x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Killing sparks fears of sectarian clashes

Opposition groups claim that Harith al Obaidi, a moderate Sunni politician, was assassinated because he was critical of human rights abuses in prisons.

A man grieves yesterday during the funeral in Baghdad of the senior Sunni  MP Harith al-Obaidi, who was killed along with four others by a teenaged gunman on Friday.
A man grieves yesterday during the funeral in Baghdad of the senior Sunni MP Harith al-Obaidi, who was killed along with four others by a teenaged gunman on Friday.

BAGHDAD // The murder of a leading moderate Sunni politician, gunned down in broad daylight at a Baghdad mosque on Friday, has raised fears that increasingly violent times lay ahead for Iraq. Harith al Obaidi, head of the Iraqi Accord Front, the largest Sunni Muslim parliamentary bloc, was murdered by a teenaged assassin at the Shawif mosque in a heavily guarded western district of the city. The killing comes in the wake of a series of bombings targeting Shiite civilians and has raised the spectre of Iraq's recent, bloody sectarian civil war that ravaged the country in 2006 and 2007. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed four other bystanders. Al Obaidi's potential list of enemies includes Sunni extremists angry at his support for national reconciliation efforts with Shiites. Opposition groups were quick to suggest a connection between the murder and al Obaidi's outspoken criticism of the government's human rights record. The day before his death al Obaidi, a leading member of parliament's human rights committee, had demanded interior ministry and defence ministry officials appear before MPs to answer persistent allegations of government forces torturing prisoners. "Anyone could be behind the assassination and it shows just how fragile and dangerous the situation in Iraq remains," said Salim al Jubouri, spokesman for the Iraqi Accord Front. "Mr al Obaidi was at the forefront of exposing human rights violations against prison detainees and that is something that affected certain political parties. "His investigations into Iraqi prisons exposed a group of leaders and officials involved in detentions and that may have led to the assassination." Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki condemned the killing and launched an inquiry, warning that insurgents would stage more attacks in an effort to undermine confidence in Iraq's security forces, ahead of this month's pullback by US forces out of urban centres. "This cowardly crime is a futile attempt to incite sectarian rifts among the Iraqi people and to prove that terrorist organisations are still there after these organisations have received hard punches by our armed forces," Mr al Maliki said in a televised statement after the murder. The assassination of such a high-profile figure could result in heightened tensions between political and sectarian groups, cautioned Malik al Obeidi, a political analyst at Baghdad University. "The objective behind killing the leader of any political party is probably to ignite a sectarian conflict," he said. "If such attacks continue we might see increased divisions between political blocs, and Sunnis and Shiites although I don't think they will ever descend to the point of a new sectarian war." Other motives might have been behind the murder, he said, including the torture allegations and jockeying for power ahead of January's national vote. "Harith al Obaidi had exposed some problems within the ministry of interior's major crime directorate, with reports of them keeping child prisoners and torturing others. "And although the Accord Front is not the biggest group in parliament it did well in recent elections and would have been looking to improve on that in the next elections." The aftermath of the attack remains confused, with conflicting reports that the assassin was either shot and killed by security guards or blew himself up with a hand grenade. An Iraqi military spokesman, Major Gen Qassim al Moussawi, said the gunman was found with an identity card naming him as 25-year-old Ahmed Jassim Ibrahim, from the mainly Sunni neighbourhood of Mansour. However, the authorities believe the ID card was fake and witnesses said the killer looked no more than 15 years old. In his final sermon, delivered shortly before his death, al Obaidi had complained that "nobody dares to tell the ruler that such imprisonment is wrong". His support of human rights for prisoners earned him respect and backing across the political and sectarian spectrum. Abu Muktada al Rumathi, a leader with the Shiite Sadr movement in east Baghdad, said al Obaidi's vocal defence of human rights had helped all Iraqi prisoners. "Many of our people are exposed to torture in Iraq's prisons and we are grateful to the human rights committee for trying to expose the perpetrators of this," he said. "Whoever ordered this killing didn't want the curtain to be lifted on those activities." Despite indications of attacks designed to reignite the sectarian war, the Sadrists, whose Mahdi Army militia was heavily involved in the earlier conflict, said they would not be drawn into another war with Sunni groups. "The assassination might have been aimed at opening a large gap between Sunnis and Shiites but we will not respond in that way," said Mr al Rumathi. "We want to see a nationalist consolidation of Sunnis and Shiites, and we want to see the quick withdrawal of American forces." Al Obaidi had taken over in May as head of the coalition Iraqi Accord Front, which holds 44 seats in the 275-seat parliament. His death leaves the alliance without a leader. nlatif@thenational.ae