The assassination of a high-profile researcher in broad daylight in Baghdad may prove to be a covert message for Washington.
Hisham al Hashimi, a prominent Iraqi security expert, was assassinated near his home by two gunmen on a motorbike in the protest-hit Iraqi capital on Monday.
While experts have toyed with the various theories surrounding the crime, as well as the potential perpetrators — from Daesh (ISIS) to Iranian-backed Shia militias — the killing has underlined how insecure the war-torn city is even after the defeat of the terrorist group, Daesh.
Hashimi had been reportedly receiving threats from both sides.
“I know him personally. He was defending a vision of an independent Iraqi republic. He has been loved by both Sunnis [a minority in Iraq] and Shias [a majority in Iraq]. He has also been a popular intellectual figure in elite social circles,” said a Baghdad-based businessman, who wants to remain anonymous in order to avoid backlash of any kind.
“He was advocating for an Iraq liberated from gangs, religious orders and particularly from the influence of Iran. He was also arguing that Iraqi security forces should operate under a constitutional and legal rule, and not be tied to any particular sect,” he added.
A month ago, Hashimi had disclosed how much of the country’s revenue had been pocketed by Iran-backed groups, according to the source.
“[Before his death] he was planning to disclose how these irregular forces [Shia militias] were operating out of control in Iraq, using the Daesh threat as pretext. He was also planning to disclose the number of generals and fighter pilots who served during the Iraq-Iran War who were killed by these groups,” says the source.
Some Iraqi generals and pilots have been accused of committing war crimes during the bloody Iraq-Iran War, when the air force was attacking civilian targets in Iranian urban areas.
“He was saying that it would be impossible for Iraqi people to progress both economically and politically as long as it is under Iranian influence,” the source recounted.
While Hashimi enjoyed some close ties with the West, he, according to the source, was not working for American interests. “Hashimi was defending the independence of the state.”
Under the new government of Mustafa al Kazimi, who is a former influential journalist and a personal friend to Hashimi, Iraqi analysts and commentators say they feel more liberated. Kazimi is also said to have the ear of some Western circles, too.
“He [Hashimi] was happy [about the Kazimi government].”
Why he may have been targeted
The source believes that Iran-backed forces in Iraq are possibly responsible for the assassination. “His comments had riled them. They are also hesitant about the fact that the Kazimi government allows people like Hashimi to speak out so publicly,” the source said.
“They have killed people in Iraq against Iranian interests and continue to kill them.”
That said, other experts do not believe Hashimi was killed on the strength of his opposition to Iran-backed forces alone.
“His death was not down to the fact he opposed Hashdi Shabi [a powerful Iraqi Shia militia backed by Iran] or had a particular background,” says Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish analyst, who was once an advisor to Tarik al Hashimi, the former Iraqi vice president.
“He was an intelligent man. Like other researchers, he was doing his own digging, and occasionally shared his findings - sometimes they were right and sometimes they were wrong. Aside from all this, he ended up being a victim himself of Iran’s internal political struggle,” he told TRT World.
Bulovali says there has been fierce political infighting between the country’s political and military elites who are led by the Revolutionary Guards, and the Hassan Rouhani-led moderate government forces.
This dissension has spilled over into the wrangling over the composition of the new Iraqi government led by Kazimi, Bulovali says.
“The Revolutionary Guards were not happy about the new government, but they had involuntarily allowed it to be formed anyway. According to the Guards and their perception of the situation, the new government has been turning into America’s puppet.”
Last month, the US and Iraq began a crucial negotiation process to settle a strategic pact which aims to strengthen relations between Baghdad and Washington, reducing Iran’s influence over Iraq.
Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top general in US Central Command, suggested on Tuesday that the Iraqi government is on track with confronting Iranian-backed Shia militias. He also advocated patience and said that seeing through the course in Iraq would be advisable. The general also appeared confident that Iraq will ask the US to stay on.
“This recent strategic pact left them fed up. As a result, they recently utilised Iraqi Shia militias to launch rocket attacks into the Green Zone [in Baghdad] against American targets. In exchange, the government’s security forces, backed by the US, detained more than a dozen members of the Hashdi Shabi last week,” the analyst recounted.
Bulovali opines that the Hashimi killing could be part of a series of assassinations aimed at pressuring the Iraqi government into weakening its ties with the US.
“The investigation over the assassination goes on and its details have not yet been disclosed. But Iran has a hand in the assassination. Iranians have different branches inside Iraq and they show a lot of efforts [to stay here],” said a prominent Iraqi businessman who requested anonymity when speaking to TRT World.
There could be various reasons behind the assassination, but the main motive remains that Hashimi was “an easy target” says Bulovali.
“If the motive was to kill a political opponent of Iran, there have been many candidates in Iraq.”
Bulovali believes that Hashimi became a target to Iraqi clandestine forces who were under the influence of the Revolutionary Guards.
“They [The Guards] order ‘Kill someone!’ And Iraqis [under the command of the Revolutionary Guards] decide to kill whoever they see [who is worth killing],” he explains.
“Before the assassination, he [Hashimi] was speaking on TV about armed groups (Iran-backed Shia militias) who are challenging the state’s authority. He also said that they are targeting Americans with rocket attacks,” the Iraqi businessman told TRT World.
“He was recently talking a lot about armed groups [Shia militias] operating out of government control. He was criticising them.”
Personal animosities and Hashimi’s high profile identity may have also played a role in his subsequent assassination. After the event, some speculated that he may have at some point converted to Sunnism from Shiism — this would have provided a motive for some.
Bulovali dismisses all these claims, especially since so many Iraqis convert from Sunnism to Shiism and vice versa, and for different reasons, too.
Given that Hashimi was a regular commentator for some Western media outlets, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, a theory has emerged about the assassination being a way of subtly, but effectively warning Washington, conveying the message that the Guards remain influential in Iraq.
“This is a message to whom it may concern, including the Trump administration, the Iraqi government and the moderate-run Iranian government, saying, ‘We are here. We will definitely not allow the Iraqi government to be a US puppet. We will not let this security pact between Washington and Baghdad be realised’,” says Bulovali.