S2021 E5 | CLIP

Iraq's Assassins

Award-winning FRONTLINE correspondent Ramita Navai investigates allegations that Iranian-backed Shia militias are threatening and killing critics with impunity and targeting U.S. interests.

AIRED: February 09, 2021 | 0:26:38

(sirens wailing)

>> RAMITA NAVAI: January 2020.

For months, Iraqis had been taking to the streets

in nationwide protests like this over the dire conditions

in the country.

(indistinct yelling)

As the demonstrations grew,

their anger turned to a new target.

>> (chanting in Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Iranian-backed Shia militia groups

that were operating with increasing impunity

throughout Iraq.

Protesters set militia bases on fire,

and the militias fought back.

They were accused of unleashing a wave of assassinations

against their critics.

(car horn honking)

♪ ♪

I traveled into Iraq in September 2020

to investigate the reports of growing violence

by the Shia militias, groups that had once fought heroically

to defend the country from ISIS, but have since expanded

into a powerful political and economic force.

I headed to the north, where we'd made contact with a group

of young activists who'd gone into hiding after criticizing

the militias during the protests.

They'd all fled the southern city of Basra.

Only two would show their faces on camera.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: They told me that the militias had been monitoring

Iraqis like them, who'd accused the groups of widespread

corruption and abuses, and they'd even heard

of a militia "kill list" with the names of protesters on it.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Lodya Remon, a 27-year-old charity worker,

had long been one of the most vocal

of the Basran protesters.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Not long after the protests started,

security cameras captured activists being gunned down

in the streets.

(glass shattering, car horn honks)

Lodya's friends started getting murdered.

Sara Talib and her husband, Hussein,

were shot dead in their home.

Sara was several months pregnant.

Journalists Ahmed Abdul Samad and Safaa Ghali

were gunned down in the street.

Software engineer Tahseen Oussama was shot in his office.

Lodya worried she was next.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Lodya told me she had been threatened

by the militias before, after she attended

a Women's Day event at the U.S. Consulate

with her best friend, Riham Yacoub.

>> (speaking Arabic)

>> NAVAI: A TV channel owned by an Iranian-backed militia

accused them of collaborating with the U.S. consul general.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: In August 2020, Lodya was getting into a car to go

to the funeral of one of her murdered friends.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Lodya's friend Abbas, who was driving,

was shot in the back, but survived.

Two days later, it was Riham's turn, ambushed while driving

down one of Basra's main streets.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: I'd been tracking the rising power of the Shia

militias and their ties to Iran for years.

In 2016, I reported on their instrumental role in the fight

to drive ISIS out of Iraq.

These Shia militias were ordinary Iraqis who had

picked up arms to fight ISIS when government

forces had crumbled.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: They're pointing over there,

and they're saying that's the black flag of ISIS.

At the time, there were about 100,000

of these Shia militia fighters, but even as they were

being hailed as heroes for their role in defeating ISIS,

there were reports of their lawlessness and abuses.

I saw that firsthand when we snuck into a town

called Muqdadiyah.

>> (speaking Arabic), quickly.

>> NAVAI: A disillusioned Shia militiaman had agreed

to secretly take me into town.

He told me some of his fellow militiamen had been taking

revenge on the Sunni population.

So on my left here is a Sunni mosque that, you can see,

it's been completely destroyed.

In all, he took me to six destroyed Sunni mosques

that day.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: By the time ISIS was defeated in 2017,

the militias were technically supposed to be

under government control.

But many remained autonomous, and some,

including the most powerful of the groups--

Kata'ib Hezbollah-- were controlled by Iran.

They began striking U.S. targets, and stoking conflict

between Iran and the U.S.

(guns firing, people shouting)

>> One of the worst attacks on a U.S. embassy in years.

That group is known as Kata'ib Hezbollah.

>> NAVAI: The tensions got worse in early 2020.

>> A U.S. drone strike killed one of Iran's most powerful

military leaders overnight.

Major General Qasem Soleimani...

