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.”


Iraq arrests two generals on suspicion of bribery at key port

Iraq arrests two generals on suspicion of bribery at key port
Updated 12 June 2021

Iraq arrests two generals on suspicion of bribery at key port

Iraq arrests two generals on suspicion of bribery at key port
  • In Iraq, every port and border crossing has its corrupt placemen appointed by political parties or armed groups
  • In Umm Qasr, it is mainly pro-Iranian armed groups who dominate through their nominees in the customs department and the security forces, officials say

BAGHDAD: Iraq announced Saturday it has arrested two generals on suspicion of taking bribes to waive customs duties, a practice estimated to cost the state $6.3 billion a year in lost revenues.
Both men worked at the Gulf port of Umm Qasr, a key entry point for imports of foodstuffs and medicines which is reputed to be the most corrupt in Iraq.
The sums allegedly found in their position were tiny given the scale of corruption in Iraq, which is estimated to have cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars since the US-led invasion of 2003.
"$1,000 were found in the office of the general in charge of Umm Qasr North, while the other general had hidden $2,100 in a waste basket in his office," a source in the state anti-corruption body, the Commission for Integrity, told AFP.
"These were bribes intended to facilitate the smooth passage of cargos," the source said.
In Iraq, every port and border crossing has its corrupt placemen appointed by political parties or armed groups, who ensure a steady flow of illicit revenues to their patrons.
In Umm Qasr, it is mainly pro-Iranian armed groups who dominate through their nominees in the customs department and the security forces, officials say.


Algeria votes for new parliament for first time since Bouteflika’s exit

Algeria votes for new parliament for first time since Bouteflika’s exit
Updated 12 June 2021

Algeria votes for new parliament for first time since Bouteflika’s exit

Algeria votes for new parliament for first time since Bouteflika’s exit

ALGIERS: Polling stations opened Saturday in Algeria's first parliamentary election since a popular uprising forced longtime autocratic president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office in 2019.

The vote is meant to satisfy demands of pro-democracy protesters and turn a new leaf for the troubled, albeit gas-rich, country — but which many activists plan to boycott.
Authorities have tightened the screws on the Hirak protest movement in recent weeks, and police arrested a politician and journalist who are prominent opposition figures in the run-up to the voting.
The early election is supposed to exemplify President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s “new Algeria,” with an emphasis on young candidates and those outside the political elite. A huge number of candidates — more than 20,000 — are running for the 407-seat legislature, more than half as independents and the rest on party lists.
It’s the first legislative election since former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced from office in 2019 after 20 years in power amid protests over corruption, joblessness and repression.
But the threat of boycott, worries about the coronavirus and general frustration with the political system mean Saturday’s turnout may be low.
Women make up half of candidates for the first time, among efforts to make a fresh start. But women have been largely invisible from the campaign — and in some cases their faces were blurred or concealed in campaign posters, according to newspaper El Watan.
Candidates had just 20 days to campaign, and Algerian media said real debate on major issues of concern, like unemployment, was mostly absent.
“With such a slew of candidates, the calculation of power is simple: to elect a patchwork assembly, without a majority, which will allow the president to create his own parliamentary majority with which he will govern,” said political scientist Rachid Grime.
A new election authority was formed to run the vote, and its chief said results may take up to 10 days to tally given the large number of candidates and the new system.
Many candidates couldn’t afford campaign posters. Independent candidates like Djamel Maafa, a former TV producer, used social networks to spread his message for lack of access to the funds and logistical structure of big parties.
Parties supporting the Hirak movement called for a boycott because they want a more fundamental political transition.
“Elections in Algeria have always proved that they are not the solution. The solution lies in democratic transition, it also lies in a dialogue around a table in order to solve the crisis,” said activist Sofiane Haddadji.


Abu Dhabi to provide free COVID-19 vaccines to those with expired residency or entry visas

Abu Dhabi to provide free COVID-19 vaccines to those with expired residency or entry visas
Updated 12 June 2021

Abu Dhabi to provide free COVID-19 vaccines to those with expired residency or entry visas

Abu Dhabi to provide free COVID-19 vaccines to those with expired residency or entry visas
  • Prior to the decision, only those with an Emirates ID or valid residency could register to take the vaccine in the capital

DUBAI: Abu Dhabi will provide free coronavirus vaccines to people with expired residency or entry visas to ensure their safety, Abu Dhabi Media Office said in a tweet on Saturday.
“To receive the free COVID-19 vaccine, any type of formal identification, even if expired, can be used to register at the designated vaccination centers,” it added.
Prior to the decision, only those with an Emirates ID or valid residency could register to take the vaccine in the capital.
The decision comes days after the emirate announced the implementation of the ‘green pass’ system of entry into most public places in the emirate.
Starting June 15, visitors to places including malls, large supermarkets, gyms and hotels must show their color code on Al Hosn app to be allowed entry.
“Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Committee has approved usage of green pass on Al Hosn app, based on the emirate’s 4-pillar strategy to combat COVID-19 focused on vaccination, active contract tracings, safe entry and adopting preventive measures,” it tweeted.
The Al Hosn color-coding system has six categories, including fully vaccinated, second dose recipients and first dose recipients waiting for a second dose appointment, Abu Dhabi Media Office said.
The decision covers individuals aged 16 and above.


