Ihab al-Wazni was a leading figure in protests against the government in the city – his funeral was held on Sunday.
Protests are expected again in Iraq after demonstrators set fire to trailers belonging to Iran’s consulate in Karbala as anger spread over the killing of a prominent activist in the southern city.
Ihab Jawad al-Wazni, who was active in the organisation of the anti-government protests that swept Iraq in October 2019, was shot dead on Sunday outside his home by unknown assailants. His death sparked daylong protests in Karbala that saw demonstrators block roads and bridges with burning tyres.
An Iraqi journalist, meanwhile, was in intensive care after being shot in the head early on Monday, doctors said, only 24 hours after al-Wazni was killed.
Al-Wazni had led protests in the Shia shrine city of Karbala, where pro-Iran armed groups hold major sway. He was shot outside his home by men on motorbikes using a gun equipped with a silencer in an ambush caught on surveillance cameras.
Al-Wazni’s mother told Al Jazeera he had received numerous threats from paramilitary groups backed by Iran.
“The threats are coming from the militias. The militias are everywhere in the streets,” Samira Abbas Kadhum said. “They mingle with the protesters. They have a list that includes the names of all the activists. They will kill them one by one. Today they killed my son – and after two or three days another one will be killed.”
About 30 activists have been killed and dozens of others abducted since October 2019.
Hours after his death, reporter Ahmed Hassan was in intensive care after being hit by “two bullets in the head and one in the shoulder”, a doctor told AFP news agency.
“He was targeted as he got out of his car to go home” in Diwaniya in the south of the country, according to a witness.
In a video recording in the morgue where al-Wazni’s body was initially held, a fellow activist blamed pro-Tehran groups for the killing. “It is the Iranian militias who killed Ihab,” said the unidentified activist.
On Sunday night, dozens of protesters gathered outside the Iranian consulate, setting fire to several trailers parked outside, according to police and videos posted online.
The protests in Karbala, Baghdad, and cities across southern Iraq often turn violent with security forces opening fire and demonstrators torching government buildings and the headquarters of Iran-backed militias.
Iran’s foreign ministry “strongly condemned” the attack, calling on the Iraqi government to protect its diplomatic missions based on its duties under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said a letter of protest had been handed to the Iraqi embassy in Tehran.
“It is natural that our expectation of the Iraqi government is to enforce its duties in the best way possible,” he said during a press conference on Monday.
The protests, which began in October 2019 and lasted for months, were directed at a post-war political system and a class of elite leaders that Iraqis accuse of pillaging Iraq’s wealth while the country grows poorer.
Protesters have also directed their rage at neighbouring Iran and the powerful Iraqi militias tied to it.
Similar scenes played out in November 2019 during protests in the capital Baghdad and Iraq’s majority-Shia provinces in the south, with protesters on at least one occasion scaling concrete barriers around the Iranian consulate in Karbala to bring down Iran’s flag and replace it with the Iraqi flag.
Government critics said they expect violence to further flare ahead of October elections.
“These assassinations don’t come out of nowhere, they are organised,” activist Ahmed al-Issawi told Al Jazeera.
“It is linked to the elections that have been set for next October and all these politicians are scared and think that protesters will compete for their power to bring about change. That is why they are targeting the activist and today Ihab Jawad paid the price.”
Al-Wazni narrowly escaped death in December 2019 when men on motorcycles used silenced weapons to kill fellow activist Fahem al-Tai as he was dropping him off at home in Karbala.
Both men were key figures in a national protest movement that erupted against Iraqi government corruption and incompetence in October 2019.
About 600 activists from the movement have been killed, on the streets during rallies or targeted on their doorsteps.
The Iraqi Communist Party and the Al-Beit Al-Watani (National Bloc) party, born out of the anti-government protests, also said they would boycott Iraq’s October parliamentary elections in protest.
“Iran out!” and “The people want the fall the regime!” chanted hundreds of mourners Sunday as they carried al-Wazni’s body in Karbala under a sea of Iraqi flags.
Police said they would “spare no effort” to find “the terrorists” behind al-Wazni’s killing. Politicians, including Shia leader Ammar al-Haki, called for justice.
Such killings are normally carried out in the dead of night by men on motorbikes, and nobody claims responsibility. Activists and the UN repeatedly blame “militias”.
Authorities have consistently failed to publicly identify or charge the perpetrators of these killings.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took office a year ago, vowing to rein in rogue factions, fight corruption, and roll out long-awaited reforms after years of war and armed uprising.
He pledged again on Sunday to catch “all the killers”, but the latest victim’s family said it would not accept the traditional visits of condolences until the assailants were unmasked.
Pro-Iran groups view al-Kadhimi as being too close to Washington while protesters believe he has failed to deliver on his promises.
Al-Wazni had himself challenged the prime minister in a Facebook post in February, asking: “Do you know what is going on? You know that they kidnap and kill – or you live in another country?”
Ali Bayati, a member of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, tweeted on Sunday that crimes against activists in Iraq “raise again the question about the real steps of the government regarding accountability”.
Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn and Maziar Motamedi contributed to this report