>> NAVAI: The drone strike outside Baghdad airport

also killed the founder of Kata'ib Hezbollah.

>> Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was sanctioned by the U.S.

for violence against Americans, was also killed.

>> NAVAI: In response, Kata'ib Hezbollah and other militias

stepped up their attacks on U.S. and Coalition targets.

Including this rocket attack on a Coalition base

that happened while we were there.

The latest attack happened just a few days ago,

and this is where it was launched-- three missiles

hit near the U.S. base in Erbil,

and we're about to talk to the group accused of that attack.

The group is the 30th Brigade, part of a network of militias

known as the Hashd.

Like other militias, they are notoriously suspicious

of Western media, but after being accused of the attack

on the Coalition base, their commander, Sami Bagdesh,

agreed to an interview.

Who is responsible for these attacks?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Why do you think people would want

to attack the U.S. base?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: But why would the Americans attack their own base?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: The Hashd were considered as heroes,

but public perception of the Hashd is changing.

What do you think of that?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: It was hard to find public officials willing

to openly discuss the militias with us.

One of the few who would was Faisal al-Issawi,

a Sunni member of parliament.

He told me that after the American drone strike last year,

the Iraqi parliament debated whether to expel U.S. troops.

Al-Issawi and other Sunni politicians wanted them to stay,

but the militias wanted them out.

We've heard reports that the Shia militias have threatened

MPs before voting in parliament.

What can you tell me about this?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Who were the death threats from?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Al-Issawi was far from the only public figure

in the crosshairs of Kata'ib Hezbollah.

In July 2020, the country was stunned by the assassination

of one of the prime minister's influential and widely respected

counter-terrorism advisers, Hisham al-Hashimi.

♪ ♪

>> (speaking Arabic)

>> NAVAI: Al-Hashimi appeared frequently on television

and had become increasingly critical of the militias,

especially Kata'ib Hezbollah.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: His killing had a chilling effect.

It was hard to find anyone willing to speak openly

about who was behind it.

People here are terrified, whether high-ranking officials,

protesters, or just ordinary Iraqis.

And off-camera, they tell us the same thing,

that the Shia militias control this city and

they've taken hold of power like never before.

They say no one feels safe.

♪ ♪

(keyboard keys clicking)

An official in the prime minister's office who knew

al-Hashimi agreed to talk to me,

as long as we didn't reveal his identity.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Despite the danger, al-Hashimi had been exposing

the inner workings of Kata'ib Hezbollah--

identifying its secret leadership and tweeting

his findings for the world to see.

The militias were furious.

>> (speaking Arabic)

>> NAVAI: They circulated a video on social media

accusing him of being a Western spy.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Five days before his murder,

al-Hashimi published a report that found 44 out of 67

Shia militias took direct orders from Tehran.

And he outlined the ways in which these militias were

destabilizing Iraq.

On July 6, 2020, al-Hashimi was driving home.

As he pulled up to his house, a security camera captured

a gunman firing four shots.

The gunman escaped on a motorbike

as al-Hashimi's children ran to their father's body.

Prime Minister Mustafa al- Kadhimi vowed

there'd be justice-- not just for al-Hashimi,

but also for the young activists killed in Basra.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Despite the killings, I was hearing there were still

some protests simmering around the country, even in Basra.

A senior government official told us we risked

being kidnapped or killed without protection in the city.

We're driving into the city of Basra now

and we've been met by a police escort,

you can see them here beside us, and that's because foreign crews

haven't been welcome since the mass protests

and since the surge in assassinations of activists.

♪ ♪

Basra is Iraq's gateway to the Persian Gulf

and neighboring Iran.

It is a hub for the Shia militias,

and has been plagued by violence.

♪ ♪

Our police escort just stopped on the side of the road

to give us extra instructions on how to keep safe,

because they said they're worried about our safety.

This is despite the fact that we are being escorted

by eight heavily armed men.

♪ ♪

The morning after we arrived here, we slipped away

from our police escorts and went to one of Basra's main squares.

