The central Iraqi city of Karbala is one in mourning. For the past few days, that mourning has been for the loss of the activist and journalist Ihab Al Wazni, who was assassinated by gunmen on Sunday. It is widely believed that an Iran-backed militia is responsible. But Al Wazni is not the first.
Al Wazni is the latest victim in a wave of attacks targeting dissenting voices, making him the most recent member of a new generation of Iraqi fallen heroes for the cause of a freer, more inclusive Iraq. Dozens of civil society voices have been silenced since the start of mass protests nearly two years ago. They are known to Iraqis and the world not by any ethnic or religious affiliation, but by their intellectual efforts to improve the country's future: Hisham Al Hashimi, a leading commentator on terrorism; Ahmad Abdessamad and Safaa Ghali, journalists who died covering anti-government protests; Riham Yaqoob, a doctor and activist. These are only a few. The government in Baghdad seems, so far, to have been powerless to stop the bloodshed.
Protests in the country have erupted sporadically for a number of years, most intensely in October 2019 when at least 700 Iraqis are thought to have been killed. Demonstrators are united in their anger at corruption, lack of opportunity, economic stagnation and unprecedented levels of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, carried out by a variety of militias that Tehran sponsors in the country. These groups range from political movements with recognisable leaders to smaller, more anonymous organisations, who often provide the shady cover for violent acts endorsed by their paymasters.
While this complicated network has varying degrees of loyalty to Tehran’s specific foreign policy, all brand themselves as protectors of the interests and integrity of Shiite communities across the region. Events in Karbala indicate that this propagandistic orthodoxy is less and less believed, making activists such as Al Wazni all the more significant and representative of true public opinion, no matter to which sect he might have belonged.
Protesters are in little doubt as to who is to blame for Al Wazni’s death; the Iranian consulate in Karbala was set alight amid their demonstrations. Such images will not help militias as they struggle to ward off public anger.
Reactionary parties intent on seeing Iraq through a partisan lens are resting on their laurels. There are reasons to believe that protests, stretching from Baghdad to Basra, from Karbala to the Kurdish region, are rising above labels and focusing instead on the real problems stymying progress for all citizens. The object of the anger of this new generation of Iraqi activists is not compatriots, but those in power who silence the voices of people brave enough to simply ask for a better future.