‘Absolute Fear’: ‘Iraq’s Assassins’ Filmmaker Ramita Navai on How Iraqis View Iran-Backed Shia Militias
Filmmaker Ramita Navai points to a police escort in a scene from the documentary "Iraq's Assassins."
Ramita Navai has been reporting for years on the rise of Shia militias in Iraq, their links to Iran and allegations of abuses carried out against Sunni civilians. In her latest documentary for FRONTLINE, Iraq’s Assassins, Navai investigates accusations that these militias have unleashed a wave of assassinations against activists and critics. In the runup to the film’s February 9 premiere, FRONTLINE spoke with Navai about her past reporting and what had changed when she returned to Iraq in September 2020.
What she found surprised her: “When I first covered [the militias], even though we were exposing Shia militia abuses, they were still very much seen as heroes, especially by the Shia population,” Navai said. “That has completely changed.” She says she wasn’t expecting “how, in these few years, they’re now viewed with absolute fear and they’re viewed as villains. They’re no longer seen as the heroes they once were.”
Below, Navai discusses the mass protests in Iraq, the Iran-backed Shia militias now accused of killing their critics and why the militias view activists as a threat.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you explain to an American audience the protest movement in Iraq that took on these powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias? How unusual is that?
I would say these are the most significant protests since the invasion [of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition in 2003]. Importantly, they’re nonsectarian. So you’ve got Iraqis uniting. Also, they’re intergenerational, and this is the first time that Iraqis of all sects have joined together to demonstrate against the [Iranian-backed] Shia militias, and to demonstrate against what they see as Iranian interference in their country.
And it’s very much a kind of nationalistic protest, [with] Iraqis saying, “We want foreign interference” — which isn’t just the U.S. this time — “foreign interference that’s the U.S. and Iran, we want them out.”
What demands are they making? And was there an event that sparked this movement?
There were mass protests in 2018, so this has been building up. In 2019, the situation got really bad. It was a hot — and when I say hot, we’re talking really hot; we’re talking temperatures in the 40s and in the 50s [degrees Celsius, equivalent to 104 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit] — a hot, long summer with, for a lot of people, either no electricity or disrupted electricity. So, very limited or no access to basic services. And that’s how these protests started.
The anger turned toward the Shia militias and toward Iran because of what people saw as corruption being behind the lack of services. … “There’s money coming in. The state has the money, so where has the money gone? Why can’t they provide basic services, like electricity? It must be down to corruption.” That was the turning point. … [P]rotests started on October 1, 2019. They spread like wildfire from Baghdad to the south. They were in all the Shia cities and towns, throughout Iraq.
You were on the ground in Iraq in 2016 for Iraq Uncovered, reporting on some of these same militias as they were fighting ISIS. Did anything surprise you about them when you returned in the fall of 2020?
So many things surprised me. When I first covered them, even though we were exposing Shia militia abuses, they were still very much seen as heroes, especially by the Shia population. That has completely changed. I was really surprised by that — at how, in these few years, they’re now viewed with absolute fear and they’re viewed as villains. They’re no longer seen as the heroes they once were.
I was really unprepared for how the Shia militias are now terrorizing not only Sunnis but their own. This is a really dramatic and important change. Now, this shift is exactly why hundreds and thousands of Shia Iraqis took to the streets, demonstrating against them.
Because when I reported in 2016, [Iran-backed Shia militias] were targeting Sunnis. They were using the war against ISIS to settle old sectarian scores. And Sunni Iraqis were the victims. But now they have turned on their own, and they are [allegedly] kidnapping and killing any Iraqi who criticizes them, including Shias. Actually, the targeting of activists, they’ve nearly all been Shia activists.
The police chief you talk to in Basra poses an interesting question: Why would these militias kill activists? How can activists harm these militias? He speaks rhetorically, but I’d like to ask you, really, why do activists become the targets of these militias?
Yeah, you’re right. It is an interesting question. It actually shows you the power these activists have. … And these are peaceful protests, by the way. These are Iraqis exercising their democratic rights. But the militias are absolutely threatened by this. The militias are threatened by the younger generation of Iraqis.
