Iraq’s enemies fire a warning shot with Hisham Al-Hashimi’s murder

Mourners carry the coffin of slain Iraqi jihadism expert Hisham al-Hashemi, who was shot dead yesterday outside his house in the Iraqi capital, during his funeral in Baghdad’s Zayouna district on July 7, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 09 July 2020

Iraq’s enemies fire a warning shot with Hisham Al-Hashimi’s murder

  • Gunshots that killed security analyst on Monday reverberate across the Arab world
  • Use of murder to scare critics viewed as a familiar tactic of Middle East terror groups

ERBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: In an act that shocked the Arab world late on Monday, unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed Hisham Al-Hashimi, a leading Iraqi expert on Daesh and other armed groups. As with so many unsolved murders of prominent public personalities in Iraq since 2003, there is no dearth of suspects. The big question is what action Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi can afford to take under the circumstances.

The 47-year-old Al-Hashimi was a well-respected Iraqi academic and political analyst. His expertise on Daesh earned him the position of adviser to the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. After the destruction of Daesh’s self-styled caliphate in 2018, he shifted his focus to the workings of the Hashd Al-Shaabi (or Popular Mobilization Forces) units that participated in the anti-Daesh campaign.

Al-Hashimi had expressed fears in recent weeks that Iranian-backed constituents of Hashd had him in their crosshairs. A medical source at the hospital where he was taken after Monday’s shooting said he had suffered “bullet wounds in several body parts.”

AFPTV screen grab from a video made on February 11, 2019 showing Al-Hashimi speaking during an interview in Baghdad. He was shot outside his home in Baghdad on July 6, 2020 and died shortly thereafter at a local hospital. (AFP/File Photo)

Iraq witnessed a spate of deadly attacks on intellectuals, academics and moderate politicians at the height of the insurgency. More than 500 people have been killed since protests erupted in Oct. 2019, demanding an end to corruption and Iran’s overarching influence. But analysts believe that with Al-Hashimi’s killing, a loud warning shot has been fired across Al-Kadhimi’s bow.

“The assassination is intended to signal militia displeasure with Al-Kadhimi and his inner circle,” said Michael Knights, a noted Iraq analyst and Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“They are saying that there is a cost to the Al-Kadhimi team for arresting militia members and disrupting militia money-making enterprises,” he added.

The use of murder to scare critics is of course not something new to terror groups in the Middle East.

Analysts believe that with Al-Hashimi’s (L) killing, a loud warning shot has been fired across Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s bow. (Supplied)

The assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the subsequent attacks that killed or maimed critics of Syria and Hezbollah in the 2000s are prominent examples of this.

Late last month, Al-Kadhimi had 14 members of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah arrested in Baghdad when the group was preparing to carry out a rocket attack on bases hosting US troops.


(Video: Protesters aiming their anger at Kataib Hezbollah, who they blame for orchestrating the Al-Hashimi killing. Twitter)

Although the militants were quickly released, the action suggested that the new government was prepared to take a firm stance against rogue Hashd elements.

Knights’ view is echoed by Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, who says Kataib Hezbollah is a prime suspect in Al-Hashimi’s murder.

Mourners pray over the coffin of Al-Hashimi during his funeral in Baghdad’s Zayouna district on July 7, 2020. (AFP)

“The message was a simple one,” he told Arab News. “Those who criticize their activities will be threatened like Al-Hashimi was, and can be killed with impunity.”

Wing says groups such as the Kataib feel they are part of the state now and “therefore have free rein to kill protesters, critics and anyone else they feel fit to execute, because no one has stopped them before.”

The US-led invasion of 2003 brought the turbulent Saddam Hussein era to an abrupt end, but new troubles cropped up in the form of insurgency, terrorism, sectarian politics and finally Daesh. Today Iraq is torn between a pro-Iran camp, which wants to get rid of the last vestiges of US military presence, and nationalists, who resent the pervasive influence of Tehran in their country’s affairs.

Lawk Ghafuri, an Iraq analyst and journalist for the Erbil-based Kurdish media outlet Rudaw, views Al-Hashimi’s assassination as a “clear message to all writers and researchers in Iraq that there are red lines, and if you cross them, you’ll be murdered.”

