Transcript

Iraq’s Assassins

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RAMITA NAVAI, Correspondent:

January 2020. For months, Iraqis had been taking to the streets in nationwide protests like this over the dire conditions in the country. As the demonstrations grew, their anger turned to a new target.

CROWD:

[Speaking Arabic] The [militias] are the ass-kissers of Iran!

RAMITA NAVAI:

Iranian-backed Shia militia groups that were operating with increasing impunity throughout Iraq.

Protesters set militia bases on fire and the militias fought back. They were accused of unleashing a wave of assassinations against their critics.

RAMITA NAVAI:

I traveled into Iraq in September 2020 to investigate the reports of growing violence by the Shia militias—

RAMITA NAVAI:

—groups that had once fought heroically to defend the country from ISIS but have since expanded into a powerful political and economic force.

I headed to the north, where we’d made contact with a group of young activists who’d gone into hiding after criticizing the militias during the protests. They’d all fled the southern city of Basra. Only two would show their faces on camera.

MALE ACTIVIST:

[Speaking Arabic] Friends and contacts warned us that our names were on a wanted list. We were told even the security forces could not protect us. That’s why we had to leave.

RAMITA NAVAI:

They told me that the militias had been monitoring Iraqis like them who’d accused the groups of widespread corruption and abuses, and they’d even heard of a militia “kill list” with the names of protesters on it.

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] Security officers repeatedly warned us that we were in danger and that the militias have kill lists with our names on them.

LODYA REMON:

[Speaking Arabic] They had an online army threatening to kill people, especially on Facebook. As soon as we would post something, there would be a wave of threats.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Lodya Remon, a 27-year-old charity worker, had long been one of the most vocal of the Basran protesters.

LODYA REMON:

[Speaking Arabic] We are a nation united! But the militias have divided us. They have destroyed our country.

We were educated young people who were willing to defend our rights. For that they tried to silence us with threats. Then they decided to silence us by killing us.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Not long after the protests started, security cameras captured activists being gunned down in the streets. Lodya’s friends started getting murdered.

Sara Talib and her husband Hussein were shot dead in their home. Sara was several months pregnant.

Journalists Ahmed Abdul Samad and Safaa Ghali were gunned down in the street.

Software engineer Tahseen Oussama was shot in his office.

Lodya worried she was next.

LODYA REMON:

[Speaking Arabic] Someone came up to me during the protest and told me, “Be ready, you’re going to die soon.”

RAMITA NAVAI:

Lodya told me she’d been threatened by the militias before, after she attended a women’s day event at the U.S. Consulate with her best friend, Riham Yacoub.

A TV channel owned by an Iranian-backed militia accused them of collaborating with the U.S. consul general.

MALE NEWSREADER:

[Speaking Arabic] The girl in these photos is the one who posted these words.

LODYA REMON:

[Speaking Arabic] They used these photos on social media. They claimed we were foreign agents and incited our killing.

RAMITA NAVAI:

In August 2020, Lodya was getting into a car to go to the funeral of one of her murdered friends.

LODYA REMON:

[Speaking Arabic] They shot at me and tried to assassinate me. I was shot in the leg.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Lodya’s friend Abbas, who was driving, was shot in the back but survived.

Two days later, it was Riham’s turn, ambushed while driving down one of Basra’s main streets.

LODYA REMON:

[Speaking Arabic] According to the news, about 15 bullets hit her in the head, chest and body. She died instantly at the scene.

These militias are just another form of ISIS in Basra.

September 2016

RAMITA NAVAI:

I’d been tracking the rise in power of the Shia militias and their ties to Iran for years. In 2016, I reported on their instrumental role in the fight to drive ISIS out of Iraq. These Shia militias were ordinary Iraqis who had picked up arms to fight ISIS when government forces had crumbled.

MALE FIGHTER:

[Speaking Arabic] Come, come.

RAMITA NAVAI:

They’re pointing over there and they’re saying that’s the black flag of ISIS.

At the time, there were about 100,000 of these Shia militia fighters. But even as they were being hailed as heroes for their role in defeating ISIS, there were reports of their lawlessness and abuses. I saw that firsthand when we snuck into a town called Muqdadiyah.

Is this a militia checkpoint?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[inaudible]

RAMITA NAVAI:

A disillusioned Shia militiaman had agreed to secretly take me into town. He told me some of his fellow militiamen had been taking revenge on the Sunni population.

So on my left here is a Sunni mosque, that you can see it’s been completely destroyed.

In all, he took me to six destroyed Sunni mosques that day.

MALE MILITIA INSIDER:

[Speaking Arabic] This is a place of gangs, militias and murderers. I can’t accept the horrible things the militias have done.

RAMITA NAVAI:

By the time ISIS was defeated in 2017, the militias were technically supposed to be under government control. But many remained autonomous, and some, including the most powerful of the groups, Kata’ib Hezbollah, were controlled by Iran. They began striking U.S. targets and stoking conflict between Iran and the U.S.

December 2019

MALE NEWSREADER:

—one of the worst attacks on a U.S. Embassy in years. That group is known as Kata’ib Hezbollah.

