This year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to 25-year-old Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from Iraq, and Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege for their activism against sexual violence in war. In 2014, Murad survived the massacre of her village, Kocho, in northern Iraq and the systematic enslavement of Yazidi women. Her mother and six brothers were killed by Islamic State militants. Many hope this prize will draw attention to the ongoing plight of Yazidis and all victims of the Islamic State, thousands of whom are still reported missing or remain in captivity.
Recent weeks have also seen the assassinations of two prominent Iraqi women, human rights defender Suad al-Ali in Basra and social media star Tara Fares in Baghdad. Both were shot on the street in broad daylight.
And while coverage of these atrocities raises important issues, sensationalized news reports often divert attention from the structural conditions that made the killings possible in the first place.
In Iraq, ‘democracy’ hides a regime of militias
These deaths cannot be disconnected from social and political developments provoked by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and the political economy and mechanisms of the “war on terror.”
The 2003 U.S. invasion provoked an ethno-sectarian fragmentation of the country and a cycle of violence, creating the conditions for the emergence of armed groups, including the Islamic State. The war against the Islamic State in Mosul and parts of northern Iraq exacerbated Iraq’s militarization by arming and strengthening various political groups, paramilitary forces and militias.
Many Iran-backed militias have been armed and institutionalized through their involvement in the war against the Islamic State in Mosul. These armed groups are deeply connected to the corrupt sectarian political elite that came to power after 2003. And through their participation in the parliamentary elections in May, groups such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Righteous League), Ashura Brigades and Kitaeb Hezbollah have been further normalized.
Leaders of paramilitary forces and militias are now institutionalized members of parliament who participated in negotiations to form a new government. Yet some of these same leaders are accused of bearing responsibility for the threatening, kidnapping and killing of civil-society activists as well as for human rights violations in Mosul and elsewhere. Some of these groups have also fought alongside Bashar al-Assad’s Baath regime in neighboring Syria.
Repression of protest movements
Suad al-Ali was president of the Basra-based al-Weed al-Alaiami for Human Rights and participated in the demonstrations that started in July protesting the high unemployment and lack of basic services such as clean water electricity in this oil-rich province. Other human rights activists and lawyers who supported the movement have been targeted, including the lawyer Jabbar Mohammed Karam al-Bahadli, killed on July 23 after petitioning for the release of the protesters detained by the Iraqi security forces.
Their deaths reveal the intensity of the political repression of this protest movement. Demonstrations in Basra were shut down by the use of tanks and other armored vehicles, and a widespread campaign of surveillance and arrests. Iraqi security forces shot at unarmed demonstrators, killing at least a dozen and arresting hundreds.
The security and military apparatus trained, armed and strengthened in the fight against the Islamic State in Mosul is now being used to repress political activism against the Iraqi regime. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly warned against the Iraqi regime’s various human rights violations, which are often hidden under the guise of anti-terrorism operations.
Gender and death in Iraq
The assassination of 22-year-old Tara Fares may bring to mind the death of two Iraqi beauticians, Rasha al-Hassan and Rafif al-Yasiri, in August, or the fate of actor Karar Nushi — known as the Iraqi “Brad Pitt” for his long blond hair — who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in the capital in July 2017. Last week, 15-year-old Hamudi al-Mutayri was stabbed to death in Baghdad, probably for being perceived as gay.
In my book “Women and Gender in Iraq,” I show how the rise of conservative social and religious forces dates to the humanitarian crisis provoked by United Nations sanctions in the 1990s. The sanctions deeply altered the social fabric of Iraqi society and created new forms of patriarchies that were worsened by widespread poverty. The U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq put in power conservative and sectarian Islamist political groups that have normalized these hyper-patriarchal norms and intensified social control over gender issues. And the militarization of the Iraqi streets with armed men at checkpoints and the proliferation of militias has created new mechanisms of social control.
However, these shocking events also shed light on dynamics going beyond exacerbated social and religious conservatisms. While the violence of Shiite Islamist groups has been largely ignored, Iraqi authorities focus primarily on the violence perpetrated by the (Sunni) Islamic State organization as “religious extremism” and “terrorism.”
In post-invasion Iraq, brutal settling of accounts among armed and tribal groups has become part of everyday life. And the weakness of the state’s institutions and the collusion of members of the Iraqi elite with tribal leaders and militia members render vain any investigation or prosecution of such crimes.
The blatant assassination of media figures, journalists and civil-society activists characterizes the current political period. The post-election political process lauded by many as a peaceful power transition is hiding the institutionalization of the militias and various armed groups that are ultimately responsible for this violence.
Zahra Ali is an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University and author of “Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation” (Cambridge University Press, 2018). You can follow her @ZahraSociology