(Beirut) – Unidentified armed forces, apparently in cooperation with Iraqi national and local security forces, carried out a brutal spate of killings in Baghdad’s main protest area on December 6, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. Estimates range between 29 and 80 dead, and 137 injured. Electricity to the area was cut during the attack, making it harder for protesters to identify the killers and flee to safety. Police and military forces withdrew as the unidentified militia, some in uniforms, began shooting.
The killings come three months into protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq, in which the death toll has reached 511 people, according to the Ministry of Health. Given the level of unlawful killings by the state forces, countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Iran – that provide military and law enforcement training and support to Iraq – should end such assistance until the authorities take effective action to stop the killings and hold abusers to account. The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva should hold a special session into the killings of protesters in Iraq.
“The US, UK, and Iran can’t have it both ways, calling on the Iraqi government to respect the rights of protesters while supporting the Iraqi forces killing protesters or standing by,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “With killings of protesters continuing day after day, they should end this support.”
Five witnesses to the killings told Human Rights Watch by phone that on December 6 about 1,000 protesters were present in Baghdad’s al-Khilani Square, 600 meters north of Tahrir Square, and in al-Senak Garage, a five-story parking garage just off al-Khilani Square they had been occupying since November 16. At about 7:30 p.m., they said they saw seven pickup trucks speed into al-Khilani Square and slow down. As the vehicles drove through the square slowly, gunmen in plain black uniforms and civilian dress opened fire with AK-47s and PK machine guns above the protesters, before lowering and firing directly at them. At the time, the witnesses said the protesters were gathered peacefully and not threatening any violent acts.
The witnesses said they saw about two dozen Federal Police and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), who were manning two checkpoints in the square, leave by car as the gunmen arrived. Some nine hours later, at 4:30 a.m. on December 7, the armed men left, they said, and within a few minutes security forces returned.
Electricity to al-Khilani Square and al-Senak garage went out for about an hour as the shooting began, the witnesses said, and to Tahrir Square for a few minutes, putting out streetlights. “All we could see was light coming from the bullets,” one said. The electricity directly next to the squares stayed on.
After shooting people in the square, the men in the pickup trucks drove to al-Senak garage, the witnesses said. A protester said he was on the first floor of the garage with about 150 other protesters when he first heard shots ring out. Then he saw about 30 men in civilian dress carrying machetes and sticks storm the building. A few minutes later he saw five pickup trucks pull up outside, and men in black uniforms enter carrying guns. As he ran down the stairs and out of the building, he said he saw armed men open fire on protesters inside the building and stab others. He saw at least seven protesters wounded.
A protester on the second floor said he heard screams from the first floor, and saw the armed men appear and stab protesters who tried to stand in their way. “I saw many people get injured but all I could think about was how I would get myself out of there,” he said.
When the protester from the first floor exited, he hid behind a concrete block, he said; when he looked back, he saw an armed man throw a protester off the third floor and saw others lighting tires to block emergency exits. Other witnesses outside the garage said they saw fires coming from the garage. The protester from the first floor said: “Five of my friends are still missing, and I don’t know if they are dead or were detained. I saw the armed men loading bodies into their buses and trucks an hour before they drove away, at 4:30 a.m.”
A protester who had been outside the garage said he saw at least 10 protesters get shot around him. He and two doctors present in al-Khilani Square said that they saw tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) working as ambulances try three times to approach the wounded to evacuate them. Each time armed men inside the garage threw Molotov cocktails to stop them. Finally, a larger group of protesters rushed over to the bodies and moved the wounded, they said.
“There’s very strong evidence the Iraqi authorities outsourced their dirty work against protesters, leaving just as the killings commenced and returning to assist with arrests,” said Whitson. “If they stood by and allowed these armed men to attack protesters or carried out the murders themselves, the Iraqi government forces will be responsible.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed 11 videos from that night, which appeared to substantiate many aspects of the witnesses’ accounts.
According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, the attack killed at least 9 protesters and wounded another 85 civilians. However, a reliable source from the Baghdad medical community, who has monitored the number of dead and wounded across the city’s hospitals, said he had confirmed at least 29 people killed in the attack, from stabbing and bullet wounds, and another 137 injured. A major in the army medical corps told The Times of London that as many as 80 or 85 might have been killed.
The armed forces also detained some protesters, and their whereabouts are unknown. One of the doctors present said he saw armed men detain three protesters, hold them in his medical tent for eight hours, then take them away. A video posted on Facebook on December 8 appears to show Baghdad Operations Command Forces in the same medical tent freeing about eight men who were handcuffed and blindfolded. The captives say they were physically abused. One officer tells them that they were detained by Kata'ib Hezbollah, a unit in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashad, formally under the control of the prime minister) that is linked to Iran, and that the Command is there to help them.
The incident began hours after the US government announced sanctions on three senior members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), militias operating under the nominal control of the Defense Ministry.
In response to earlier abuses against protesters, Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi resigned from office on November 29.
The government has taken some limited steps towards accountability, but no serious efforts to quell the abuse against protesters. On December 1, the Criminal Court in Wassit convicted two police officers for using excessive force and killing protesters, and other southern courts have issued arrest warrants against officers in Najaf and Dhi Qar for excessive force and issuing orders that led to the killing of protesters. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, judicial authorities have yet to take action against officers in Baghdad. However, on December 8, the government dismissed the head of Baghdad Operations Command, Major General Qais al-Muhammadawi.
The Iraqi government bears the leading responsibility to protect Iraqis’ right to life. It should urgently identify and make public the groups and security forces that engaged in or coordinated these killings and hold perpetrators to account. It should compensate victims of all unlawful killings.
The US-led coalition against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the UK, continue to support the ISF. The coalition countries rarely make public the parameters or recipients of their assistance. The US Congress appropriated $850,000 for security programs in Iraq in 2019. Iran also provides support to Iraqi forces, including the PMF, which is harder to track.
“Witness after witness says that the official security forces left the square as men wielding Kalashnikovs sped in and gunned down protesters,” Whitson said. “The authorities, it seems, even allowed the lights to go out, blanketing the protesters in darkness with only flying bullets to light up the sky.”