Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi has seized on the brutal killing of a provincial official south of Baghdad to bolster his image as being tough on crime, corruption and political rivals.
The general director of Karbala Municipality, Abeer Saleem Al Khafaji, was on duty on Tuesday removing buildings that have been built illegally on government land when a quarrel erupted between him and another man.
A security camera caught the moment when the man approached Al Khafaji armed with a handgun and shot him three times in the chest in front of a small crowd before walking calmly away.
On Wednesday, Mr Al Khadimi flew to Karbala and offered his condolences to the official's family, promising the killer would face justice. He later visited the scene where security forces brought the killer handcuffed and blindfolded before him.
“These are the corrupt [people] who allowed you to take these lands because you worked at the provincial council, right?” he asked the killer as two security guards gripped his hands and neck tightly.
“This is the outcome of corruption,” he said in a raised voice, surrounded by senior federal and provincial officials as well as locals.
“You are criminal,” he told the killer, who was believed to be in his late 50s or early 60s.
“We hope that the justice system puts you on trial as soon as possible to be an example to others … mainly those who protected this criminal,” he said.
Mr Al Kadhimi, a former spy chief, took over as interim prime minister in May 2020 after the previous government resigned after unprecedented pro-reform protests.
Since then, he has pledged justice for about 600 protesters and activists killed by security forces and armed groups, but no trials have taken place. He has also vowed to rein in Iran-backed Shiite militias, but has so far failed.
The prime minister is facing tough resistance from many political parties and politicians, in particular pro-Iran parties that see him as being too close to the US.
Local media reported that the killer is linked to former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose relatives and aides are members or senior officials on Karbala's provincial council. But Mr Al Maliki's State of Law parliamentary bloc has denied the claims.
Mr Al Kadhimi's appearance in Karbala on Wednesday was intended to “show the strength of the state and the existence of a strong prime minister who can face and overcome the violators,” said Hadi Jalo Marie, chairman of the Political Decision think tank in Baghdad.
“Is he able to stop such assaults? No, I don’t think so,” he said.
The confrontation, Mr Marie added, “begs the question whether such a move is for the sake of the state or part of the war between rivals”.
“It sounds like he wanted to send a challenge message to specific influential figures saying: ‘I can confront you’,” he said.
Hours after Mr Al Kadhimi's visit to Karbala, a gunman opened fire on municipality teams in Diyala, east of Baghdad, forcing them to flee the area, provincial police said. No injuries were reported.
Taking over government land and violating building codes has become commonplace in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The weakness of successive governments, corruption, and the violence and chaos the country was plunged into have encouraged the squatters, many of whom are affiliated with influential political parties or tribes.
Tuesday’s killing sent shock waves through Iraqi society, which blamed widespread corruption and political parties’ control over government offices.
Columnist Ali Hussein said Iraqis live with “human monsters” who are backed by political parties.
“His links to one of the political parties and his work with an influential figure authorises him to kill, steal and take over government properties,” Mr Hussein wrote in Al Mada, a local newspaper.
“This is the whole story: it is a war launched by the entourage of the influential to control the country’s resources,” he said.
“Thousands of innocents have paid the price of this war,” he added. “It is designed to break the spirit of each citizen under the rule of the corrupt and the autocrats.”