On walls and lampposts in the heart of Iraq’s capital, vying for attention alongside banners calling for the government’s downfall, are images of the missing.
The posters appeal for information about young men who have disappeared during two months of antigovernment protests and a security crackdown that has shocked many Iraqis inured to years of war and violence.
The crackdown has left nearly 400 people dead and many more in the hands of any of a number of factions of the country’s fragmented security forces. For some, it recalled the reign of Saddam Hussein, when dissent was ruthlessly repressed.
But under today’s divided Iraqi leadership, the use of force has stoked dissent.
“I hold the government responsible—not only for my son’s fate, but for the fate of all the young men,” said Umm Hassanain, whose 16-year-old son has been missing since Oct. 25, when he left home for Tahrir Square, the center of protests in Baghdad.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, succumbing to popular anger, said last week he would resign after the country’s top cleric, Ali al-Sistani, said it was time for a new government. A day earlier, several dozen people had been killed when Iraqi security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas canisters to disperse protesters in the southern city of Nassiriyah.
Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, before his resignation, said 2,500 people detained during protests had been released. Unlawful arrests and detentions continue, the United Nations secretary-general’s special representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.
The fragmented nature of Iraq’s security forces makes it difficult to determine who is driving the crackdown and what branch of the security apparatus is behind the disappearances.
Some of the missing men who were released said they had been held at a military base in Baghdad after being seized off the street. There is also an array of militias over which the government exercises limited control, though they are officially part of the security forces. Some have close ties to Iran.
Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, who remains in office as a caretaker prime minister and commander-in-chief, has said security forces had been ordered not to shoot. After the killings that led to his resignation, an arrest warrant was issued for a military commander—though Iraq’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that he, too, had issued commands not to open fire on protesters.
“The contrast between the government’s statements and what security forces are doing on the ground suggests that Iraq’s commander in chief is not in charge of his own forces,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Khalid Mehanna said security forces faced provocations from some protesters to which they had to respond with force. Brig. Mehanna said tear-gas canisters hadn’t been aimed straight at protesters, but that even a rock falling into a crowd could prove lethal.
He dismissed any comparison with Saddam’s time, noting most of the protesters were too young to remember what it was like.
“Before,” he said, “whoever cursed the regime would have their tongue cut off.”
The aim of today’s detentions, families say, is to scare others into silence.
Among the missing is Ahmed Ismail, a 27-year-old who disappeared from Tahrir Square on Oct. 28. His older brother Mohammed Ismail searched the city and its morgue before putting up posters around the square urging anyone with information to call. On each is a black-and-white photo of Ahmed and Mohammed’s phone number.
A lawyer hired by Mr. Ismail to investigate said it appeared Ahmed was being held at a military base. But Mr. Ismail can’t be sure who is holding his brother.
“There used to be one Saddam,” he said. “Now there are thousands.”
Iraqi political leaders now face the challenge of forming a new government that can respond to the public pressure without giving up the privileges they have accumulated since 2003.
The use of force has hardened protesters’ demands, which initially focused on jobs and services and an end to corruption and foreign interference in government. Some now call for a revolution.
On the roundabout in the center of Tahrir Square, protesters have erected mock gallows under the sign “The People’s Court.” Posters denounce political leaders as criminals and agents of Iran.
Interspersed among them are images of young protesters who went missing. Many are from deprived neighborhoods of the capital.
If the crackdown stunned many Iraqis, it is grimly familiar to the country’s Sunni minority, which until now has posed the main threat to the Shiite-dominated political order that took shape after 2003. For years, Sunnis have complained of arbitrary detentions by security forces.
Now it is the Shiite majority driving the protests, which are taking place in Baghdad and predominantly Shiite southern provinces. The fault line today isn’t sectarian identity, but the divide between those who have benefited from the political system and those who haven’t.
The government and armed groups that operate under the cover of the state have taken action beyond detentions in an apparent effort to silence dissent.
Armed men have trashed the offices of several TV stations that covered the demonstrations. Access to the internet has been repeatedly blocked by the government. Last week, the Communications and Media Commission suspended the operating licenses of nine TV channels that it accused of instigating violence.
The U.S., which midwifed Iraq’s democracy after Saddam’s fall, condemned the suspensions. “Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are the cornerstones of a democratic society,” the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said.
The U.S. has threatened to impose sanctions on Iraqi officials found responsible for violence against protesters.
Compounding the challenge for the politicians searching for a successor to Mr. Abdul-Mahdi is a competition for influence in the country.
Iran intervened to shore up Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s government last month. Iranian officials exert influence over some Iraqi politicians and parts of the security apparatus, including militias.
The U.S. says the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps foreign wing, Qassim Soleimani, has been in Baghdad interfering in Iraqi politics. Iran says the U.S. and Israel have been fomenting protests.
Iran’s government has faced its own recent outbreak of protests—which it dealt with by shutting down the internet and killing more than 200 people, according to Amnesty International.
Iraq’s divided leadership is incapable of such a response, said Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the United States Institute for Peace. “Iran’s method requires unified action in which force is swift, targeted and brutal,” he said. “Iraq simply doesn’t have the coercive structure or intelligence at the local level to replicate the Iranian approach.”