The Iraq Report: Killings, Abductions Rise Immediately After Pope Francis’ Visit

In the days following Pope Francis’ visit, two high profile abductions and killings of activists and dissidents’ family members brought Iraq’s perennial problems with militia violence roaring back into focus, The New Arab reports.

A little more than a week has passed since Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq concluded and not only have most of the hopes for peace and stability been dashed already, but state and non-state actors immediately resumed their violence.

Although Shia militias linked to Iran promised a cessation of violence for the duration of the pontiff’s visit, no sooner had he left than the amnesty ended and the violence resumed, claiming the lives of activists and even including the abduction of a child to force a self-exiled dissident to return.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State (IS) group has launched its own attacks at a time when the US-led coalition remains under fire by pro-Iran groups.

Although the most recent attack before the Pope’s visit on the Ain al-Assad Airbase in Iraq’s western Anbar governorate has been blamed on Iran and the Biden administration has promised a retaliation, Tehran has denied all responsibility for any attacks and blamed Washington for advancing the interests of “terrorist groups”.

Activists threatened, killed by militias

In the days following Pope Francis’ visit, two high profile abductions and killings of activists and dissidents’ family members brought Iraq’s perennial problems with militia violence roaring back into focus.

The 10-year-old child of Ayoub Al-Khazraji, an activist since 2011 and a participant in anti-government demonstrations which erupted in Iraq in October 2019, was abducted by armed assailants in the Al-Ghadeer neighbourhood of eastern Baghdad. After receiving threats against his life from Iran-linked Shia militants and surviving four assassination attempts, Khazraji was forced to abandon his family and home in Baghdad and flee to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish enclave.

Iraqi Kurdish news outlet Rudaw interviewed Khazraji who said that he had been using the audio social media site Clubhouse and complaining about Shia militias, who retaliated by kidnapping his child.

Khazraji pointed the finger at four powerful groups, including the so-called Peace Brigades commanded by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Kataib Hezbollah, blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by the United States. When Khazraji’s family filed a missing person report with the police, the interior ministry released a statement claiming that the boy had simply gone missing after attempting to visit a Shia shrine in the Kadhimiyah district in Baghdad.

His family denied the allegation, and Khazraji released chilling messages he had received from militants saying: “Come back to Baghdad and then we can come to an understanding about your son, you traitor.”

The interior ministry subsequently released a further statement claiming that the abducted child had been located and returned to his family, a claim that was immediately rubbished by the Khazrajis who accused the ministry of engaging in a cover up. The interior ministry is under the control of the powerful Badr Organisation, a proxy of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and one of the main militant groups responsible for crushing protesters since demonstrations began in October 2019.

A day after Khazraji’s child was abducted, other suspected Shia militants shot and killed the outspoken father of a human rights lawyer who was forcibly disappeared during the protests at the start of the protests almost a year and a half ago.

Jaseb Hattab was walking back to his house in Amarah in the southern Maysan governorate last Wednesday when masked men riding a motorbike gunned him down before fleeing the scene. Hattab had publicly accused militias operating under the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – the Iraq-sanctioned but Iran-controlled paramilitary organisation – of being responsible for his son’s disappearance.

He was an outspoken critic of Iran-backed militants and had campaigned vigorously for the government to investigate his son’s disappearance. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with him last year and promised progress in his son’s case, but nothing was done.

Last October, the Associated Press asked Hattab if he was afraid. He answered:

“I am afraid…But I lost what was most valuable to me, so I’ve got nothing else to lose.” In November, rights watchdog Amnesty International warned that Hattab had been receiving death threats for his public campaigning yet the authorities did not provide him or his family with any security.

These high profile attacks against members of civil society who have been outspoken critics of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs highlight the dangers faced by activists, hundreds of whom have already been killed with close to 18,000 having been severely wounded or injured by December 2019 alone, according to Amnesty.

Iraq’s state infrastructure and security forces are dominated by pro-Iran militias who exert disproportionate control over the very law enforcement units that are supposed to be protecting and serving Iraqis and protecting their right to protest. Whenever assassinations occur, and whatever any given prime minister or politician promises in terms of investigations, accountability, and justice, invariably nothing happens and militias and their allies within the security forces are able to kill with impunity.

Iran attempts to dodge US ire

Attention has now also shifted back to the state of US-Iran relations as they continue to spar for power and prestige with Iraq as their battleground. Prior to the Pope’s visit, two major and deadly attacks on bases housing US and anti-IS coalition forces were launched by Shia militants who were suspected to be acting on Iranian orders.

The first such attack occurred last month against Erbil International Airport, a hitherto untouchable site due to not only the heavy American and international presence there, but also its location in what was once viewed as a largely stable Kurdish controlled region.

The attack killed one civilian contractor and led to the Biden administration ordering retaliatory strikes against Kataib Hezbollah positions in Syria, a clear indication of who the White House held responsible for the strike.

Earlier this month, 10 rockets slammed into the Ain al-Assad Airbase in Anbar governorate, the largest military installation housing US and coalition forces. Although there were no immediate casualties, one American contractor later died after suffering a heart attack as a result of the attack.

Although there were fears for the Pope’s security as a result of these attacks, Shia militias publicly took to social media to reassure the world that they would cease all military actions for the duration of his visit. While the United States made no such reciprocal promise in public, it is clear the Biden administration wants to limit violence so as to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, and has not as yet retaliated for the strike against the Ain al-Assad base.

The lack of response perhaps emboldened Shia militias to once more launch a barrage of missiles against the Al-Balad military installation north of Baghdad on Monday with only two striking the base but failing to cause damage. The remaining missiles landed in a nearby village, causing damage to private and public property.

The latest attack came almost immediately after Iran submitted a formal protest to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, denying all responsibility for any attacks against US and coalition forces in Iraq, and blaming the US for advancing the interests of “terrorist groups”. This was met by some bemusement in Washington which has listed Iran as the world’s largest state-sponsor of terror since 1984.

The ongoing escalations between Iran and the US have weakened and distracted from efforts to keep the Islamic State terrorist organisation suppressed. IS has been steadily increasing the frequency and severity of its attacks since 2017, the year it was formally “defeated” in Iraq.

Last Friday, IS attacked the village of Albu Dor in Diyala governorate, just north of the capital, and killed eight people, including six from the same family. The militants managed to infiltrate the village dressed as members of the Iraqi security forces, fooling officials and villagers alike. Three houses were then targeted, killing the victims which included among their number a police officer and a lawyer.

Such attacks are likely to escalate and increase as general Iraqi insecurity and instability contribute to an environment conducive for all manner of militants to thrive and grow, whether Sunni or Shia Islamist alike. Without any solution to address the threat posed by Shia militants, groups like IS will always find space to survive and to continue to contribute to Iraq’s crumbling conditions.