The night of December 8, 2019 was a difficult one for civil society activists in Iraq. In a dark alley in Karbala's Old City in central Iraq, masked men armed with sharp objects and guns attacked activist Muntazher Ali Majid as he returned home from a sit-in protest in one of the city’s squares. At the same time, other armed men shot two of Majid's colleagues in the center of the city, killing one and wounding the other.
Over the course of the evening, Muntazher Ali Majid, Ihab Jawad Al-Wazani and Fahim Al-Ta'i had participated in protests, part of the popular movement that had emerged in the country, and then decided to leave the sit-in in Karbala and return to their homes. Just a few steps from the square where they had been protesting, an armed group riding motorcycles attacked the three activists, and then quickly left.
Fearing for Majid's life, one of his colleagues decided to accompany him home in his car. Before arriving at his house, Majid asked his colleague to get out with him and continue on foot, saying he thought it was safe. “But just three minutes later the gunmen returned and attacked me again,” Majid told IranWire in an interview. "I ran toward a police patrol that was in the area. I asked the policeman to raise his weapon to them. They threatened to kill me and my family, and then they left.”
Police then escorted Majid to a nearby police station to protect him before calling his family and urging them them to leave their home with police officers and stay at a relative's house. One police officer tried to calm Majid down, asking him not to frighten his family, "But I told them that we would all be killed that day,” Majid said. Meanwhile, Majid's colleague called to tell him that his friend, Fahim Al-Ta'i, who he wad been with minutes before, had been murdered. His other friend, Ihab Al-Wazani, had also been shot.
This incident is just one of several Majid experienced. About a month later, something similar occurred: Majid left a sit-in, this time accompanied by a member of the Third Regiment of the Iraqi government forces who wad been assigned to protect him. The officer drew his weapon and told the group not to come closer, threatening to shoot, thereby once again saving Majid from assassination.
"Every day when you leave the sit-in at the square to go home you are subjected to an assassination or kidnapping attempt,” Majid said.
”We Will Kill You All"
These incidents have become an almost regular occurrence for popular movement activists in Iraq in general, not just in Karbala. From October 1, 2019 to 31 January, 2020, the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq documented 49 attempted assassinations and 72 kidnappings and forced disappearances of activists and demonstrators.
The protests were against the government, but also against Iran’s increasing influence over politics and society in Iraq.
Many attempted assassinations and kidnappings have been documented on surveillance cameras on the streets and outside shops. One recorded the moment activist Fahim Al-Ta'i was assassinated in the Old City of Karbala, after unknown masked gunmen shot him.
The head of the Karbala Coordination Committee for the independent civil society movement, activist Ihab Jawad Al-Wazani, who was with Al-Ta'i moments before his assassination, talked to IranWire about the incident: "The area Al-Ta'i was assassinated in is considered to be one of the most secure and fortified areas, and is located beyond several checkpoints situated at the entry points to the Old City."
Two days later, this prompted the governor of Karbala, Nasif Al-Khattabi, to take the decision to detain all officers and associates whose responsibilities include the areas in which the assassination of the activist took place, according to a report published by the official Iraqi News Agency.
"The police commander automatically took measures to protect us and some other activists, posting two policemen for a limited period of 15 days close to the house," Al-Wazani said.
Yet the kidnappings and assassinations have not stopped. Last December, in the Sayf Sa'd area in the city of Karbala, activist Dr. Muhannad Al-Ka’bi was injured when an explosive went off under the wheel of the car he was in. In another incident in mid-March, activist Abdul Qaddous Qassim and lawyer Karar Adel were assassinated in the industrial district in the city of Al-'Amara in Maysan Governorate, southern Iraq, after unknown gunmen opened fire on them.
Kidnapping and Threats
Iraqi security services had arrested activist Muntazher Ali Majid, his brother, and his colleague Muhammad Al-Ka'bi on several charges on October 28, 2019. The three activists were arbitrarily detained in a location near the Iraqi government's Crime Directorate, beaten and attacked with knives, and subjected to other physical abuse. The security services subsequently released them following a wave of public anger. Majid was transferred to the hospital, where he received treatment for injuries sustained during torture.
