Iran-backed militias deployed snipers during Iraq protests

Iraqi security forces said "unidentified snipers" killed four people across the capital Baghdad today, the fourth day of violent anti-government protests. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 October 2019

Iran-backed militias deployed snipers during Iraq protests

  • Militia men clad in black allegedly shot protesters on the third day of unrest
  • Iran’s role in responding to the demonstrations was another reminder of Tehran’s reach in Iraq

Iran-backed militias deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops during the Iraq’s deadliest anti-government protests in years, two Iraqi security officials told Reuters.
The deployment of militia fighters, which has not been previously reported, underscores the chaotic nature of Iraqi politics amid mass protests that led to more than 100 deaths and 6,000 injuries during the week starting Oct. 1. Such militias have become a fixture here with Iran's rising influence. They sometimes operate in conjunction with Iraqi security forces but they retain their own command structures.
The Iraqi security sources told Reuters that the leaders of Iran-aligned militias decided on their own to help put down the mass protests against the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, whose one-year-old administration is backed by powerful Iran-backed armed groups and political factions.
“We have confirmed evidence that the snipers were elements of militias reporting directly to their commander instead of the chief commander of the armed forces,” said one of the Iraqi security sources. “They belong to a group that is very close to the Iranians.”
A second Iraqi security source, who attended daily government security briefings, said militia men clad in black shot protesters on the third day of unrest, when the death toll soared to more than 50 from about half a dozen. The fighters were directed by Abu Zainab al-Lami, head of security for the Hashid, a grouping of mostly Shi’ite Muslim paramilitaries backed by Iran, the second source said. The Hashid leader was tasked with quashing the protests by a group of other senior militia commanders, the source said. The sources did not say how many snipers were deployed by militia groups.
A spokesman for the Hashid, Ahmed al-Assadi, denied the groups took part in the crackdown. “No members were present in the protest areas. None of the elements of the Hashid took part in confronting protesters,” al-Assadi said in a statement to Reuters.
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maal said state security forces did not fire directly at protesters and blamed unnamed “vicious” shooters for the mass deaths and injuries. The government has opened an investigation to determine who shot the protesters and who ordered it, Maal said in a news conference on Oct. 6.
The assertion that security forces did not participate in the violence seemed to contradict an earlier statement on Oct. 14 from the Iraqi government, which admitted state security forces had used excessive force and promised to hold individuals accountable for violence against civilians.
An official with the prime minister’s office said in a statement to Reuters Wednesday that it would be “premature to lay the blame on any parties, whether from Hashid or other security forces, before we end the investigation. Let’s wait and see who gave the order ‘shoot to kill.’”
Iran’s role in responding to the demonstrations was another reminder of Tehran’s reach in Iraq, where a sizable number of former militia commanders are now members of parliament and support the Iranian agenda. Stability of the Iraqi government is in the best interests of Iran, which has been steadily amassing influence in Iraq since 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Islamic Republic’s arch-enemy Saddam Hussein. Iran is Iraq’s biggest trading partner.
Iran's delegation to the United Nations did not immediately respond Wednesday afternoon to questions from Reuters about its support of militias and their involvement in the violence against protesters. Leaders of militias in Iraq have denied getting training and weapons from Iran.

SNIPERS ON ROOFTOPS
As protests entered their third day, on Oct. 3, snipers appeared on Baghdad rooftops. A Reuters cameraman who was covering the unrest near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square that afternoon said he saw a sniper, wearing a balaclava and dressed in black as he stood on top of an under-construction building that overlooked the demonstrations.
Protesters fled as the sniper opened fire. One protester who was shot in the head was carried away in a large crowd. Another who was shot in the head appeared to have died and was rushed off in a truck. When his phone rang, a friend recognized that the man’s brother was calling.
“Don’t tell him he died,” the friend said.
The protests started Oct. 1 amid public rage over chronic shortages of jobs, electricity and clean water. Iraqis blame politicians and officials for systemic corruption that has prevented Iraq from recovering after years of sectarian violence and a devastating war to defeat Islamic State.
Any vacuum of power could prove challenging for the region, given that Baghdad is an ally of both the United States and Iran, who are locked in their own political standoff. Thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in the country in positions not far from those of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.
The second security source told Reuters that the snipers were using radio communications equipment that was provided by Iran and is difficult to intercept, giving the groups an essentially private network.
A group of senior commanders from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards traveled to Iraq on the second day of the protests and met with Iraqi intelligence and security officials, according to a diplomat in the region familiar with Iran’s decision-making process. After the meeting, senior Revolutionary Guard officers with experience in curbing civil unrest continued to advise the Iraqi government, the diplomat said, although no Iranian soldiers were deployed.
A senior commander of one of the Iran-backed militias - who said his group was not involved in efforts to stop the protests or the resulting violence - said Tehran consulted closely with forces trying to quell the demonstrations.
“After two days, they jumped in and supplied the government and militias with intelligence,” the militia leader told Reuters. “Iranian advisors insisted on having a role and warned us that the ongoing protests, if not reversed, will undermine the government of Abdul Mahdi.”


