A female Iraqi human rights activist has been gunned down in Basra, deepening despair in the southern city which is reeling from a water poisoning scandal and months of demonstrations about poor public services.
Soad Al Ali was shot in the head by masked attackers who opened fire on her and a man, reportedly her husband, as they were getting into a car on Tuesday evening.
The man is receiving treatment in hospital. Video footage of the attack circulated on the internet, adding to a sense of chaos in Basra.
During the past two weeks, campaigners in the southern oil hub have been targeted on social media, with some receiving death threats.
Ms Ali’s funeral was held on Wednesday after Iraq’s Independent High Commissioner for Human Rights (IHCHR) opened a murder probe, calling on Baghdad’s central government to investigate the crime.”We are calling on the local and federal governments to be held responsible for protecting human rights activists and protesters unless they [activists] have crossed the law,” Ali Al Bayati, a board member of the IHCHR told The National.
He said that the Basra branch of the IHCHR had been tasked with investigating the killing and reporting back on their findings.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, which came as protests resumed following a two-week halt.
However eyewitnesses told The National that two gunmen were involved.
Hazem Al Assadi, 32, a shop owner who witnessed the killing, said: “I saw a vehicle and two men in their twenties. One was aboard, while the other waited near Soad Al Ali’s car. When she approached her car and pressed the button to open it, the man shot her two times in the head.”
Safaa Ameen, a colleague and friend of the murdered woman, added: “She was really committed and devoted to to her activism. I never heard anything bad about her, whether her reputation or work. She was a very good person.”
Protesters in Basra are demanding basic services and the release of those detained in earlier demonstrations.
Who was Soad Al Ali?
Al Ali, mother of four, was the head of an organisation called Al Wid Al Alaiami For Human Rights in Basra.
Its goal – as written by Al Ali on the organisation’s website – is to promote “true human spirit in society” by helping others who are in need.
“Our duty is to develop and advance society, we are constantly seeking to host cultural and economic conferences, seminars and educational workshops,” she wrote.
Al Ali, 46, has been lobbying for Basra’s independence for years, Mohamed Al Tai, a former member of parliament for Basra, told The National.
“She assisted us on pushing forward our demands for autonomy in 2014 and 2015,” Mr Al Tai said.
Her husband, a supervisor at the education ministry, was also a campaigner for human rights in Basra, Mr Al Tai said.
A recent photo on the organisation’s website showed Al Ali at a protest in Basra this month.
The caption said “side by side with our brothers, sons and family in our Basra”.
The murder, which occurred on a street in the Abbasiya district in the centre of Basra, is the first such killing since protests erupted this summer.
Some people in Basra, however, claimed that the killing may be family related, or of a personal nature, with a former partner being implicated.
The murder of Al Ali shows the lack of security and government’s control over the deteriorating security situation in the country, Ahmed Al Hassani, a resident living in Basra, said on Twitter.
“Iraqi citizens will live in eternal horror… unfortunately militias are stronger than the government,” Mr Al Hassani said.
Residents of Basra have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against failing government services, including water contamination that put tens of thousands in hospitals.
The number of Iraqis poisoned by polluted drinking water in Basra is nearing 100,000.
Salt has seeped into the supply, according to residents, making it undrinkable and forcing thousands into hospitals that are now overburdened. Citizens say the contamination is further proof of the country’s collapsing infrastructure, with neglect peaking while politicians in Baghdad squabble over top roles in a new government.
Earlier this month, protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and burned government offices, the headquarters of Iranian-backed militias and Iran’s consulate in Basra – in a show of anger over what many residents perceive as Iran’s excessive influence in local politics.
The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of militias, which played a major role in retaking Iraqi territory from ISIS. Protesters have described a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by the powerful militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than two million people in southern Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland.
Some militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the US, which has long worked to curb Iranian influence in Iraq. Al Ali has been pictured during a meeting she held with Timmy Davis, US consul general in Basra province, more than a month ago.