Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Few Clues to Grisly NGO Killings

Fears that deadly attack will impact on aid work in Iraq
By I Abdul
It was a quiet afternoon at the Mawtini Organisation when the killers arrived.



Seven men in long, black coats entered the offices of the NGO, which provides aid for widows and orphans, pulling out handguns and swiftly screwing on silencers as they walked.



Within minutes, four people had been murdered, including a receptionist shielding her child and a retired civil servant who was there visiting his wife. The intruders planted a bomb near the building that exploded when police arrived, injuring two members of the security forces.



The shootings at Mawtini on January 18 were an unusually brazen and brutal attack on an Iraqi NGO, which are rarely targeted even in turbulent Baghdad.



The killings have sent shockwaves through Baghdad's aid community and raised fears of the return of the notorious death squads that terrorised the capital two years ago. A triple car bombing on January 25 heightened concerns that foreigners, journalists and aid workers will be targeted in the run-up to March 7 elections.



“The presence of NGOs is one of the fruits of democracy in Iraq. Targeting them is an attempt by terrorists to destroy democracy. The goal of the [Mawtini] attack is to send a message to other NGOs to leave Iraq," said Haneen Qaddo, a lawmaker on the parliamentary committee for human rights.



“I think this attack will clearly affect other NGOs', because they do not have weapons or protection. Of course they will be afraid and their performance will suffer."



Amal Jasim, a Mawtini employee who asked that her name be changed due to security concerns, said the ordeal began when a sedan and an SUV pulled into Mawtini's tree-lined entrance. A large, thickly-planted garden concealed the unfolding events from the nearest security checkpoint roughly 500 metres away.



By Jasim's eyewitness account, one man stayed with the cars and seven others, wearing long, black coats, entered the building. They walked into the reception area in a manner Jasim called "professional".



Moving swiftly, the gunmen fanned out throughout the building and brought all but one of the building's occupants into the office of Wurood al-Qaisie, a 51-year-old retired university professor and the head of the Adamiyah Women's Forum. Mawtini's 84-year-old cleaning woman was locked in the kitchen.



According to Jasim, the attackers started by shooting Sabah Muhammad al-Qaisie, 52, in the head. Sabah, who owns an import-export business, was visiting his brother Alaa al-Deen Muhammad al-Qaisie, the head of Mawtini, who was shot next. Alaa, 50, passed out after a bullet hit his shoulder; the intruders assumed he was dead.



Muataz al-Qaisie, Mawtini's 48-year-old economics advisor, then yelled, "What are you doing here?" A gunman answered, "I will tell you why we came here", and shot him in the head and mouth, killing Mauataz instantly. Waleed Taha Muhammad, a 61-year-old retired civil servant, was killed next. He was visiting his wife, Iman Ibrahim.



Receptionist Alia Yaseen, who was there with her three-year-old daughter, began screaming, according to Jasim's account. The gunmen took her daughter away and led Yaseen to the bathroom where she was shot and killed. Her body was dragged back into the office.



The killers then stole two laptops and took all the money from the dead and the remaining three women. One of the men said, "If any of you women shout for help, you will face the same fate as the others."



Just as quickly as they came, Jasim said, they fled. To deceive any onlookers, the killers turned at Mawtini's main gate and waved good-bye like old friends.



The building has been shuttered since the attacks, and its wounded manager, Alaa, has gone into hiding. There has been no indication whether organisation will reopen.



The motive for the killings is unclear.



A typical day at Baghdad's Mawtini Organisation, according to its employees, included distributing food rations to poor families and teaching disadvantaged women computer, sewing and first aid skills. Orphans learned to read and write there, and the occasional reconciliation conference was held.



On the day of the attack, no classes were being held and rations were not being allocated.



According to Jasim, Mawtini is funded by donations from philanthropists and charitable Baghdad businesspeople.



"We have never received any support from any international organisation, although they have contacted us many times," said Jasim, who has been with the NGO since its inception. "We have always wanted to stay independent."



Mawtini, which means homeland in Arabic, has eight full-time employees and roughly 15 to 20 volunteers at any given time. Jasim said the organisation helped mediate between the adjacent Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods of Adamiyah and Kademiya after sectarian fighting led to several deaths in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion by United States-led forces.



Other NGOs in the area have been shaken by the attack, but few have the resources to take extra security precautions.



"We closed down for one day but re-opened right away," said Salma Sultan, who works at the Muslim Women's Association in the same area as Mawtini. "The head of the Sahwa in the area advised us to hire security guards but we can't afford them. We have decided to keep working and dedicating ourselves to the charity. I believe God will protect us."



Lawmaker Qaddo points out the government has no laws which enable NGOs to request protection or security personnel from the Iraqi government.



"The government should provide security for the NGOs because those organisations are closer to the people than the government and even parliament. They know people’s problems better than us; they work as a mediator between Iraqi people and officials," Qaddo said.



“It is sad to say that that attack will with no doubt affect NGOs in Iraq. At the same time, I hope the NGOs continue their important job in helping people and to go on with their struggle.”



Some NGO heads in Baghdad say the attack has only strengthened their resolve to provide services to Iraqis.



Hala al-Sarraf, director of the Baghdad-based Iraq Health Aid Organisation, believes that attacks such as the Mawtini shooting will deter foreign aid organisations from working in Iraq and put more pressure on local NGOs. She believes donors should increase funding to ensure that aid workers are there when they are needed most.



"When you work in Baghdad where at any minute an explosion can take an innocent life, then you can hardly imagine how to avoid attacks. Just today, our staff and I survived three explosions that were too close to us," Sarraf said.



"Should we stop? Do we leave? Close down our operations? I guess the answer is no,” she said. “No one has quit and I didn't receive any requests for leave or notes indicating fear.”



I Abdul Rahman is a Baghdad-based freelance reporter. IWPR editorial staffers Abeer Mohammed and Hemin H Lihony contributed to this story from Baghdad and Sulaimaniyah.