Murder and kidnapping in Iraq

An inexorable tide

In today's Iraq, there is no force more powerful than the militias and no voice louder than those who seek to drive a wedge between the religious denominations, says Iraqi writer Safaa Khalaf

There are no exact figures on the number of murders and kidnappings committed in Iraq; the authorities there are not interested in the long-term documentation of this kind of bad news, which has become a daily occurrence. For its part, the Iraqi press only really pays attention to such matters when there is a major public outcry. When they do, they initially "have no choice" but to relay the official version of events as related by the authorities, before subsequently replacing this version with a story dictated by their financial backers, who are either politically affiliated to them or allied to certain militias.

This "story" is then disseminated via the social networks, which mechanisms ensure that every event is only touched upon superficially, before being buried beneath an avalanche of new stories. A never-ending stream of new stories not only sates the hunger for sensationalism, but also stokes tension between the different religious denominations, fanning the flames of agitation that may ultimately lead to kidnapping and murder.

A hotbed of crime

Iraq – whose famous two rivers, the lifeblood of the country, are slowly drying out unheeded – has become a hotbed of crime, where murder and its subsequent justification has developed into a dubious art.

In this chaotic mire of violence and crime, the state and the authorities have degenerated, directly reflecting the ugly face of populism and sectarianism, thereby turning Iraqis into the victims of the ever-expanding machinery of death. They lack both the deeper knowledge and the discernment that would allow them to understand the connection between terrorism, social violence, and their causes with relation to the countless victims involved.

Fourteen years have passed since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled by an occupying power and a "new" one was installed. Already infected with the corrosive virus of the "old" regime, what little  feeling of national unity that remained was killed off by the "new" regime. Throughout this period, successive governments and their ministries have failed to set up an official archive project that provides the public with reliable statistics about victims in Iraq.

Car bombs remain an everyday feature of life in the Iraqi capital (photo: Reuters)
Caught in a vicious circle of sectarian violence: "Iraq – whose famous two rivers, the lifeblood of the country, are slowly drying out unheeded – has become a hotbed of crime, where murder and its subsequent justification has developed into a dubious art," writes Iraqi publicist Safaa Khalaf

Were it not for the statistics on the victims of violence in cities that are published once a month by the United Nations in Iraq (UNAMI) and the website "Iraq Body Count", which records the number of Iraqis killed, categorises each killing and researches the identity of the victims, it would be impossible to obtain any reliable figures about the phenomenon that is Iraq's rampant violence.

The government's opposition to UNAMI's monthly publication of figures about the number of victims, which in December 2016 also included the number of soldiers killed during the operation to retake Mosul, is evidence of the ignorance and boundless incompetence of the authorities. It is a typical example of its efforts to block the publication of reliable figures.

Against the backdrop of the increasing threat of militarisation and the arming of the most diverse groups, the government's opposition makes it patently clear just how much it fears that the consequences of its security policy failures will come to light.

Death as the harbinger of a new regime

On 10 April 2003, a purge swept through Iraq. Initially intended to eliminate supporters of Saddam Hussein's regime, it quickly developed into an organised but indiscriminate killing machine that hunted down Baathists, members of the security forces and the military, and fighter pilots alike. It also targeted artists and intellectuals, not to mention opponents of the toppled regime who had joined the opposition to the new regime.

The first victim of a series of high-profile assassinations was Abdul Majid al-Khoei, the son of the Shia Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei. He was murdered on the square in front of the Ali Mosque in Najaf. It was a horrific attack that showed where Iraq was heading, an Iraq where the fight to seize power eventually got out of control.

On 29 August of the same year, the chairman of the former Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, was killed by an explosion at one of the entries to the very square where al-Khoei had been assassinated. Less than a month later, on 25 September 2003, Aqila al-Hashimi, who served on the Iraqi Governing Council, was shot dead by persons unknown outside her home in western Baghdad. According to her killers, she had to die because she did not wear a veil and was an outspoken supporter of secularism.

On 17 May 2004, Ezzedine Salim, president of the Iraqi Governing Council, was killed when his convoy was rocked by an explosion at the entrance to the Green Zone in Baghdad. His assassins melted into the undergrowth of the countless armed groups in the country.