However, a short while later, Majid said he had been accused of "malicious" activities and charged with "burning state institutions, joining an extremist religious party, and other charges” — all of which he says can be punished by the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Against the background of these accusations, Majid turned himself into the Iraqi authorities. "The Iraqi judiciary released me. I knew that the judiciary was fair and just, and that is why I turned myself in,” he said, adding: "They were malicious charges from political parties and personnel that operate within state security institutions affiliated to certain entities. The charges were fabricated against demonstrators, but the matter was not without the knowledge of the judiciary or the Iraqi people."
In another incident in November 2019, Iraqi activist Hassan Al-Bina' Al-Husseini was kidnapped and taken to an unknown location by unknown persons while driving on one of Karbala's main streets.
Al-Husseini told IranWire that he was subjected to severe psychological and physical torture by his kidnappers, who took photographs of him while he was naked in order to blackmail him if he tried to open a case with the relevant authorities.
According to Al-Husseini, the kidnappers accused him of making a video recording of the faces of armed personnel who assaulted demonstrators at Falkat Al-Turbiyah in Karbala. Al-Husseini denied that he had done so, and after checking his cell phone, the kidnappers released him. He was then taken to the hospital.
In November 2019, government forces and personnel dressed in black launched an attack on Falkat Al-Turbiyah in central Karbala, beating protesters and burning tents used for the sit-in.
“The Third Party” and its links to Iran
Hours after the assassination of the activist Fahim Al-Ta'i, and after the attack on Majid and Al-Wazani, the governor of Karbala held an emergency meeting with security service directors about the attacks and the targeting of activists.
According to the Iraqi News Agency, "It was agreed during the meeting that competent security services would urgently and quickly form a task force to arrest the terrorists and bring them to justice."
In an interview with France24 in November 2019, Iraqi Defense Minister Najah Al-Shammari accused parties known under the name the "third party" of being responsible for the killing and kidnapping of demonstrators, without specifying the identity of such parties. Since then, the "third party" has become a common byword to describe groups that kidnap and kill Iraqi demonstrators.
The leader of the 'Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haqq, one of the factions of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, said in an interview with Al-'Ahd TV channel in February: ”The third party is an American-Israeli [entity]."
In reality, however, three sources told IranWire that the third party is made up of military militias of Iraqi parties opposed to the popular protests — the majority of which are linked to Iran.
"The parties that tried to assassinate us have close links to parties that have Iranian external agents," Muntazher Ali Majid said, adding, "We received information from the head of one of the security services in Baghdad that an assassination list noting the names of activists had arrived from Iran."
Majid indicated that these parties are well known, and that since the fall of former president Saddam Hussein's regime, and continuing today, they have been involved in the killing, displacement, and repression of the Iraqi people, and for cultivating sectarianism. Their loyalties lie with Iran.
In a request for an official statement, IranWire contacted the spokesman of the Iraqi joint forces Brigadier Yahya Rasoul, who stated: "This issue is for the competence of the spokesman of the Ministry of Interior."
Over the last two days, IranWire contacted Major General Khaled Al-Muhanna, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, via WhatsApp. Initially he responded to messages. However, following explanations about why IranWire was contacting him and after being presented with questions for which an official response was requested, he stopped responding.
A legal source from a human rights organization inside Iraq, who requested IranWire keep his name and organization anonymous for security reasons, said: "The outlaw militias have clear external links. They are the ones that carry out kidnappings and assassinations against those who threaten their interests.”
He added: "We cannot document information regarding the parties that stand behind these incidents in our records, we only document the victims’ information, given the danger of the situation in Iraq."
The head of the Karbala Coordination for the independent civil society movement, Ihab Jawad Al-Wazani, said, "The parties that stand behind the threats and assassination attempts are sometimes known and sometimes unknown," pointing out that the threat always comes in the same form: "You are cursed and have gone too far."
With continued threats again Iraqi activists, both direct and indirect, some have been forced to distance themselves from sit-ins and activities that oppose the parties and ruling authorities in Iraq. Yet others have pledged to continue their activities and protests.
"The threats have naturally affected me, but they have not stopped me from being involved in my activities,” Al-Wazani said. "I take measures, I have become very careful. I now carry a weapon whereas before I did not. I hope that our security forces will fulfill their role and catch the criminals and try them publicly so that it is a lesson for all and so that such crimes will not be repeated."