Slain Iraqi novelist criticized foreign meddling, militias

On Saturday, Alaa Mashzoub was gunned down by unknown assailants who silenced him with 13 bullets as he rode his bicycle home for the last time. (AP)
Updated 06 February 2019
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Slain Iraqi novelist criticized foreign meddling, militias

  • Mashzoub's killing was the latest in a spate of assassinations targeting prominent figures in Iraq
  • Iraq is still recovering from its bloody fight against the Daesh group, and riots have repeatedly broken out in the south

BAGHDAD: Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub was a secular civil society activist who used his bike to get around Karbala's infamous traffic and road closures. He was also an outspoken critic of foreign interference in Iraq and political meddling by powerful Iran-backed militias.
On Saturday, Mashzoub was gunned down in the Shiite holy city by unknown assailants who silenced him with 13 bullets as he rode his bicycle home for the last time.
Mashzoub's killing was the latest in a spate of assassinations targeting prominent figures in Iraq, including several activists linked to the protest movement in the southern city of Basra as well as a former beauty queen and social media celebrity. The killings have raised fears of a return to the kind of attacks on prominent figures that plagued the country at the height of its sectarian strife.
"They killed us by killing Alaa, but we'll keep him alive through his pen," Qassim Mashzoub, Alaa's brother, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Iraq is still recovering from its bloody fight against the Daesh group, and riots have repeatedly broken out in the south over the authorities' failure to provide basic services.
No group has claimed responsibility for killing Mashzoub or the other victims, but suspicion in some of the cases has fallen on Shiite militias, some of them backed by Iran, collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Alaa Mashzoub, 51, was father to three boys and a girl. He has 20 published books, including several novels and short story collections that won local and regional awards. He wrote extensively about Karbala's history and culture, and about Iraq's once-thriving Jewish minority.
"In his writings, he spoke out against corruption and criticized neighboring countries for their intervention in Iraqi affairs. Everyone knows Iran and Turkey are present in Iraq, this is not a secret," said his brother.
The US Embassy in Iraq offered its condolences to Mashzoub's family and friends, calling it a "senseless act of violence."
While the motive for Mashzoub's killing is not known, Qassim Mashzoub and others on social media speculate that a Facebook post, in which Mashzoub spoke about the late supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, may have been the trigger for his killing. In the posting, Mashzoub wrote about the street in Karbala where Khomeini lived for nearly 13 years before he traveled to France, criticizing the Iranian leader for then turning against the country that hosted him for so long.
"I expect that those who assassinated him are the militias who did not appreciate Alaa's writings," Qassim said. He added that a week before he died, Alaa told his family he felt he was being monitored and expressed concern that he would be killed.
On Saturday evening, Alaa Mashzoub attended an event at a local cultural center during which attendees were discussing the Iraqi soccer team's performance at Asian Cup games in the United Arab Emirates. Nawfal al-Hamadani, a member of the city's union of writers, said Alaa left early, saying he wanted to get home. He rode his bicycle and headed in that direction.
A short while later, he was intercepted by a gunman on a motorcycle who shot him at first from behind, knocking him from his bike. The gunmen then shot him 12 more times, killing him instantly, according to his brother.
The killing shocked many in Iraq and triggered criticism of security forces for failing to protect people. "We will uncover the perpetrators before the government does," Qassim said.
None of the assailants in last year's assassinations have been apprehended by security forces.
On Sept. 25, a gunman killed Soad al-Ali, a prominent activist in Basra who had organized protests demanding better services and jobs and decried the growing influence of Iran-backed Shiite militias in the area. Former beauty queen and social media star Tara Fares, 22, was murdered a few days later — shot and killed at the wheel of her car on a busy Baghdad street during the day. Two well-known female beauty experts were also killed last year.
The militias were integral to Iraq's war against the Islamic State group in the past few years, but with the war declared won late last year, attention has turned to Iraq's high unemployment and decaying infrastructure. Many now resent the militias for what they see as rampant corruption and meddling.
On Sunday, Mashzoub's coffin, draped in an Iraqi flag, was carried by colleagues along a main road in Karbala, amid calls of Allahu Akbar, or God is Greatest.
"The cultural scene has lost one of its special authors and creators," Iraq's Culture and Tourism Minister Abdul Amir al-Hamdani said in a statement on Sunday.
PEN America said Monday that the assassination of Mashzoub is a "horrific attack on creative expression in Iraq."
"Holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime accountable is of paramount importance in preserving freedom of expression and a vibrant cultural and civic life in Iraq," it said in a statement.