These political assassinations were just the beginning of the bloodshed that has continued under a variety of different banners for 14 years. Baghdad and the cities in southern Iraq were and still are particularly badly hit by assassinations like these and kidnappings. Any attempt to solve these crimes can mean years of dangerous investigations that could end in the death of the investigators.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Culture of violence: for eight years, Nouri al-Maliki, who had the support of Iran, remained in power in Iraq. During this time, he did not succeed in guaranteeing even a minimum of public services and law and order. This led to political and social protests in a number of Iraqi cities, to which al-Maliki's government responded with excessive violence and the intimidation of opponents

Al-Maliki's violence against his own people

For eight years, Nouri al-Maliki, who had the support of Iran, remained in power in Iraq. During this time, he did not succeed in guaranteeing even a minimum of public services and law and order. This led to political and social protests in a number of Iraqi cities – Shia and Sunni cities alike. Al-Maliki's government responded to these demonstrations with excessive violence. Opponents were intimidated and criminally prosecuted. The government even went so far as to have opponents abducted or killed. These measures led to a climate of violence that was reminiscent of the brutal rule of the Baath Party.

On 25 February 2011, hundreds of thousands of people in Baghdad and other cities across the country took to the streets in protest. They were protesting not only about the failures at a political level and al-Maliki's attempt to rule alone, but also about the government's inability to ensure law and order and provide functioning public services.

The demonstrations, which began in Shia districts, were brutally crushed. Moreover, the security forces used disproportionate force to clear the biggest demonstration of all on Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Activists who took part in the demonstration were persecuted, imprisoned and detained for several days in secret detention centres and other unofficial places. Such treatment is nothing less than kidnapping and torture with the intention to intimidate.

The best known victim related to this spontaneous uprising against corrupt authorities was the journalist and actor Hadi al-Mahdi, who was assassinated on 8 September 2011 in his flat in the Baghdad district of Karrada. Moreover, Jalal al-Shahmani, who took part in the demonstrations and was kidnapped on 23 September 2015 in Baghdad, went missing without trace. It is assumed that he was killed by his "unknown" kidnappers.

Climate of impunity

State institutions generally use the term "unknown" when referring in official statements to kidnappers or assassins. Although human rights and civil society organisations condemn the crimes, they avoid mentioning the perpetrators by name in their statements, even though the perpetrators are known. After all, the authorities are in contact with them in order to negotiate the release of the kidnap victims – or to at least find out more about the fate of those who were killed.

Sunni tribes from Ramadi demonstrate against the Maliki government on 23 December 2012 (photo: Joy Bhowmik)
Resisting Shia dominance in politics, state governance and the armed forces: against a background of sectarian tension, Sunni tribes from Ramadi demonstrate their distrust of the al-Maliki regime on 23 December 2012

By not revealing the names of the perpetrators, the government and civil society organisations are not only intentionally keeping everything under wraps, they are virtually encouraging the armed groups that are spreading like a cancer throughout Iraq's cities to professionalise their terror operations. This is compounded by the climate of impunity and a civil society that has folded in the face of the effective tactic of non-stop intimidation and inactivity by the authorities.

Both the kidnapping of the journalist Afrah Shawqi (abducted on 27 December 2016 and released a week later) and the kidnapping of seven activists (abducted in the early hours of 8 May 2017 from their home in Saadoun Street and later set free in a remote field north of Baghdad) and other similar cases in the southern districts demonstrated that the perpetrators had changed tack.

These cases highlight not only the helplessness of the authorities, but also their entanglement: in both cases, the perpetrators were known to them. However, in neither case did they try to enforce the law, or charge the perpetrators and declare them terrorist militias, or encourage the victims of the kidnapping to bring charges against the perpetrators so that they could be brought to justice. Instead, the authorities protected the perpetrators against criminal prosecution.

In the end, the victims heeded the threats of their kidnappers and the recommendations of the security forces not to reveal the identity of their kidnappers in order to avoid public unease about the role of the militias in the fight against terror and to ensure their own safety. And so it was that, for the first time, both the authorities and the kidnapped "thanked" the kidnappers for the "favour of having spared the victims' lives".

