Less than an hour after tweeting about the sectarianism that bedevils Iraq, Husham Al Hashimi was gunned down by unknown men in front of his house in Baghdad on Monday. Al Hashimi was a well-established researcher on extremism in the Middle East. He was a go-to source on Iraq for international and Arab publications, including The National, and his work helped to raise awareness about the struggles of his nation against groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda and Iran-aligned militias. Unarmed, the researcher was killed in cold blood for speaking out against extremists. He was also a supporter of Iraq's October Revolution and sought out for his analysis by politicians and diplomats, including Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.
Moments after his killing, Twitter was flooded with messages of condolences from journalists, officials, diplomats and even the UN mission to Iraq. However, there were also accounts supporting extremist militias that began to glorify Al Hashimi’s assasination, suggesting he deserved to be killed. Hateful rhetoric of this kind should not be tolerated. Twitter should act against those who glorify murder.
Two weeks ago, The National published an editorial supporting Mr Al Kadhimi’s decision to hold Iraq’s militias to account. At the end of June, 14 members of Kataib Hezbollah, a pro-Iran militia, were arrested. Days later, they were released after pressure and intimidation from the militia’s members, some of whom threatened the Prime Minister directly.
Standing up to these lawless groups is a challenge, and many have paid for it with their lives. Since October, hundreds of protesters opposing corruption and Tehran’s grip on Iraq, and demanding better living conditions, have been killed or forcibly disappeared. Iran-backed militias are widely believed to be behind the crackdown, which was first started by former prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Mr Al Kadhimi has opened an investigation into the killings, but holding these foreign-backed groups, which have entrenched themselves in Iraq, to account will be difficult. The murder of Al Hashimi and the release of the Kataib Hezbollah members, are warnings sent to the groups' critics. The militias and their supporters will continue to threaten the lives of innocent Iraqis and attempt to silence anyone who dares to challenge them – even those at the helm of power.
The people of Iraq are rising up against the militias’ reign. They want a functioning, independent state: a demand that has been embodied since the early days of the revolt in the slogan “We want a nation”. Since Mr Al Kadhimi’s ascension to power, Iraq has come one step closer to achieving this goal. But decades of violence, corruption and militia rule have made the task extremely challenging. The coronavirus crisis has affected Iraq’s oil income – its main economic lifeline – creating opportunities for the resurgence of extremism. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently warned that such a phenomenon could occur across the world. But in Iraq, where ISIS sleeper cells still exist and Iran-aligned extremists wield immense power, it is particularly catastrophic.
The deaths of Al Hashimi and hundreds of protesters, activists and journalists before him must not be in vain. At the very least, they ought to spur reform. The people of Iraq have spoken against the rule of militias and rejected extremism and violence. Today, the country is headed by a reformist who is fighting for a just cause, but his work is undermined by forces within Iraq and beyond. The international community must lend its support to Baghdad, and protect the integrity of the Iraqi state.