Karbala, Iraq — One night in May, Samira Abbas Kadhim stayed up late waiting for her son. She stuck her head out of the gate of their little house and looked for him in a narrow street.
Five minutes later, when she was in the kitchen, he was shot dead half a block away.
Her son, Ehabal-Wazni, has been one of the dozens of anti-government opposition leaders believed to have been killed by militias and security forces since the demonstrators escalated two years ago. But his murder rattled Karbala, some of the most sacred places of his hometown of Shiite Islam, and once considered one of the safest cities in Iraq. It stands out as a brave attack.
Karbala, a city in southern Iraq where golden shrines attract Shiite pilgrims from around the world, has sparked an Iraqi civil war over the presence of dozens of Iran-backed powerful militias. .. Instead of being known primarily as a place of quiet prayer and study, it has become a cauldron of competing armed groups and political interests.
Technically, the most powerful militias under the authority of the Iraqi government are troops against themselves, attacking enemies such as rival militias, US military bases, and rebel protesters.
Protesters who demanded the end of work and corruption are also calling for the end of Iran’s influence, which has blamed many of Iraq’s problems. Iran seems to be afraid that other cities in Iraq’s Shiite center will follow if it loses influence in Karbala.
The militia, helped by almost useless government efforts to bring ineffective police and activist murderers to justice, seems to have won. Almost all major militias are present in Karbala. The protests there were hit by threats, arrests and murders of leaders like Al Wazni, most of whom went underground.
“Ehab always told people:’You are Iraqi. Why are you loyal to Iran?
Next to her was a portrait of her dead son. This is the same image spray-painted over a protest slogan on a concrete wall from Baghdad to Basra, where he symbolizes the immunity that activists have been killed.
Kadim, 71, speaks frankly about who he believes is behind his son’s murder. I’m Kasim Musley, the commander of the Iran-backed militia.
“He sent his gang to kill him,” she said.
Such comments also made her a potential target.
“There is a threat of’I want to kill my mother and son,'” she said.
In her small living room, where the TV can usually stand, there is a monitor with security feeds in four locations. One of them is the street corner a few doors below where my son was shot.
A policeman hanging out in a police car on the corner is superficially there to protect her. However, police did not protect him when he reported the threat of murder. Or after his friend and follow-up activist Fahem Al Tai was shot dead while riding a motorcycle together last December.
A friend, Lida Hasan Highwell, is hiding after testifying in an investigative court in Baghdad that Kasim Musley and his brother Ali threatened to kill Al Wazni.
In May, Prime Minister Mustafa Arkadimi ordered federal security forces to arrest Mr. Musley.
Born in Karbala, Musley is the leader of the Iran-backed militia Altafuf Brigade in Anbar, western Iraq. The Muslih and al-Wazni families lived in the same Karbala district for many years.
His arrest in May caused an armed confrontation with a paramilitary organization.
The prime minister, who took office in 2019 with a promise to heal the militia, agreed to hand over Mr. Musley to a paramilitary organization and said he had insufficient evidence to prosecute him. Released. An arrest warrant was also issued to Ali Muslih. (The two brothers declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Muslih has lived in Iran for almost 10 years. After the killing of Al Wazni, demonstrators protested and burned barricades around the Iranian consulate in Karbala.
Usually, at least one million Shiite pilgrims visit Karbala each week to visit the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, the centers of Shiite identity. Most of the visitors are from Iran.
Even during a pandemic, the shrine is full of pilgrims, with a marble courtyard and a dazzling mirror mosaic over Iran’s ceramic tiles. On sultry summer days, fans with reservoirs spray tourists with a fine mist to buy religious souvenirs made of Karbala clay.
Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in Karbala 1300 years ago in a battle with Islamic rulers. This is a decisive event in Shiite Islam that has resonated for centuries.
“The overall idea of Karbala was that in this very numerous place, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad opposed the nation at the time, wanted people to choose their leaders, and wanted freedom. It is believed that there is, “said Sajad. Iraq-based Fellow Jad of the Century Foundation, a US-based think tank.
Its history gives a special resonance to the protests in Karbala.
“If you beat the status quo, it will happen elsewhere,” said Jad. “It happens in Najaf. It happens in Basra. It happens in other cities in countries with similarly high stakes. Karbala can be a catalyst for something.”
But for now, sparks only come from the barrel of the assassin.
In August, the city’s city hall director, Abeer Salim al-Khafaji, was shot deadly in front of police officers and security cameras while inspecting illegal housing. The shooter was a Karbala man who was accused of illegally building on public land.
On paper, local police are responsible for security outside the shrine, but most Karbala residents acknowledge that the military is the weakest element in the security chain. Security forces include a paramilitary organization loyal to Iranian-backed militia Katyb Hezbora, who was accused of killing an American military contractor, and popular Shiite priest Moctada al-Saddle. Includes a series of paramilitary organizations, including.
“In my view, the balance of power is uncertain,” said Jad.
Therefore, the killing continues. And Mr. Arkadimi’s promise to end corruption and provide work seems like a distant dream.
Al Wazni’s brother, Ali Al Wazni, 42, has an Arabic degree but works at a kebab shop. He said he would have to pay a bribe of up to $ 10,000 to get a decent government job.
“The nation does not control the nation,” he said. “There is no judiciary or law. Nothing. There is chaos. We are a country dominated by the mafia and gangsters. This is the reality of the country.”
Fari HassanAnd Awadhal-Taiee contributed to the report.