Iraq’s protest leaders forced into hiding by pro-Iran militia death threats

An Iraqi protester wearing the DC comic Joker character's mask poses for a picture during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad, November 23, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
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An Iraqi protester wearing the DC comic Joker character's mask poses for a picture during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad, November 23, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
A grab from an AFPTV video taken on August 27, 2020, shows Iraqi activist Ihab al-Wazni, who was killed on May 9, sending supporters of a protest movement onto the streets to demand an end to bloodshed. (AFP/File Photo)
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A grab from an AFPTV video taken on August 27, 2020, shows Iraqi activist Ihab al-Wazni, who was killed on May 9, sending supporters of a protest movement onto the streets to demand an end to bloodshed. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 May 2021

Iraq’s protest leaders forced into hiding by pro-Iran militia death threats

An Iraqi protester wearing the DC comic Joker character's mask poses for a picture during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad, November 23, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
  • October 2019 marked the beginning of the biggest grassroots social movement in Iraq’s modern history 
  • Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and other pro-Iran militias crushed the protests through murder and intimidation

IRBIL/BOGOTA: Mustafa Makki Karim, 24, fled Baghdad for the relative safety of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region last year following a spate of death threats by pro-Iran groups for his role in the protest movement that erupted against government corruption and incompetence in October 2019.

During the unrest that followed, the young activist earned the moniker “Joker” for the clown mask he wore to hide his identity as he and his “Armored Division of Tahrir” defended their camp in Baghdad’s Victory Square.

“I left my life, my family, my friends, my future for my country and for the souls of the people we lost,” Karim told Arab News from the safety of his Irbil bedsit. He took a bullet in his leg and lost sight in one eye after Iraqi troops fired birdshot into the crowd.




Iraqi demonstrators wave national flags as they take part in an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad's Tahrir Square, on December 6, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

Now Karim and others like him have been forced into hiding — nursing injuries he sustained in clashes with security forces and militia thugs, fearful for those who chose to remain behind.

Their fears are hardly unfounded. On May 9, Ihab Al-Wazni, a coordinator of protests in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, was killed outside his home by men on motorbikes. A vocal opponent of corruption and Iran’s influence in Iraq, Al-Wazni was a key figure of the protest campaign.

October 2019 marked the beginning of the biggest grassroots social movement in Iraq’s modern history. Fed up with a corrupt ruling elite, seen as beholden to foreign powers, the young Iraqis who came of age following the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein marched in their hundreds of thousands in cities across the country, demanding the overthrow of the post-2003 order.

Scenes of defiance played out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, with pitched battles between protesters and security forces on the adjoining bridges leading to the fortified Green Zone, where government officials and foreign diplomats watched with unease.

Around 600 people were killed as a result of their association with the protest movement — many on the streets during rallies, others targeted on their doorsteps away from the rallies.

According to Amnesty International, the global human rights monitor, hundreds of people were killed by live ammunition, military-grade teargas canisters and other weapons deemed inappropriate for civilian crowd control. Many soldiers and police officers were wounded by lumps of concrete and petrol bombs thrown by protesters.

“I started to protest to end this corrupt political class,” Karim told Arab News. “My life was totally changed by the protests. I was a university student. I celebrated graduation in Tahrir Square. I used to go from Tahrir to my university to do my exams and then go back to the demonstrations.”




An Iraqi demonstrator draped in his country's national flag stands next to burning tyres during ongoing anti-government protests in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, on February 12, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

The iconic clown mask, popularized by the 2019 US crime thriller “Joker” starring Joaquin Phoenix, has cropped up in protests across the world as a symbol of rebellion against indifferent and sneering elites.

Pro-Iran media outlets in Iraq even labeled the young protesters “joker gangs” and accused them of receiving support from the US to overthrow the Iraqi state. The reality of course was that key branches of the Iranian regime had unleashed their paramilitary proxies on the protesters to maintain their stranglehold over Iraq.

“I used to hide my identity. For a few months, no one knew I was the Joker. But my uncle told the militias about me. He was with Saraya Al-Salam,” Karim said, referring to the Mahdi Army, the erstwhile militia led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.




