UN expands Iraq team amid fears of election violence

Security Council boosts election support for Iraq as death toll from political assassinations rises

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 9, 2021 Iraqi protesters burn tyres in front of the Karbala governorate headquarters in the central  city of Karbala following the assassination of a local anti-government activist. A wave of attacks on pro-democracy activists and journalists in Iraq have sparked mounting calls to boycott October parliamentary elections, as perpetrators go unpunished.
More than 70 activists have died in targeted killings and dozens of others have been abducted or survived attacks since a protest movement demanding political overhaul and an end to endemic corruption shook Iraq from October 2019 to June 2020 / AFP / Mohammed SAWAF

The UN Security Council has extended its Iraq mission and expanded it to cover the monitoring of elections set for October 10 as political assassinations stoke fears about security on polling day.

The 15-nation council on Thursday voted unanimously to extend the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq until May 27, 2022, a resolution drafted by the US shows.

The document calls for a “strengthened, robust and visible UN team, with additional staff, in advance of Iraq’s forthcoming election, to monitor Iraq’s election day with as broad a geographic coverage as possible”.

The UN team should “engage, encourage and co-ordinate with, and provide, as appropriate, logistical and security support to international and regional third-party observers invited by the government of Iraq", the resolution says.

The mission will also be asked to “launch a UN strategic messaging campaign to educate, inform and update Iraqi voters on election preparations and UN activities in support of elections in advance of and on election day".

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry praised the UN decision, saying it would help Baghdad to address “challenges and promote its stability”.

“We highly value the stances of international partners in support of the Iraqi government steps in this regard, which reflect positively on the security, stability and well-being of the Iraqi people and achieve their aspired goals,” the ministry said.

Iraq has in recent months had deadly attacks on journalists, pro-democracy activists and others, sparking calls to boycott the parliamentary polls while those responsible remain unpunished.

More than 70 activists have been kidnapped or killed since a protest movement erupted in October 2019 against government corruption, foreign interference and poor job prospects.

The attacks highlight the increasingly dangerous web of local and regional rivalries in the country and have heaped pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who has struggled to curb the power of militias.

Tension flared on Wednesday after the arrest of militia leader Qassem Musleh, leading to a stand-off between the militia's supporters and government security forces in Baghdad.

Elections were set to answer a major demand of the demonstration movement, with protesters also rallying against Iranian influence in the country.

Iraqi officials have asked the council to strengthen the UN mission’s role in the elections and the US has pushed for the UN’s largest vote-monitoring mission, although some council members resisted such an expansion.

The UN has monitored and supported elections in countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Cambodia.

Support can involve logistical and technical assistance, observing polling centres and certifying results.

The US responded to how protesters gathered in Baghdad and were met with "brutal violence" by security forces on Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday.

"The United States is outraged that peaceful demonstrators who took to the streets to urge reform were met with threats and brutal violence," he said.

The US also discussed rising tensions over militias and deaths of activists.

"The violation of Iraqi sovereignty and rule of law by armed militias harms all Iraqis and their country," Mr Price added.

"We welcome every effort by the government to hold accountable the militias, thugs, and vigilante groups for their attacks against Iraqis exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as well as for their assault on the rule of law."