'Who killed me?': Iraq's protest movement reignites

Iraqis stand next to a placard depicting renowned anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni, who was shot dead in an ambush earlier this month, as they demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on May 25, 2021. [Getty]
5 min read
Baghdad
31 May, 2021
In-depth: Angry at the lack of accountability over the targeted killing of activists, Iraq's protest movement is taking to the streets again, this time with calls to boycott the next elections.

Months had passed since young demonstrators had last filled Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest government corruption and mismanagement.

On 25 May, after weeks of online mobilisation, pro-democracy activists returned once again to Baghdad’s streets to demand accountability for the killing of over 600 civilians since an anti-government protest movement began in October 2019.

During the same period, at least 35 activists have also been killed in targeted assassinations, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, with social organisers continuing to work under the constant threat of death.

"People are counting on us; we have a fight"

The latest spark for renewed protests was the killing on 9 May of Ihab al-Wazni, who was shot dead in Karbala by unknown assailants.

A prominent activist in the anti-government protest movement, and critic of militias and Iran’s influence, his death sparked outrage in the southern city.

The day after he was killed, prominent journalist Ahmed Hassan was also shot and critically wounded in southern Iraq.

A woman waves an Iraqi flag on 25 May 2021 in Baghdad as protesters from across the country gathered to demand accountability after a recent rise in targeted assassinations. [Getty]
A woman waves an Iraqi flag on 25 May 2021 in Baghdad as protesters from across the country gathered to demand accountability after a recent rise in targeted assassinations. [Getty]

Both attacks served as a reminder of the government’s failure to advance investigations into the killing of pro-democracy activists, as promised by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi when he took power in May 2020.

Since al-Wazni’s murder, the hashtag "who killed me?", accompanied by photos of slain activists, has gone viral on social media networks. Last Tuesday, it was the unofficial slogan of the demonstration.

Thousands of people had gathered in three different locations in Baghdad - Tahrir, Firdos and Nisour squares - with the aim of reuniting in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 2019 protests.

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“We are sacrificing the unity of the movement to keep the protests alive and not to be controlled. Fear of the militias continues,” Hisham Mozany, a protester in Tahrir Square, told The New Arab, referring to when armed militiamen opened fire on protesters in 2019.

While talking, he moves his mask to cover his face. “Sorry about that, I prefer not to be recognised,” he said, looking around him. While the Covid-19 pandemic is still raging in Iraq, most demonstrators choose to wear masks to protect their identities.

Protesters in Baghdad held photos of Ihab al-Wazni and other murdered activists as they demonstrated in Tahrir Square, holding banners with slogans calling for an end to impunity in Iraq while chanting “revolution”.

"The militias are targeting the participants one by one. But we believe in these protests, this is the only way for change"

“Ninety per cent of the people demonstrating are not from Baghdad and this is a strong message for the government,” Hisham said.

Most came from other provinces, in particular the south, where poverty is rife and basic services such as electricity and drinking water remain lacking.

Buses carrying demonstrators from Nasiriyah, Karbala, Najaf, Al Muthanna, Al Qadisiyah, Al Diwaniya, and Basra had begun arriving the night before the 25 May protest.

While some were blocked by security forces, most managed to join the demonstrations.

Mourner at funeral of assassinated Ihab al-Wazni. [Getty]
A mourner at the funeral of anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni, who was killed on 9 May in Karbala. [Getty]

By late afternoon, however, the dynamic at the protest changed dramatically, as security forces fired live rounds and tear gas at the crowds. At least two people were killed and dozens more injured.

Eyewitnesses said there were also reports that protesters had been stabbed by armed infiltrators who had arrived on the protest buses.

“There was no reason to kill people and use live bullets,” Hisham said. “The prime minister does not control those security forces anymore”.

Boycott elections

Activists have responded to the deadly wave of attacks on their movement by calling for a boycott of Iraq’s October elections, with 17 groups so far taking part.  

Most of them had already presented a list of candidates, while others were supporting independent lists.

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Elections were set in response to a central demand of the protest movement that lasted from October 2019 to June 2020, during which demonstrators also railed against Iran's influence in Iraq.

Al-Beit-Al-Watani – the national bloc - is one of the groups calling for a boycott. The political group born from the October revolution had taken steps to participate in the elections, "on condition that they are free and that the security conditions are guaranteed", activist Alaa Sattar, who now lives in hiding, told The New Arab.

Several of his friends, all activists targeted by attacks, have already decided to flee the country, either to Iraqi Kurdistan or abroad. Kadhimi had promised justice, but investigations have stalled.

"Activists have responded to the deadly wave of attacks on their movement by calling for a boycott of Iraq's October elections"

Dhikra Sarsam has been an activist since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Since November 2019 she has coordinated a team of Iraqi journalists to document the killings.

"We have made a list of all the protesters and activists killed since October 2019, we have collected their death certificates and are trying to pressure the government to move forward with the investigations," she told The New Arab.

"And then nothing. The government no longer answers us," she said. Today, most of her activist friends have fled abroad. She herself has received anonymous threats on social media.

“I try to be more discreet when I post on Facebook. But leaving Iraq would be difficult. People are counting on us; we have a fight”.

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Through the internet, Dhikra is in contact with the other protesters. "They are so young," she said, visibly moved.

“And they want to get change without getting into the political system, without getting seats. I don't want them to feel forced into our positions,” said the 50-year-old, referring to her life-long activism.

Despite the dangers involved for this younger generation of activists, Dhikra says what they are doing is vital for Iraq’s future.

 “The militias are targeting the participants one by one. But we believe in these protests, this is the only way for change”.

Sofia Nitti is an Italian video journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq

Follow her on Twitter: @SofiaNitti