Slain Iraqi novelist criticised foreign meddling, militias

Alaa Mashdhub was gunned down February 2 in the Shia holy city by unknown assailants.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Iraqi writers and intellectuals shout slogans and raise banners showing the portrait of slain novelist Alaa Mashdhub in Baghdad’s central Tahrir square, February 6. (AFP)
A silenced voice. Iraqi writers and intellectuals shout slogans and raise banners showing the portrait of slain novelist Alaa Mashdhub in Baghdad’s central Tahrir square, February 6. (AFP)

BAGHDAD - Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashdhub was a secular civil society activist who used his bike to get around Karbala’s infamous traffic and road closures. He was also an outspoken critic of foreign interference in Iraq and political meddling by powerful Iran-backed militias.

Mashdhub was gunned down February 2 in the Shia holy city by unknown assailants who silenced him with 13 bullets as he rode his bicycle home.

Mashdhub’s killing was the latest assassination targeting prominent Iraqi figures, including activists linked to the protest movement in Basra as well as a former beauty queen and social media celebrity. The killings raised fears of a return to attacks on prominent figures that plagued the country at the height of its sectarian strife.

“They killed us by killing Alaa but we’ll keep him alive through his pen,” said Qassim Mashdhub, Alaa Mashdhub’s brother.

Iraq is still recovering from its fight against the Islamic State and riots have repeatedly broken out in southern regions over authorities’ failure to provide basic services.

No group claimed responsibility for killing Mashdhub or the other victims but suspicion in some of the cases has fallen on Shia militias, some of which are backed by Iran, collectively known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

Alaa Mashdhub, 51, was a father to three boys and a girl. He published 20 books, including several novels and short story collections that won local and regional awards. He wrote extensively about Karbala’s history and culture and about Iraq’s once-thriving Jewish minority.

“In his writings, he spoke out against corruption and criticised neighbouring countries for their intervention in Iraqi affairs. Everyone knows Iran and Turkey are present in Iraq, this is not a secret,” said his brother.

The US Embassy in Iraq offered condolences to Mashdhub’s family and friends, calling it a “senseless act of violence.”

While the motive for Mashdhub’s killing is not known, Qassim Mashdhub and others on social media speculate that a Facebook post, in which Alaa Mashdhub wrote about the late Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, may have been the trigger for his killing.

In the posting, Mashdhub wrote about the street in Karbala where Khomeini lived for nearly 13 years before he travelled to France, criticising the Iranian leader for turning against the country that hosted him for so long.

“I expect that those who assassinated him are the militias who did not appreciate Alaa’s writings,” Qassim Mashdhub said. He added that, a week before he died, Alaa Mashdhub told his family he felt he was being monitored and expressed concern that he would be killed.

On the evening of February 2, Alaa Mashdhub attended an event at a cultural centre during which attendees discussed the Iraqi football team’s performance at Asian Cup games in the United Arab Emirates. Nawfal al-Hamadani, a member of the city’s union of writers, said Mashdhub left early, saying he wanted to get home.

A short while later, he was intercepted by a gunman on a motorcycle who shot him from behind, knocking him from his bike. The gunmen shot him 12 more times, killing him, Qassim Mashdhub said.

The killing shocked many in Iraq and triggered criticism of security forces for failing to protect people. “We will uncover the perpetrators before the government does,” Qassim Mashdhub said.

None of the assailants in last year’s assassinations has been apprehended.

On September 25, Soad al-Ali, a prominent activist in Basra who had organised protests demanding better services and jobs and decried the growing influence of Iran-backed Shia militias in the area, was killed. Beauty queen and social media star Tara Fares, 22, was shot at the wheel of her car on a busy Baghdad street during the day. Two well-known female beauty experts were also killed last year.

The militias were integral to Iraq’s war against the Islamic State but with the war declared won, attention turned to Iraq’s high unemployment and decaying infrastructure. Many resent the militias for what they see as rampant corruption and meddling.

On February 3, Mashdhub’s coffin, draped in an Iraqi flag, was carried by colleagues along a main road in Karbala, amid calls of “Allahu Akbar.”

“The cultural scene has lost one of its special authors and creators,” Iraqi Culture and Tourism Minister Abdul Amir al-Hamdani said in a statement.

PEN America, an NGO supporting freedom of expression, said the assassination of Mashdhub was a “horrific attack on creative expression in Iraq.”

“Holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime accountable is of paramount importance in preserving freedom of expression and a vibrant cultural and civic life in Iraq,” it said in a statement.

(The Associated Press)