Basra residents accuse Iran-backed militias of intimidation
Protesters in southern Iraq say they were detained and beaten for demonstrating against poor public services
Hajar Youssif, 24, was on her daily commute to work, flicking through her Instagram account when she looked up to find herself in an unusual location. The taxi driver had turned into an alley.
When she questioned the driver, he sped up.
"I started to feel uneasy and knew that something bad was going to happen," said the office administrator, who took part in protests about the lack of clean water, frequent power cuts and soaring unemployment in her home town of Basra, Iraq's oil capital and main port.
She shouted and tried to open the door, but the driver had locked it. The taxi swerved into a courtyard where three masked men were waiting.
"They immediately told me, 'We'll teach you a lesson. Let it be a warning to other protesters'," Ms Youssif said.
The men slapped and beat her and pulled off her headscarf, she said. "At the end, they grabbed me by my hair and warned me not to take part in the protests, before blindfolding me and dumping me on the streets," she said.
Her cheeks were still bruised several days after the attack, which she believes was part of what she and other activists describe as a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias and political groups. These groups control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people in southern Iraq's Shiite heartland.
Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospital.
Earlier this month, the protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and torched government offices, the headquarters of the Iran-backed militias and Iran's consulate in Basra — a show of anger over what many residents perceive as Iran's extensive control over local affairs.
The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of the militias, which played a major role in retaking Iraqi territory from ISIS.
Shortly after the Sunni extremists captured much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, tens of thousands of Shiite men answered a call to arms by the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.
Many volunteers were members of Iran-backed militias active since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, while others formed new groups. These fighters are credited with helping government forces defeat the extremists. But during the war, the militiamen were also accused by Sunnis and rights groups of abuses against the Sunni community, including killings, torture and the destruction of homes.
Buoyed by victory against ISIS, some of the most feared militias took part in the May national elections and their list — Fatah — won 48 seats in the 329-seat parliament.
Fatah and other factions formed a wider Iran-backed coalition in parliament earlier this month and will likely be given the task of forming a new government.
In Basra, some alleged the militias were working with the local authorities to quell the protests — a charge denied by Bassem Al Khafaji, head of Sayyed Al Shuhada, one of several local militias.
He said the threats against protesters were "individual acts", not the result of a central directive.
"Our order for all the factions in Basra ... is not to confront the protesters who burnt down the offices of the militias," Mr Al Khafaji said.
He said the militias were trying to prevent more bloodshed, and blamed infiltrators for turning the protests violent. The alleged saboteurs must be dealt with by the security agencies, he said.
Some militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the United States, which has long worked to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
A local leader of a prominent militia vowed to retaliate.
"We have pictures of those who burnt down our headquarters and they will pay dearly," he said on condition of anonymity. "We will not let them attack us again and if they do we'll open fire. That's what we've agreed on, all of us."
The government said protesters' demands were legitimate, but claimed infiltrators were behind the violence.
A senior official in the Interior Ministry's intelligence service said dozens were arrested since the protests began. He acknowledged that others might be held by political parties and their militias, but said his office had no way of tracking that.
Activist Naqeeb Al Luaibi said he had been able to track only 30 protesters detained by the security agencies. Of those, 19 were freed and 11 remain under arrest. Mr Al Luaibi said he believed dozens of others were still being held but it was difficult to track them.
Mahdi Salah Hassan, 26, said he was arrested by the security forces from a protest tent in early August. He said he was handcuffed, blindfolded and initially held in a room with 33 other protesters.
During three days of interrogation, Mr Hassan said he was slapped and his feet and back struck with a cable. He was also hanged by the arms from the ceiling. He was then transferred to two other lockups, each holding several dozen protesters.
When they released him after six days, they told him "'don't take part in protests or you won't see the sun'", he said. He insisted he would continue to protest.
Two other activists, Ahmed Al Wihaili and Sara Talib, both 23, said they were threatened.
Mr Al Wihaili said an anonymous caller warned him that "'you only cost us the price of a bullet'". Ms Talib said she came home one day to find her door open and her belongings strewn across the floor. During one protest, someone approached her and told her to go home because she was putting her life in danger.
Ms Youssif, who wore white scrubs during the protests as a volunteer medic, said the beating left her shaken and that the threats continue, but she would not be deterred.
"I'm taking to the streets for the sake of my town Basra, to get public services and to get rid of those militias and political parties," she said. "I'm not afraid of them. These militias will not deter me from going out until we change our life."
Updated: September 23, 2018 04:45 PM