Iraqi anti-government activist shot dead in Karbala

Ihab Al Wazni's assassination has sparked nationwide anger at authorities

A prominent Iraqi activist was shot dead on Saturday night in the southern city of Karbala, sparking widespread anger at the government’s inability to protect civilians.

Ihab Al Wazni was reportedly assassinated by armed men in the Al Haddad area of the city. His body was carried in a coffin covered with a blue sheet in the early hours of Sunday by a crowd of men in his hometown.

They chanted "the hero of Karbala is gone". Security forces have started an investigation into the killing.

Burning tyres light up the night skies during anti-government protests in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, south of Iraq's capital Baghdad, late on October late October 28, 2019. Protests have persisted across Iraq and its Shiite-majority south, with night-time rallies in the central city of Karbala spiralling into skirmishes with security forces.  / AFP / -

A CCTV footage showed two men were waiting in an alley shortly after midnight for Al Wazni, who was driving his car. One of them walked to the car and opened fire before jumping on a motorbike and speeding off with a companion.

The Iraqi human rights activist played a prominent role in the mass protests against government corruption, high unemployment and dire public services that erupted in October 2019. He was one of the main individuals who started the movement in Karbala.

Al Wazni survived an assassination attack in December 2019, only two months after the start of the protests. Many activists on social media blamed Iran-backed militias for his killing.

“Shame on the corrupt government for not being able to protect peaceful activists from rogue Iranian-backed armed militias,” activist Raya Barazajani said on Twitter.

Nawal Jaafar, a human rights activist, said the perpetrators have killed "every beautiful thing" in Iraq.

“They [the killers] are the same militias that condemn Israel’s crimes against unarmed Palestinians, it seems that the road to Palestine passes through the killing of innocents. You have killed every beautiful thing in my country. You are cowards and criminals,” Ms Jaafar said on Twitter.

In a video, a group of young men said the militias killed Al Wazni near his home.

“They will kill us one after one," one of them said in the video posted on social media. "They are threatening us while the local government and security authorities are silent. You are cowards, you hide in alleys like poppies with kawatim  [pistols with silencers]. We are waiting for you whether you kill one or 10 or 100, you will not eliminate us.”

Al Wazni was very influential in Iraq's protest community and was also planning to take part in the upcoming elections as he had a great reputation with the protesters, Ali Al Bayati, a member of the semi-official Iraqi Independent Human Rights Commission, told The National.

“There is an expectation of reaction from protestors to take the streets again to condemn the crime. It is the third assassinations targeting the activists in the province since October 2019,” Mr Al Bayati said.

The continuation of such crimes against activists in Iraq, while the country is preparing for elections, will “insult the integrity of the upcoming polls” and will question the government’s ability to hold those to account.

Several high-profile Iraqi activists have been killed or targeted by unknown groups since the start of the protest movement nearly two years ago.

More than 550 protesters were shot dead by security forces and gunmen suspected of links to Iran-backed militias between October and December 2019. Thousands of others were injured and hundreds were detained.

International human rights groups say activists, civil society members, lawyers and journalists have been subjected to unlawful killings and enforced disappearances since the start of the protests.

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