RAMITA NAVAI:

The tensions got worse in early 2020.

MALE NEWSREADER:

A U.S. drone strike killed one of Iran’s most powerful military leaders overnight, Major General Qassem Soleimani.

RAMITA NAVAI:

The drone strike, outside Baghdad Airport, also killed the founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who was sanctioned by the U.S. for violence against Americans, was also killed.

RAMITA NAVAI:

In response, Kata’ib Hezbollah and other militias stepped up their attacks on U.S. and Coalition targets, including this rocket attack on a Coalition base that happened while we were there.

The latest attack happened just a few days ago, and this is where it was launched. Three missiles hit near the U.S. base in Erbil and we’re about to talk to the group accused of that attack.

The group is the 30th Brigade, part of a network of militias known as the Hashd. Like other militias, they are notoriously suspicious of Western media, but after being accused of the attack on the Coalition base, their commander, Sami Bagdesh, agreed to an interview.

Who’s responsible for these attacks?

SAMI BAGDESH:

[Speaking Arabic] The investigation is ongoing. So far we don’t know which group is to blame.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Why do you think people would want to attack the U.S. base?

SAMI BAGDESH:

[Speaking Arabic] We think the Americans could be behind the attack to prove this area isn’t safe.

RAMITA NAVAI:

But why would the Americans attack their own base?

SAMI BAGDESH:

[Speaking Arabic] Because the Americans want to kick the Hashd and the 30th Brigade out of this area.

RAMITA NAVAI:

The Hashd were considered as heroes, but public perception of the Hashd is changing. What do you think of that?

SAMI BAGDESH:

[Speaking Arabic] They are not happy about the existence of such a powerful force in Iraq. They claim this unit belongs to Iran, but we deny that. Our group answers only to the Iraqi government. The Hashd cannot be disbanded. No force can disband the Hashd.

RAMITA NAVAI:

It was hard to find public officials willing to openly discuss the militias with us. One of the few who would was Faisal al-Issawi, a Sunni member of Parliament. He told me that after the American drone strike last year, the Iraqi Parliament debated whether to expel U.S. troops. Al-Issawi and other Sunni politicians wanted them to stay, but the militias wanted them out.

We’ve heard reports that the Shia militias have threatened MPs before voting in Parliament. What can you tell me about this?

FAISAL AL-ISSAWI:

[Speaking Arabic] When there is debate on sensitive issues, MPs are threatened by certain parties who want to influence the vote. One such instance was when we voted on whether to evict U.S. and Coalition forces. We received text messages on our phones, as did other MPs, staff and close collaborators, saying if we didn’t vote to evict U.S. forces, our families and staff would end up dead.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Who were the death threats from?

FAISAL AL-ISSAWI:

[Speaking Arabic] The texts were from Kata’ib Hezbollah’s political bureau.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Al-Issawi was far from the only public figure in the crosshairs of Kata’ib Hezbollah. In July 2020, the country was stunned by the assassination of one of the prime minister’s influential and widely respected counterterrorism advisers, Hisham al-Hashimi.

Al-Hashimi appeared frequently on television and had become increasingly critical of the militias, especially Kata’ib Hezbollah.

HISHAM AL-HASHIMI:

[Speaking Arabic] They are considered the strongest and most dangerous group in the so-called Islamic resistance.

RAMITA NAVAI:

His killing had a chilling effect. It was hard to find anyone willing to speak openly about who was behind it.

People here are terrified, whether high-ranking officials, protesters or just ordinary Iraqis. And off-camera they tell us the same thing: that the Shia militias control this city and they’ve taken hold of power like never before. They say no one feels safe.

An official in the prime minister’s office who knew al-Hashimi agreed to talk to me, as long as we didn’t reveal his identity and disguised his voice.

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] The militias want people to turn a blind eye. To be silent and not criticize them.

Before his assassination [Hisham] frequently spoke against them. He revealed details about them that were not known.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Despite the danger, al-Hashimi had been exposing the inner workings of Kata’ib Hezbollah, identifying its secret leadership and tweeting his findings for the world to see.

The militias were furious. They circulated a video on social media accusing him of being a Western spy.

MILITIA PROPAGANDA VIDEO:

[Speaking Arabic] He is connected to the CIA.

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] They would constantly threaten him, telling him, “By interfering and speaking about these subjects, you’re endangering your life.”

RAMITA NAVAI:

Five days before his murder, al-Hashimi published a report that found 44 out of 67 Shia militias took direct orders from Tehran. And he outlined the ways in which these militias were destabilizing Iraq.

On July 6, 2020, al-Hashimi was driving home. As he pulled up to his house, a security camera captured a gunman firing four shots. The gunman escaped on a motorbike as al-Hashimi’s children ran to their father’s body.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi vowed there’d be justice—not just for al-Hashimi, but also for the young activists killed in Basra.

MUSTAFA AL-KADHIMI:

[Speaking Arabic] We’ll find justice for the martyrs Tahseen and Dr. [Riham]. Their killers will be punished.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Despite the killings, I was hearing there were still some protests simmering around the country, even in Basra. A senior government official told us we risked being kidnapped or killed without protection in the city.

