Iraq’s Struggle for Sovereignty

The same scenario persists in Lebanon and Mali, as it does in Iraq, but on a more intentionally violent scale. Protesters are being targeted by security forces and unknown militant gunmen for assassination, killings, and disappearances. After the US assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd, 2020, an increased number of suspected Iran-backed militant groups have been continually killing and injuring protesters and activists by firing tear canisters point-blank at the head, birdshot, live rounds, and the use of kidnappings and assassinations. Unknown gunmen have been targeting activist leaders in Baghdad and Basra with the use of motorcycle hit squads and abductions. The killing of activist Tahseen Oussama on August 14th is reported to have been carried out by Iran backed militias in the city of Basra; three activists were ambushed on their way to his funeral a few days later. According to the Human Rights Special Report – Demonstrations in Iraq: 3rd update published on May 3rd, 2020, 123 verified missing persons had been kidnapped by militant groups and Iraqi security forces. Of those, 98 were found alive while 25 are still missing. Militant groups have abducted Twenty-eight of those confirmed, and 37 people declined to comment over security and reprisal fears. Over 30 human rights organizations across the world have called out the Iraqi government and militant organizations for the use of forced disappearances stemming from the war on ISIL. The same tactic of masked men abducting, torturing, and killing are being used on democracy, anti-corruption, and women’s rights activists across Iraq. 

The death toll in the UNHRSP of protesters was 490 from October through May 3rd. Today over 700 protesters have been killed with dozens of activist and outspoken critics of the government and militias targeted since the start of the protests. The level of violence has not changed course since the introduction of the new Prime Minister of Iraq, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, in May 2020. The killing of Hussein Adel al-Madani and his wife Sara Talib in November 2019 by suspected Iran backed militants after they participated in a protest is the same fate that is met by activists even after the elections meant to end the violence. No arrest, transparency, and a kept secrecy surrounds each new assassination or killing by the militias. The trend of the threat of violence, assassination, and disappearances of activists is increasingly being centered on those who publicly called out Iranian influence in Iraq’s government and especially female activists. 

Women’s rights activists are campaigning in unison with the October protests for greater political representation, an end to corruption, greater access to essential social services, and Iraqi sovereignty. They are at a serious security risk for kidnapping and assassination by militant groups. On the 19th of August, a prominent female anti-corruption and democracy activist, Dr. Riham Yaqoob, was assassinated by unknown gunmen just after the Iranian state media published a smear article on her for pro-democracy activism that the Iranian government claimed to have been linked to the United States. As reported by the BBC, the attack is the third such attack carried out since mid-August 2020. On August 14th, the fellow activist of Dr. Yaqoob, Tahseen Osama, was also killed by unknown assailants.  Democracy activists have been increasingly subjected to state-sponsored violence by militant groups linked to Iran. Women are taking on an increasingly prominent and leading role within the democratic movements, which shows a shift in attitudes towards female leaders in historically the most significant patriarchal region of the world. As females are taking a leading role in the protest movement, it is important to understand the political and social environment of Iraq as to why women’s movements are finding ground in street demonstrations and movements rather than through traditional political means.

Since 2004, a representation quota system has existed in the Iraqi Parliament that gives 25% of seats to women. Rend Al-Rahim, in a blog, Women MPs in the Iraqi Parliament, explains how the forced representation of women looks unequal, but a promising start on paper. Still, the reality for Iraqi women is far from any equal representation. The culture in Iraq from the infancy of young girls enforces a social norm of inferiority to boys. The idea or ‘indoctrination’ as Rend Al-Rahim states, of inferiority to men, is an obstacle that has prevented female voices from participating in politics even amongst female MPs. In general, women are socially barred from special committees; they cannot gain enough numbers to staff a women’s rights committee, and they are left out of key discussions in governance. Further, the system of proportional representation means that women are elected through the number of votes for their party rather than independently gaining the number of votes needed to hold office. This creates an environment of subservience to the male political party leaders. Female community activist leaders, especially with the use of social media, have gained great headway into shaping social life for women. The drawback is that the treatment and security situation for women in Iraq remains complicated and dire. Religiously motivated militias groups see women leaders as a threat to their power and tradition of dominance in society. The women’s rights movement is a part of the greater October protests, thus the female leaders are targets for assassination and disappearances. 

Since the killings of Dr. Riham Yaqoob and Tahseen Osama, protests have gained momentum and anger at the government for lack of security and protection for basic human rights. Additionally, the protesters are calling for the prosecution of Iran backed militias and Shia extremists that have called for violence and publicly supported the killing of Dr. Riham Yaqoob and Tahseen Osama. A critical accusation of the protesters is that the government is unable or unwilling to hold militant groups accountable, especially since no arrest has been made since the killing of another activist, Hisham al-Hashimi, in July 2020, despite the public outcry that crossed religious lines. The protest movement is made up of Shia, Sunni, and Christians that are increasingly tired of outside influence and religious extremism in politics. Protesters have remained resilient in the face of violence that has come from both the government and militant organizations despite the number of brutal killings, disappearances, and assassinations. The chants at the funeral of Dr. Riham Yaqoob echoed a protest slogan of the October Protest; “If you kill 10 or 100 of us, we will continue.”  

The youth of Iraq were born under Saddam; they lived through an occupation, insurrection, civil war, and the Islamic State. Their early living memory is characterized by the killings in the streets, resilience in the face of car bombs, and human spirit under the command of self-interested, corrupt, and brutal leaders. The protest movement’s slogan that has kept on through the October revolution, the Coronavirus and a change in leadership, has remained “If you kill 10 or 100 of us, we will continue.” They have called for a new Iraq that is free from the brutal recent past, and the foreign interference that has been exploited by local religious leaders. The endpoint for the protest and the violence will be a sovereign Iraq that is free from non-secular governance and corrupted leaders. Violent armed militias that take orders from foreign regional powers have no place in Iraq, they must be rooted out from power. The only people who are able to accomplish this task are the Iraqi people themselves, with true equal representation of women, who have lived through, in whole, a traumatic 21st century. 


  • Aaron Minkoff

    Aaron Minkoff is an Army Veteran, University of California at Berkeley Alumni, and the senior editor for the George Washington University graduate student publication the International Affairs Review. Aaron holds a bachelor's degree in Global Studies peace and conflict with a regional focus of the Middle East. He is a graduate student at the Elliott School of Foreign Affairs with a major focus in Security Policy Studies. Aaron's awards include The President's Distinguished Scholar Award from West Valley College and the Army Combat Infantry Badge. He is also an Alumni of the Salzburg Austria Global Citizen seminar and a recipient of the Israeli-Palestine Perspectives trip.

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