Hisham al-Hashimi: the killing that's thrown down a challenge to Iraq's government

A tribute from a friend and fellow scholar places al-Hashimi's death in the context of a new wave of violence in Iraq. 

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Iraq has gone through successive periods of politically motivated violence since Saddam Hussein fell in 2003. The first, an insurgency against American occupation, quickly mutated into a bloody civil war. The second saw the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq reconstitute as the Islamic State (IS) and, in 2014, seize the city of Mosul and a swath of territory across the north-west of the country. And now the legacy of the successful struggle to liberate Iraq from IS – the myriad of re-empowered militias who fought against the group – could be responsible for driving the country into a third wave of violent conflict.

The brutal shooting of my friend and colleague Dr Hisham al-Hashimi outside his house in Baghdad on Monday 6 July, may indicate who will be targeted in this third wave and why.

Hisham’s killing by assailants on motorbikes is a profound tragedy for his wife and young children. It is also a huge blow for all of us working on Iraq, who found in Hisham a very generous friend and guide who was happy to share his encyclopaedic knowledge of the country with everyone who was interested. Furthermore, the murder can be seen as an attempt to deal a mortal blow to the Iraqi state itself and the government’s effort to re-establish the rule of law. Those who killed Hisham likely did so because he was deeply and publicly committed to the reform of a militia-linked political system that has mired his country in corruption and violence.

When Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited the home of al-Hashmi's four children on Thursday 9 July he reportedly told them: "Do not cry. Your father was a hero." 

Hisham will be remembered as a generous host, whether smoking cigars on the terrace of the Babil Hotel or eating Masgouf in his favourite restaurant in central Baghdad. He had a zest for life, for good food and for good company, always cracking jokes, putting people at ease and explaining what was going on in his beloved Baghdad.

In his work on and commitment to Iraq, he managed to combine three distinct and influential roles. The first was as a public intellectual, explaining Iraq to Iraqis in frequent television appearances, newspaper columns and Twitter and Facebook posts. To be driving with Hisham anywhere in Iraq, in Baghdad, Basra or Ramadi, would be to see the genuine warmth and affection he was greeted with by Iraqis who appreciated the fearless analytical role he undertook, calling out the myriad failings of the country's governing elite.

Hisham was also a forensic researcher. He built up a network that spread across the country, encompassing all political parties and militias and penetrating deep into state institutions. Through this he produced empirically rich and powerfully insightful analysis based upon hours of interviews with ground-level activists, soldiers and civil servants, right up to the very pinnacle of Iraq’s government. It was in this role that he published books and articles, which shaped academic and policy debates. It was also in this role that he introduced successive generations of journalists and researchers to his country, patiently explaining the intricacies of its politics, society and economy, without ever reducing the complexity of Iraq to unsustainable clichés.

Finally, Hisham was deeply committed to the reform of his country’s political system. This made him a tireless supporter of the young people who flooded on to the streets of Baghdad and the cities of southern Iraq in October 2019. They were demanding a civic state, a state that treats all equally regardless of religion and ethnicity, a state governed by the rule of law, and a state which guarantees its society does not have to live in fear of militia violence. Hisham’s commitment to these goals led him to work with President Barham Salih as an adviser and to ally himself with the new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and his team of liberal reformers, who were appointed in the wake of the October demonstrations to try to meet the demands of the young revolutionaries.

[see also: In the heart of Baghdad, a new vision for Iraq is emerging]

It is almost certainly this role that caused Hisham to be murdered. The aftermath of the defeat of IS has seen Iraqi society overrun by a plethora of ungoverned militias, whose use of violence to defend their vested interests killed many of the October protestors and had recently become the main focus of Hisham’s work. In killing Hisham they would be throwing down a challenge to the new reformist team in the prime minister’s office – making the point that no one is beyond their murderous reach, however well known, connected and respected, both in Iraq and globally.

The question is clear: in a struggle to avoid a third wave of violence, do the institutionalised forces of law and order, the Iraqi police and armed forces, regain control of Iraq’s streets, or do the militias? Only the reaction of the Iraqi government to the brutal murder of one of its own will decide what the answer will be. The identity of Hisham’s killers is widely guessed at in Baghdad; whether they will ever face justice is more uncertain.

Toby Dodge is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science

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