Experts and protestors point at Iran-affiliated militias, accusing them of being responsible for a string of assassinations that mainly targeted activists.
Ihab Jawad Al-Wazni, a famous Iraqi activist, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen on May 9 outside his home in the southern city of Karbala.
No group claimed responsibility for the killing.
The murder however sparked massive protests in Karbala. Hundreds of people took to the streets in the predominantly Shia city condemning the assassination.
Protesters blocked roads and burned tyres. They demanded the Iraqi authorities find out the attackers and reveal their identity to the public.
Demonstrators said if the perpetrators were not revealed to the public, the protests would escalate and spread to other parts of the country.
Dr. Tallha Abdulrazaq, a security expert on the Middle East from the University of Exeter, told TRT World that the nature of the killing suggests that pro-Iranian Shia militia groups are behind the assassinations of both Al Wazni and several other prominent Iraqis.
Since 2003, according to Abdulrazaq the Shia militias have tracked the killings of those who criticise or oppose them, and Iraq has become a state that serves such extremist groups rather than the local population.
“That is precisely why the protesters reacted by attacking the Iranian consulate because everyone knows who's truly responsible,” Abdulrazaq said.
Nearly 30 Iraqi activists have been killed by unknown gunmen since 2019 and dozens of others have been abducted.
“The killer parties are well known. Today all Iraqis, even kids know which party is carrying out the killings. It is armed militias supported by regional countries and the whole world knows who it is,” a protester from Karbala said.
Without naming Iran, the UN holds “militias” responsible for these assassinations.
Although Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has vowed to prosecute the attackers, no perpetrator has been brought to justice so far.
On Sunday evening, protesters gathered outside the Iranian Consulate in Karbala to condemn Iran’s affiliation with the killing of al-Wazni.
Iran strongly condemned the attack on its consulate in Karbala and called on the Iraqi government to protect its diplomatic missions in the country.
In 2019, protesters made some attempts to burn down Iranian consulates both in Najaf and Karbala, the holy cities for Shias in Iraq.
Al Wazni, who was an outspoken critic of Iran and its proxy militias, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in December 2019.
At that time, another civilian activist in Karbala, Fahim Al-Taie, who was fifty-three, was killed in an attack by gunmen on a motorbike, with weapons equipped with silencers.
Watheq Alsadoon, Iraqi Studies expert at Center for Middle Eastern Studies(ORSAM) based in Ankara, also holds pro-Iranian militant groups responsible for these assassinations.
“Most of the Iraqi people and most politicians (inside and outside the authority) know that those who carry out assassinations against activists are the armed factions associated with Iran,” Alsadoon told TRT World.
Alsadoon said that armed factions linked to Iran have clearly admitted on some social media accounts that they are the ones carrying out the assassinations.
Alsadoon also claimed that many activists have shared screenshots of death threats they have received from Iran-backed militias.
Alsadoon said that since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Iran's strategy is centered around fuelling violence and instability in the country.
Iran's policy consists of two goals, which the Shia-majority countries always try to balance.
“The first goal is the continuation of violence and security unrest in Iraq,” Alsadoon said, adding, “the second goal is to prevent the complete collapse of the political, economic, social and security situations in Iraq.”
These two contradictory aims “allow armed factions linked to Iran to move freely and implement Iranian policy in Iraq and the region under the cover of this security chaos,” Alsadoon added.
He also underlined that a strong police state allows for “the continuation of the financial gains obtained by the political-armed parties associated with Iran through corruption and through interference in the country's economic affairs.”
Alsadoon also emphasised that the Iraqi economy is used by Iran to avoid the US-imposed sanctions.
The overbearing intervention of Iran into Iraqi affairs has become frustrating for the Iraqi people. Iraqi protesters and activists now demand the removal of the current political class, which they believe serves Iranian interests.
Alsadoon said that removing pro-Iranian politicians and officials from the positions of power won't be easy at all.
“Iran will not easily give up the gains it made in Iraq over the past 18 years, especially that Iran has dozens of armed factions in Iraq, who owe absolute loyalty to Iranian policies,” he said.
If Iraqi authorities associated with Iran do not find convincing political solutions, Alsadoon said the protests “will lead to more violence and more threats to the security and stability of Iraq”.
According to Talha Abdulrazaq, there would be significantly less chaos in Iraq and more societal harmony between all sects and ethnic groups if there were no militias on the ground and if Iran abstained from intervening in the country's internal matters.
“However, Iran and even the United States both benefit from having various Iraqi groups divided and with their proxies constantly at war with other proxies," Abdulrazaq said.
On the other hand, Iran has consistently denied its interference in the neighbouring country, including the backing of militia groups.
Iranian militias tighten their grip on power in Iraq
According to a recent report published by the US-based Newlines Institute, Iran-linked militias "are creating a new order to dominate a strategic region of the country" which connects Iraq and Syria.
After the defeat of Daesh, pro-Iranian militia groups took advantage of the vacuum and built security, social, political, and economic structures to dominate the country's strategic areas.
Members of militias who infiltrated police and security forces allowed these groups “to control Iraqi citizens' movements, trade, occupation, and other aspects of private life.”
Some factions threaten journalists and abduct scores of residents, taking them to unknown locations.
These militias established some schools to spread their ideology without any supervision of the state officials.
In Mosul, Shia religious endowments incorporated 17 shrines and sites. They beefed up local authorities with additional forces to suppress the Sunni population.
The militias extract nearly 100 tanker trucks of crude oil per day from 72 oil fields in the Qayyarah area, a former Daesh stronghold in the south of Mosul.
They make hundreds of th of dollars per day by setting up illegal checkpoints across the country, extorting money from civilians passing through.
The militias extract between $1,000- $3,000 per month from restaurants.
Since October 2019, occasional protests have erupted in the country due to poor economic conditions and rampant corruption.
At least 565 people, including protesters and security personnel, have been killed by unknown armed groups since the 2019 demonstrations.