The killing of a Muslim cleric who demonstrated over poor public services in Basra undermines the pillars of democracy in Iraq, a member of the parliament-elected Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) told The National.
Sheikh Wissam Al Ghrawi was shot and killed by unknown assailants outside his home after he encouraged protesters to take up arms over Basra's poor public services, police said.
He was filmed at a protest on Friday saying clerics would issue a fatwa within days on taking up arms. The video was shared widely on Iraqi social media. Associates and relatives of Al Ghrawi paraded his coffin around parts of the city on Sunday, demanding the police identify the killers and bring them to justice.
"Unfortunately, peaceful demonstrations in Iraq have always been accompanied by arrests of demonstrators and lawsuits against them by political parties," said IHCHR's Dr Ali Al Bayati. "Every peaceful and civilian demonstration led by a group of young activists is followed by the forceful disappearance of a number of these young people."
But in July peaceful protests took a turn for the worse when tensions in the port city heightened after police opened fire.
Demonstrators calling for basic services, including water and electricity, set fire to the Iranian consulate and attacked the headquarters of the various Iran-backed militias and parties that operate with impunity in the city. Most of the city's official government buildings were torched.
Al Ghrawi became at least the second activist to be killed in what appeared to be a targeted assassination since the protests swept the country's south. One of the organisers, Soad Al Ali, was killed by a gunman in September. Police said her killing was over a personal matter.
But suspicions again turned toward the militias, collectively known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
The events in Basra were a reflection of the growing influence of these armed groups, which played a major role in retaking Iraqi territory from ISIS.
"The assassination of Sheikh Wissam Al Gharawi is a continuation of the slaughtering of those that oppose Iraq's corrupt system," former lawmaker Mohammed Al Tai told The National from his home in Basra. It "falls under the systematic assassinations of demonstrators".
The government had said protesters' demands were legitimate, but claimed infiltrators were behind the violence.
After three months of protests then prime minister Haider Al Abadi conceded that corruption may have played a part in the escalating violence. “We need to establish if corruption has played a role in the crisis that Basra is currently encountering,” Mr Al Abadi had said in September.
"Some of the corrupt parties that are ruling Iraq...are killing ring leaders of opposition movements [and] arresting demonstrators in the name of the law," said the IHCHR's Dr Al Bayati. "They are firing demonstrators from their daily jobs as well as sending delegates to the demonstrations to carry out acts of sabotage and frame them for it."