This is where thousands of Basrans have been protesting.

They come here sporadically; they're not here now,

but you can see the tents and encampments they've set up

where they stay.

You can see here where there was one big encampment,

and it was burnt down by the militias.

The site is maintained by dozens of activists

like 25-year-old Mustafa.

He told me most nights, they're harassed by Shia militiamen.

>> (speaking Arabic):

♪ ♪

>> NAVAI: Like elsewhere in the country,

public officials here were reluctant to criticize

the militias.

When I met the police chief, Abbas Naji al-Lami,

he played down the killings.

What can you tell me about these assassinations?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: But we've spoken to activists from Basra

who've told us they had to flee because they received

death threats from the militias for criticizing the militias.

>> (speaking Arabic):


>> NAVAI: But it's clear that these activists are being killed

after they post on social media critical posts

about the militias or Iran,

and they're all targeted assassinations.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: But we got a very different assessment

from a senior security official in Basra.

He did not want to be seen with us in the city, or go on camera,

saying it was too dangerous.

He agreed to talk over the phone once we left.

My colleague, Mais al-Bayaa, recorded her call with him.

(phone calling out)

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: He said the militia "kill lists" we'd been

hearing about were aimed not just at protesters,

but businesspeople and politicians at all levels.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(call ends)

♪ ♪

>> NAVAI: As our time in Iraq was nearing an end,

I still had questions about the militias' role

in the killing of Hisham al-Hashimi.

Officially, the government said

it was still under investigation.

In Baghdad, I was introduced to an intelligence officer

involved in the case, who agreed to talk

as long as we didn't reveal his identity

and disguised his voice.

What can you tell me about the investigation

into Hisham al-Hashimi's murder?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Who are the people behind his killing?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Which militia?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: Even if you find absolute evidence,

will there be justice?

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> NAVAI: We were advised to not meet Kata'ib Hezbollah

while in Iraq because it was too dangerous.

But after leaving, we presented questions

to the group's spokesman.

We never received a response.

(car horn honks)

As for Iran, it officially keeps its distance from the militias,

and has repeatedly denied being behind attacks against Coalition

and U.S. targets.

Throughout our reporting, we'd been trying to find evidence

of the "kill list" we'd heard about.

We were eventually given a document by a source

with close ties to the militias.

He said it came from Kata'ib Hezbollah itself.

There were 35 names on it, including Tahseen Ousamma,

whose funeral Lodya Remon was going to when she was attacked.

Her friend Abbas, who was driving, was also on the list.

>> (speaking Arabic):

♪ ♪

>> NARRATOR: Coming up next on this special edition

of "Frontline"...

>> They've lost their homes in the war.

The one thing that that man was terrified of

was that he'd been taken to quarantine,

and he doesn't know who is going to feed his children.

>> NARRATOR: An exclusive look inside a country ravaged by war

and the pandemic.

"Yemen's COVID Cover-Up" begins right now.

♪ ♪

(bustling market sounds)

>> NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: This is Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

It's April 2020, and COVID is raging around the world,

but here the city markets are still full of people.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: When this was filmed, other countries were

already under lockdown.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: They're selling qat, a stimulant.

Chewing the leaves is a national addiction.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The city seems to be in denial.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

(man coughing)

♪ ♪

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Three months later, I'm heading to Sanaa.

I'm originally from Yemen, and for the past six years I've been

covering the devastating war here.

This time I've come to see how the virus is impacting

the dire situation, especially here in the north,

which is controlled by the Houthis, a rebel group

backed by Iran.

>> (chanting in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: There've been widespread reports of thousands

of COVID deaths in areas where the internationally recognized

government is in control, but here in the north the Houthis

insist there have only been four cases.

Even before I arrive, doctors have been telling me

the death toll is much higher.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: I'm the first journalist

from an international broadcaster to be allowed

into the country since the pandemic began.

When I get to Sanaa, the Houthis require me to attend

a press conference on the COVID situation.

