Those at the Top of the Death List

This article was originally published by Die Welt on October 17, 2021. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger correspondent for WELT

“I was shocked when the electoral commission announced the results and then changed them again shortly afterwards,” says Ali Mehanna. “Extra machines were bought for voting, so the results would have been known within minutes.” The 24-year-old from Basra is part of the protest movement in Iraq. He complains about a lack of transparency and fairness in the parliamentary elections on October 10th. “You see, the Shiite Fatah Alliance got 14 seats in the preliminary election result, and then suddenly 17 MPs,” says Mehanna. He suspects some kind of damage control behind the scenes.

The pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance has so far lost two thirds of its 43 representatives. Every extra representative in Parliament is of particular importance. And Fatah is powerful enough to be of influence. The Alliance represents a large part of the PMF militias, the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, founded in 2014 originally to fight the Islamic State (IS). The militias allied with Fatah are radical Shiite military units and are closer to Tehran than to Baghdad. They are said to be behind the numerous rocket attacks on US facilities in Iraq.

A State within a State

The militias are also held responsible for the deaths of more than 600 protesters who, since 2019, have taken to the streets in Iraq against corruption, abuse of power and for jobs. The attackers who murdered at least 70 democracy and human rights activists in the country over the past 3 years are also believed to come from the ranks of the militias.

Ali Mehanna is at the top of the militia’s death list. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

The militias in Iraq are a state within a state and conduct legal and illegal business. They have interests in construction companies and banks, and are active in smuggling and in drug trafficking. “As long as the militias are in power, the future of our country will be bad,” Mehanna says thoughtfully. “But maybe something will change with the new government,” he adds. “Twelve or maybe even 15 representatives of the protest movement will be in parliament.” That is not much on a total of 329 seats, , but they could still initiate changes.

Hope – that’s all he and all the other young people in Iraq have left. For more than 3 years they have been demonstrating for a better future. The answer to their demands is always only violence, the “corrupt system” has hardly changed.

Mehanna carefully scans the area before getting out of the taxi, then hurries across the street. At the entrance to the house, he turns around again before disappearing in a dark stairwell. Caution is a must for Mehanna: His name is said to be on a militia death list. “You get used to it,” says the rather skinny activist a little too succinctly.

He was one of the protesters who took to the streets in Basra in 2018. The protests were directed against the pollution of drinking water, the political establishment and against neighboring Iran. Government buildings and Iranian facilities went up in flames. Iran was seen as the key player pulling strings in Basra. In the end, Iran controlled the Shiite militias, who had the oil-rich border town firmly under control. To date, little has changed in this distribution of power, which makes life very dangerous for political activists in Basra. Around 20 of them have now been targeted and murdered in cold blood.

Riham Yacoub was one of them. One year ago on a hot August evening, the young woman and 3 of her friends drove to downtown Basra. They wanted to drink coffee and go shopping. Before Yacoub could park her SUV, a motorcycle stopped next to her. The man on the back of the motorcycle fired without hesitation. Yacoub and 1 of her friends died, the other 2 were injured but survived. Yacoub was only 29 years old. Her crime: she denounced human rights violations, spoke about unemployment, organized protests and seminars for women. Or maybe it was her gym, where women could work out, which was an eyesore to the murderers.

Riham Yacoub in her gym 2 years before her death. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

The last gruesome act in the long list of murders in Basra happened only 3 months ago, when the son of well-known human rights activist Fatima al-Bahadly was murdered. She had received regular threats from local militias.

“None of them should be forgotten,” says Mehanna. In his gallery he shows the portraits of some of the killed activists. Many of them were his friends. Of all lost friends, the deaths of Sara and Hussein Madani are very close to him. “We were close friends. More like family,” he says. “He was a cartoonist and she was an organizer of the protests in Basra.” Masked hitmen stormed the couple’s house in October 2019. Hussein’s entire body was covered with bullets. Sara, his pregnant wife, was killed with 3 head shots. “With a Kalashnikov. Parts of the brain were still stuck to the refrigerator,” Mehanna recalls. “It’s like a war,” he says. “But we do not use weapons, we do everything peacefully.” He has decided to continue, but is more careful, he emphasizes. That’s why he once went underground outside of Basra for 2 months. He came back because of his grandmother’s funeral.

Mahdi Salah no longer dares to take to the streets to protest against oppression and corruption. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

“Yes, there is a death list with a total of 25 names,” says Mahdi Salah, “and Ali Mehanna is right at the top of that list.” He is very close to death, says 28-year-old Salah, who helped organize the protests in Basra 3 years ago. He now lives in seclusion – out of concern for his safety and that of his family. His previously rebellious haircut is gone. The wild upright hair is now cut short and inconspicuously.

“I made a few calls,” he says on the brown leather sofa in his living room. “I learned that there was no protection.” Salah did not want to flee to Northern Iraq like many other friends of his did. He stayed and tried not be noticed. When asked about the parliamentary elections, he says: “There can only be a good future for Iraq if representatives of the youth movement are included in the new government.” Because only they would fight corruption, kick out the militias and prevent foreign forces from meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. That sounds like a good recipe – but it doesn’t seem very realistic.

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow him via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.

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