Turkey’s Erdogan croons on campaign trail

Updated 50 sec ago
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Turkey’s Erdogan croons on campaign trail

  • Erdogan has deployed theme songs played on speakers at rallies in past elections
  • Music has always been a powerful tool in Turkish politics

ISTANBUL: In a decade and a half in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often turned to oratory skills that are the envy of his foes to rouse supporters with speeches, poems and stories.
Now the Turkish leader is picking up the microphone to sing, complete with hand gestures, to rally supporters of his ruling AKP party for March 31 local elections.
Music has always been a powerful tool in Turkish politics, but with Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), it has now become one more way to galvanize his support base before a potentially tricky vote.
With Turkey in recession and inflation in double digits, the AKP is turning up the nationalist rhetoric to try to win over voters hurt by high living costs.
“I get goose bumps when I listen to the songs everyday,” said Ilknur Can, at an Erdogan rally in Istanbul’s Kasimpasa district, where the president grew up.
“I really understand, through this music, what patriotism is,” she added.
Erdogan’s critics say he has eroded rights by cracking down on dissent at home.
But for supporters, his electoral style taps into their image of Erdogan as the strong leader Turkey needs who speaks for them.
In this month’s municipal elections, the AKP will likely remain the largest party even if some experts say it could win by a smaller percentage of the vote.

Music is everywhere in Turkey, blaring out in taxis, shops and restaurants. Political events also have regular, and often extremely loud music.
The Turkish leader has deployed theme songs played on speakers at rallies in past elections, which have kept him in power since 2003.
But in the upcoming polls, it is Erdogan himself who is singing at almost every rally.
“Nereden nereye geldi Turkiye” (“From where Turkey came to where we are now“) Erdogan crooned from the stage at a recent event.
The song repeats a line from his election campaign tune about how far Turkey has developed under his rule.
“He already has an organic connection with his grassroots, but these songs are a new strategy to widen support,” associate professor Dogan Gurpinar, of Istanbul Technical University, said.
Political events have also been the subject of songs.
After a failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, one song had the lyrics: “Democracy took a blow and the nation was puzzled... the commander-in-chief gave the order: Take to the squares.”
That was a reference to Erdogan’s call during the coup attempt for loyalists to take to the streets.
Another song entitled “Dombra” chants the president’s name, drawing cheers from party faithful.
“I am over the moon whenever I listen to Nereden Nereye,” said supporter Ayse Duru, as she sang along to Erdogan’s recent campaign song.

The composer of Erdogan’s latest campaign tune and performer of it when the president himself isn’t singing it is Turkish pop singer Altan Cetin.
“It was not hard for me to write (the AKP song) and put it into a project. Believe me, it can sometimes be even more difficult to do a pop song,” he told AFP in his studio in Istanbul.
Cetin said that it took almost a month to finish.
“Our president uses every instrument of politics very successfully and very professionally,” he said.
In Europe, it is rare for a candidate to sing at election rallies.
But in the United States, former president Barack Obama sometimes sang on the campaign trail, and in 1992, Bill Clinton famously played the saxophone before an audience — helping to cement his popularity with young voters.
Late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez also often broke into song at rallies and speeches, rousing supporters with the national anthem or folksongs.
Cetin said that music was “like a glue” for people that “brings them closer.”
“Music is about synchronization. It creates a sincerity, a unity and a power with everyone who feels it.”

Cetin said that he wrote what he had “lived through” in Turkey, saying he was happy to see the country’s leader singing his music.
“A president accompanying a song with a microphone in his hand in a rally is a source of pride for the song’s composer,” he said.
Gurpinar, of the Istanbul Technical University, said that music was the most direct way to reach people.
“Turkey is a country that looks for tools to reach out to the masses more easily compared to other Western states,” he said.
Compared to the AKP, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) often struggles to establish similar bonds with its old school, left-leaning, protest song repertoire, Gurpinar said.
However the CHP is now also trying to attract more voters with modern songs — one is a rap tune by two young amateur musicians.
“It can have power only when the music and candidate merge,” CHP’s Istanbul candidate Ekrem Imamoglu told AFP when asked about music’s role.
But he said that positive expressions like music should replace heated rhetoric.
“I wish we would see and feel such nice things in politics,” he said. “We are happy with our songs. Honestly, I didn’t listen to the others.”