Erbil, Kurdish region of northern Iraq – A massage parlour in Baghdad was raided late on Thursday night, possibly by an armed group with ties to the government umbrella organisation Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Footage released by the recently formed armed group Rab’Allah was circulated on social media showing a group of masked men damaging the inside of the parlour with batons and violently escorting men and women onto the street. A separate video showed the same men outside the parlour hitting two women.
Rab’Allah initially claimed responsibility for the attack and issued a statement via their Telegram channel in which they said it was their duty to “stand against societal corruption” and fight against those who are “inspired by the corrupt ideas of America and Israel”.
Later on Friday, they issued a new statement on Telegram, denying they were involved in the storming of the massage parlour.
“The existence of these centres is considered social corruption, but they must be removed by legal methods or peaceful popular methods.”
Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst and fellow at The Century Foundation think tank, told Al Jazeera that “the attack on the massage parlour shows the government’s weakness in upholding the rule of law”.
“These groups are able to move freely, conduct rocket attacks, intimidate and harass at will, while the government is losing more credibility every time this happens.”
Massage parlours, known in Iraq for hiding illegal brothels, have been targeted by religious hardliners in the past. In 2014, more than 20 female sex workers were killed in Baghdad in a brutal massacre carried out by such armed groups.
With tens of members, Rab’Allah is known for its strong online presence and Iranian support. They are also believed to be responsible for the recent attack on the Kurdistan Democratic Party offices in Baghdad and the shooting and wounding of a young Iraqi activist on Wednesday.
The raid on the parlour follows a string of attacks allegedly by fellow Iran-linked armed groups on Christian and Yazidi-owned liquor shops across the capital, the latest of which took place late on Thursday night in Baghdad’s Karada district.
According to local reports, a stun grenade was used in the vicinity of one of the many alcohol shops in that area, defacing the shop entrance and damaging a vehicle nearby.
Based on local media reports, more than 10 attacks were carried out on alcohol shops since October.
One shop owner said last week that he had been paying armed groups to keep his business from being raided or burned down – a common practice in Iraq, where the rule of law under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s is being put to the test as rogue fighters claim responsibility for deadly rocket attacks.
“There has to be an effort to hold these groups accountable, to restore a sense of control by the state and impose justice where necessary,” said Jiyad.
“Failing to do so erodes public trust leading to more power for non-state actors and will undermine Iraq across the board.”