Iran-backed militias fight militants in Iraqi holy city
KARBALA, Iraq – One night in May, Samira Abbas Kadhim got up late, waiting for her son. She poked her head through the gate of their little house, looking for him in the narrow street.
Five minutes later, while she was in the kitchen, he was shot half a block away.
His son, Ehab al-Wazni, was one of dozens of anti-government protest leaders reportedly killed by militiamen and security forces since protests escalated two years ago. But his assassination stands out as a particularly brazen attack that rocked his hometown, Karbala, the site of some of Shia Islam’s holiest sites and once considered one of Iraq’s safest cities.
Karbala, the city in southern Iraq whose golden domed shrines attract Shia pilgrims from all over the world, has become a flashpoint in the internal conflict in Iraq due to the presence of dozens of powerful supported militias by Iran. Instead of being known primarily as a place of quiet prayer and study, it has become a cauldron of armed groups and competing political interests.
The most powerful militias, technically under the authority of the Iraqi government, are a force in themselves, attacking their enemies, including rival militias, US military posts and anti-government protesters.
Protesters, who demanded jobs and an end to corruption, also called for an end to Iranian influence, which they blame for many Iraqi problems. Iran is taking a stand in Karbala, apparently fearing that if it loses influence there, other cities in Iraq’s Shiite heart will follow.
The militias, aided by ineffective police and largely unsuccessful government efforts to bring militant murderers to justice, appear to be winning. Almost all the major militias are present in Karbala. The protest movement has gone largely underground there, battered by threats, arrests and murders of its leaders, such as Mr. al-Wazni.
“Ehab would always say to people, ‘You are Iraqi. Why are you loyal to Iran? ‘ Ms. Kadhim said, sitting on the ornate, straight-backed wooden chair in which she welcomed a flood of senior Iraqi officials and others who continue to offer their condolences.
Beside her was a portrait of her deceased son. It is the same image spray painted above the protest slogans on the concrete walls of Baghdad in Basra, where it has become a symbol of the impunity with which activists are being killed.
Ms. Kadhim, 71, openly says who she says was behind the murder of her son: Qasim Muslih, the commander of an Iranian-backed militia.
“He sent his gang to kill him,” she said.
Such comments made her a potential target as well.
“We are receiving threats that say, ‘We want to kill the mother and her sons,’” she said.
In her small living room, where a television is usually located, is a monitor with a security stream from four locations – one of them around the corner a few doors down, where her son was shot.
Police officers basking in a police vehicle around the corner are ostensibly there to protect her. But the police failed to protect her son when he reported death threats. Or after his friend and fellow activist Fahem al-Tai was shot dead while riding a motorcycle together last December.
A friend, Ridha Hasan Hajwel, is now in hiding after testifying in a Baghdad magistrate’s court that Qasim Muslih and his brother Ali threatened to kill Mr. al-Wazni.
In May, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered federal security forces to arrest Mr. Muslih.
Mr. Muslih, originally from Karbala, is the leader of the Al Tafuf Brigade, an Iranian-backed militia in Anbar province, western Iraq. The Muslih and al-Wazni families have lived in the same area of Karbala for years.
His arrest in May sparked an armed confrontation with paramilitary groups.
The prime minister, who took office in 2019 on promising to bring the militias in line, agreed to hand over Mr. Muslih to the paramilitary command, which released him after a judge said there was no not enough evidence to charge him. An arrest warrant has also been issued for Ali Muslih. (The two brothers declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Mr. Muslih has lived in Iran for almost a decade. After the murder of Mr. al-Wazni, demonstrators burned barricades around the Iranian consulate in Karbala in protest.
Normally, at least one million Shia pilgrims travel to Karbala every week to visit the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, which are at the heart of Shia identity. Most of the visitors come from Iran.
After years of bombing by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, attacks on pilgrims are now rare.
Even during the pandemic, the shrines, with their marble courtyards and dazzling mirror mosaics topping Iranian ceramic tiles, are teeming with pilgrims. On sweltering summer days, fans fitted with water tanks spray a fine mist on tourists as they shop for religious souvenirs made from Karbala clay.
Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in action in Karbala against Muslim rulers 1,300 years ago, a defining event in Shia Islam that has resonated through the centuries.
“The whole idea of Karbala is that it is supposed to be that place where the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad was vastly outnumbered because he opposed the state at the time, because he wanted to that people choose their own leaders, because he wanted freedom, ”Sajad said. Jiyad, an Iraq-based member of the Century Foundation, a US-based think tank.
This story gives the protests in Karbala a special resonance.
“If the status quo is overcome, it will happen elsewhere,” Jiyad said. “It will happen in Najaf. It will happen in Basra. This will happen in other cities across the country where the stakes are just as high. Karbala could be the spark of something.
But for now, the only sparks are coming from the assassin’s cannons.
In August, Abeer Salim al-Khafaji, director of the city’s municipal services, was shot dead in front of police and security cameras while inspecting illegal housing. The shooter was a man from Karbala accused of illegally building on public land.
On paper, the local police are responsible for security outside the shrines, but most Karbala residents agree that force is the weakest part of the security chain. Security forces include a range of paramilitary groups, including Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia that has been accused of killing a US military contractor, and a paramilitary group loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite populist cleric. .
“In my opinion, the balance of power is precarious,” Jiyad said.
So the killings continue. And Mr. al-Kadhimi’s promise to end corruption and create jobs seems like a distant dream.
Mr. al-Wazni’s brother, Ali al-Wazni, 42, has a degree in Arabic but works in a kebab. He said to get a decent government job he would have to pay a bribe of up to $ 10,000.
“The state does not control the state,” he said. “There is neither justice nor law. There is nothing. There is chaos. We are a country controlled by mafia and gangs. This is the reality of the country. “
Falih Hassanand Awadh al-Taiee contributed reporting.