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Rights groups sound alarm on jump in Iraqi activist killings

BASRA, Iraq (AP) — Human rights monitors sounded the alarm over a recent spike in assassinations targeting civil rights activists in Iraq's south on Thursday, ahead of a much anticipated meeting between the prime minister and the U.S. president as part of ongoing strategic talks.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi departed for an official trip to Washington this week and is expected to meet with President Donald Trump later in the day, to conclude strategic talks expected to shape the future of Iraq-U.S. ties.

Meanwhile back home, rockets have continued to strike at the seat of his government, while assassination plots have targeted more civil activists this month in southern Iraq, compared to the period at the height of the protest movement in October, monitors said. Iran-backed Shiite militia groups are widely suspected of being behind both types of attacks.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in October to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and unemployment in Baghdad and across Iraq’s south. Hundreds died as Iraqi forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Activist Reham Yacoub was gunned down in the southern province of Basra on Wednesday by unidentified gunmen, a security official and human rights watcher said, marking the second such killing in the span of a week. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Activist Tahseen Osama was killed last Friday, prompting dozens to take to the streets and block roads. Police responded by firing live rounds at the demonstrators. Yacoub was a respected activist who took part in many protests in 2018 and last October.

“It seems that there is a well-programmed cleansing of activists who were influential in the last protest movement,” said Ali al-Bayati, spokesman for the semi-official Iraqi Independent High Commission for Human Rights.

Al-Bayati said the government was also complicit in the killings because of its “silence” and “inability to take real action to stop it.” According to the commission, there have been six assassination attempts targeting activists, with two killed in Basra in the month of August alone. That represents a jump as the commission recorded 16 attempted targeted killings in the 10 months after the uprising started in October.

A recent government investigation said 560 protesters and security forces were killed during the October movement. The probe drew criticism from activists who said it fell short of naming the perpetrators, who are widely suspected of having links to Iran-backed militia groups.

Al-Kadhimi fired the Basra police chief on Monday and ordered a new probe into the killing of Osama. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus issued a statement Thursday expressing outrage at the killings.

“We urge the Government of Iraq to take immediate steps to hold accountable the militias, thugs, and criminal gangs attacking Iraqis exercising their right to peaceful protest,” the statement said. In Washington, talks are expected to focus on the future of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Coalition troops have left most bases in a planned drawdown. U.S. officials have also voiced concern over the presence of Iran-backed militia groups.

Following a meeting in Washington with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that armed groups outside of Iraqi state control “have impeded our progress."

Key energy deals were also signed between Iraq and U.S. companies on the sidelines of the meeting, including with General Electric, Honeywell and Stellar Energy, according to a State Department statement, after Baghdad detailed recent efforts to increase domestic gas supply to reduce reliance on Iran.

Kullab reported from Istanbul.

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