Iraq government adviser shot dead in Baghdad

A close adviser to Iraq’s president and prime minister was shot dead outside his home in Baghdad on Monday night, the most prominent critic of rogue Iran-backed militias yet to be assassinated in Iraq.

The murder comes less than two weeks after Iraqi security forces raided the country’s most dangerous Tehran-linked Shia militia, heralded at the time as an unprecedented challenge to the powerful group. Targeted assassinations have become a rare occurrence in Baghdad and no group has claimed responsibility for Monday’s killing.

The attack on Hisham al-Hashemi could “be seen as a retaliation for that raid,” said Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at London-based think-tank Chatham House. “Hisham is the victim here. This is an attack on [the president and prime minister] and all those people who were working with Hisham.”

Hashemi was informally advising both the president, Barham Salih, and new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi on counter terrorism. “They are targeting us [associates of the prime minister and president] now directly, and very obvious[ly],” said an official serving with one of the executive offices.

As Iraq’s best-known security analyst, Hashemi’s killing by unidentified gunmen has sent shockwaves through the country. On Twitter, Mr Kadhimi vowed to “pursue the killers”.

The expert’s vast network, from Islamist militia leaders to generals, made him the go-to source on terrorism for Iraqi officials, western diplomats and journalists. As Hashemi’s profile rose, he became a regular television guest, built a huge social media following, and authored several books about jihadism.

Although Hashemi gained recognition for his research on Isis, his focus had recently shifted to the Shia militia groups who gained power in their fight against the Sunni jihadis from 2014.

Hisham al-Hashemi speaking during an interview in Baghdad © AFPTV/AFP/Getty
Security forces at the scene of the assassination in Baghdad © Hadi Mizban/AP

Former Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi tried to rein in these fighters, while also using them in the battle against Isis from 2014 onwards. By 2016, the government had given them a formal role within the state security apparatus. But as tensions between Washington and Tehran rose under the Trump administration, Iran-backed paramilitaries started a cycle of escalatory attacks against US forces based in Iraq, killing several American and Iraqi troops and bringing the region to the brink of war last year.

A committed nationalist, Hashemi had repeatedly warned that rogue militias threatened the state, a criticism that had earned him death threats on social media.

These fragmented militias were overseen by Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who was assassinated by the US in Baghdad early this year. Killed alongside Soleimani was Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, Iraq’s feared paramilitary chief, leaving a dangerous control vacuum that has yet to be filled.

“The US militarisation of its conflict with Iran in Iraq has created a new and more dangerous environment in Baghdad, where these groups are roaming around and they weren’t before,” said Mr Mansour. “This is clearer after the US attack [which killed Soleimani]. I’ve never been as scared in Baghdad, even during the Isis years.”

The former intelligence chief turned premier has vowed to crack down on militants acting outside the control of the state. The raid on Kita’ib Hizbollah late last month was seen as an opening salvo. But the 14 arrested men were later released, underscoring the challenge of bringing the entrenched militants in line and signalling the weakness of Iraq’s judicial process. Hashemi had praised the raid, denouncing “those who would take arms against the Iraqi people and Iraqi armed forces”.

Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar in Erbil