Militias against society

Above all, the uninhibited and anarchic armament on the streets of Iraq has strengthened a few armed groups that have now become more powerful than the state and the authorities. Their systematic terror is equal in every way to the terror of the so-called "Islamic State" and is perhaps even an extension of it. It certainly encourages this terror by weakening the state.

Car in Iraq bearing the message ″No to sectarian division″ (photo: DW)
No to sectarian division: when it comes to intimidating their rivals, militia groups in particular are happy to indulge in sectarian violence. Moreover, social media has become a hub, both for those seeking to drive a wedge between the religious denominations and for the "online mercenaries", who agitate against any voice that is raised in protest at their destructive agenda in order to silence them. The armed groups, for their part, feel that this agitation is an appeal, entitling them to kidnap or even murder anyone who disagrees with them

However, in order to put a stop to the jihadist terrorist groups in particular, it is vital that the use of illegal weapons from abroad in the fight against terror be stopped, not the other way around. After all, sooner or later, these weapons will be turned on Iraqis themselves – particularly on those calling for a civilian state who are working against the power cartel to which the political parties and police belong.

Weapons are being used to force people to accept these groups′ extremist vision of the world, with the aim of creating a one-dimensional and closed-off society in which people buy into their extremist interpretations of religion – a society divided along ethnic, denominational and geographical lines. Finally, these weapons will also be used to drive civil society and democratic forces out of the cities, so that the dream of securing autocratic rule can finally come true.

Kidnappings, murders, persecution and agitation ... all of this is violence perpetrated by the armed militias and their supporters. And let′s not forget the writers and journalists on their pay lists who assume the tawdry task of monitoring any free and rebellious voices, disparaging them and stirring up feeling against them in the social networks.

Indeed social media has become a hub, both for those seeking to drive a wedge between the religious denominations and for the "online mercenaries", who agitate against any voice that is raised in protest at their destructive agenda in order to silence them. The armed groups, for their part, feel that this agitation is an appeal, entitling them to kidnap or even murder anyone who disagrees with them. Facebook has become a lethal place to be.

A terrifying power

Recent months in Iraq have been marked by excessive agitation campaigns against anyone who came into the crosshairs and had to be silenced. After each of these campaigns, it becomes clear that there has been another kidnapping: the people targeted are activists, writers, journalists, artists, not to mention normal people who have the temerity to express an opinion.

If those kidnapped happen to be well known, there is at least the hope that they will get off lightly and will ultimately be released. Those who are not well known, on the other hand, often end up dead in a rubbish dump, as was the case with the actor Karar Nushi. One of these agitation campaigns cost him his life.

Recapturing Mosul from Islamic State (photo: Reuters)
Al- Maliki is accused of having contributed to the rise of IS. Pursuing a strictly sectarian line, he excluded the Sunni Arabs, favoured by Saddam Hussein, from the process of rebuilding Iraq. All the positions of power were occupied by Shias. This is one reason why many Sunnis initially welcomed the IS jihadists as saviours when they began conquering sections of the country in 2014

With the same zeal, the mob targets young people like Naba al-Jubouri, who was blackmailed with compromising material.

An unknown person, who is assumed to have been in a relationship with the teenager, posted videos and images on the Internet that showed her in private and intimate moments. When the material spread, the "Facebook apparatus" reacted with condemnation. The leaked images and videos were spread with a view to calling the young woman's "virtue" into question. Naba al-Jubouri was murdered a short time later. Thanks to the prevailing patriarchal social system in Iraq, the real criminal remained a free man.

In today's Iraq, there is no force more powerful than the militias and no voice louder than those who seek to drive a wedge between the religious denominations. In this country, it is not considered legitimate to adopt a stance that runs contrary to the views of the armed groups. Murder and kidnapping are the unavoidable result of the disintegration of a state that is trying not to crumble in the face of signs of political and social collapse, intervention from abroad, and militias and groups that are dictating security policy.

The horror caused by the illegal weapons circulated by the militias, which is currently being experienced even in those cities in Iraq not previously plagued by conflict, is not only a serious problem for law enforcement and the principle of the rule of law, it also hampers economic and social progress and prevents an improvement in the appalling services that constitutes Iraq′s public sector.

Safaa Khalaf

© Qantara.de 2018

Safaa Khalaf is an Iraqi publicist and author.

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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