The health minister, Dr. Taha al Mutawakkil,

spends most of the briefing criticizing

the Houthi's enemies, the Saudi-led coalition

that supports the internationally recognized

government and has blockaded Houthi territory for years.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: He says very little about the pandemic

or what the Houthis are doing to fight it.

(in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: I try to press the minister as he leaves.

(conversing in Arabic):

♪ ♪

>> AL-MAGHAFI: After the press conference,

the Houthis assign me a minder to accompany me wherever I go.

I head for one of Sanaa's main markets, Bab Al Salam.

I'd heard that one of the first COVID cases in Yemen

was a shopkeeper here.

There are signs telling people to wash their hands.

But no one is wearing a mask.

As we walk, we're approached by the man on the left.

We soon realize he's an informant

for the Houthi authorities;

he tells us not to film anything about coronavirus.

A shopkeeper tells me I don't need a mask

because COVID's over.

We're about to interview him when the man interrupts

and tells him what to say.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Getting to the truth isn't going to be easy.

(in Arabic):

The Houthis use their network of local informants

to exert control over the population.

But some people are willing to speak out.

I shake off my minder and go to meet Dr. Ehab Alsaqqaf.

I'm hoping he can help me piece together

what's really going on.

He says the first wave of coronavirus cases has passed

but that its effects were severe.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Dr. Ehab is an epidemiologist.

Early on, the Houthi authorities appointed him to a team to test

and trace COVID cases.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: He says his team was reporting COVID numbers

to the Ministry of Health but that publicly

the ministry continued to deny that the virus

had even entered northern Yemen.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Dr. Ehab was one of the few people who knew

the true scale of the COVID crisis,

so when his own grandmother needed hospital care,

he took extreme measures.

He set up an intensive care ward for her at home.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(men chanting)

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The Houthi authorities put out

very little public information about the spread of COVID,

but they've promoted propaganda videos like this one from May

showing them mobilizing against the virus.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: By May the 5th, the Houthis had admitted

to a single COVID fatality.

But social media would soon tell a different story.

(car horn honks)

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Just 23 days later, this video,

filmed outside Kuwait Hospital,

showed how fast the disease was spreading.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: As soon as COVID hit,

the Houthis banned journalists from hospitals.

But after two weeks of negotiating,

they finally allow me in to one.

They insist that six minders accompany me.

The COVID ward in Kuwait Hospital is supported

by an international NGO, Doctors Without Borders.

It's staffed with locals like Dr. Rania Jashan.

Though the hospital is well equipped compared

to others here, she tells me it was quickly overwhelmed.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Dr. Rania said she wasn't allowed to tell me

the exact number of deaths;

but she said that many of those who died were young,

a group considered low risk in other countries.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

(voice breaking):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Despite what was going on inside

their own hospitals, the Houthi authorities continued to deny

they had a COVID crisis.

At the same time, they were rounding up people suspected

of being infected.

Videos posted to Facebook in May show armed men

taking sick people away by force.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Here, a mother is separated from her daughter.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

(gunshots, men shouting)

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Doctors told me they'd heard about many people

who died at home without medical attention.

We found more cellphone footage that shows Houthi teams

from the Ministry of Health collecting bodies

dumped on the street.

We also found Facebook posts memorializing relatives

and friends who died from the virus,

evidence of a far higher death toll

than the authorities were admitting.

In one week in June, we tracked hundreds of them.

Like this one, from the Jaralla family, who lost three brothers.

After all I've seen and heard,

I want to question the Houthi health minister who dodged me

at the press conference.

He finally agrees to meet me in the port city of Hodeidah.

The Saudis have bombed this road many times.

It's a dangerous six-hour drive.

All these lorries are carrying food and aid supplies

to be distributed across the north,

and they can spend days queuing for petrol,

and because of the blockade, not much of it is coming in.

♪ ♪

The Saudi coalition has imposed a blockade on Hodeidah's port

for the last five years to stop the Houthis bringing in arms.

As a consequence, supplies of medicine, food, and fuel

are largely cut off.

It can take months for aid to reach people.

