Iran-backed militias used snipers in Iraq to help quell recent protests – report

Officials say groups decided to join state security forces without prior coordination to assist PM Abdul Mahdi

Iraqi security forces fire tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters who set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq on October 5, 2019. (AP/Hadi Mizban)
Iraqi security forces fire tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters who set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq on October 5, 2019. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

Iran-backed militias deployed snipers to help Iraqi security forces quell a deadly wave of anti-government protests earlier this month that left over 100 people dead, Reuters reported Thursday.

Iraqi security officials said the militia leaders, who sometimes work in tandem with state security forces, decided on their own to assist Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, whose unwieldy government is propped up with the help of the Tehran-aligned groups.

“We have confirmed evidence that the snipers were elements of militias reporting directly to their commander instead of the chief commander of the armed forces,” one of the Iraqi security officials told Reuters. “They belong to a group that is very close to the Iranians.”

Another security official said the militias deployed snipers to rooftops in Baghdad on the third day of the protests, when the death toll jumped from half a dozen protesters to over 50.

The source said the orders were given by the leader of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful network of mostly-Shiite, pro-Iran paramilitary units operating inside Iraq. He said Hashed leader Abu Zainab al-Lami was tasked with helping quash the protests by “other senior militia commanders.”

An injured protester at a protest in Tahrir Square, in central Baghdad, Iraq, October 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

A spokesperson for the Hashed on Thursday denied any of the Shiite militias took part in the bloody protests.

“No members were present in the protest areas. None of the elements of the Hashid took part in confronting protesters,” the spokesperson told Reuters.

Iraq was gripped by anti-government protests between October 1 and 6, during which 110 people, mainly demonstrators, were killed in clashes with the security forces.

Abdel Mahdi has promised to address protesters’ demands. But the 77-year-old premier began his tenure last year facing a raft of accumulated challenges, including high unemployment, widespread corruption, dilapidated public services and poor security, and he has told protesters there is no “magic solution for all that.”

The protests, when they started, quickly spread from Baghdad to the Shiite heartland in the south, including the flashpoint city of Basra. The government imposed a round-the-clock curfew and shut down the internet for days, in a desperate attempt to quell the protests.

The massive crackdown appears to have succeeded in whittling down the number of protesters for now, although sporadic clashes between demonstrators and security forces continue on a smaller scale, including an hours-long gun battle last week near the volatile Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.

Iraqi security forces chase anti-government protesters in Baghdad, Iraq, October 6, 2019. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

The protests come at a critical moment for Iraq, which had been caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and the regional Shiite power Iran — both allies of the Baghdad government. Iraq’s weak prime minister has struggled to remain neutral amid those tensions.

Even before this latest wave of unrest, Abdel Mahdi headed an unwieldy government. His coalition includes Shiite populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — who won the most seats in the last parliamentary elections — and Fatah, the political arm of Hashed.

As protests peaked last week, Sadr called for the government he helped form to resign, while the Hashed took the opposite position, saying it was ready to crush the “conspiracy” aiming to bring down the government.

Since then state institutions have been paralyzed by division, effectively preventing concrete responses to protester demands for jobs, services and ending corruption.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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