After assassinations and kidnappings, Iraqi activists ask if they should take up arms

Calls have left protesters divided, with some saying the move runs against hopes of peace

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In a short video, a masked man talks Iraqi activists through some safety precautions that could help stop them being assassinated.

“Follow me carefully,” said the man, sitting behind the wheel of a car, wearing a black baseball cap, gloves, a mask and a flak jacket.

“Through security cameras, check if there is anyone or a motorcycle in the street before leaving your home or office.

"When driving, keep watching your back with the three mirrors."

With a pistol in his hand, he continued: “The most important thing is to keep your pistol loaded and put it in the side door pocket, and lie down on your back seat when the shooting starts.”

The calls for self-protection and to take up arms come after a wave of attacks on civil activists in Iraq’s months of anti-elite, pro-reform protests.

Many protesters reject the call to arms as not appropriate for a peaceful movement for change in Iraq.

Demanding jobs, better services, an end to the endemic corruption and overhauling the political system, the protests started in October 2019 with a few people in Baghdad then spread to other cities in central and southern Iraq.

Leaderless protests have been the biggest and most effective tactic in Iraq after Saddam Hussein. The persistence of protesters remains unbeaten by repeated crackdowns.

The government said that as of July 30, 560 protesters and members of security forces had been killed in the violence. Tens of thousands were also wounded, many with live ammunition.

Dozens of activists have reported intimidation and there have been many kidnappings and assassinations, say local and international human rights watchdogs.

Activists accuse Iran-backed militias of being behind the assassinations to try to subdue the protests.

The government and militias blame “third parties”, without specifying who they are.

“We are being slaughtered like sacrifices by the uncontrolled militias,” said cleric Asaad Al Nassiri, a prominent activist in the southern city of Nasiriyah who advocates the calls for arms.

“When the government is unable to protect us, what can we do to protect ourselves?

“It is the legitimate right for everyone to take up arms to protect himself, his family and fellow protesters when facing death threats.”

The latest round of assassinations started on July 6 when an unknown gunman murdered prominent pro-protest security analyst Husham Al Hashimi as he parked his car in front of his home in Baghdad.

In the southern city of Basra last month, activists Reham Yacoub and Tahseen Osama were gunned down in separate incidents within a week.

Mr Al Nassiri blames the killings on political factions and Iran-backed militias of the Popular Mobilisation Forces – paramilitary forces nominally under the control of the state but with significant power.

He said the factions saw the activists as “a seed for a future political movement and national projects who will rival them in the elections".

But the call to arms has divided protesters.

Baghdad protesters last week said they were “shocked” at the “suspicious calls that intend to end our peaceful revolution and to drag our beloved country into chaos and internal fighting".

But Mr Al Nassiri said he was against the idea of forming rival militant groups and that weapons should only be used by well-trained protesters who have a licence.

He said the light arms would never be used against the security forces but against “the militias who want to kill us”.

Alarmed by the calls, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mustafa Al Kadhimi, said on Sunday that it was “the government's responsibility to redress” the killings and that it would move against any attempt to take up arms.

Militia leader Qais Al Khazali of the influential Iran-backed Asaib Ahl Al Haq said the aim behind the call to arms “is to target the leaders and members of resistance factions”.

But Mr Al Nassiri said the ball was in Mr Al Kadhimi’s court.

“If the government manages to stop the uncontrolled militias from killing us, the protesters will not need to take up arms to defend themselves,” he said.