Liquidation of Iraqi protest leaders continues in anticipation of elections

Analysts believe the upcoming battle for the protest movement is likely to be with the Shia parties that are exclusively loyal to Iran. After the killing of Wazni, an Iraqi reporter was seriously wounded Monday.
Monday 10/05/2021
Mourners hold up a poster showing assassinated Iraqi anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni during his funeral in the central holy shrine city of Karbala on May 9, 2021. (AFP)
Mourners hold up a poster showing assassinated Iraqi anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni during his funeral in the central holy shrine city of Karbala on May 9, 2021. (AFP)

KARBALA, Iraq - The assassination of Ihab al-Wazni, a prominent member of Iraq’s protest movement, was a premeditated provocation by Shia militias that prefer to resume confrontation with protesters in the street rather than hold early elections with no guaranteed results for them or for the parties affiliated with them.

Wazni, the head of the protesters’ coordination committee in Karbala, south of Baghdad, was known as one of the most prominent voices against state corruption and mismanagement, calling for limiting the influence of Iran and armed groups in the Shia city.

His assassination has revealed that the forces aiming to abort the Iraqi uprising are not resorting to intimidation of the protesters in the streets and city squares, but rather targeting  the leaders of the protest movement to prevent the planning of popular protests.

Wazni was assassinated at dawn on Sunday, in Karbala, following the assassination of hundreds of activists in the Iraqi uprising, including Safaa al-Saray in Baghdad, medical doctor Suad al-Ali and Reham Yaqoub, cartoonist Hussein Adel and his wife Sarah Talib in Basra, activist Amjad al-Dahamat in Maysan, activist Fahim al-Taie in Karbala and political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi in Baghdad.

A day later, an Iraqi journalist was left seriously wounded after being shot in the head. Reporter Ahmed Hassan was in intensive care after receiving “two bullets in the head and one in the shoulder,” a doctor said. “He was targeted as he got out of his car to go home,” in Diwaniyah in the south of the country, early Monday.

The assassination of the leaders of the October uprising in Iraqi cities allows the militias to get rid of the protest leaders. It also represents an opportunity for Iraqi politicians to avoid dialogue with leaders of the street uprising, by claiming there are no such leaders.

This a potentially crucial factor on the eve of next parliamentary elections scheduled for next October.

However, many protest activists do not agree with this viewpoint.

They stress that the assassinations have further motivated many activists who till now had preferred to work quietly avoiding confrontation.

This means that the assassination of the leaders of the protest movement will not eliminate the Iraqi hirak. It will instead entrench the movement anew in society as the only solution to the country’s political crisis.

“The October uprising cannot be aborted because it is a societal movement and not an electoral list. What’s happening is that the movement’s leaders are being targeted in reaction to the deterioration of the standing of those behind the assassinations. The beginning of the end is approaching,” said Jabbar al-Mashhadani, a politician and activist in the Tishreen movement.

The assassination of Wazni prompted many to condemn the pro-Iran Shia parties, which is a new and important development in the context of the protest movement. Whenever the term “Shia parties” is used, Iran cannot be far behind.

An Iraqi politician believes that to define accurately the term “Shia parties” one needs to exclude the Sadrists on the one hand, and the liberal, moderate or centrist forces, such as Mustafa al-Kadhimi and some Shia forces that are not linked to Iran, on the other hand.

Analysts believe this makes the upcoming battle of the protest movement likely to be with the Shia parties that are exclusively loyal to Iran.

An Iraqi politician, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Arab Weekly that he was afraid Kadhimi may not be able to distance himself from these parties considering his position as prime minister.

“We can now observe the harsh critical tone towards pro-Iran Shia adopted by activists, journalists and bloggers in Iraq,” he said. The criticism also extends to the “Shia authority”, which is “the pro-Iran spiritual authority that intimidates and inhibits all state institutions.”

Jabbar al-Mashhadani, an independent Iraqi politician, said, “The Iraqi landscape is now clearly defined  and so are its players and the rules of the game”.

He explained that “the October uprising and its heroes constitute the game-changer that has frightened local and regional players.”

Mashhadani further told The Arab Weekly, “Because the October protest movement has learned a good lesson from what preceded it, it did not identify its leaders and organisers, so the forces hostile to the popular movement were exhausted just searching, exploring and following-up” on these leaders and organisers.

He added that anyone is free not to benefit from the lessons of history. “But targeting the leaders of the protest movement will only speed up the demise of the dilapidated political process. The blood of the October uprising martyrs is a source of positive energy and a great boost for the movement, which represents a perpetual birth.”

Mashhadani stressed that the political process in its current form has nearly expired, and this issue is on the negotiating table between the regional and major international players.

“The ruling parties and those who support them are wary that the alternative would be a clearly pro-uprising advocate.”

Iraqi protesters burn tyres in front of the Karbala governorate headquarters in the central city of Karbala, early on May 9, 2021. (AFP)
Iraqi protesters burn tyres in front of the Karbala governorate headquarters in the central city of Karbala, early on May 9, 2021. (AFP)

Shaho al-Qarah Daghi, adviser at the New Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, said that the system of corrupt parties “cannot abandon its security mindset and the militias’ method of dealing with their opponents, no matter how democratic they claim to be and regardless of their alleged respect for human rights and fair competition in elections.”

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Qarah Daghi added, “It is clear that there is a systematic campaign to liquidate influential and free voices, either by assassinating them, pushing them to flee, threatening them or buying their silence, as has happened with some of them. All these practices aim to weaken and sideline the movement that emerged after October and constituted a real threat to the political system.”

He downplayed the importance of the talk about providing an adequate environment for elections as one party essentially monopolises all the money and weapons and is able to liquidate and kill the other party, which is only armed with its free thinking and unfettered voice.

Since the outbreak of the popular protests in October 2019, Iraq has witnessed a wide campaign of assassinations, kidnappings and threats against the organisers of the protests.

Wazni had previously survived an assassination attempt in December 2019 when Fahim al-Taie, who was 53 years old, was killed in front of his eyes in an attack carried out by gunmen on a motorbike, with silencer-equipped weapons.

The killers returned in the middle of the day on Sunday to kill Wazni outside his home, in front of surveillance cameras, as so often happens.

The murder sparked demonstrations in Karbala and other cities, including Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah, in southern Iraq.

As has happened with previous attacks, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, after which the perpetrators disappeared under the cover of night, in a country where armed factions impose their will on the political scene and the economy.

An activist close to Wazni, speaking at the coroner’s office in Karbala, confirmed, “They are Iranian militias. They assassinated Ihab and they will kill us all. They threaten us and the government is silent.”

As is the case every time, the authorities are content to announce their inability to identify the perpetrators of these politically-motivated assassinations in a country that has witnessed a civil war that reached its climax between 2006 and 2009.

The governor of Karbala, Nassif al-Khattabi, decided to put all security forces in the province on alert in an effort to arrest the perpetrators, according to a statement issued by his office.

In Dhi Qar governorate, hundreds of demonstrators blocked a number of major roads in the city of Nasiriyah, to protest the killing of Wazni.