He said: “This is a huge step backward for freedom of expression and a free press in Iraq.”

According to Ghafuri, if the assassins are revealed as Iran-backed members of Hashd, Al-Kadhimi’s promise of action might prove difficult to fulfill, since he already faces pressure from the same elements over the arrest of the Kataib militants.

A handout image released by the press office of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi on May 9, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

In his final commentaries, Al-Hashimi had rebuked the Hashd, among other groups, for operating outside of the control of the state, a criticism they are extremely sensitive to, Ghafuri said.

He added: “Al-Hashimi had outlined in detail the new structure, difficulties, challenges, and internal issues within the Hashd Al-Shaabi. He described the way they are operating, and he also illustrated the divisions in Hashd, where some are loyal to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani and others loyal to Iran.”

Regardless of Al-Kadhimi’s next course of action, Ghafuri warns that Iraqis must be prepared for more chaos going forward.

The least we can do is to expose these criminals and bring justice to ensure that security and peace prevails for our country.

Barham Salih, President of Iraq

“If you stay silent, the rule of law will be in a bad situation. But if you implement the rule of law, the Iranian-backed militias will cause trouble for you,” he said.

However, as Knights says, Al-Hashimi enjoyed a lot of respect among Iraqis and was a supporter of last year’s anti-government protests. As a result of this, his murder could prove a step too far for Iranian-backed Hashd fighters.

“The militias killed a popular supporter of the protest movement and a recognizable face of Iraqi academia when they targeted Al-Hashimi,” he said, adding that “the action may prove counterproductive for the militias."

This handout photograph released by Iraqi President Barham Saleh's office shows him during a meeting with the president of northern Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region, Nechirvan Barzani (L), in Baghdad on November 13, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

Wing said that, while Al-Hashimi’s death has led to an international outcry, “it is still a dangerous game for the prime minister to respond.”

At the most, Al-Kadhimi “might be able to pull off an arrest of a few members, if the authorities can find direct evidence in the assassination,” he said.

“Anything else could bring a wave of protests in the Green Zone, as happened after the raid on Kataib Hezbollah. It could bring even more rocket attacks on facilities that host Americans in defiance of his demands that they stop, and even the fall of his government if the ‘Fatah List’ decides he has gone too far,” he added.

Wing was referring to a powerful bloc in parliament that vigorously defends Iran’s interests and policies in Iraq.

Mourners embrace during the funeral of Al-Hashimi, who was shot dead outside his house in the Iraqi capital, in Baghdad’s Zayouna district on July 7, 2020. (AFP)

Wing does not believe Al-Hashimi’s murder was a direct response to the arrest of Kataib members, but sees it as “another poke in Al-Kadhimi’s eye, saying they don’t believe he has the power to stop their activities.”

He said: “When the Hashd were made part of the security forces, praised for their war against Daesh, and their crimes were actively covered up, it gave them the sense that they could do what they wanted. And this is just the latest example.”

He added: “If they could get away with destroying part of Tikrit and the surrounding towns after the city was retaken, kidnapping and murdering hundreds of men during operations in Anbar, and displacing thousands of people during the war, who is going to stop them for killing one analyst?”

Still, Knights believes Al-Kadhimi’s people will not back down because of the July 6 assassination, although they may move more cautiously now.

“When intelligence suggests future militia attacks or justifies arrest operations, they will probably detain more militia fighters,” he said, adding: “The tit-for-tat pattern has begun, but Al-Kadhimi is not easy to intimidate.”



Seth Rogen’s Israel comments highlight fraught diaspora ties

Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish a fire after an Israeli airstrike, on a floor in a building that also houses international media offices in Gaza City. (Reuters/File)
Updated 08 August 2020

Seth Rogen’s Israel comments highlight fraught diaspora ties

  • Jewish comedians’ conversation on Israel spark an uproar

TEL AVIV: It began as a lighthearted conversation between two Jewish comedians, riffing on a podcast about the idiosyncrasies of their shared heritage. But after talk turned to Israel, it didn’t take long for Marc Maron and Seth Rogen to spark an uproar.

