Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate in Baghdad's Tahrir square on October 11, 2021, after the announcement of parliamentary election results. Protests and violence marked the lead-up to the election. Photo: AFP / Ahmad al-Rubaye

Last weekend, in the sixth parliamentary election since US forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, fewer Iraqis than ever voted. The low level of enthusiasm was attributed to a lack of trust in the same old parties and personalities running.

Yes, that was undoubtedly true, but something more fundamental explains the low turnout: Most Iraqis know that the bullet is more powerful than the ballot. Not only does the state wield violence against critics and protests, but so do armed militias that operate beyond government control and public accountability.

For the past two years, state security forces and the unbridled militias joined forces to beat, gun down and generally discourage protesters and assassinate activists involved in anti-government demonstrations. Unprecedented protests broke out in Baghdad first on October 1, 2019, and then spread throughout the south.

The death toll reached about 1,000. Assassins killed about 34 prominent leaders. Scores of other Iraqis disappeared in militia custody.

Out of despair and fright, government opponents and critics of militia activity called for a boycott of the parliamentary vote. Turnout was estimated at 41%, less even than the 43% of Iraqis who voted in 2018, an election that followed earlier outbreaks of disgust with government wrongdoing.

“How do we expect activists to go out there and campaign with a bull’s-eye on their heads?” asked Ruba Ali al-Hassani, a fellow at the US-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “By not providing protections for activists at risk, the government allows campaign suppression.”

The background of the protests is familiar to many Middle Eastern countries. Up to 13% of the Iraqi labor force is unemployed. Many among the demonstrators were hordes of unemployed youth; one in four Iraqis between the ages of 16 and 24 are jobless. About a third of Iraqis live in poverty, according to the United Nations.

An Iraqi voter is frisked by a member of the security forces before entering a polling station in Baghdad on October 10, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ahmad Al-Rubaye

Besides jobs, protesters demanded the provision of basic services – clean water and electricity. They blamed corrupt politicians for the deficiencies and called for an end to Iraq’s sectarian political system that divides spoils and jobs among ethnic and religiously-based parties. 

The state’s response – deadly force – was to be expected. Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein via the US-led invasion, successive governments have spent time looting government coffers, providing work for cronies and supporters, ignoring infrastructure needs, extorting law-abiding citizens and terrorizing helpless minorities.

The violent reaction of militias, which operate out of state control yet are attached to political parties, amounted to self-preservation. Protesters wanted them to disband and terminate their menacing influence on the government and their intimidation of common citizens.

Protesters also railed against Iran, which sponsors armed groups that both exert political pressure on the government and attack the remnants of US forces still operating in the country. The United States, yet an influential player, came in for criticism as an outside meddler.

The growing list of assassinations over the past several months provides a flavor of militia terror. Militant murderers shot down activist Ihab al-Wazni near his home in Karbala. Prominent political commentator Hisham al-Hashimi was shot and killed outside his house in Baghdad. Killers ambushed TV journalist Ahmad Abdessamad, and his cameraman Safaa Ghali, near a Basra police station.

Also in Basra, paramedic Jinan Madzi, who treated wounded protesters, and Riham Yaqoob, a woman physician and activist, died at the hands of militiamen.

After meeting with police in the town of Amarah, activist Amjad Aldhamat was killed while walking home.

Salah al-Iraqi, well-known for taking an active role in rallies, was shot dead in eastern Baghdad. In his last post on Facebook, al-Iraqi wrote: “The innocent die while the cowards rule.”

Officers of the Iraqi Ground Force Command’s 16th Division speak with a member of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, an Assyrian Christian militia on March 5, 2021. There are many militia forces in Iraq. Photo: AFP / Zaid al-Obeidi

Campaigning for individual justice also risks death.

Ahmed al-Hiliji accused an Iran-backed militia called Ansarullah al-Awfiya of kidnapping his son, lawyer Ali Jasib al-Hiliji, in October 2019. Ali Jasib hasn’t been heard from since.

The father repeatedly pleaded with current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to prosecute the killers. On March 10 this year, two gunmen on motorcycles shot and killed Hiliji as he exited a memorial service for another assassinated Amarah activist.

Two main factions dominate Iraq’s militia landscape. Both are embedded in Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslim population and both have attacked anti-sectarian activists and their followers.

One, the Companies of Peace (Sarayat al-Salaam), is headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist-populist cleric. Al-Sadr’s militia fought US occupation troops after the fall of Saddam Hussein and later set himself up as a protector of Iraq’s Shiites against Sunni Muslims, a minority whom al-Sadr’s followers regarded as blanket supporters of Saddam’s regime.

The other, most powerful militia is the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), a pro-Iranian group that rose to prominence in the battle to put down the 2014 uprising spearheaded by Sunni guerrillas of the Islamic State.

Early in the anti-government protests, Popular Mobilization units brutally assaulted demonstrators. Mullahs in Tehran ordered Hashed to help crush Iraqi protests because the demonstrations were too similar to anti-government demonstrations in Tehran and protests in Lebanon that lumped Hezbollah, a client militia and party, with Beirut’s corrupt, sectarian ruling class.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei labeled the Iraqi protests an “enemy plot.”

Sadr initially took the side of the demonstrators, but within a year, fearful of the criticism aimed at sectarian politics, joined Popular Mobilization units to terrorize the protest movement.

In last weekend’s election, both Sadr’s Companies of Peace group and a Popular Mobilization-led coalition called the Fatih (Conquest) alliance, ran candidates.

Predictably, the election produced no majority and opened the way for horse-trading for ministries, jobs and money, a practice widely considered one of the roots of Iraqi corruption. “The tax we pay for sectarianism is huge,” said Talal al-Hariri, founder of a non-sectarian political party named the October 25 movement, which did not field candidates.

Preliminary results put Sadr’s organization in first place with 75 parliamentary seats. Fatih picked up only 16, prompting its leaders to complain of fraud.

With about 35 seats each, the other top finishers were a Sunni bloc called Taqaddum, a Kurdish party and a Shiite organization headed by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. During his 2006-2014 times on office, Maliki also aligned himself with Shiite militias.

 In effect, parties that have dominated Iraqi politics are poised to retain power. Protest veterans insist they will keep pressing for change outside of parliament with the expectation that Iraq was moving from identity politics to the politics of issues.

“A sound framework for understanding Iraq cannot afford to ignore the role of this grassroots movement; it cannot afford to maintain an exclusive focus on Iraq’s old political elites or their interests, positions and calculations,” wrote the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington-based think tank and relief organization. “Foreign actors across the globe, from Tehran to Washington, should take heed.”

Yet, without accountability for past crimes against protest activists and their followers, it is likely that such violence can and will be repeated and keep politics at the mercy of the bullet.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.