Second Basra activist murdered in spate of attacks on Iraqi protesters

A fellow activist and friend of Reham Yacoub blames Iran-backed militia for her assassination

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Leading activist Reham Yacoub was killed and three people wounded on Wednesday when gunmen opened fire on her car in Basra in what many fear is a growing campaign of targeted violence against prominent anti-government protesters.

The shooting, which took place on Al Tijari Street in the centre of the southern Iraqi city, was the third attack by gunmen against anti-government activists this week. Another activist was killed last Friday, sparking renewed protests in the city, and four others had their car fired upon in a separate incident in recent days.

Protesters clash with Iraqi police outside Basra governor's home

Protesters clash with Iraqi police outside Basra governor's home

Yacoub, 29, who was driving the vehicle, died instantly while three passengers were left wounded. Reuters quoted security sources saying that the suspects drove a motorcycle and used an assault rifle in the killing.

A doctor and activist, Yacoub took to the streets when protests erupted across Iraq in the summer of 2018.

She joined a chorus of voices in the country demanding youth employment, better infrastructure, and access to electricity and clean water.

In 2018, Yacoub told the UK-based newspaper The Arab Weekly that she had received threats from militias after she was photographed in the US consulate in Basra.

“I received dozens of threats," she said. "I often receive messages from Iranians via my social media who accuse me of the Iranian consulate’s torching and accuse me and other activists of being linked to the US to encourage riots in Basra.”

A fellow activist and friend of Yacoub, Mohammed Qasim, told The National that her death was like "the assassination of all Iraqis".

Mr Qasim, 25, said he feared for his own life after her murder.

“I received verbal threats from a person wearing mask and driving an Iranian-style motorbike, who told me that if I keep going to the protest square, I will be next," he said.

Mr Qasim accused Iranian-backed militias of being behind the killings and criticised the government for its inaction.

“Basra has lost its sons and daughters because of Iran-backed militias, but what surprised me is that the government is silent and does nothing,” he said.

“Since the protests began, we have been fighting to get the better life that we deserve.

“The government should have responded to our simple demands but instead they gave us live bullets and tear gas.”

Mr Qasim said he was planning to seek safety in Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Governorate or a neighbouring country.

Protesters took to the streets again when activists Tahseen Osama was assassinated on Friday. Over the next three days, security forces opened live fire on protesters who pelted rocks and petrol bombs at the governor’s house and blocked major roads.

On Monday, two prominent activists in Basra, Lodia Raymond and Abbas Sobhi, survived an assassination attempt in Al Jumhuriya district. Mr Sobhi was treated in hospital after being shot in the chest.

Then earlier in the day on Wednesday, a female nurse who had treated protesters injured in clashes in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square survived an attack.

After the weekend’s violence, Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi on Monday sacked the Basra police chief Rasheed Fleah, replacing him with Abbas Naji, and replaced national security heads as he ordered an investigation.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 15, 2020 Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi speaks during a press conference in Basra, during his first visit to the southern Iraqi province. As Kadhemi prepares for his first meeting with US President Donald Trump this week, attacks on American targets by pro-Iranian fighters have been on the rise. With Tehran and Washington competing for influence in Iraq, the gulf between pro-Iranian factions and the US-friendly premier Kadhemi is growing.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi dismissed the head of Basra's police after protests reignited in the city. AFP

“We dismissed Basra Police Commander and a number of security people due to the last assassination operations and we will do all that is necessary and let the security forces do their duties," Mr Al Kadhimi tweeted after Wednesday's attack.

“Colluding with the killers or submitting to their threats is unacceptable."

Activists accuse Iran backed militias of targeting protesters with kidnapping, intimidation and in attacks. They also assisted security forces in the heavy-handed clampdown on mass demonstrations that broke out in the capital and across the south in October last year. Well over 550 people were killed.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, who is in Washington as part of a state visit by Mr Al Kadhimi this week, that America can help his administration bring the militias under control.

“Those groups need to be replaced by local police as soon as possible. I assured Dr Fuad that we could help and that we would help,” he said.

Many of the groups are nominally part of the state security apparatus under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces but Cabinet has little control over the fighters who are backed by large parliamentary blocs.