Young people who want to overcome party and religious boundaries die in several terrorist attacks. Iran-paid militias are suspected of being behind it.
“Nobody represents us, nobody lives the life we have to live. Nobody stands up for us,” a female activist said into the camera. Since 2018, the doctor and fitness trainer has been campaigning for better living conditions in her home country. This summer, tens of thousands had to go to the hospital because only salty drinking water gushed out of the tap, in oil-rich Basra. The people blamed the corrupt central government and Iranian influence in the country for the poor living conditions, corruption and mismanagement. Little has changed since 2018, the activist continued. Her voice mobilized hundreds of women.
Passing motorcyclists killed the woman fighting for human living conditions in her car last week. At her funeral, the women of Basra wept for her. People spread the Iraqi flag on her coffin. She symbolizes her wish for a new Iraq in which party and religious borders are unimportant.
Her name was Reham Yacoub and she is only the latest victim in a series of murders against activists and government critics in Iraq. Five days before her murder, Tahsin al-Shahmani, a well-known activist and father of three, was killed with 20 bullets in his internet shop in Basra. Since then, the people of the city have been on the streets. Last week they set the local administration building on fire and demanded the resignation of Governor Asaad al-Eidani. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi promised to bring the perpetrators to justice, dismissed the Basra police chief and visited the family of the killed Reham Yacoub. But then the anger spread to other cities. In neighboring Nasiriya, demonstrators set fire to offices of the Iranian Daawa party and Shiite militias. The demonstrators blame them for the most recent series of murders.
Human rights activist Ali al-Mikdam is one of the few Iraqis who can speak about the series of murders in his home country. After being threatened several times, the 21-year-old recently fled into exile to Turkey, as he said on the phone. “Everything indicates that the attacks were carried out by the pro-Iranian militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. They always pursue the same strategy,” says al-Mikdam and tells of hate speech and slander campaigns targeted by militias and the media.
Reham Yacoub came into the crosshairs of the Iranian news agency Mehr News Agency in 2018, when she was photographed with the consul at the US consulate in Basra. In the article, she is accused of training women to riot. A few days ago MP Kadhim al-Sayadi spoke about this picture live on Iraqi television. Reham Yacoub is not an activist, but a collaborator, he tells the television station Ahad TV. There is no reason to meet a US diplomat, he said. “With that, he excuses the murder of Reham,” says Ali al-Mikdam. “Anyone who speaks out publicly against Iranian influence is seen as an enemy, a traitor, a Zionist, an American.” He believes that young people have seen through this game by now. Young Shiite Muslims from Baghdad to Basra have long been revolting against Iran, which poses as their protective power. They see the system of proportional representation, which divides power among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, as the main cause of the widespread corruption, similar to the proportion system in Lebanon.
“Personally, I don’t like the question of whether I’m Sunni or Shiite,” says al-Mikdam. “The young Iraqis see themselves primarily as Iraqis.” During the mass protests in Iraq at the end of last year, known as the October Revolution, the 21-year-old slept in a tent on Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. When the Iraqi government and Iran-controlled militias reacted to the protests with brutal force, it welded the people even further, says al-Mikdam.
More than 500 Iraqis were killed at the time. The latest series of attacks now also puts Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in distress, who has only been in office since May and was a close friend of the murdered terrorist expert Hashemi. Al-Kadhimi recently awakened hope in the demonstrators of the last year’s protests, when he had the headquarters of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia storm in al-Dora in southern Baghdad by an anti-terrorist unit. But when militia officers marched heavily armed in the strictly guarded Green Zone of Baghdad’s government district, the arrested were released. Al-Mikdam considers the move to be “brave”, but believes the prime minister gave in too quickly. “The people have now seen that al-Kadhimi is not the one who makes the decisions in this country,” he says. In an interview with the Emirati daily The National, the prime minister now promises a complete investigation of the series of murders and announced serious steps against those groups that “believe they are above the law”.
Ali al-Mikdam has little hope that the prime minister will succeed. He believes the protests will flare up again in October. “The youth know that the country has to change radically,” says al-Mikdam. The state of the political system in Iraq reminded him of a corpse: “Everyone is trying to lift it up, to perfume it, to revive it. But in the end it is a dead body that has to be buried.”