Britain’s ambassador to Iraq has been targeted by a graphic propaganda campaign featuring an image of his bloodied face after he spoke out against militia groups which are strengthening their grip on the war-torn country.
Stephen Hickey, who has served in the post since last September, was singled out by militiamen after he encouraged Iraq to turn its back on armed groups that operate outside the law.
In response, one militia group with ties to the Iranian regime published a series of posts on the messaging app Telegram which warned the senior diplomat to keep his views to himself.
“Stop lying and mind your own business and represent your old country as a diplomat,” reads one of the messages seen by the Telegraph. It was posted by Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shia militia group backed by Iran.
The warning was accompanied by two polaroid-style photographs of Mr Hickey which were edited so that his face and head were smeared with blood.
Founded in 2013, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba reportedly has around 10,000 fighters and is subject to US sanctions.
Another message told the British ambassador to stop playing “malicious games” by addressing the issue of militia groups in Iraq, and a third warned him “not to intervene in issues that are bigger than you.”
It is understood that the hostile messages were responding to a tweet by the ambassador, which warned that “armed groups operating outside state control” were hampering Iraq’s development.
UK government officials said the safety of their staff was of “paramount importance” and that they were working to ensure the stability of Iraq under a sovereign government which has control over armed groups.
Iraq analysts said the messages were part of a broader campaign to intimidate those who speak out against militia groups.
“Despite the recent departure of British troops from Taji Air Base, UK diplomatic staff are still under regular threat from pro-Iranian hardline Shiite factions in Iraq,” said Evan Kohlmann, a senior analyst at the security consultancy Flashpoint.
“Those factions seethe at comments from the outspoken UK ambassador in support of the Iraqi government and its efforts to end continuing rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad,” he added.
Pro-Iran militia groups wield significant power over the Iraqi parliament, though the country’s newly appointed prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, has vowed to crack down on them.
Many of the militia groups are known as Iranian “proxies” which are funded by the regime and used to undermine Western forces and their allies in the region.
Over the past year, the militias have been linked to rocket attacks on US and UK forces in Iraq, the killing of young protesters and a campaign of intimidation against Iraqi MPs.
In May, the Telegraph disclosed that a group named Thar Allah (God’s Revenge) was believed to be responsible for the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old man during protests in Basra in May.
Another major militia group tied to Iran, Kataib Hezbollah, was blamed by the US for a rocket attack in December 2019 on a military base hosting US troops, which killed an American contractor.
Another rocket attack in March on Camp Taji base killed two American soldiers and one British soldier.
Shortly after pledging to stand up to the militias, Mr Kadhimi ordered a raid on Kataib Hizbollah’s offices in June, in what was widely regarded as an attempt to stymie Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
Around a dozen members of the group, which was also involved in the siege of the US Baghdad embassy in January 2020, were arrested.
A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: “The UK has long been clear in its support for Iraqi sovereignty and stability, and its position that all armed groups within Iraq should fall under the control of the Iraqi Government.
The safety of our staff is of paramount importance and we keep our security under constant review.”