Iraqi grand ayatollah: I support the people, and they want change

As strikes resume in Iraq, anti-government protesters stand on a concrete wall set up by security forces in Al-Rashid district in Baghdad on Sunday. (AP)
Updated 18 November 2019

Iraqi grand ayatollah: I support the people, and they want change

  • Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi affairs and its involvement in crackdown on protesters angers Ali Sistani

BAGHDAD: A senior adviser to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has told Arab News that he does not support the continuation of the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and that the existing political forces did not press for early parliamentary elections with a new election law and an electoral commission. Baghdad and nine southern Shiite-dominated provinces have endured mass demonstrations against the government since Oct. 1.

More than 300 demonstrators have been killed and 15,000 others have been injured, mostly in Baghdad, due to bloody crackdowns led by Abdul Mahdi’s government and his Iranian-backed allies.
Al-Sistani is the leader of the world’s Shiite community and the most influential cleric in Iraq and has been the godfather of the political process since 2003. No government or prime minister can survive without Al-Sistani’s support and blessing.
Protesters, initially protesting against corruption, unemployment and lack of daily basic services, were brutally repressed in the first week of October by Abdul Mahdi’s government and his Iran-backed allies, killing more than 147 demonstrators and wounding more than 6,000 others with live ammunition and tear gas canisters, which stopped demonstrations for two weeks.
But demonstrations resumed on Oct. 25 after Al-Sistani announced his support and the Iraqi government vowed not to use live ammunition.
The return of the protests was accompanied by increasing demands to overthrow Abdul Mahdi’s government and the holding of early national parliamentary elections preceded by the change of the election law and the electoral commission.
Abdul Mahdi and his allies from the political forces announced their agreement to meet the demands of the demonstrators except the dismissal or resignation of Abdul Mahdi or early elections.

PM’s survival
The prime minister’s allies insist on his survival, accompanied by a significant increase in killings, kidnappings and arrests of activists and journalists, with the promotion of news that they have an agreement with Al-Sistani that allows the continuation of Abdul Mahdi’s government, new ministerial and constitutional amendments and a set of important laws, without holding early elections.
Al-Sistani’s office denied that they had concluded such an agreement or that they had anything to do with it.
“The real conviction is the conviction of the people. We have no guardianship over the people, but we support it because the constitution says they are the source of powers,” Sistani’s top aid told Arab News.
“We support peaceful demonstration because it is the right of the citizen … If it remains peaceful, it will affect the state’s convictions.
“We have no confidence that those (political forces) will be able to solve the problem. We see that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution and unless there is a real change within the constitutional items, the problem will remain the same.”

FASTFACTS

• Abdul Mahdi and his allies from the political forces announced their agreement to meet the demands of the demonstrators except the dismissal or resignation of the government, or early elections. 

• Ali Sistani’s top aid tells Arab News that the grand ayatollah does not suppport the continuation of the present government in Iraq.

Iraq ranks high on the list of the most corrupt countries. The system of political, sectarian and ethnic quotas adopted by Iraqi politicians since 2004, which includes the three presidencies and ministries and advanced positions in all state institutions, contributed to the spread of financial and administrative corruption and provided the required protection for corrupt politicians.
“There have been no real treatments for corruption over the past years. Corruption is rampant ... because of the weakness of the judiciary and the regulatory authorities, some of which have sought to use corruption cases to blackmail and enrich themselves.
“Officials are getting rich at the expense of the people. Corruption whales became powerful, while the qualified people have left Iraq and the graduates do not find jobs.
“We have no hope in the existing political forces and the chances of continuation of this government are very small. “They should all leave. This political class must leave.”
Al-Sistani has recently intervened in major events, as happened when the Iraqi Army collapsed and Daesh overran one-third of Iraqi territories in the western and northern parts of the country in the summer of 2014 and advanced toward Baghdad, when he issued an edict (fatwa) demanding that people take up arms and volunteer to support Iraqi forces in their fight against Daesh. Sistani’s intervention this time appeared gradually and through Friday sermons.

Strongest sermon
The last Friday sermon was the strongest to date, as Al-Sistani’s told his followers: “If those who have power (now), think they can evade real reform, with procrastination, they are delusional. The aftermath of these protests will not be the same as before. They should be careful.”
This was understood by most politicians and observers as a yellow ultimatum, which could soon be followed by a warning of expulsion or paralysis of civilian life.
“We do not interfere with particles. We have constitutional mechanisms that we do not want to get out of, but when we found that these mechanisms were tailored to the size of the existing political forces, we demanded a new electoral law that would ensure a genuine representation of the people and a new electoral commission that people trust will safeguard their choices,” Al-Sistani’s aid said.
“We will not allow things to descend into chaos. This is not an option. Our biggest concern is that the law will weaken further, which means slipping into infighting.”
Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi affairs, reflected by the statements of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was publicly demanding an end to the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, and the involvement of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in the crackdown on protesters, has angered Al-Sistani. This was evident in his three previous speeches.
“We have a real problem: Iraq is negatively affected by the (regional) environment. We will not allow Iraq to be a battleground for any regional or international party ... we will not allow anyone to interfere in the affairs of Iraq, whether it is a friend or an enemy, because all interventions are aimed at serving special ambitions,” Al-Sistani’s aid said.
“He will not leave the people. If the people’s demand is for early elections, then we support early elections, and if they want to change the (political) system, we support it … and if they say that they do not want this government, we support it.
“Our position is clear and unambiguous. We are with the people in what they want ... and Al-Sistani has not used its strongest weapons yet.”