Demonstrations erupted in October 2019 in Iraq's capital Baghdad and across its Shiite-majority south, railing against government graft and a lack of jobs. (AFP/File Photo)

“Suddenly I was a wanted man at checkpoints and there is a court case against me by Asaib Ahl Al-Haq,” he added, alluding to an Iran-backed militia known to have deployed fighters to Syria in support of the Assad regime.

“The names and pictures of me, my brother, and my cousin were on the street. They were placed there by Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. Our house was attacked with bullets.”

IRAQ: AT A GLANCE

* 30 - Activists who have died since October 2019.

* 12.83% - Unemployment rate.

* 25.17% - Youth unemployment rate.

Source: Statista

Rather than back down, Karim removed his mask. “I took the decision to reveal my identity on TV. I told them who I am and what I do. I and others were on the front line to stop forces who wanted to break into Tahrir Square.”

After initial successes, including the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and having earned widespread international sympathy, the movement began to fragment.

Bereft of clear leadership, divided on strategy, and intimidated by heavy-handed policing and political assassinations, the final nail in the movement’s coffin was the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.




Ahmed Latif Taher, an Iraqi youth forced to flee to the Kurdistan region following pro-Iran militia threats for his role in the protest movement. (AN Photo/Kareem Botane)

On the first anniversary of the “Tishreen revolution” in October 2020, Karim and other activists still camped out in the square attempted to re-energize their dwindling movement. But their attempts to march on the Green Zone were foiled by security forces who retook Tahrir.

With the rebellion quashed by pro-Iran forces and an elite determined to hold onto power at any cost, those who had taken part and openly criticized the all-powerful militias now faced retribution.

As assassins picked off the protest leaders one by one, Karim knew he had to flee. Even his family were forced to move to a different city to avoid collective punishment.

“The militias have called for my death. There is no way I can go back to any Iraqi cities outside Kurdistan,” he said. “I don’t have any future here in Iraq. All militias are chasing me, specifically Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. They want to kill me.”




Mustafa Makki Karim, 24, fled Baghdad for the relative safety of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region last year following a spate of death threats by pro-Iran groups for his role in anti-government protests. Now in Irbil, he swipes through photos of himself in his Joker mask during more hopeful days in Tahrir Square. (AN Photo/Kareem Botane)

And the threats are very real. Thaer Karim Al-Tayeb from Al-Diwaniyah, a town just east of Iraq’s shrine city of Najaf, was mortally wounded by a car bomb for his role in the movement.

“His dream was to have a job with the ministry of oil and to get married to his girlfriend,” Al-Tayeb’s brother Malik told Arab News. “But the militias assassinated him with an explosive device that was put in his car on Dec. 14, 2019.

“He stayed in hospital for nine days before he died. We don’t know who targeted him. We don’t have evidence of who did this. I even met with the prime minister, the minister of interior and the governor of Diwaniyah and security commanders. There were no results. Only fake promises. Instead, I received threats.”

Justice for Al-Tayeb, it seemed, was simply out of reach. “After the death of my brother, a man with his face covered approached me on a motorbike,” said Malik. “He told me that I needed to stop pursuing the case of my brother’s death.”




Thaer Karim Al-Tayeb, from Al-Diwaniyah, a town just east of Iraq’s shrine city of Najaf, was mortally wounded by a car bomb on Dec. 14, 2019 for his role in the movement. His brother is still searching for justice. (AN Photo/Kareem Botane)

Few doubt an Iranian intelligence connection to the campaign of suppression and intimidation, which uses the tactics deployed by Tehran against protesters when they dare rebel.

“Militias and the countries that support them want to create chaos in the country,” said Ahmed Latif Taher, another Iraqi youth forced to flee to the Kurdistan region. “We know the government and the militias are the same.”

But fighting the pro-Iran militias head-on would prove disastrous, he told Arab News. Instead, he wants the international community to keep up the pressure on the Iranian regime so that it ceases its extraterritorial activities in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

“We don’t want to have an armed revolution in any way that will destroy the country. It will be another Syria here. We don’t want that,” Taher said. “They have enough weapons to exterminate the people. They would kill to stay in power. We need a UN intervention to pressure Iran to take its hands off the region.”




