Weeks before he was fatally shot in Baghdad, Husham al-Hashimi, a prominent Iraqi writer and leading expert on extremist groups, sought advice from a friend after allegedly receiving a chilling message from Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah (KH).
His friends are now questioning whether the Shiite militia is responsible for the killing. His death has been widely mourned in Iraq, prompting many to speculate on the future of the country amid Iran’s network of influence.
“I told him to leave Iraq immediately,” said Ghaith al-Tamimi, an Iraqi researcher and a close friend of Hashimi.
“Husham told me that he had received information from an important and well-informed source, whom he described as honest, that Kataib Hezbollah had intended to physically eliminate him,” al-Tamimi told VOA.
In addition to al-Tamimi, other colleagues of Hashimi have accused KH of the killing.
KH is an Iraqi militia and Iran proxy designated as a terrorist organization by the United States for its involvement in attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq.
Hashimi was a nonresident scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a member of the Baghdad-based Iraq Advisory Council (IAC). While his analytical essays largely focused on jihadist groups such as Islamic State, he often condemned Iran-linked armed groups flouting the Iraqi law and killing anti-corruption protesters.
A day before his death, he tweeted a picture of a small child wounded in a rocket attack targeting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. KH is believed to have fired the rocket, which reportedly landed in a civilian area nearby.
Both Iran and the Popular Mobilization Forces, which include KH, denounced the killing.
In a statement issued Tuesday, KH denied involvement in Hashimi's killing, calling the accusations U.S. propaganda.
“The continuous targeting of those who resist the U.S. presence through defamatory accusations became clear in the way the media outlets hostile to the Iraqi people [reported the killing],” read the statement.
The U.S. said Hashimi had received multiple threats from pro-Iran militants in recent days.
“In the days leading up to his death he was repeatedly threatened by Iran-backed armed groups,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a news conference Thursday, adding that “Hashimi had devoted his life to a free and sovereign Iraq.”
Hashimi’s death came just days after the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, in a rare raid on the headquarters of KH in Baghdad, arrested 14 members of KH before their release hours later. The government said the raid was based on intelligence reports that the group had planned an imminent attack on the U.S. Embassy.
Al-Kadhimi has vowed to not let Hashimi’s death be in vain.
“Iraq will not sleep until the killers have faced justice for the crimes they have committed,” he said during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, according to excerpts posted by his office’s Twitter account. “We will not allow anyone to turn Iraq into a mafia state.”
In the meeting Tuesday, al-Kadhimi mentioned that he did not have a loyal political party of his own in parliament, a fact that many analysts see as a weakness of his government.
An independent statesman, he was head of Iraq’s intelligence services before he was picked as a compromise candidate in May after months of internal political gridlock.
Despite that, he appeared to enjoy support across the political spectrum in seeking justice for Hashimi’s death.
Iraq’s Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani called the killing an act of “terror.”
Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shia cleric who leads a strong parliamentary bloc, called Hashimi a “martyr” whose death should not pass with impunity.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the killing was an attempt to undermine the Iraqi state.
“Whose interest does the weakening of state, the intimidation and terrorizing of the people serve?” he asked on Twitter.
According to al-Tamimi, the death of the popular Iraqi analyst may have well enhanced al-Kadhimi’s ability to rein in armed groups operating outside state security forces.
“There is large popular support for the government to announce a comprehensive plan to confront the militias and enforce the rule of law,” he said.
Echoing similar views, Michael Knights, a senior Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told VOA, “The Iraqi people have a thirst for a strong prime minister who will act against militias.”
Knights described Hashimi as “a casualty and a martyr in the war to give the Iraqi people a state.”
Regardless of Iraqi officials’ vow to seek justice for Hashimi’s killing, some experts on the region say it is unlikely the perpetrators could be brought to justice. They say that even if the widespread accusations against KH are true, it would be a major challenge for al-Kadhimi's Cabinet to hold the group accountable.
“Justice and accountability are rare in these cases,” tweeted Karim Sadjadpour, a senior Iran scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, “because team Iran is usually experienced enough not to leave clear fingerprints.”