Iraqi activist shot dead by masked gunmen in Basra

The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of the Iranian-backed militias.
Wednesday 26/09/2018
Family members of slain activist Soad al-Ali load her coffin onto a vehicle before burial, in the Iraqi city of Basra, on September 26. (AP)
Family members of slain activist Soad al-Ali load her coffin onto a vehicle before burial, in the Iraqi city of Basra, on September 26. (AP)

LONDON — Masked gunmen shot dead a human rights activist and mother of four outside a supermarket in Basra on Tuesday, a brazen afternoon assassination that threatens to worsen tensions in the southern city wracked by violent protests.

A police official said Soad al-Ali, who has been involved in organizing protests demanding better services in the city, was killed instantly by the gunmen who fled the scene after shooting at her and her husband as they were getting in their car. Al-Ali, 46, was killed on the spot while her husband was wounded and was being treated in a hospital.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.

The assassination, which occurred on a street in the Abbasiya district in the center of Basra, is the first such incident since protests erupted this summer. Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent tens of thousands to hospitals.

Earlier this month, protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and torched government offices, the headquarters of the Iranian-backed militias and Iran’s consulate in Basra — in a show of anger over what many residents perceive as Iran’s outsized control over local affairs.

The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of the militias. Protest activists have described a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by the powerful militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people in southern Iraq’s Shia Muslim heartland.

Some militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the US, which has long worked to curb Iranian influence in Iraq. Al-Ali has been pictured during a meeting she held with the US Consul General in the province of Basra Timmy Davis more than a month ago.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, which came as protests resumed following a two-week hiatus. Protesters are demanding basic services and the release of those detained in previous demonstrations. Dozens of young men and activists have been arrested over the protests.

Shortly after Islamic State (ISIS) militants captured much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, tens of thousands of Shia men answered a call-to-arms by the top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Many volunteers were members of Iran-backed militias active since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, while others formed new groups. These fighters are credited with helping government forces defeat the extremists. But during the war, the militiamen were also accused by Sunnis and rights groups of abuses against the Sunni community, including killings, torture and destruction of homes.

Buoyed by victory against ISIS, some of the most feared Shia militias took part in the May national elections and their list — Fatah — won 48 seats in the 329-seat parliament.

Fatah and other factions formed a wider Iran-backed coalition in parliament earlier this month and will likely be tasked with forming the new government.

A pair of glasses lie in the street at the scene of the assassination of Iraqi activist Soad al-Ali in Basra, on September 25. (AP)
A pair of glasses lie in the street at the scene of the assassination of Iraqi activist Soad al-Ali in Basra, on September 25. (AP)

In Basra, some alleged the militias were working with local authorities to quell the protests — a charge denied by Bassem al-Khafaji, head of Sayyed al-Shuhada, one of several Basra militias.

He said threats and intimidation of protesters were “individual acts,” but not the result of a central directive.

“Our order for all the factions in Basra … is not to confront the protesters who burned down the offices of the militias,” al-Khafaji said, arguing that the militias are trying to prevent more bloodshed.

He accused infiltrators of turning the protests violent and said the alleged saboteurs must be dealt with by the security agencies.

A local leader of a prominent militia vowed to retaliate against rioters. 

“We have pictures of those who burned down our headquarters and they will pay dearly,” he said on condition of anonymity in line with his group’s rules for speaking to the media. “We will not let them attack us again and if they do we’ll open fire. That’s what we’ve agreed on, all of us.”

The government has said protesters’ demands are legitimate, but claims infiltrators were behind the violence.

A senior official in the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service said dozens have been arrested since the protests began. He acknowledged that others may be held by political parties and their militias, but said his office has no way of tracking that. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Activist Naqeeb al-Luaibi said he has been able to track only 30 protesters detained by the security agencies. Of those, 19 were discharged and 11 remain under arrest. Al-Luaibi said he believes dozens of others are still being held but said it was difficult to track them.

(AW and agencies)