Baghdad, Sept 6, 2019 (AFP) -
Iraqi journalists, activists and researchers are facing a wave of accusations and threats by shadowy online groups they suspect are linked to powerful pro-Iran factions.
Parties, armed groups and even officials in Iraq benefit from legions of supporters dubbed "electronic armies," which take to social media to anonymously sing their praises or mock their detractors.
These online rivalries now appear to have been fanned by months of rising tensions pitting Iran against the US and Israel.
This summer, suspicious explosions hit five camps and arms depots run by Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of mostly Shiite armed factions linked to Iran.
The Hashed was quick to blame Israel and the United States, but also said it suspected "agents" of the two countries contributed to the attacks.
That accusation was followed by an online campaign accusing a broad range of Iraqi nationals of "collaborating" with Israel and the US.
One graphic shared by an Arabic-language page named "Don't Tread on Us" accused 14 Iraqis of de facto supporting a policy of "normalization with Israel."
Shared on social media, it named figures such as journalist Joumana Mumtaz and blogger Ali Wajih.
In response, Wajih penned a rare open letter to Iraq's prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, Hashed chief Faleh Fayyadh and his powerful deputy Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis.
"For years, a group of us journalists and bloggers has faced incitements to murder by people and pages that may be close to the Hashed, or directly linked to it," he wrote.
Allegations they were "agents" or seeking normalization with Israel, Wajih said, were "empty and silly".
'A broader plot'?
Iraqis have long been opposed to Israel because of its occupation of Palestinian land.
Baghdad has however developed close ties with Washington since the American-led invasion that toppled ex-dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Despite that, Washington's bitter rival Tehran also holds considerable sway in Iraq's political scene and within the Hashed.
In recent months, anti-Israel and anti-US rhetoric has been on the rise as Iraqis feel increasingly squeezed by the war of words between the two sides.
Some Iraqi factions have used the purported Israeli strikes to relaunch calls for US troops to leave Iraq.
Just last week, many of the same figures lashed out against US-funded Al-Hurra TV for a documentary alleging corruption among Iraq's religious bodies, both Sunni and Shiite.
Perceptions Iraq was being "attacked" by Israel and America were "broadened to include critical and independent Iraqi voices, who have been maligned as agents in a broader plot," said Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the National University of Singapore.
"In this way, entrenched domestic interests and rivalries have been folded into the ongoing tensions between the Iran-led axis of resistance and the United States, Israel and their allies in the region," he said.
Rights groups react
Omar al-Shaher, a journalist named in the graphic, said there was "not a shred of proof" to back up the claims.
"These days, it's more dangerous than ever to have your name associated with the Israeli camp," he told AFP.
Historian Omar Mohammad, who documented atrocities in Mosul under the Islamic State group, said he suspected the new accusations came "as a result of the recent (purported) Israeli airstrikes and US-Iranian tensions."
Mohammad said the graphic's sleek production meant he was "absolutely" taking its threats seriously.
"It is institutional and professional. Seems there is a team specialised in dehumanising us," Mohammad told AFP from outside Iraq.
Media rights groups are worried such incitement could lead to real violence.
"The sensitivity of the Palestinian question in the region means that accusing someone of working with Israel is tantamount to calling for their killing," said the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory.
On Thursday, monitor and rights group Iraqi Media House called for better protection of journalists.
"The phenomenon of electronic armies has reached dangerous levels, issuing threats including incitement to violence and hatred," it said.
"We are surprised by the authorities' continued silence so far, including the judiciary, in a clear abandonment of its responsibilities when it comes to electronic crimes."