Iraqi Prime Minister Announces Arrests of “Death Squad” Linked to Activist Assassinations

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as seen in a still from the documentary “Iraq’s Assassins." Early Monday, he announced arrests linked to activist assassinations via Twitter.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as seen in a still from the documentary “Iraq’s Assassins." Early Monday, he announced arrests linked to activist assassinations via Twitter.

February 17, 2021

Early Monday morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced the arrests of a “death squad” allegedly responsible for the assassinations of Iraqi activists. The arrests were a rare sign of progress in an investigation critics say has moved too slowly, while the assassination squads operate with impunity.

“The death squad which terrorized our people in Basra and killed innocents are now in the hands of our heroic forces on their way to a fair trial,” al-Kadhimi tweeted.

Iraqi security forces told the news agency Agence France Presse that four individuals were arrested in the city of Basra on suspicion of killing anti-government protesters and journalists. It’s not publicly known whether the detained individuals were affiliated with any militia or political party.

Beginning in October 2019, mass demonstrations in Iraq called for an end to government corruption and foreign interference in the country — both from the U.S. and from Iran. Some of the protesters’ ire turned toward powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias operating in Iraq. In FRONTLINE documentary Iraq’s Assassins, which premiered February 9, correspondent Ramita Navai investigated allegations that those Shia militias were threatening and killing their critics with impunity, especially targeting activists who participated in or supported the protests.

Navai tracked down an activist from Basra, Lodya Remon, who had gone into hiding after an attempt was made on her life in August 2020. “They shot at me and tried to assassinate me,” Remon told Navai. “I was shot in the leg.” Two days after Remon was shot, her friend Riham Yacoub was ambushed and killed on a main street in Basra.

Prime Minister al-Kadhimi mentioned Yacoub by name in his tweet on Monday, as well as the slain Iraqi journalist Ahmed Abdul Samad and a widely respected adviser to the prime minister, Hisham al-Hashimi, who was gunned down in his car outside his home in July 2020.

Al-Kadhimi wrote: “We got the killers of Jinan and [Abdul Samad], and we will get the killers of [Yacoub], [al-Hashimi], and all others. Justice will not sleep.”

Officially, Iraq’s government has said the killing of Hisham al-Hashimi is still under investigation.

An intelligence officer involved in the case who spoke to Navai in Iraq’s Assassins said the people behind al-Hashimi’s death were “mercenaries hired by one of Iraq’s most powerful militias as retribution for Hisham talking about them to the media.” The officer named the militia involved — Kata’ib Hezbollah — and predicted that, due to their influence in Iraq and “the kidnapping or removal of anyone who opposes them,” justice would be hard to come by.

Read more: Intel Officer: Murder of Hisham al-Hashimi Was Ordered by Shia Militia Kata’ib Hezbollah

Another source, a senior security official in Basra, told Navai’s team why it was so difficult to pursue allegations against the militias: “If there’s an arrest warrant for someone, that person is tipped off before we get to his house.”

Last December, in response to the lack of arrests related to the assassinations, a group of eight human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, released a statement: “Despite repeated pledges by the authorities including Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to carry out investigations and hold perpetrators accountable, the authorities have failed to do so to date, in effect perpetuating and further entrenching decades of impunity that have left brave individuals without the most basic protection.”

Watch Iraq’s Assassins in its entirety below.


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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