(crowd chattering)

I'm meeting the minister in Hodeidah Central Hospital.

He wants to show me how the blockade affects people here.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(baby crying)

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The emergency ward is overwhelmed

with children, most of them suffering from malnutrition.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (conversing in Arabic):

(coughing in background)

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The woman was echoing what I'd been hearing

throughout my time in Yemen,

that COVID has been a disaster here.

I pressed the health minister on the scale of the problem.

(in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

(car horns honking)

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Just before COVID hit, the Houthis did something

that would worsen the impact of the outbreak.

They threatened to tax foreign aid.

The U.S. responded by suspending $73 million

from programs it supports in the country.

Other countries and aid groups also cut funding

around this time.

(ambulance siren blares)

I want to see the effects of these cuts.

Just north of Sanaa, I'm allowed into the main hospital

in the city of Amran.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: 26-year-old Tariq Qassem tells me

at the beginning of the outbreak he was often the only doctor

working in the hospital's COVID isolation ward.

Without proper protective gear, he caught the coronavirus.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Government doctors like Tariq haven't been

paid regular salaries since 2016.

Instead, they've had to rely on support

from the World Health Organization.

Dr. Tariq says he was getting up to $200 a month, until March.

(in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The W.H.O. stopped paying doctors

just as COVID hit Yemen.

The head of the W.H.O. in Yemen told us they had no choice

due to their funding being slashed,

and that their contribution was intended only to supplement

the doctors' salaries, not replace them.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: With no pay and no protective gear,

some doctors stopped coming to work.

But others continued.

Dr. Tariq takes me to meet his colleagues.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (conversing Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Dr. Tariq tells me that because

he's not being paid, he can't go home.

His family can't afford to support him.

He's been living in this hospital room since March.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: I head to a region that's been hard hit

by the ongoing war between the Houthis

and the Saudi coalition.

It's called Aslam, and it's 180 miles from Sanaa.

(horn honks)

Saudi air strikes have increased throughout the pandemic.

In 2020, it's estimated that there were almost

twice the amount as the year before.

Many involved U.S.-made bombs.

(people chattering)

There's just been one in a neighboring province.

A coalition air strike hit a convoy of cars on the road,

wounding 15 people and killing eight children.

Between the war and COVID, community health services here

are in a desperate situation.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(baby wailing)

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Nurse Makiya Al Aslami runs

the only health center in the area.

It deals with malnutrition and maternity care.

The aid cuts mean she now has more patients, but less money.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(baby crying)

♪ ♪

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The fighting has displaced

three-and-a-half million people across Yemen.

They're forced to live in makeshift camps like this one.

I accompany nurse Makiya as she does her rounds

looking for COVID cases.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: We find Ali, a father of 17 children.

He lost his home in an air strike a year ago.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Nurse Makiyah wants Ali to be quarantined

in the local isolation center.

But he doesn't want to leave his children.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: They've lost their homes in the war,

they don't know where their next meal is coming from.

The one thing that that man was terrified of was

that he'd be taken to quarantine, and he doesn't know

who is going to feed his children.

At Nurse Makiya's clinic,

there's a patient who keeps coming back.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Hassan is eight years old.

He's one of an estimated two million children

who are suffering from starvation.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Severe malnutrition as a baby

has affected Hassan's development.

He can't hear properly; he communicates with his father

in sign language.

>> (speaking Arabic):


♪ ♪

>> Go to for the latest

on the U.S. role in Yemen.

>> They've lost their homes in the war, they don't know where

their next meal is coming from.

>> And an interview with "Iraq's Assassins" filmmaker

Ramita Navai.

>> This is despite the fact we are being escorted

by eight heavily armed men.

>> Connect with "Frontline" on Facebook, Twitter,

and Instagram, and stream anytime on the PBS app


♪ ♪

>> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs,

visit our website at

♪ ♪

"Frontline's" "Iraq's Assassins" and "Yemen's COVID Cover-Up"

are available on Amazon Prime Video.

♪ ♪


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