Targeted assassinations, violent protest crackdowns keep Iraqi voters away from polls

Iraq's recent elections were in large part driven by a protest movement that erupted two years ago, denouncing government corruption and lack of services. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is vying for a second term while trying to balance relations with the U.S. — which still has 2,500 troops in Iraq — and Iran, which supports powerful militia in Iraq. Special correspondent Simona Foltyn reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Iraq's recent elections were in large part driven by a protest movement that erupted two years ago, denouncing government corruption and lack of services.

    Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is vying for a second term, while trying to balance relations with the U.S., which still has 2, 500 troops in Iraq, and Iran, which supports powerful militia in Iraq.

    But many Iraqis are disappointed that Kadhimi hasn't delivered on promises to rein in armed groups linked to Iran or to prosecute the killers of protesters who rose up against the government in 2019.

    Special correspondent Simona Foltyn investigated the case of one prominent protester assassinated in May and what it tells us about Iraq's deadly politics.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    As dusk falls over Karbala, home to some of the holiest sites of Shia Islam, a handful of people gather at a monument set up to commemorate slain anti-government protesters and activists.

    Marwan Al Wazni's brother Ehab was killed in may.

    Marwan Al Wazni, Brother of Killed Protest Leader (through translator): That flag belonged to the martyr Ehab Al Wazni and that flag over there as well. These are collectibles of some of the other martyrs from Karbala.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Pictures of Wazni are plastered across the square, a testament to his prominent role in the protest movement and a painful reminder that his killers are still at large.

    Wazni, in the center, was the head of Karbala's Protest Coordination Committee and one of 35 prominent activists and protest leaders murdered across Southern Iraq in targeted assassinations. He was threatened many times.

  • Ehab Al Wazni, Protest Leader (through translator):

    We are threatened every day. Letters are being sent to us from entities and people, threatening us to not remain in these squares. But we will stay by our blood, and we will not let go. We will not sell Iraq.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The so-called October Revolution began in 2019. Across Iraq's south, thousands of young Iraqis demanded the toppling of the system installed by the United States following its 2003 invasion and the removal of an inept and corrupt ruling class that has failed to deliver basic services.

    They rallied against Iranian-backed political and armed groups who filled the power vacuum following Saddam Hussein's downfall and who now control many state institutions. The protesters' vocal opposition to Iran hit a particularly sensitive nerve in Karbala, one of the most important centers of the Shiite faith, which draws millions of Iranian pilgrims each year.

    Security forces and armed groups responded with deadly force, killing more than 600 across Iraq. When Mustafa al-Kadhimi came to power in May 2020, he promised justice.

  • Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Iraqi Prime Minister (through translator):

    The government vows to protect freedom of expression, to protect peaceful protesters and their protest spaces and to pursue all those involved in spilling Iraqi blood.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But more than a year on, there has been no justice for any of the activist killings, which have been widely blamed on Iranian-backed armed groups.

    The lack of accountability instilled an atmosphere of fear ahead of Sunday's election.

    This used to be the main protest square in Karbala. And on an evening like this, there would be hundreds, even thousands of demonstrators, but, after months of violent crackdown and targeted assassinations, the movement has lost momentum.

    Many of the killings have been caught on grainy surveillance footage, including Wazni's. This video shows him pulling into the narrow alley leading to his family home. A motorcycle carrying two men pulled up behind him.

    Wazni's brother Marwan explains what happened.

  • Marwan Al Wazni:

    One person disembarked from the motorcycle and executed the operation from here.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Wazni's relatives and friends believe there's sufficient evidence to bring those responsible for his murder to account.

  • Marwan Al Wazni:

    We provided the judiciary with all the information and evidence we have, but, unfortunately, the judges are afraid because of political pressure.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    In May, shortly after Wazni was killed, the government arrested Qassem Musleh, a commander of a powerful Iranian-backed armed group.

    In response, militiamen laid siege to government offices, and the judiciary released him days later, claiming there was insufficient evidence to link him to Wazni's murder. The case has now been placed on hold.

    The environment of impunity has forced many activists into hiding. We head north to Iraqi Kurdistan, where many protesters from Iraq's south have sought refuge.

    Kamal Jabbar is a veteran activist who used to fight Saddam Hussein's government in the Kurdish mountains.Decades on, he helps the young protest movement in its own struggle against the current system.

  • Kamal Jabbar, Activist:

    We are going to a farm in the mountains, where we keep some of protesters and activists, because they cannot live in their hometown anymore due to threat from militias or the corrupt people within the government.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Jabbar takes us to meet a close friend of Wazni.

    Ridha Hajwal is also from Karbala and has stayed in this safe house for five months. He has been threatened by the same men accused in Wazni's killing.

  • Ridha Hajwal, Iraq (through translator):

    Even when Ehab was alive, I used to receive a lot of threats. We couldn't tell which threat was serious. But after Ehab was killed, the targeting became real.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    That's because Hajwal possesses evidence in Wazni's against Qassem Musleh, the previously detained militia commander, and his brother Ali.

    He secretly recorded a conversation documenting some of their threats to kill Wazni. But, again, the judiciary didn't act. Hajwal sees this as proof that the armed groups backing the Muslehs are more powerful than the state.

  • Ridha Hajwal (through translator):

    The Iraqi state, in fact, is not even a state, because the basis of a state is that there are independent institutions. We don't have independent security or judicial institutions.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The "NewsHour" has found that there are several arrest warrants that have not been executed in Wazni's case. That includes Ali Musleh. We tried to reach both Musleh brothers, but they declined repeated requests for comment.

    The judiciary declined an on-camera interview, but the investigative judge in charge of Wazni's case said an audio recording of a threat isn't considered strong evidence. We also asked the government why it has not arrested the remaining suspects.

    Saad Maan is a spokesman for the ministry of interior.

    Saad Main, Spokesman, Iraqi Minister of Interior (through translator): Well, if there are arrest warrants, they will be executed and implemented.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    It has been three months since these arrest warrants were issued.

  • Saad Main, Spokesman (through translator):

    And the investigation is still ongoing.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Officials say that Prime Minister Kadhimi, who is hoping to secure a second term, may act more decisively against powerful entities after the elections.

    But, as the investigations draw out, the hope that justice will be served is growing thin. Instead, family and friends hold on to the legacy of their loved ones.

  • Ridha Hajwal (through translator):

    Ehab was hurting a lot, but he very much believed in the protests, and he believed that this regime would be removed at one point.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Wazni had refused to run in the election because he thought that existing power structures were too entrenched to permit meaningful change, the same reason why many Iraqis called to boycott the vote.

    Only 80 out of the 3, 200 candidates who ran in the election represented the protest movement. Turnout hit a record low at 41 percent, allowing established political parties to secure a comfortable victory.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simona Foltyn in Iraq.

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