Iraqi militants linked to entrenched political parties have killed and kidnapped scores of political activists, analysts say, creating a climate of fear before parliamentary elections in October.

Despite government promises to protect activists and punish attackers, analysts have said powerful paramilitary groups aim to discourage voting and intimidate the two-year-old grassroots protest movement that wants political change in the oil-rich country.

The UN has documented targeted assassinations of 32 “protesters and critics” between October 2019 and May 2021, while a further 16 people survived attempted killings. Twenty others are missing after being kidnapped. About 500 people were killed during violence at the October 2019 demonstrations, which toppled the previous government.

“We can’t say that there is one perpetrator behind all of the kidnappings and killings,” said Lahib Higel, a Baghdad-based senior analyst at Crisis Group. But “for the activists and those that are trying to establish political parties . . . it is very clear that it is politically affiliated paramilitary groups that are driving this type of intimidation. They want to disincentivise them from taking part in formal politics.”

This pattern of violence has “contributed to a climate of fear”, Higel added.

Mourners carry Ihab al-Wazni’s body at the Imam Hussein Shrine

No one has been charged for any of these crimes. Some fledgling parties have already boycotted the elections, which are taking place for the first time since the October 2019 protests. One Iraqi activist, who is in hiding because he fears being assaulted, said he felt that the attacks on activists were “because [political elites and militias] felt the danger of activists in the elections”.

Shia militias flourished in the chaos following the US-led ousting of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. Their power and popularity were boosted by their role in the fight against the Sunni jihadis Isis, which began in 2014. But as allegations of militia criminality emerged after Isis’s defeat in 2018, public opinion turned against the militias, who are now under a state-sponsored security umbrella called the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces. Protesters have criticised the Shia militias for their links to Tehran, which has used its Revolutionary Guards to support the Iraqi groups that have regularly attacked military bases hosting US troops.

Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi

Iraq’s unelected prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, installed after protesters overthrew his predecessor, has voiced his support for the protest movement, but is hamstrung in efforts to curb militias who have real political clout. Their success at the ballot box in 2018 means armed groups “have more state power than the prime minister does. They have access to more MPs . . . more access to judiciary, more access to key political players”, said Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House. “It’s not a handful of militias that can intimidate the prime minister. They’re inside the state system,” he added.

Demonstrators had hoped that a new electoral law, which was ratified in late 2020 and increases the number of electoral districts, would loosen the grip on power held by the well-established political parties. But analysts caution that larger parties, with deeper pockets and stronger local ties, will still have the upper hand.

“The same parties who benefit from the low turnout, they are trying to make people depressed, disappointed about the possibility of achieving change,” said an Iraqi political adviser, who asked not to be named. “And we think that even the [latest] assassinations may be explained under this.”

As the brazen attacks on activists have continued, often carried out in broad daylight or captured on CCTV, public confidence in Iraq’s government has plummeted. Just 22 per cent of Iraqis said they had trust in their government when polled in April by the Al Mustakilla Research Group and Gallup International.