Activists, journalists fear being targeted in ‘darker’ phase ahead after well-connected Hisham al-Hashemi killed.
Suspects in the murder of Iraq’s prominent academic and government adviser Hisham al-Hashemi have been arrested, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said on Friday.
Al-Hashemi, a specialist on armed-group networks with close contacts among top Iraqi decision-makers, was shot dead outside his Baghdad home in early July last year by gunmen on motorcycles.
Iraqi state TV broadcast brief clips of an apparent confession of one suspect, 36-year-old police lieutenant Ahmed al-Kenani. Wearing a brown jumpsuit, al-Kenani confessed to shooting al-Hashemi dead using a pistol.
According to reported surveillance footage of the attack shown on state TV, al-Kenani carried out the killing with three others, riding on two motorcycles.
Friday’s announcement marks the first reported arrests made over a killing that shocked the country, where killings of activists have surged over the last year.
“We promised to capture … [the] killers” of al-Hashemi, al-Kadhimi said on Twitter. “We fulfilled that promise.”
In the aired confession video, al-Kenani said he was serving as “a first lieutenant at the interior ministry”, but an official – who spoke on condition of anonymity – told Al Jazeera the killers “have ties and loyalty to Iran”.
We promised to capture Husham Alhashimi’s killers. We fulfilled that promise. We have arrested hundreds of criminals – murderers of innocent Iraqis like Ahmed Abdulsamad. We don’t care about media spin: we carry out our duties in the service of our people & in pursuit of justice.
— Mustafa Al-Kadhimi مصطفى الكاظمي (@MAKadhimi) July 16, 2021
As well as being an expert on Sunni armed groups such as ISIL (ISIS) operating in Iraq, al-Hashemi had become outspoken against powerful Shia armed actors aligned with Tehran.
Al-Hashemi’s support for popular protests that erupted in 2019 against a government seen as too close to Iran infuriated Tehran-backed Shia factions in Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary network.
The Hashd holds the second-biggest bloc in Iraq’s parliament and controls vast financial assets.
Weeks before his death, al-Hashemi had told confidantes he feared Iran-backed groups were targeting him.
Ghanim al-Abed, an Iraqi political analyst, said sources told him the arrest was made a significant amount of time before it was announced.
“According to the information I received, the arrest took place a long time ago after pressure by political parties to reveal their identities – on condition of not providing details that he is linked to Iran or the Hezbollah Brigades,” al-Abed told Al Jazeera.
Raed al-Hamid, a researcher on armed groups, told Al Jazeera: “I think the government, after more than a year of the al-Hashemi assassination, found itself forced to announce the killers. But the announcement was not explicit and transparent, and did not provide full details on the groups behind al-Hashemi’s killing.”
Al-Hamid said there will likely be repercussions for the prime minister because of his announcement.
“What al-Kadhimi did will put him into trouble with the armed groups, because al-Kadhimi does not have the security forces capable of facing the militias. He did so only to say that he fulfilled his promise on the day al-Hashemi was killed,” said al-Hamid.
Earlier this month, dozens of people gathered in central Baghdad to remember al-Hashemi, 47, holding pictures of the researcher and lighting candles. He was described by one attendee as the “best security analyst Iraq has ever known”.
An interior ministry official at that vigil promised al-Hashemi’s killers would be held to account. But many doubt al-Kadhimi’s ability to rein in armed factions.
In a demonstration of its clout, Hashd al-Shaabi last month secured the release of one of its commanders after he was arrested on suspicion of ordering the killing of Ihab al-Wazni, a pro-democracy activist.
The judiciary said it found “no proof” of Qasim Muslih’s involvement in the murder.
His release was a blow to al-Kadhimi’s efforts to win over Iraq’s pro-democracy protest movement, which has seen more than 70 activists targeted in assassinations or attempted assassinations since 2019.
But the prime minister on Friday attempted to assuage doubts over his government’s ability to hold rogue actors to account.
“We have arrested hundreds of criminals – murderers of innocent Iraqis,” al-Kadhimi added on Twitter. “We don’t care about media spin. We carry out our duties in the service of our people and in pursuit of justice.”
Azhar Al-Rubaie contributed to this report from Basra, Iraq