Gulf, Arab states and organizations hail UAE election to UN Security Council

Gulf, Arab states and organizations hail UAE election to UN Security Council
This United Nations handout photo shows a view of the Security Council meeting at the UN in New York. (AFP file photo)
Updated 12 June 2021

Gulf, Arab states and organizations hail UAE election to UN Security Council

Gulf, Arab states and organizations hail UAE election to UN Security Council
  • The UAE is one of five countries elected to sit as non-permanent members on the Security Council in 2022 and 2023

DUBAI: Gulf and Arab states and organizations hailed the UAE’s election to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2022-2023.
Ali bin Saleh Al-Saleh, Bahrain’s Shura Council Chairman, expressed his pride in the UAE’s achievement.
This confirms the country’s dedicated efforts to promote global peace and security, the official added, in a report from state news agency BNA.
Adel bin Abdul Rahman Al-Asoumi, speaker of the Arab Parliament, expressed his full confidence in the UAE’s ability to face major challenges, wishing the country success, Saudi Press Agency reported.
Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Dr. Yousef bin Ahmed Al-Othaimeen congratulated the UAE, Gabon and Albania for their achievement. He said their winning of seats in the UN Security Council reflects their role in consolidating international peace, SPA added.
Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah meanwhile discussed with UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan during a phone call his country’s full support to the UAE in achieving world peace and security.
Jordan’s foreign ministry, likewise, expressed its support for the UAE in serving common Arab issues and interests and preserving international stability and security, according to state news agency Petra.

The UAE is one of five countries elected on Friday by the UN General Assembly to sit as non-permanent members on the Security Council in 2022 and 2023. The others are Brazil, Albania, Gabon and Ghana, and the new arrivals could potentially shift the power balance within the world body, diplomats predicted.

“The UAE’s campaign for Security Council membership was based on its commitment to promoting inclusiveness, stimulating innovation, building resilience and securing peace at all levels,” state news agency WAM reported.

The country affirmed its firm belief in the importance of building bridges to strengthen relations between members of the Security Council, and rebuilding the confidence of member states in the council’s ability to respond effectively to challenges to international peace and security.

“The UAE has always been ready to assume its share of the responsibility to confront urgent global challenges, in cooperation with the international community, and this was the primary motivation for our campaign for Security Council membership,” said Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation.

“The UAE has committed itself to multilateral action, international law and the UN Charter since its establishment, and the country will continue to adhere to these principles during its membership of the Security Council.

“I am confident that our history and our role as a reliable partner and mediator will enable us to make an effective contribution during the two years that we will serve on the Security Council. We are aware of the great responsibility associated with the membership, the importance of the challenges facing the Security Council, and with determination and perseverance the UAE will be keen to maintain international peace and security.”

Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, the UAE’s permanent representative to the UN, said her country’s role on the Security Council “stems from our belief that our values and principles can help advance progress toward our common goal of international peace and security.”

She added: “During the two years that we will serve on the council, our team here in New York, Abu Dhabi and around the world will work constructively with our colleagues from the member states to overcome divisions and make tangible progress in addressing the most serious challenges, from building resilience to climate change to addressing global health crises and epidemics, and taking advantage of the potential of innovation to achieve peace.”

The UAE will be committed to working as part of the Security Council in a spirit of cooperation and partnership, she said.

FASTFACT

The five new UN Security Council members will start their terms on Jan. 1, replacing five countries whose two-year terms end on Dec. 31 — Estonia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia and Vietnam.

Nusseibeh also congratulated Albania, Brazil, Gabon and Ghana on their election to the council and said she “looks forward to working together to build a more peaceful, secure and inclusive future.”

The five countries will take their seats on the council in January, replacing Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Vietnam, Estonia, Niger and Tunisia.

The shift will change the balance of power within the Security Council, diplomats predicted. One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Brazil and the UAE have strong positions in foreign policy, and Albania, which will sit on the council for the first time in its history, is also a member of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.”

Of the 193 available votes, Brazil received 181, the UAE 179, Albania 175, Gabon 183 and Ghana 185.

The Security Council has 15 members. Five (the US, the UK, China, Russia and France) are permanent members with a right of veto, and 10 are elected, non-permanent members, half of whom are replaced every year.

The UAE joined the UN in 1971, the year the country was founded. The only time it has previously held a seat on the Security Council was in 1986-1987.

– with AFP


15-year-old Palestinian shot dead by Israeli soldiers

15-year-old Palestinian shot dead by Israeli soldiers
Palestinian women mourn during the funeral of Mohammad Hamayel, 15, who was killed during clashes with Israeli security forces in Beita, West Bank, on June 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Updated 12 June 2021

15-year-old Palestinian shot dead by Israeli soldiers

15-year-old Palestinian shot dead by Israeli soldiers
  • Violence in the West Bank increased in early May, with at least 30 Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli forces and in alleged attacks

RAMALLAH: A Palestinian teenager died on Friday after the Israeli Army shot him during clashes in the West Bank, Palestinian medics and the Health Ministry said.
“Mohammad Said Hamayel, 15, died in clashes” with Israeli forces near Beita, south of Nablus, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said six others had been wounded by live gunfire.
The Israeli Army did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.
According to Wafa, the Palestinian news agency, the violence took place during “a public protest against Israel’s construction of a colonial settlement outpost near the village,” to which the army responded with live fire and teargas.

BACKGROUND

The teenager’s death comes a day after three Palestinians were killed by Israeli special forces on a mission to arrest suspected ‘terrorists’ in the occupied West Bank.

Violence in the West Bank increased in early May, with at least 30 Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli forces and in alleged attacks.
That came amid a flare-up in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem that led to 11 days of airstrikes launched by Israel against Hamas fighters in the besieged enclave of Gaza.
West Bank villages often hold Friday demonstrations against land confiscation, house demolitions and Israeli settlements deemed illegal under international law.
The events are often punctuated by clashes with the Israeli army.
Some 475,000 Israeli settlers live in the occupied West Bank, home to more than 2.8 million Palestinians.