but they came back. At first, they (riot police) just pushed them away, but when the protesters came back a second time, they hit them with batons and started firing tear gas and stun grenades."

Spike in assassinations

Many of the protesters had raised portraits of Ihab al-Wazni, a prominent activist assassinated in the holy Shia city of Karbala on 9 May.

Some of the demonstrators blamed Kadhimi for the impunity over the recent killing, stating that it stemmed from the failure of state institutions to bring the perpetrators to account.

"Kadhimi is worse and more dangerous than his predecessors," one of the leaders of Tuesday's demonstration, who declined to be named, told MEE.

"He has become part of the corrupt political forces and a front to achieve the interests of the armed factions and Iran. It is time for us to demand his ousting."

The semi-official Independent High Commission for Human Rights has reported that nearly 35 activists have been killed in Iraq since October 2019. There have been nearly 81 attempted killings since then.

In the last year alone, 15 Iraqis were killed and there were 30 attempted killings recorded by the commission.

Many expect the killings to continue as Iraq plans to hold early elections in October, which had been a key demand of anti-government protesters.

"The one responsible for [the] killing [of] activists and journalists is Kadhimi," a leader of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, a powerful armed faction hostile to Kadhimi, said.

"He [Kadhimi] and his group know that they will not win the elections and that they will not succeed in removing the existing traditional forces, so they resorted to stirring up strife.

"They want to postpone the elections, but we will not allow them to."