If you look at the protests, I said they were intergenerational, but there were a lot of young Iraqis there … who have not grown up with the specter of the invasion, who are one generation beyond that, and now who are demanding rights from a very different place, and who are Iraqis who’re also trying to unite across sects. So, that does not serve the militias’ agenda. …
We saw this when we spoke to a group of Shia activists who had all fled Basra because they had received death threats. And we’re talking ordinary Iraqis; we’re not talking politicians [but] writers, civil servants, shop owners, business owners. And they’d done nothing more than either chanted anti-Iran and anti-militia chants at protests or posted on Facebook. And all of a sudden, on Facebook, they started receiving death threats. And then all of a sudden, they started receiving text messages and phone calls threatening them.
… Let’s not forget these militias came to power with public support. It was the war against ISIS. They formed, first and foremost, after an edict by Iraq’s [top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Sistani] in 2014, when the Iraqi army crumbled. … If it wasn’t for these ordinary Iraqis who formed this iteration of Shia militias taking up arms, ISIS would have taken Baghdad. … ISIS could not have been defeated in Iraq without them.
So, after that, they were viewed as heroes by Iraqis, by the population, and that propelled them upwards and that empowered them. So, in a way, they need public support. Public support is what gave them power and life beyond the war against ISIS. Existentially, as well as in real terms, they need that public support because it was one of their raisons d’être. …
It’s clear in the film that people were afraid to talk to you about the militias. How did you find people who were willing to speak? And if it’s safe, can you share anything you heard from people who weren’t willing to speak on camera?
This was an extraordinary change since I reported on Shia militias in 2016. In 2016, Iraqis were absolutely willing to talk about [Shia militias]. They were scared to talk about their abuses, but you could get a Shia Iraqi to talk about the militias, and we did. This time, what struck me was just how scared Shia Iraqis were to talk about the militias. We expected that from Sunni Iraqis but not from Shia Iraqis, to the extent that we saw on the ground. People were absolutely terrified, so it was really, really difficult.
Even arranging to meet people in the first place, people were really paranoid of being monitored by the militias, of being followed by them, of them being associated with us — because, of course, we told everybody on the ground what we were doing, because they had to make that decision for themselves. It was really hard, just meeting people in the first place, to try and build up that trust. … We sometimes communicated via a third party, so it was one removed from us, and we were always keeping people safe, so there was no trace back to us. We were really careful about people’s security.
What surprised us [was] people in high positions in government were really scared. This showed you that there’s an absolute split within the government itself. The members of the government are split between those who are in bed with the militias — because the militias are pretty entrenched in government; they’ve embedded themselves in government — and those members of government who are against the militias. The ones who are against the militias are the ones who are really scared.
Especially after the killing of Hisham al-Hashimi. [He] was one of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers, and he was internationally respected. He’s worked with the U.S. and Western governments and Western journalists and think tanks. … He’s also advised a previous Iraqi prime minister on counterterrorism issues, and because he was always pretty fair-handed in his criticisms of both sects — of first ISIS and then the Shia militias — everyone thought he was pretty untouchable. He’d always received death threats but never took them that seriously, because nothing had ever happened to him. So when he was killed by a Shia militia, that sent out a warning shot to everyone in government that nobody is safe.
We spoke to one MP who told us not even the prime minister is safe. …
When I say, “the Shia militias,” I’m lumping them all together, which is of course much more complex than that. There are Shia militias who are not backed by Iran; there are Shia militias who are not corrupt; there are Shia militias who are part of the official security forces in Iraq, technically under government control, and who are well-behaved. When I say, “Shia militias,” for the sake of our conversation, I’m talking about the Iranian-backed Shia militias who are outside government control: Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq and a few others.
The prime minister has been open about taking on these corrupt, Iranian-backed Shia militias and Shia militias who are outside government control. However, even the prime minister’s very careful in his wording, in his language. … He uses things like, “outlaw groups”; he uses phrases like, “criminal gangs.” These are all euphemisms that Iraqis know all too well. They know exactly what these words mean, and they mean these Iranian-backed Shia militias outside government control.
With activists in hiding, with so many killings of protesters, and of course with the coronavirus pandemic, what has happened to the protest movement that started in 2019?
Amazingly, protests are still ongoing and still erupt every now and again across Iraq. When we were in Basra, there were a dozen protesters still manning the main protest square, a year on. … And that’s what the Shia militias are scared of: They’re scared of an uprising.
Watch the full documentary Iraq’s Assassins below.