We’re driving into the city of Basra now and we’ve been met by a police escort—you can see them here beside us. That’s because foreign crews haven’t been welcome since the mass protests and since the surge in assassinations of activists.

Basra is Iraq’s gateway to the Persian Gulf and neighboring Iran. It’s a hub for the Shia militias and has been plagued by violence.

Our police escort just stopped on the side of the road to give us extra instructions on how to keep safe, because they said they’re worried about our safety. This is despite the fact we’re being escorted by eight heavily armed men.

The morning after we arrived here, we slipped away from our police escorts and went to one of Basra’s main squares.

This is where thousands of Basrans have been protesting. They come here sporadically. They’re not here now, but you can see the tents and encampments they’ve set up where they stay. You can see here where there was one big encampment and it was burned down by the militias.

The site is maintained by dozens of activists like 25-year-old Mustafa. He told me most nights they’re harassed by Shia militiamen.

MUSTAFA:

[Speaking Arabic] They show up and take pictures of us and of the square. Anyone in the square is threatened, especially the activists.

They belong to Iran and if someone posts about any Iranian-backed faction, they can be killed within a few hours.

I’m not afraid. Freedom is stronger than anything. This is our land, not theirs. This is my land. Iraq is ours.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Like elsewhere in the country, public officials here were reluctant to criticize the militias. When I met the police chief, Abbas Naji al-Lami, he played down the killings.

What can you tell me about these assassinations?

ABBAS NAJI AL-LAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] Murders happen everywhere. Not just in Iraq, but in America and Germany. And they happen all over Iraq.

RAMITA NAVAI:

But we’ve spoken to activists from Basra who’ve told us they had to flee because they’ve received death threats from the militias for criticizing the militias.

ABBAS NAJI AL-LAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] No, no, no. Not at all. In fact, we’re about to find the criminals. It has nothing to do with armed groups. They do not interfere with the security leadership. Why would they kill activists? What threat do activists pose?

RAMITA NAVAI:

But it’s clear that these activists are being killed after they post on social media critical posts about the militias or Iran, and they’re all targeted assassinations.

ABBAS NAJI AL-LAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] Look, this is a strange claim. It’s the first time I’m hearing it. We’re in close contact with activists demonstrating in different locations. I’ve been personally in contact with them for about a month. No one has mentioned any threats.

RAMITA NAVAI:

But we got a very different assessment from a senior security official in Basra. He did not want to be seen with us in the city or go on camera, saying it was too dangerous. He agreed to talk over the phone once we left. My colleague, Mais al-Bayaa, recorded her call with him.

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] For the past 16 years, the militias have assumed powerful positions in government. If there’s an arrest warrant for someone, that person is tipped off before we get to his house.

RAMITA NAVAI:

He said the militia kill lists we’d been hearing about were aimed not just at protesters, but business people and politicians at all levels.

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] There were kill lists drawn up in Iran ordering the killing of various people. I know this from a close contact who’s in that inner circle. These people are part of a foreign agenda to destabilize Iraq.

RAMITA NAVAI:

As our time in Iraq was nearing an end, I still had questions about the militias’ role in the killing of Hisham al-Hashimi. Officially, the government said it was still under investigation. In Baghdad, I was introduced to an intelligence officer involved in the case who agreed to talk as long as we didn’t reveal his identity and disguised his voice.

What can you tell me about the investigation into Hisham al-Hashimi’s murder?

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] The investigation saw a number of suspects being arrested. This helped uncover even more individuals who took part in the killing.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Who are the people behind his killing?

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] Mercenaries hired by one of Iraq’s most powerful militias as retribution for Hisham talking about them to the media.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Which militia?

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] Kata’ib Hezbollah.

RAMITA NAVAI:

Even if you find absolute evidence, will there be justice?

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] Given Kata’ib Hezbollah’s influence in Iraq and the kidnapping or removal of anyone who opposes them, I don’t think so, no.

RAMITA NAVAI:

We were advised to not meet Kata’ib Hezbollah while in Iraq because it was too dangerous. But after leaving we presented questions to the group’s spokesman.

We never received a response.

As for Iran, it officially keeps its distance from the militias and has repeatedly denied being behind attacks against Coalition and U.S. targets

Throughout our reporting, we’d been trying to find evidence of the kill list we’d heard about. We were eventually given a document by a source with close ties to the militias. He said it came from Kata’ib Hezbollah itself. There were 35 names on it, including Tahseen Oussama, whose funeral Lodya Remon was going to when she was attacked. Her friend Abbas, who was driving, was also on the list.

LODYA REMON:

[Speaking Arabic] I lost so many of my friends. Why have we become the playing field for a conflict between countries that otherwise are free to live as normal? Both Americans and Iranians live free, comfortable lives. So why should we be used in this conflict? I left everything behind. My job, my family and all the people I love and who love me. I left them all, for nowhere. I don’t know when I’ll be targeted again.

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