Iranian general ‘played leading role’ in crackdown on Iraqi protests

Gen. Qasim Soleimani
Updated 09 October 2019

Iranian general ‘played leading role’ in crackdown on Iraqi protests

  • Iraqi president acknowledges excessive force had been used against demonstrators

BAGHDAD: The Iraqi government sent Iranian-backed armed factions to crack down on demonstrations and kill protesters, senior Iraqi security officials and politicians told Arab News on Tuesday. 

The groups are said to directly report to Gen. Qasim Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

“The general personally came to Baghdad a few days ago to manage the crisis,” said a senior security official in Baghdad. “He gave the orders to brutally deal with the demonstrators, and even kill them to sow terror in the hearts of the rest.

“On his orders, Iraqi security leaders were excluded from (dealing with the protests), the internet was blocked, most local journalists covering the demonstrations were threatened and some local and Arabic satellite TV stations were set on fire.”

There have been widespread demonstrations in Baghdad and seven southern, Shiite-dominated provinces over the past week in protest against corruption, high levels of unemployment and a lack of basic daily services. They turned violent when Iraqi riot police used live bullets and tear gas to disperse demonstrators who were trying to reach government and political party headquarters.

In the past eight days, more than 180 people have been killed and 7,000 injured, including security personnel, and dozens of government buildings, political party headquarters and military vehicles have been torched, security sources said.

Video footage recorded by demonstrators and activists reveals that many of the demonstrators who were killed were unarmed and not close enough to any security services or government buildings to pose a threat.

One of the videos seen by Arab News showed a young demonstrator running through a popular small marketplace to escape his pursuers. When he stopped to talk to someone a gunman approached and, from a distance of less than a meter, shot him in the head.

In a speech on Monday evening, Iraqi President Barham Salih acknowledged that excessive force had been used against demonstrators but added that the authorities did not give any orders to use deadly force, and the killers are criminals.

“Targeting peaceful demonstrators and security forces with live bullets ... is unacceptable in Iraq, which we have accepted and pledged to be a democracy in which rights and freedoms are fostered,” he said.

“The government and the commanders of the security services assure us that there were no orders to shoot, and that these abuses, the excessive violence and the targeting (of demonstrators) with live bullets, were not (the result of) a decision by the state and its agencies. Consequently, the perpetrators are criminals and outlaws.”

Security chiefs said Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ignored their recommendations not to use force against protesters as long as they did not pose a threat to citizens or the state, and to try to calm their anger. Rather than allow some time to find a peaceful solution, he ordered armed factions allied with the government to deal with the situation, security officials said.

The factions that took to the street are said to be the Badr Organization, the largest armed Shiite group, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Sayyid Al-Shuhada Brigades and Saraya Al-Khorasani. Security leaders, politicians and activists said these groups played a pivotal role in cracking down on the demonstrations and the killing of demonstrators.

Iraqi authorities on Tuesday blocked internet access for an eighth consecutive day in an attempt to control the protests and prevent demonstrators from sharing videos and pictures that they hope will help gain more domestic and international support.

Most Iraqi and foreign journalists and activists who were reporting on or monitoring the protests left Baghdad over the past week after receiving warnings that warrants had been issued for the arrest of dozens of them under terrorism legislation, the punishment for which includes the death penalty or life imprisonment.

“We have nothing to do with any of these measures,” said a senior National Security Council official. “Everything related to the demonstrations is currently managed by the Popular Mobilization Security Directorate. Even the arrest warrants issued against journalists and activists, we have nothing to do with them. The situation gets worse day after day.”

The Popular Mobilization Forces is a governmental umbrella organization, established in June 2014, composed of pro-Iran Shiite armed factions and individuals who volunteered to fight Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. The Badr Organization, Assaib Ahl Al-Haq and several other factions form its backbone.

Abdul Mahdi on Sunday announced a package of policies he described as exceptional, including the creation of thousands of jobs, the construction of housing for poor families, loans for the unemployed, and the chance for thousands expelled from military service to return to their units and for volunteers to join the army. It coincided with large-scale arrests of protesters or anyone else involved in the demonstrations.

The protests in Baghdad have greatly diminished since Sunday. There are now only small groups concentrated in Sadr City, east of Baghdad, and the surrounding areas. However, they have been the deadliest in the city to date, with 57 killed and more than 1,000 wounded, 205 of whom are in a critical condition, security and medical sources said.

“What Abdul Mahdi and his allies have done to the protesters is particularly brutal,” a key organizer of the demonstrations told Arab News. “They may silence the demonstrations by force for now but we will soon return more strongly.

“Recent days have proven to us that we are alone and that all political forces have abandoned us, while others have traded us, so our next step is to resort to arms. They have left us no other choice.”

Lebanese donor hands Nazi artifacts to Israel, warns of anti-Semitism

Updated 32 min 56 sec ago

Lebanese donor hands Nazi artifacts to Israel, warns of anti-Semitism

  • Abdallah Chatila spent about 600,000 euros ($660,000) for eight objects connected to Hitler
  • He said he had felt compelled to take the objects off the market

JERUSALEM: wealthy Lebanese-Swiss businessman said Sunday he had bought Adolf Hitler’s top hat and other Nazi artifacts to give them to Jewish groups and prevent them falling into the hands of a resurgent far-right.
Abdallah Chatila said he had felt compelled to take the objects off the market because of the rising anti-Semitism, populism and racism he was witnessing in Europe.
He spent about 600,000 euros ($660,000) for eight objects connected to Hitler, including the collapsible top hat, in a November 20 sale at a Munich auction house, originally planning to burn them all.
But he then decided to give them to the Keren Hayesod association, an Israeli fundraising group, which has resolved to hand them to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center.
Chatila told a Jerusalem press conference it had been a “very easy” decision to purchase the items when he saw the “potentially lethal injustice that those artifacts would go to the wrong hands.”
“I felt I had no choice but to actually try to help the cause,” he added.
“What happened in the last five years in Europe showed us that anti-Semitism, that populism, that racism is going stronger and stronger, and we are here to fight it and show people we’re not scared.
“Today — with the fake news, with the media, with the power that people could have with the Internet, with social media — somebody else could use that small window” of time to manipulate the public, he said.
He said he had worried the Nazi-era artifacts could be used by neo-Nazi groups or those seeking to stoke anti-Semitism and racism in Europe.
“That’s why I felt I had to do it,” he said of his purchase.
The items, still in Munich, are to be eventually delivered to Yad Vashem, where they will be part of a collection of Nazi artifacts crucial to countering Holocaust denial, but not be put on regular display, said Avner Shalev, the institute’s director.
Chatila also met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and visited Yad Vashem.
Chatila was born in Beirut into a family of Christian jewellers and moved to Switzerland at the age of two.
Now among Switzerland’s richest 300 people, he supports charities and causes, including many relating to Lebanon and Syrian refugees.
The auction was brought to Chatila’s attention by the European Jewish Association, which has sought to sway public opinion against the trade in Nazi memorabilia.
Rabbi Mehachem Margolin, head of the association, said Chatila’s surprise act had raised attention to such auctions.
He said it was a powerful statement against racism and xenophobia, especially coming from a non-Jew of Lebanese origin.
Lebanon and Israel remain technically at war and Lebanese people are banned from communication with Israelis.
“There is no question that a message that comes from you is 10 times, or 100 times stronger than a message that comes from us,” Margolin told Chatila.
The message was not only about solidarity among people, but also “how one person can make such a huge change,” Margolin said.
“There’s a place for optimism.”