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Reporter’s Notebook: Hisham Described Reality and Embraced Objectivity

Gunmen assassinate renowned Iraqi analyst, adviser Hisham al-Hashemi outside his Baghdad home

Hisham al-Hashemi, a well-known Iraqi expert on extremist groups and an adviser to key leaders in the country, was gunned down outside his home in Baghdad late Monday night.

At least four gunmen on motorcycles waited for him to drive up before they opened fire and fled the scene.

No one has claimed responsibility, but for many in Iraq, the assassination is a grim reminder of a not-too-distant past when lawlessness reined and militias freely killed those who dared criticize them.

Hashemi, 47, went unarmed. His words were his weapon.

He was a member of the Iraq Advisory Council (IAC) and advised many of the country’s leaders on a variety of issues.

He was one of the top experts on Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups in Iraq, propelling him to the forefront and positioning him as an authoritative voice. He appeared regularly on televised news and public-interest programs locally, regionally and internationally.

IAC chairman Farhad Alaaldin told The Media Line that Iraq had lost a great man.

“We condemn this cowardly act and mourn a man who vowed to serve Iraq with his expertise on critical issues,” he said.

“We lost a distinguished academic figure and scientific researcher known for his gentle character, balanced ideas and depth of knowledge,” Alaaldin continued. “We demand that the security authorities find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”

Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver (and no relation to the assassinated analyst), told The Media Line that the killing transcended Iraq’s borders.

“The assassination of Hisham al-Hashemi must be understood in the context of rising tensions between the US and Iran, for which Iraq is a key battleground,” he said.

The assassination of Hisham al-Hashemi must be understood in the context of rising tensions between the US and Iran, for which Iraq is a key battleground

“I view al-Hashemi’s murder as a response by Iran to the recent arrest of members of Kata’ib Hizbullah,” he explained, mentioning perhaps the most prominent of the pro-Iran militias in Iraq known broadly as the Popular Mobilization Forces.

“Recall in late June, the US-backed Iraqi prime minister, in a bold move, raided the base of Kata’ib Hizbullah in an effort to rein in Iranian-backed militias that operate independently in Iraq,” he noted.

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country has become a battlefield used by regional and international actors to settle scores.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran is sending a clear message to the US and the Iraqi government: If you are trying to restrict our influence in Iraq, we have the ability to flex our muscles and fight back,” Hashemi said.

He added that Hisham al-Hashemi paid the ultimate price for the proxy war between Tehran and Washington, saying he was targeted due to his “critical views of Iranian-backed militia groups and the perception that he was close to the Americans.”

Journalists try their best to not be part of the story and to work hard to be impartial and objective in their reporting. But I knew Hisham al-Hashemi on a professional basis. The shock of his assassination has yet to wear off.

I first called on him for background information on a report I was working on in 2016. I eventually met with him several times during reporting trips to the country. I would call him as soon as I landed, and he always offered to help with my stories.

He was most welcoming. He was generous with his information, never making me feel I was taking too much of his time.

He had first-hand experience and intimate contacts with several warring groups but was trusted by all of them. He even mediated between rival factions. He used that knowledge to write books on extremist groups.

He despised sectarianism and consistently defended the rule of law and the state. A patriotic but fearless man who described reality and analyzed it objectively, he was vocal in his opposition to armed groups outside the control of the central government.

Hashemi died in the city he was raised in, a city he loved and passionately spoke about. Minutes before his death, he criticized the “Katyusha cells” that fire rockets at diplomatic missions in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Deep knowledge about Iraq’s intricate domestic politics and Shi’ite armed groups made him welcome among top government officials. The credibility of his analyses created close ties.

High-profile politics have all but disappeared from Iraq in recent years, but with the killing of Hashemi, Iraq could be returning to its role as a theater for regional and international proxy wars.

His frequent criticism of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq made him target. He told me he had received threats many times for speaking out. He was accused by anonymous Twitter users last April of having close ties with the US government. He was also accused of maintaining ties with Israel.

His death sent shock waves across Iraq, the Middle East and much of the world.

Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, vowed to hunt down his killers and bring them to justice.

“We vow to his killers that we will pursue them so they are justly punished. We will not allow assassinations to return to Iraq for a single second,” Kadhimi said Tuesday in a statement.

We vow to his killers that we will pursue them so they are justly punished. We will not allow assassinations to return to Iraq for a single second

The prime minister blamed Hashemi’s killing on armed groups “outside the law.” Those groups were the ones the analyst always spoke about, saying they operated in Iraq with impunity.

The United Nation’s top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, slammed the killing as a “despicable act of cowardice” and sent “heartfelt condolences” to the family.

“I call on the government to quickly identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice,” she wrote.

The group Hashed al-Shaabi, a Shi’ite paramilitary unit backed by Iran that eventually became integrated into the Iraqi army, issued a statement of its own.

“We demand that security forces follow up on this crime and catch the terrorist group that assassinated Hashemi, considered one of the most prominent writers and experts on ISIS terrorist groups and [a man] who had a huge role in uncovering their secrets,” it said.

Hashemi also supported the massive popular protests that erupted in Baghdad and elsewhere throughout Iraq’s Shi’ite-majority South in October, the widespread street protests blasting the government as corrupt, inefficient and beholden to neighboring Iran.

Less than an hour before his death, he tweeted about sectarian divisions in in the country. He defined a quota system and the goals of dominant factions, and said religious parties had replaced traditional political rivalries. He lamented that all this was again becoming entrenched in Iraqi society.

Hisham al-Hashemi’s Twitter feed and his last post. (Twitter)

He used to tell me that no matter how long it takes, Iraqis must prevail and rule their country without outside interference.

In another recent tweet, he wrote: “In the end, the unjust remains alone and is accompanied only by the curse of the oppressed, and neither the sky nor the earth will cry over him.”