2021-09-18 19:44:12 Iran-Backed Militias Battle Activists in a Holy Iraqi City

Iran-Backed Militias Battle Activists in a Holy Iraqi City

KARBALA, Iraq (AP) — Samira Abbas Kadhim was up late one night in May, waiting for her son. She peered out the gate of their small house, scanning the narrow street for him.

He was shot dead half a block away five minutes later, while she was in the kitchen.

Her son, Ehab al-Wazni, was one of dozens of anti-government protest leaders killed by militia fighters and security forces since the protests erupted two years ago. But his assassination stands out as a particularly brazen attack that has jolted his hometown of Karbala, which is home to some of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites and was once regarded as one of Iraq’s safest cities.

Karbala, a southern Iraqi city whose gold-domed shrines draw Shiite pilgrims from all over the world, has become a flashpoint in Iraq’s internal conflict due to the presence of dozens of powerful Iranian-backed militias. Instead of being known primarily as a place for quiet prayer and study, it has evolved into a hotbed of competing armed groups and political interests.

Although technically under the authority of the Iraqi government, the most powerful militias are a force unto themselves, attacking enemies such as rival militias, American military posts, and anti-government protesters.

Protesters have demanded jobs and an end to corruption, as well as the removal of Iranian influence, which they blame for many of Iraq’s problems. Iran is taking a stand in Karbala, apparently fearful that if it loses influence there, other Shiite cities in Iraq’s Shiite heartland will follow.

The militias appear to be winning, aided by ineffective police and largely futile government efforts to bring the killers of activists to justice. In Karbala, nearly every major militia has a presence. Threats, arrests, and killings of protest leaders such as Mr. al-Wazni have largely driven the protest movement underground.

“Ehab always told people, ‘You are Iraqi.’ Why are you so loyal to Iran?’” said Ms. Kadhim, seated in the straight-backed ornate wooden chair in which she has greeted a steady stream of senior Iraqi and other officials who have come to pay their respects.

A portrait of her late son sat next to her. It’s the same image that’s been spray-painted above protest slogans on concrete walls from Baghdad to Basra, where he’s become a symbol of the impunity with which activists are murdered.

Ms. Kadhim, 71, has been outspoken about who she believes was responsible for her son’s death: Qasim Muslih, the commander of an Iranian-backed militia.

“He dispatched his gang to assassinate him,” she explained.

Comments like that have made her a potential target as well.

“We get threats saying, ‘We want to kill the mother and her sons,’” she explained.

A monitor with a security feed of four locations sits in her small living room where a television would normally sit, one of which is the street corner a few doors down where her son was shot.

The cops leaning against a police car on the corner are ostensibly there to protect her. However, when her son reported death threats, the police did not protect him. Or after his friend and fellow activist Fahem al-Tai was killed while riding on a motorcycle with him last December.

Ridha Hasan Hajwel, a friend, is now hiding after testifying in a Baghdad investigative court that Qasim Muslih and his brother Ali threatened to kill Mr. al-Wazni.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi directed federal security forces to arrest Mr. Muslih in May.

Mr. Muslih, a Karbala native, is the leader of the Al Tafuf Brigade, an Iran-backed militia in western Iraq’s Anbar Province. For many years, the Muslih and al-Wazni families lived in the same Karbala neighborhood.

His arrest in May sparked an armed clash with paramilitary groups.

The prime minister, who took office in 2019 promising to bring the militias to heel, agreed to turn over Mr. Muslih to the paramilitary command, which released him after a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to charge him. Ali Muslih was also served with an arrest warrant. (The two brothers refused to be interviewed for this piece.)

Mr. Muslih spent nearly a decade in Iran. Following the assassination of Mr. al-Wazni, protesters burned barricades around the Iranian consulate in Karbala.

Normally, at least one million Shiite pilgrims visit Karbala each week to visit the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, who are central to Shiite identity. The majority of visitors are Iranian.

Even during the pandemic, pilgrims flock to the shrines, which feature marble courtyards and dazzling mirror mosaics atop Iranian ceramic tiles. On hot summer days, fans with water reservoirs mist tourists as they shop for religious keepsakes made from Karbala’s clay.

Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, was killed in battle against Muslim rulers in Karbala 1,300 years ago, a defining event in Shiite Islam that has resonated throughout the centuries.

“The whole idea of Karbala is that it’s supposed to be this place where the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson stood vastly outnumbered because he opposed the state at the time, because he wanted people to choose their own leaders, because he wanted freedom,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq-based fellow at the Century Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank.

Because of this history, the protests in Karbala have a special resonance.

“If the status quo is defeated, it will happen somewhere else,” Mr. Jiyad predicted. “It will take place in Najaf. It will occur in Basra. It will occur in other cities across the country where the stakes are just as high. Karbala could be the spark that ignites something.”

But for the time being, the only sparks come from assassins’ gun barrels.

In August, the city’s director of municipal services, Abeer Salim al-Khafaji, was fatally shot in front of police officers and security cameras while inspecting illegal housing. The gunman was a Karbala resident accused of illegally constructing on public land.

On paper, the local police are in charge of security outside the shrines, but most Karbala residents admit that the force is the weakest link in the security chain. Security forces include a variety of paramilitary groups, including Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia accused of murdering an American military contractor, and a paramilitary group loyal to the populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

“In my opinion, there is an uneasy balance of power,” Mr. Jiyad said.

As a result, the killings continue. And Mr. al-promise Kadhimi’s to end corruption and create jobs appears to be a pipe dream.

Ali al-Wazni, Mr. al-42-year-old Wazni’s brother, has a degree in Arabic but works in a kebab shop. He claimed that in order to get a good government job, he would have to pay a bribe of up to $10,000.

“The state does not have control over the state,” he asserted. “There is no judicial or legal system. There is none. There is anarchy. We live in a country ruled by mafia and gangs. This is the country’s reality.”

Falih Hassan and Awadh al-Taiee contributed to this report.

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Iran-Backed Militias Battle Activists in a Holy Iraqi City