Their comments about Israel — especially Rogen saying the country “doesn’t make sense” — infuriated many Israel supporters and highlighted the country’s tenuous relationship with young, progressive Jewish critics in the diaspora.
Israel has long benefited from financial and political support from American Jews. But in recent years the country has faced a groundswell of opposition from young progressives, disillusioned by Israel’s aggressive West Bank settlement building, its perceived exclusion of liberal streams of Judaism and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cosy relationship with President Donald Trump.
“What Seth Rogen said is par for the course among our generation and the Israeli government has to wake up and see that their actions have consequences,” said Yonah Lieberman, spokesman for If Not Now, an American Jewish organization opposed to Israel’s entrenched occupation of the West Bank.
Rogen’s remarks follow a dramatic shift by an influential Jewish American commentator who recently endorsed the idea of a democratic entity of Jews and Palestinians living with equal rights on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Peter Beinart’s argument that a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine — is no longer possible sent shock waves through the Jewish establishment and Washington policymaking circles.
For many Jews, Israel is an integral part of their identity, on religious grounds or as an insurance policy in the wake of the Holocaust and in a modern age of resurgent anti-Semitism. But polls have shown that while most American Jews identify with Israel and feel a connection to the country, that support has waned over recent years, especially among millennials.
Some have even embraced the Palestinian-led movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel to protest what it says is Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Israel accuses the movement of waging a campaign to delegitimize its very existence.


Their comments about Israel — especially Rogen saying the country ‘doesn’t make sense’ — highlighted the country’s tenuous relationship with young, progressive Jewish critics in the diaspora.

In the podcast, Rogen, who appeared in such smash comedies as “Superbad” and “Knocked Up,” talked about attending Jewish schools and Jewish summer camp while growing up in Vancouver. He said his parents met on an Israeli kibbutz.
As they continued to chat, Rogen appeared to question why Israel was established.
“You don’t keep all your Jews in one basket. I don’t understand why they did that. It makes no sense whatsoever,” Rogen said. “You don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place especially when that place has proven to be pretty volatile. I’m trying to keep all these things safe. I’m going to put them in my blender and hope that that’s the best place to, that’ll do it.”
Rogen then said he was “fed a huge amount of lies” about Israel during his youth. “They never tell you that ‘oh, by the way, there were people there.’ They make it seem like, ‘the (expletive) door’s open.’”
Maron and Rogen both joked about how frightened they were about the responses they would receive from Israel’s defenders. Their concerns were justified.
Rogen’s comments immediately lit up “Jewish Twitter.” They unleashed a flurry of critical op-eds in Jewish and Israeli media. And they prompted Rogen to call Isaac Herzog, the head of the Jewish Agency, a major nonprofit that works to foster relations between Israel and the Jewish world.
In a Facebook post, Herzog said he and Rogen had a frank and open conversation. He said Rogen “was misunderstood and apologized” for his comments.
“I told him that many Israelis and Jews around the world were personally hurt by his statement, which implies the denial of Israel’s right to exist,” Herzog wrote.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Rogen said he called Herzog at the urging of his mother and he denied apologizing. He said the comments were made in jest and misconstrued.
“I don’t want Jews to think that I don’t think Israel should exist. And I understand how they could have been led to think that,” he said.
Rogen also said he is a “proud Jew.” He said his criticism was aimed at the education he received, and he believed he could have been given a deeper picture of a “complex” situation.
Ironically, Rogen was on the podcast to promote his new movie, “An American Pickle,” about a Jewish immigrant to the US at the start of the 20th century who falls into a vat of pickle brine and emerges 100 years later. He called the project a “very Jewish film.”
Lieberman, from If Not Now, said the uproar shows “how much the conversation has changed” about Israel among American Jews.
Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said Israel should not be expected to change its “security and foreign policies” based on growing estrangement from Jews overseas.
But he said it can take realistic steps to close the gap, such as establishing a pluralistic prayer site at the Western Wall, long a sticking point between Israel’s Orthodox establishment and more liberal Jews in the US
“It’s a challenge for Israel. It’s inconvenient. We want everyone to love us, especially other Jews,” he said. “Israel can do certain things to make it somewhat better.”