Rights Groups Sound Alarm on 'Cleansing of Activists' in Iraq

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Mourners carry the flag-draped coffin of Reham Yacoub during her funeral procession in Basra, Iraq, Thursday, August 20, 2020.
Mourners carry the flag-draped coffin of Reham Yacoub during her funeral procession in Basra, Iraq, Thursday, August 20, 2020. Credit: Nabil al-Jurani,AP

Human rights monitors sounded the alarm over a recent spike in assassinations targeting civil rights activists in Iraq's south on Thursday, ahead of a much anticipated meeting between the prime minister and the U.S. president as part of ongoing strategic talks.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi departed for an official trip to Washington this week and is expected to meet with President Donald Trump on Thursday to conclude strategic talks expected to shape the future of Iraq-U.S. ties.

Back home, rockets have continued to target the seat of his government, while assassination plots have targeted more civil activists this month in southern Iraq, compared to the period at the height of the protest movement in October, monitors said. Iran-backed militia groups are widely suspected of perpetrating both.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in October to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and unemployment in Baghdad and across Iraq’s south. Hundreds died as Iraqi forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Activist Reham Yacoub was gunned down in the southern Iraqi province of Basra on Wednesday by unidentified gunmen, a security official and human rights watcher said, marking the second such killing in the span of a week. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, August 17, 2020.Credit: Khalid Mohammed,AP

Activist Tahseen Osama was killed Friday, prompting dozens to take to the streets and block roads. Police responded by firing live rounds at the demonstrators.

Yacoub was a respected activist who took part in many protests in 2018 and October.

“It seems that there is a well programmed cleansing of activists who were influential in the last protest movement,” said Ali al-Bayati, spokesman for the semi-official Iraqi Independent High Commission for Human Rights.

Al-Bayati said the government was also complicit in the killings because of its “silence” and “inability to take real action to stop it.”

A policeman inspects the car of slain activist Reham Yacoub in Basra, Iraq, Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Credit: Nabil al-Jurani,AP

According to the commission, there have been six assassination attempts targeting activists with two killed in Basra in the month of August alone. That represents a jump as the commission recorded 16 attempted targeted killings in the 10 months after the uprising started in October.

A recent government investigation said 560 protesters and security forces were killed in the October movement. The probe drew criticism from activists who said it fell short of naming the perpetrators, who are widely suspected of having links to Iran-backed militia groups.

Al-Kadhimi fired the Basra police chief on Monday and ordered a new probe into the killing of Osama.

In Washington, talks are expected to focus on the future of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Coalition troops have left most bases in a planned drawdown. U.S. officials have also voiced concern over the presence of Iran-backed militia groups.

Following a meeting in Washington with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that armed groups outside of state control “have impeded our progress."

Key energy deals were also signed between Iraq and U.S. companies on the sidelines of the meeting, including with General Electric, Honeywell and Stellar Energy, according to a State Department statement. after Baghdad detailed recent efforts to increase domestic gas supply to reduce reliance on Iran.

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