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Iraq: Activist's murder sparks protests at Iranian consulate in Karbala

Protesters attempt to storm building after Ihab al-Wazn gunned down in holy city's centre
Mourners carry the coffin of Iraqi civil society activist Ihab al-Wazni, who was killed by unidentified gunmen, during a funeral in Karbala (Reuters)

Hundreds of protesters attempted to storm the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Karbala, raging against the assassination of a prominent activist, protest leaders and officials told Middle East Eye.

Gunmen on a motorbike targeted Ihab al-Wazni in Karbala early Sunday, shooting the protest leader dead in front of his home in the city centre.

Immediately fellow members of Iraq’s protest movement, who since October 2019 have been demonstrating against bad governance, corruption and foreign interference, accused Iranian-backed armed groups of the assassination.

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Paramilitaries backed by Tehran have been linked to the murder of several activists, protesters and journalists since the protest movement began.

Wazni’s fellow protesters responded to the murder with fury. Following his killing they quickly blocked main roads around Karbala, and refused to bury Wazni until his killers were identified.

However, official and tribal pressure persuaded Wazni’s family to relinquish and bury him on Sunday, in exchange for a promise from Karbala’s police leadership that his killers will be exposed at the earliest opportunity, the protest leader’s friends told MEE.

Anti-government demonstrators are very wary of the local authorities, however. On Sunday evening hundreds of them gathered on Karbala’s streets and a main square.

Meanwhile some 300 protesters headed to the Iranian consulate building with the intention of storming it, leaders of the demonstrators and police told MEE. 

Iraqi protesters burn tyres in front of the Karbala governorate headquarters (AFP)
Iraqi protesters burn tyres in front of the Karbala governorate headquarters (AFP)

“We buried Ihab a short while ago and went back to Karbala. Ihab's family and friends decided not to hold a funeral for him until the killers were revealed, while [the leaders of the demonstrations] decided to continue the escalation," Ahmed al-Banaa, a friend of Wazni and a demonstrator, told MEE.

“Young people have gathered in front of the governorate building in the city centre and blocked main roads with burning tyres, while a group of them went to the Iranian consulate to burn it.”

Banaa said the youth in the city are angry. “They believe that the arms of Iran are the ones who killed Ihab,” he said.

“The police chief promised to reveal the killers, but we do not believe them. They did not hand over the killers of [activist] Fahim al-Taie, even though he was killed more than 15 months ago.”

Hours after Wazni's killing, journalist Ahmed Hassan was shot with "two bullets in the head and one in the shoulder" and had to be transported to a hospital in the capital that specialised in neurological surgery, according to AFP.

A witness told the news agency that Hassan was targeted "as he got out of his car to go home" in Diwaniya in the south of the country. Hassan was shot several times by an assailant as he arrived home at night near Diwaniyah, in images captured on a surveillance camera, as has been the case in a string of previous such attacks.

A Baghdad hospital said on Monday that Hassan had undergone brain surgery and remains in critical condition.

"Ahmed Hassan has been operated on and transferred to intensive care, where he will be kept under constant surveillance for a critical period of two weeks," Mohammed Mouyed, a spokesman for the hospital, told AFP.

Arson attempt

Iraqi protesters, activists and journalists have suffered under an epidemic of assassinations, kidnappings, arrests and disappearances since October 2019.

Ali Akram, a member of the Independent Iraqi Commission for Human Rights, told MEE that 81 assassination attempts have been carried out so far, of which 34 have been successful.

None of the perpetrators have been identified, Akram said.

The Iranian consul in Karbala, Mojtaba Karimi, told reporters that the demonstrators did not storm the building, and that the arson was limited to the guard rooms on the periphery only. There were no casualties, he added.

'The police chief promised to reveal the killers, but we do not believe them'

- Ahmed al-Banaa, friend of Wazni

A consulate employee, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, said the consulate building is currently empty apart from Iraqi guards. All Iranian employees and the consul reside in a building far from the consulate, the employee said.

There has been no official Iraqi or Iranian government response to the attempts to burn the consulate.

Sunday’s events are not the first attack on an Iranian consulate in a city considered holy in Shia Islam, the faith followed by Iran’s government.

In November and December 2019, demonstrators torched the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf on three consecutive occasions.

And in 2018, protester set the Iranian consulate in Basra on fire.