Mustafa Makki Karim, 23, wearing face-paint modeled after DC comic book and film character “The Joker,” poses for a picture with a makeshift riot shield bearing text in Arabic reading “Tahrir Shield Division,” during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad in November 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

As Iraq grapples with a fresh COVID-19 wave, with an economy and infrastructure left shattered by decades of war and mismanagement, the grievances of the protesters remain unaddressed.

“I do not regret my participation in the demonstrations,” Karim said as he scrolled through photographs of his masked alter ego on his phone, decked out in body armor in Tahrir Square.

“There is more awareness among people in Iraq after the demonstrations. Day after day we win people over to our side. Even people who work for the militias.”


TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway

TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway
Updated 19 September 2021

TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway

TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway
  • The first tanker ship carried the fuel to Syria and from there it was taken into Lebanon on tanker trucks on Thursday
  • Mikati said on Friday the Iranian fuel shipments constitute a breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty

DUBAI: A third tanker has sailed from Iran carrying Iranian fuel for distribution in Lebanon, TankerTrackers.com reported on Twitter on Sunday.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Friday the Iranian fuel shipments, imported by the Hezbollah movement, constitute a breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
The Iran-aligned group says the shipments should ease a crippling energy crisis in Lebanon.
The first tanker ship carried the fuel to Syria and from there it was taken into Lebanon on tanker trucks on Thursday.
Both Syria and Iran are under US sanctions.


Iran museums reopen after year-long COVID-19 break

Iran museums reopen after year-long COVID-19 break
Updated 19 September 2021

Iran museums reopen after year-long COVID-19 break

Iran museums reopen after year-long COVID-19 break
  • A country with a millennia-long history, Iran has an abundance of 746 museums
  • Iran’s museums attracted more than 21 million visitors in the year before the outbreak of COVID-19

TEHRAN: Iran reopened museums in Tehran and other cities Sunday after a more than year-long closure because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Museums in Tehran and other large cities that are no longer red-coded, meaning the risk of contracting the virus was very high, reopened on Sunday,” the director of Iran’s museums, Mohammad-Reza Kargar, said.
“Tourists and visitors are welcome to return while observing (sanitary) measures.”
A country with a millennia-long history, Iran has an abundance of 746 museums, including 170 in the capital.
“We are absolutely delighted, and we think the people are too because they were fed up with staying home, and visiting museums improves their mood,” Kargar said in his tourism and heritage ministry office.
“We have safety protocols in place of course, and the number of visitors will be dependent on the space at our sites so the public stays safe and healthy.”
Kargar said only students, researchers and staff were allowed into museums during the past 14 months.
Iran’s museums attracted more than 21 million visitors in the year before the outbreak of COVID-19 that forced museums to close in May 2020.
On Sunday, the National Museum of Iran with its magnificent collection of treasures dating back to the Bronze and Iron ages was still deserted.
“We have to wait for the news to spread and schools to reopen for people to come back,” explained Firouzeh Sepidnameh, head of the museum’s pre-Islamic collections.
Iran, the worst-hit country in the Middle East, has confirmed more than 5.4 million cases of coronavirus, including 117,000 deaths, according to figures issued Sunday by the health ministry.
Out of a population of 83 million, 29 million Iranians have received a first dose of vaccination and almost 14 million have been fully vaccinated against the virus.


UN ‘strongly condemns’ Houthi execution of 9 civilians

UN ‘strongly condemns’ Houthi execution of 9 civilians
Updated 19 September 2021

UN ‘strongly condemns’ Houthi execution of 9 civilians

UN ‘strongly condemns’ Houthi execution of 9 civilians
  • Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: Men shot in public did not receive fair trial
  • The US Embassy to Yemen also condemned the “brutal” executions and called for such “barbarism” to end

NEW YORK: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the Houthis on Sunday for executing nine civilians without a fair trial, one of whom was 15 at the time of detention.

