The killing of analyst Hisham al-Hashemi in Baghdad yesterday is a great loss for Iraq. Al-Hashemi, one of Iraq’s last independent thinkers received threats prior to his death from pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah. His assassination is a warning that a further security upheaval awaits Iraq, similar to what Lebanon faced in 2005 following the assassination of journalist Samir Kassir. The arrest and prosecution of al-Hashemi’s killers will ultimately be a litmus test for new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi in terms of his capability to crack down on Iraq’s powerful and unruly militias.
Al-Hashemi who was gunned down in front of his home, was one of the last analysts who had the courage to warn, from Baghdad, about the dangers of the continuous fragmentation of the state, its corruption, and the threat posed by militias operating outside the state’s control. In the last few months before he was killed at gunpoint, he told me that he had received threats from pro-Iran militias.
I met Hisham during my trips to Iraq, and he was such a generous person with his time and with his knowledge; he always had a smile on his face and faith in his country. He spoke with kindness and courage when I knew him.
A week before his killing, he also shared that he had received death threats from pro-Iranian Kata’ib Hezbollah.
The killing of al-Hashemi is a stark reminder in many ways of what Lebanon went through 15 years ago after the Kassir’s killing in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, for which members of another pro-Iran militant group, Hezbollah, are currently under prosecution.
Kassir was a staunch opponent of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and of its pro-Syrian and Iranian cronies, despite his support of what was known until 2000 as the Lebanese resistance. Iraq is today, like Lebanon at the time, at another dangerous security crossroad that could affect country’s future. In the last few months, thousands of Iraqis have stood up against the corrupt Iraqi regime, with many asking for an end to Iranian hegemony, like the Lebanese who rose up against Syria in 2005.
Across Iraq, Iranian consulates have been destroyed by angry protesters, including Basra and Najaf, both Shia strongholds. Over 600 protesters have been killed, while activists and journalists who denounce the government and demand pro-Iran militias be put in check have disappeared or been assassinated, including journalists Ahmad Abdel Samad and Safaa Ghali in the city of Basra.
Ultimately, the assassination of al-Hashemi, a former government adviser who had the ear of al-Kadhimi cannot be disconnected from the recent clamp down undertaken by the premier against pro-Iran militias.
Late last month, the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service carried out an operation against Kata’ib Hezbollah and accused the group of plotting another round of rocket attacks targeting the Green Zone and Baghdad International Airport. Iraqi security forces arrested militants and confiscated Katyusha rocket launchers. It can also be seen as a direct message to al-Khadimi that more assassinations are to come if the premier does not realign with his original promises by holding early elections, and more importantly, if he continues to make changes regarding the Popular Mobilization Units, specifically the factions that are backed by Iran.
A recent Iranian Mehr report underlined Iranian concerns saying that “the new PM is putting obstacles in front of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi [PMU], make [sic] the US forces move comfortably in Iraq without pressure. Moreover, he is making mysterious and suspicious changes in the Iraqi security structure,” the article read referring to the appointment of Major General Abdul Ghani al-Asadi as head of the National Security Agency.
Like in Lebanon, the post-2005 Iran and its cronies will eradicate any thinkers or charismatic leaders willing to challenge their clout. It remains to be seen if al-Kadhimi will rise up to the challenge. The arrest of al-Hashemi’s killers will be his quintessential test. However, if al-Kadhimi does go after al-Hashemi’s murderers, more Iraqi blood is likely to be spilled at the hands of Iran as a new tug of war emerges between al-Kadhimi and Iran’s militias.
*Mona Alami is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. She is also a fellow with TRENDS. She follows political and economic issues in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and the Gulf. She writes extensively on Lebanese politics, Hezbollah, ISIS, and Salafism in general.