There are increasing calls on social media in Iraq to boycott the legislative elections, which will take place on October 10. Many people are refusing to vote, in the face of entrenched corruption and the far-reaching power of pro-Iranian government-controlled militias. Popular Mobilization Forces, a paramilitary organization created in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group, and which is now accused of violence against civilians.
The calls for a boycott of the upcoming elections follow a series of assassinations of pro-democracy activists. More than 70 activists have been killed since protests began in October 2019 to demand an end to corruption and Iran’s influence in the country. The killings, which activists believe were committed by pro-Iranian Shiite militias within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have gone unpunished.
The PMF is made up of between 60 and 70 armed Shiite militias. It was formed by the Iraqi government in June 2014 after Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani called for a jihad against the Islamic State group after its invasion of Mosul.
No group has come forward to claim responsibility for the killings, but pro-democracy activists and the United Nations believe they were carried out by militias. The power of armed groups financed by Iran continues to grow in the country.
Since August, Iraqis have been posting videos on social media with the hashtag # صرخة_عراقيين_للتغير (“Iraqis scream for change”), which show activists putting up posters urging a boycott of the elections or tearing down political posters of electoral candidates.
‘We cannot vote in a climate of terror’
Samer al-Saïdi is the spokesperson for the “Iraqis Cry for Change” campaign. He lives in exile in Turkey.
I participated in anti-government protests in 2017, and then in October 2019. But on July 17, 2020, three men in a black vehicle, members of a militia, threatened me on the street. Ten days later, I left the country for Turkey.
This campaign involves placing “no” stickers on the posters of electoral candidates throughout Iraq. We make sure that activists’ faces are hidden to ensure their safety.
We reject these elections because, in Iraq, weapons are not regulated by the state. The weapons end up in the hands of PMF militias, who use them to threaten civilians. We cannot vote in a climate of terror.
Even the prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is powerless to stop the militias. In May this year, militias stormed a high-security zone in Baghdad. [where embassies and government institutions are located] after they arrested one of their commanders, Qasem Musleh. He had been accused of murdering a well-known anti-government activist, Ehab al-Wazni. In the end, the government gave in to pressure from the militias and released Musleh.
‘All the militias have representatives in Parliament’
These armed militias are involved in politics and have representatives in the government and Parliament.
For example, Hossein Mones, leader of the newly created “houkouk” movement [which means “rights” in Arabic], participate in elections. It comes from the Hezbollah Brigades [Editor’s note: a pro-Iranian Shiite militia, which is considered the most powerful militia in the PMF with around 10,000 members], which is on the list of terrorist organizations in the United States.
The political group Al-Sadiqoun Bloc also presents electoral candidates: it is the political branch of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq [a militia accused of massacring civilians in 2014]. The list is long.
Killing protesters during demonstrations, targeted killings, kidnappings and torture – none of this has led to a serious investigation. No suspects have gone to trial. We will not vote while those who assassinate pro-democracy activists go unpunished.
The country is rotten with corruption. The government’s anti-corruption commission has received 147 official complaints of political corruption, but not a single case has been examined. We know who is behind everything: the militias and their political branches.
In March, an AFP investigation revealed that PMF groups control a large number of land borders and ports, where goods pass. These factions of the PMF often only allow the passage of goods after receiving bribes or after redirecting import duties into their own pockets. According to official Iraqi statistics, since 2003, more than 410 billion euros have disappeared thanks to corruption, a figure that is double the country’s GDP.
Samer al-Saïdi says that despite the danger, activists of the campaign “Iraqis cry out for change” will take to the streets in different cities of the country on October 1 to protest against the elections. The group has already held a demonstration in Baghdad.
Some political and political parties have said they will boycott the elections as well, citing the predictable widespread fraud and corruption during voting.