Guterres’s spokesman said that the UN chief “deeply regrets” the Houthi executions and “strongly condemns these actions which are a result of judicial proceedings that do not appear to have fulfilled the requirements of fair trial and due process under international law.”

The nine men were shot in the back after they were forced to lie on the floor in public. They were charged with involvement in the killing of the Houthi leader Saleh Al-Samad in 2018 by an Arab Coalition air strike.

The group were accused of putting SIM cards in the pockets of Al-Samad’s guards, helping the coalition locate him.

Al-Samad, then president of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, was visiting Hodeidah in April 2018 to incite residents to join the war when the coalition hit his convoy, killing him along with six others, and inflicting a heavy blow to the Houthis.

Guterres said he opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances and reiterated that “international law sets stringent conditions for the application of the death penalty, including compliance with fair trial and due process standards as stipulated under international law.”

The UN chief called on all parties and authorities to adopt a moratorium on carrying out of the death penalty.

He also urged all everyine to cease violence in Yemen, and work with the UN to revive peace talks.

The US Embassy to Yemen also condemned the “brutal” executions and called for such “barbarism” to end.

Charge d'Affaires Cathy Westley said that “This outrageous action is another example of the Houthis indifference to basic human rights and follows only days after their attack on the commercial port of Mocha.”


UAE daily COVID-19 cases at lowest in over a year

UAE daily COVID-19 cases at lowest in over a year
Updated 19 September 2021

UAE daily COVID-19 cases at lowest in over a year

UAE daily COVID-19 cases at lowest in over a year
  • The UAE government earlier introduced a booster shot drive for fully vaccinated individuals

DUBAI: Daily coronavirus cases in the UAE were at their lowest in over a year on Sunday, with the Gulf state’s high vaccination rate among its population ensuring community immunity against the highly transmissible disease.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention  (MoHAP) confirmed that 391 people had tested positive in the last 24 hours, the lowest since Aug. 30 last year with 362 cases, as well as two deaths due to COVID-19 complications.

The number of people who have tested positive in the UAE since the pandemic started stands at 732,690 with 2,075 fatalities.

MoHAP earlier said 91.93 percent of its almost 10 million population have received at least a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – one of the fastest vaccination campaigns in the world – while 81.08 percent of residents and citizens have been fully vaccinated.

The UAE government earlier introduced a booster shot drive for individuals who were inoculated particularly with the Sinopharm vaccine to increase immunity against the virus.

A total 19,412,656 doses have been administered so far, for a vaccine distribution rate equivalent to 196.28 doses per 100 people.

The continued decline in COVID-19 numbers in the UAE has prompted Abu Dhabi to lift COVID-19 testing requirements for residents before they are allowed entry into the emirate.

The COVID-19 checkpoint at the Abu Dhabi-Dubai was removed just after midnight on Sunday.

The decision follows the announcement of a decreased COVID-19 infection rate in the emirate of 0.2 percent of total tests and the activation of the green pass system to enter some public places, the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Committee said in a statement.

The committee also approved home quarantine without the use of wristbands for international travellers and those in contact with positive cases.

COVID-19 positive individuals in the emirate are however still required to wear a wristband as part of monitoring to ensure compliance with precautionary measures.


Oman to open mosques for Friday prayers to those vaccinated

Oman to open mosques for Friday prayers to those vaccinated
Updated 19 September 2021

Oman to open mosques for Friday prayers to those vaccinated

Oman to open mosques for Friday prayers to those vaccinated
  • Those who meet the requirement can apply for a permit online to attend Friday prayers

DUBAI: Oman will allow people who received two doses of the covid-19 vaccine to perform Friday prayers at mosques from next month, the sultanate said Sunday. 

The country’s Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs that those who meet the requirement can apply for a permit online to attend Friday prayers. 

The ministry also said it will form a team of volunteers to verify that those entering the mosque have taken two doses of the coronavirus vaccine.

The mosques and its annexes will be operated at 50 percent of their capacity while maintaining social distancing will remain a must. Attendees will also be required to being their own prayer rug and wear a mask.