Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

Iraqi activist Hajjar Youssif hands out masks to protesters for a demonstration last week in Basra. (AP)
Updated 23 September 2018
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Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

  • Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals

BASRA: Hajjar Youssif was on her daily commute to work, staring at her phone and flicking through her Instagram account when she looked up to find herself in an unusual location. The taxi driver had turned into an alley. When she questioned the driver, he sped up.
“I started to feel uneasy and knew that something bad was going to happen,” said the 24-year-old office administrator, who had taken part in protests over lack of clean water, frequent power cuts and soaring unemployment in her hometown of Basra, Iraq’s oil capital and main port.
She yelled and tried to open the door, but the driver had locked it. The taxi swerved into a courtyard where three masked men were waiting.
“They immediately told me, ‘We’ll teach you a lesson. Let it be a warning to other protesters’,” Youssif said in an interview several days after the incident.
The men slapped and beat her and pulled off her Islamic headscarf, she said. “At the end, they grabbed me by my hair and warned me not to take part in the protests before blindfolding me and dumping me on the streets,” she said, her cheeks still bruised.
Youssif believes the attack was part of what she and other activists describe as a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people in southern Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland.
Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals.
Earlier this month, protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and torched government offices, the headquarters of the Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Consulate in Basra — in a show of anger over what many residents perceive as Iran’s outsized control over local affairs.
The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of the militias, which played a major role in retaking Iraqi territory from Daesh militants, who are Sunni Muslims.
Shortly after IS militants captured much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, tens of thousands of Shiite men answered a call-to-arms by the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Many volunteers were members of Iran-backed militias active since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, while others formed new groups. These fighters are credited with helping government forces defeat the extremists. But during the war, the militiamen were also accused by Sunnis and rights groups of abuses against the Sunni community, including killings, torture and destruction of homes.
Buoyed by victory against IS, some of the most feared Shiite militias took part in the May national elections and their list — Fatah — won 48 seats in the 329-seat Parliament.
Fatah and other factions formed a wider Iran-backed coalition in Parliament earlier this month and will likely be tasked with forming the new government.
In Basra, some alleged the militias were working with local authorities to quell the protests — a charge denied by Bassem Al-Khafaji, head of Sayyed Al-Shuhada, one of several Basra militias.
He said threats and intimidation of protesters were “individual acts,” but not the result of a central directive.
“Our order for all the factions in Basra ... is not to confront the protesters who burned down the offices of the militias,” Al-Khafaji said, arguing that the militias are trying to prevent more bloodshed.
He accused infiltrators of turning the protests violent and said the alleged saboteurs must be dealt with by the security agencies.
Some militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the US, which has long worked to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
A local leader of a prominent militia vowed to retaliate.
“We have pictures of those who burned down our headquarters and they will pay dearly,” he said on condition of anonymity in line with his group’s rules for speaking to the media. “We will not let them attack us again and if they do we’ll open fire. That’s what we’ve agreed on, all of us.”
The government has said protesters’ demands are legitimate, but claims infiltrators were behind the violence.
A senior official in the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service said dozens have been arrested since the protests began. He acknowledged that others may be held by political parties and their militias, but said his office has no way of tracking that. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.


Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

Updated 8 min 34 sec ago
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Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

  • The event will focus on ‘harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict’
  • Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to attend a critical four-way summit on Syria in Istanbul next Saturday. 

They will discuss recent developments in the war-torn country as well as projections for a political settlement.

Experts have underlined the importance of this summit in providing a strong push for key EU countries to work together with regional players to end the years-long conflict in Syria as it will gather the four countries’ leaders at the highest level.

The summit will focus on the recent developments in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, and the parameters of a possible political settlement.

The ways for preventing a new refugee inflow from Idlib into Europe via Turkey, which is home to about 3.5 million Syrian residents, following a possible offensive by the Assad regime will also be raised as a topic that mainly concerns France and Germany and pushes them to work more closely with Turkey and Russia.

The summit will also aim at “harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict,” presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin announced on Friday.

Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province. Although the withdrawal of some opposition groups from the zone has not been accomplished in due time, Ankara and Moscow have agreed to extend the deadline for Idlib, which is still a strategic area where the opposition holds out.

“Turkey and Russia want the status quo for Idlib. Although the jihadists have not withdrawn from the demilitarized zone, Russia is turning a blind eye,” said Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon II.

“Turkey will make some efforts to save face. Turkish proxies have withdrawn because Turkey pays wages, so they must obey, but for the jihadists it is more complicated,” he told Arab News.

According to Balanche, without the complicity of Turkey, the Syrian regime cannot take over the north of the country.

“In exchange, Turkey wants a buffer zone in the north, all along its border. The main objective is, of course, to eliminate the Syrian Kurdish YPG from the border as it has already done in Afrin. A secondary objective is to protect its opposition allies and the Turkmen minorities, many in the province of Idlib but also between Azaz and Jarablus,” he said.

But the summit also shows that these four countries need each other in the Syrian theater as each of them has stakes regarding the settlement of the crisis.

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, said the main goal of the summit is to provide a major diplomatic boost to the ongoing Astana and Sochi peace processes, which have so far been led mainly by Turkey, Russia and Iran.

“A second and maybe even more important goal is to include France and Germany in the reconstruction efforts in Syria once the civil war is over,” he told Arab News.

Considering the cost of the reconstruction, estimated at about $400 billion, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are not ready to take this enormous financial burden without the financial support of the West, Ersen said.

“Both Paris and Berlin hope that Ankara’s ongoing efforts to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib can be successful. If the settlement in Idlib does not work, everybody is aware that this may lead to a big refugee crisis for both Turkey and Europe once again,” he added.

Martina Fietz, deputy spokeswoman for the German government, told a news conference in Berlin that her country is also hopeful about the forthcoming summit’s potential contribution to the stabilization of Idlib’s de-escalation zone.

“Progress in the UN-led political process, in particular the commencement of the work of the constitutional commission, will be discussed,” she said.

The chief foreign policy advisers of the quartet have met in Istanbul in recent weeks to discuss the agenda of the summit.