Revealed: How Iran led brutal suppression of Baghdad protests

A demonstrator runs between burning tires during a curfew as the nationwide anti-government protests turned violent, in Baghdad, Iraq. (Reuters)
Updated 23 October 2019

Revealed: How Iran led brutal suppression of Baghdad protests

  • Tehran operatives Soleimani and Al-Muhandis directed death squads and snipers to execute Iraqi civilians
  • Al-Muhandis is widely viewed as Iran’s most powerful operative in Iraq, and the man to whom most of the Iranian-backed armed factions owe total loyalty

BAGHDAD: The toll of dead and injured in protests this month in Iraq was so high because security services used “excessive force” and live ammunition without official authority, a damning report on the demonstrations has concluded.

At least 150 were killed and more than 7,000 injured in six days of protests in Baghdad and eight Shiite-dominated southern provinces against corruption, unemployment and non-functioning public services.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi set up a committee 10 days ago to investigate the high casualty rate and identify who was responsible. Its report, disclosed to Arab News on Wednesday, says the security forces’ response was excessive, “which led to an increase in the number of victims.”

The investigation found that authorities gave no official orders for security forces to fire live ammunition, but the report recommends that 45 senior military commanders and officers be dismissed for “losing command and control over their forces,” and that others be referred to the courts “for involvement in firing against demonstrators.”

Nevertheless, the investigative committee’s report was condemned on Wednesday as a whitewash because it scapecoats military officers who are not viewed as loyal to Iran, and it does not name the two men who actually directed the suppression of the protests. They are Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian military leader who commands the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC) of Iran-backed armed factions.

“The report is a farce, and worthless,” a prominent Shiite adviser told Arab News. “Any report that does not reveal the identity of the snipers who killed the demonstrators in cold blood, does not mention those who gave explicit orders to kill, and ignores the names of the real killers, has no value.”

Another critic said the report was flawed for “deliberately omitting to mention many facts, and presenting a number of police commanders and officers who are not pro-Iran as a scapegoat to cover up those who are actually responsible for the massacre.”  

Iraqi security officials have told Arab News how the operation to police the protests was hijacked by Iranian operatives — initially by Al-Muhandis, an Iraqi-born Iranian citizen who is wanted by the US and other countries for his involvement in the bombing of the US and French embassies in Kuwait in 1984, and later by Soleimani himself.

Before the protests began, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi formed a special “crisis unit” of senior government ministers, military leaders and security chiefs. Its aim was “to manage the demonstrations, secure Baghdad, secure government headquarters and diplomatic missions, and prepare for the worst-case scenario — the overthrow of the Shiite-led regime,” sources told Arab News.

However, the unit, which met at the federal police headquarters in Baghdad throughout the protests, was subordinate to the orders of Al-Muhandis. “He was the one who led the operation throughout the days of demonstrations, and he was the one who drafted the Baghdad security plan,” a senior national security official told Arab News.

“For the first two days, he worked with Hamed Abdallahi, commander of the Quds Force special operations unit,”the official said. “On the third day, Qasem Soleimani arrived to take the lead himself.

“Abdul Mahdi did not attend all the meetings, but he visited from time to time to see the latest developments.”

Al-Muhandis is widely viewed as Iran’s most powerful operative in Iraq, and the man to whom most of the Iranian-backed armed factions owe total loyalty. He enjoys the absolute confidence of Soleimani, to the extent that the Quds Force commander stays at Al-Muhandis’s home when he is in Iraq.

The plan proposed by Al-Muhandis for controlling the protests was similar to the plan for securing Damascus for Bashar Assad when it was threatened by the Syrian opposition. It required dividing Baghdad into up to 19 sectors, separated by roadblocks preventing movement from one to another, with troops in each sector reinforced by snipers “to prevent the arrival of protesters … and to spread terror among them,” three sources familiar with the plan told Arab News. He also ordered attacks on the studios of TV news channels to try to prevent footage of the protests being broadcast, along with a campaign to arrest journalists and activists.

“Al-Muhandis did not explicitly say, ‘Kill the protesters.’ I did not hear him at least, but he clearly said that you should treat the demonstrators as warriors,” a military commander who attended several meetings of the crisis unit told Arab News.

“How would any security or military commander understand this? How would he translate it? Of course, by shooting live ammunition and resorting to lethal force.”

Soleimani — referred to as “the general” by Iraqi security commanders and “Hajj” by pro-Iranian politicians — arrived at Baghdad International Airport on the third day of the protests. He was accompanied by a group of up to 30 Iranian and Lebanese “advisers,” all young men dressed in black — T-shirt, pants, sneakers and a black sports hat — and carrying backpacks. There was no insignia on their clothing to indicate who they were working with.

The group arrived on three separate flights and were taken from the airport in vehicles belonging to the PMC.

“Soleimani came to protect Abdel Mahdi, who represents the regime for him,” a prominent Shiite government adviser close to the prime minister told Arab News. “He said it frankly, he protected Bashar Assad in Syria for 10 years and will protect Abdul Mahdi to the end, even if it costs him his life.”

The deadly suppression of the protests, and the political crisis in their aftermath, has revealed the full extent of the control exercised by Iran and its operatives over Abdul Mahdi and his senior staff, security officials, government advisers and politicians told Arab News. 

The brutality of the crackdown in Baghdad, and the Iraqi government’s denial that it deployed snipers or ordered the deliberate killing of protesters, have raised questions about who has the power and the ability to take to the street in full view of the security authorities and carry out executions.

Forensic medical examinations indicate that most of the dead suffered direct head and chest injuries, confirming reports by witnesses and video evidence obtained by Arab News of executions, shots fired by masked gunmen in black uniforms, snipers in tall buildings overlooking the demonstrations and protesters being chased into alleyways, where they were shot in the head from a distance of less than a meter.

Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Al-Sistani, the leader of the world’s Shiite community and the most influential man in Iraq, has expressed dissatisfaction with Abdul Mahdi’s performance. He has condemned excessive violence against the protesters, demanded the identification of their killers, and “is not convinced by the results of the investigation and does not accept them,” according to a source in Najaf, the ayatollah’s power center.

Al-Sistani’s displeasure suggests that the prime minister will not stay in office for long, and that a decision had been made to remove him.

“It’s done,” a close source to the ayatollah told Arab News. “Abdul Mahdi will not be able to provide any satisfactory solutions, and even if he did, it is too late.

“There will inevitably be chaos, and the talk in Najaf now is about how to contain it. Removing Abdul Mahdi is not the real solution, but it will reduce the damage.”


‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 7 min 51 sec ago

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

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“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Shockwaves
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.