Serial Murder of Young Progressives Plagues This Looming Election
Ehab was killed in his car. Abbas was shot on his way to a funeral. Zahra faces constant death threats. In Iraq, young activists are getting hunted down, one by one.
BAGHDAD—The spot where Ehab al-Wazni was gunned down is just out of reach of the security cameras that project onto a TV screen in the corner of his family’s living room. His mother Samira casts a nervous glance at the screen whenever the sound of an engine echoes down the narrow alleyway that leads to their house in the Iraqi city of Karbala.
“Why did you kill him? What did he do to you? Did he hurt you? He did nothing wrong,” she bursts out during an interview with The Daily Beast, after looking at her son’s portrait arranged next to the TV.
Wazni was on his way home in the early hours of May 9 when two men on a motorbike pulled up next to his car. CCTV footage shows one man unloading a silenced pistol into the white sedan, shooting its driver three times in the head and twice in the chest. The men speed off into the night, leaving their victim slumped in his seat.
One of Iraq’s most prominent political activists, Wazni knew he was living in the shadow of death.
The prime minister had promised to investigate a wave of killings that has swept the country. The victims are often young, politically active Iraqis, and Wazni’s death is one of countless that have gone unpunished.
The failure to rein in the killers is jarring to many citizens who believe the government knows who the culprits are. Powerful Iraqi militias, unshackled from state control, have been linked to the murder of hundreds during mass protests that engulfed Iraq in October 2019. Seeing their position under threat in upcoming elections, they are now suspected of picking off protest leaders, one by one.
Only a few make the headlines. Dr. Riham Yacoub, a human rights activist and protester, was shot in Basra last August. A few months later, the Baghdad activist Salah al-Iraqi was gunned down. Even family members are not off-limits. Ali Karim, the son of women’s rights advocate Fatima al-Bahadly, was kidnapped on July 23. His body was found a day later.
When hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets to protest rampant government corruption, high unemployment, and Tehran’s influence in Iraqi politics, 45-year-old Wazni quickly emerged as a leading figure. He pitched a tent in front of the governor’s building in Karbala, firing up the crowd with impassioned speeches. His acerbic social media posts ruffled the feathers of government officials and gave impetus to young Iraqis hooked on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
“We protested to put an end to corruption, to establish rule of law, and not live in a country where the militias rule,” says his brother, Ali. He and his mother decided to speak to The Daily Beast despite receiving frequent anonymous threats warning them to remain silent over Wazni’s killing.
Militia groups have existed in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 plunged the country into chaos and sectarian strife. When the Islamic State conquered vast swathes of the country in 2014, Shia militia groups stepped in as the army collapsed. They emerged from the war against ISIS as a force to rival official security forces, with their tentacles reaching deep into government. Some have their own parties. Many have strong ties to Iran, increasing Tehran’s sway in Baghdad.
Many of the estimated 700 demonstrators killed in what became known as the Tishreen protests fell at the hands of the militias. Despite the bloodshed, protests brought down the government of then-Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi and forced the promise of early elections due in October this year.
This has unsettled the militias, who worry that the Tishreen movement poses a threat to the tangled web of party politics and corruption they inhabit.
“They are killing for power, they are killing for money, for control of this rich country,” Alaa al-Rikaby, a candidate for the reformist Emtidad party, told The Daily Beast.
One young Iraqi activist, Abbas Subhi, can count himself lucky: the bullet that was intended to take his life missed his heart by a couple of inches. The 32-year old from the southern city of Basra was on his way to the funeral of a fellow protester last August when a car began tailing him and his friends. When they stopped to pick up another friend, a man emerged from the car behind them and began spraying bullets from an AK-47. Abbas made it to the local hospital, but left after just five days when he noticed the hitman’s car circling the building. After hiding in his family’s house for two months, too badly wounded to even use the toilet by himself, he fled to Turkey. He is one of many activists who have fled Iraq, fearing for their lives.
Years of pent-up anger over government failure was unleashed in October when the protests reached Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and only major port. Surrounded by oil wells producing most of the country’s revenue, it should be a prosperous place. Instead, polluted drinking water is poisoning its population and round-the-clock blackouts make the sweltering summers unbearable. Its historic canals reek from sewage and are covered with waste. Iraq’s chronic corruption and mismanagement has not only rendered the city’s infrastructure useless; it’s also leaving thousands of young people without decent jobs. Leaving college with a degree in economics, Abbas had to scrape a living selling household items at the local bazaar.
In protests that stretched into 2020, government buildings were set ablaze and the Iranian consulate was torched in Basra. The intensity of the protests prompted a fierce backlash.
“There were undercover intelligence officers spying on protesters in the square, they drew up a hit list,” says Abbas. “They have started specifically targeting activists.”
The Tishreen movement has responded to the continued slaughter by doubling down on its message of non-violence.
In the nearby city of Nasiriyah, Alaa al-Rikaby was appalled when he saw protesters getting killed by the dozens. The 47-year-old clinical pharmacist decided to commit himself to politics to try and bring about change at the ballot box.
He is under no illusions over the risk he is taking.
“We could be killed today, we could be killed tomorrow. We expect this to happen any time, because those militias are not happy that we are competing with them in parliament,” he says.
Rikaby tries to keep safe by constantly changing locations and staying away from his family home for long periods. Already hamstrung by a lack of resources, a life on the run makes effective campaigning almost impossible. Still, he hopes that Emtidad and other reformist parties will gain a share of seats in the upcoming election, and to expand their presence in parliament in future ballots.
The problem, he acknowledges, is gaining the trust of voters in a country where mistrust in the political system is pervasive.
“Corruption is an infection. And every politician is infected with corruption. It’s very hard to convince people that not everyone will get infected, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
Despite the uphill struggle, Rikaby is determined to stick at it, and give his life to the cause if need be.
“This is your country. You can choose to accept this situation that you can’t stand for, or you can choose to emigrate. Or you can choose to stay in Iraq and fight, with peaceful measures, for change. Not for us perhaps, but certainly for our children,” he says.
Zahra, a young hospital worker who spoke to The Daily Beast using an alias, had taken leave from her job to tend to the wounded on Baghdad’s iconic Tahrir Square, the beating heart of the protests in the Iraqi capital. The petite 25-year-old also documented the protests with her camera and posted the pictures on Instagram.
Like many of the Tishreen protesters, Zahra grew up in post-invasion Iraq marred by the horrific sectarian conflict that pitted the countries Sunnis and Shias against each other. One of her early memories is of seeing the body of a man sprawled on the sidewalk, guts hanging from his torso, on her way to school. Her childhood trauma led her to denounce violence and sectarianism, and to keep up her social media activism even after the protests petered out last year.
But her online presence has made her a target.
“It is very dangerous. I get threats on direct messages. But I don’t care about my life. We lost so many lives, my life is not really important. I died from the moment I saw that man with his organs out of his body,” she says.
Real change will not come from guns nor the ballot box, Zahra believes. It will come from changing the mindset of Iraqis.
“You say that Tahrir is over, I believe that it’s not over,” she told The Daily Beast. “It has become an idea.”