Who is cracking down on Iraq’s anti-government protesters?

Evan al-Jaf was walking to her aunt’s house in the Jadriya neighbourhood of Baghdad last month with three friends when she realised that a group of men had followed them from Tahrir Square, the city’s main anti-government protest site.

The 19-year-old, a volunteer field medic at the square and a first-year law student, said the men suddenly grabbed and blindfolded her, before taking her to an unknown location.

Al-Jaf, who has leukaemia, said she was tortured by four men.

“They beat me up until I started throwing up blood, and electrocuted me,” she said, pulling her shirt up to reveal burn marks on her back. “They tied my left hand to my right leg and my right hand to my left leg.”

“They wrote on a whiteboard things that they wanted to film me saying that weren’t true, such as ‘Tahrir Square is an immoral lawless place where rape is rampant,'” she said. “I didn’t want to read it out, but they put a gun to my head. They saw that I’m a Christian and accused me of being an agent for the Kurdish intelligence.”

After two days in captivity, al-Jaf was released overnight on an expressway in the rural district of Taji, north of Baghdad.

“I was back at Tahrir Square four hours later, and went straight to a doctor I know at one of the medical tents, crying. I told him everything,” she said.

“I saw one of the men who kidnapped me the following day. He was wearing olive fatigues and sunglasses, and nodded at me,” she added.

‘Unrestrained militias’
Activists have blamed unidentified armed groups, that are not part of the government security forces but are affiliated with the PMF, for attacks against anti-government protesters.

In December, the UN said in a report in that “groups referred to as ‘militia’, ‘unknown third parties’, ‘armed entities’, ‘outlaws’ and ‘spoilers’ are responsible for the deliberate killings and abductions of demonstrators.”

“These acts contribute to a climate of anger and fear,” it added.

The PMF was formed in 2014 after a call from Iraq’s most influential Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to take on the ISIL (ISIS) after it had conquered more than a third of Iraqi territory. In 2016, most of the PMF militias were incorporated into the state’s security apparatus, but critics say that some militias operate independently of the government. The militias have also become a powerful force in Iraqi politics, with strong representation in the Iraqi Parliament.

Wathiq al-Freiji, one of the protest organisers in Baghdad, told Al Jazeera that Iraq has a security problem mainly because of “unrestrained militias”.

“Weapons should be under the control of and limited to the government,” he said. “These militias are tied to political parties and are not merely associated with but control the government.”

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