Jaseb Hattab al-Hiliji never noticed the motorbike carrying two young men. It was just another bike, squeezing between pedestrians in the crowded, narrow streets of Amara’s al-Sinaaiyah district.
Hiliji didn’t notice either, when one of the men got off and walked slowly but purposefully towards him.
According to eyewitnesses, that is when the man took out a gun, pointed it at Hiliji’s head and fired a bullet that silenced the 57-year-old forever.
Less than an hour later, the local police announced that they had arrested the murderer, and that the crime was triggered by a tribal dispute.
“Hiliji is a cousin of the killer, and they had major disputes and mutual lawsuits. The killer made this clear in his confessions,” a senior local police officer told Middle East Eye.
“The killer said that he was returning from work and he found Hiliji in front of him while passing through the al-Sinaaiyah area, so he took out his pistol and shot him dead.”
Official statements and videotaped confessions by the killer were explicit: this was a non-political crime, a family dispute. But the exact nature of the dispute was never presented, nor why the killer carried a gun in the first place.
To many in the southern city of Amara and Iraq in general, there was a different story. Hiliji was the victim of an assassination epidemic.
And like killings before, the motives given by the authorities just did not wash.
A son’s disappearance
Hiliji’s tragedy stretches back further, to 7 October 2019. That’s when his son, lawyer Ali Jaseb Hattab al-Hiliji, received a phone call from a woman who said he had been assigned as her representative in a divorce case.
CCTV footage of that evening shows Ali waiting by his car in central Amara, when a woman in a black gown approached him. The footage shows him speaking to the woman, whose face cannot be seen, for several minutes before a black Chevrolet Tahoe stopped 10 metres from the two. Three masked men got out of the Tahoe and forced Ali to get into their car.
As the black Tahoe left, a modern Toyota pickup appeared. The woman voluntarily climbed into it. The pickup left behind the Tahoe.
Soon after Ali’s disappearance, rumours began to fly that he was disappeared because of links to the October 2019 anti-government protest movement that was raging in Amara and across southern Iraq and Baghdad.
Yet according to several prominent activists in the city who spoke to MEE, Ali was not a demonstrator or an activist. He had, however, participated with a number of lawyers in defending some of the youths who were arrested because of their participation in the 2019 anti-government demonstrations in its first week.
Activists said the rumours he was kidnapped because he supported the protesters was spread to place more pressure on authorities to release him, as the demonstrations were attracting worldwide attention.
In fact, the story had another, unreported side.
Hijili spent the 17 months between Ali’s disappearance and his own death desperately and noisily seeking his son. For the last 13 of those, he had begun publicly accusing Haider al-Gharawi, the leader of Ansar Allah al-Awfiya, a small Shia armed faction, of kidnapping him.
Sources said that the woman who called Ali and later appeared in the CCTV recordings was one of Gharawi’s ex-wives, and that the kidnapping was motivated by the fact that Hiliji “dared to sue Gharawi”.
“No one knows much about these details because it concerns a woman who is said to be the second wife of Gharawi. She used Ali’s services to obtain a passport for her after she separated from her husband,” a former associate of Gharawi told MEE, on condition of anonymity.
“The information that I have indicates that Ali was killed and buried in one of the empty areas near the Iraqi-Iranian border. As for the woman, no one has heard of her since that day, and we do not know where she is now,” he added.
“She might be killed, too.”
The associate did not explicitly say that Gharawi killed the two, but indicated that he knew their fate “with certainty”.
This same story with different small details was repeated dozens of times by Hiliji in his private and public meetings, according to activists, local officials and relatives who were contacted by MEE.
However, MEE was unable to verify its authenticity despite the repeated attempts to contact Gharawi, one of his personal companions and his spokesman, Sheikh Adel al-Karaawi. Despite that, MEE sent written questions to Karaawi, which he has not responded to by the time of publication.
Closing the case
On 12 March, the Amara Investigation Court publicly announced it was closing the case on Hiliji’s assassination, following the judicial approval of the suspect’s confession.
Based on the confession, the court concluded that Hiliji was accusing the suspect of kidnapping his son, and that pressure led him to murder him.
Not mentioned by the court, and apparently not probed by the investigators, is the suspect’s relationship with Gharawi.
The suspect, whose confession was broadcast by local police, has since 2011 been an Ansar Allah al-Awfiya fighter, and even fought with the faction in Syria, two sources close to Gharawi told MEE.
“We are not aware of the killer’s political or non-political affiliations. The investigations did not address this part,” a senior local police officer told MEE.
“The crime took place due to family disputes, and the killer was arrested and confessed to his crime, and the matter is over.”
But the matter is not over for some.
Hijili’s assassination, and the manner it was dealt with by the authorities, have highlighted a growing trend in southern Iraq, where tribal and personal reasons are attributed to killings that appear highly political in nature.
And the victims, more often than not, are activists, journalists and protesters that cross the wrong people.
A bloody chain of events
Amara, the capital of Maysan governorate, is a border city sat on the banks of the Tigris River, 320 km southeast of Baghdad. Like most Iraqi border provinces, tribal concepts dominate life in Amara and the rest of Maysan’s cities and towns.
It is one of the south’s largest strongholds of Sadrists, followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadrists control the local government and most of the security departments associated with it.
For those looking to carry out illicit activities in Iraq, Amara is the perfect location.
It is one of the most important corridors used by criminal gangs smuggling weapons, drugs, antiquities and other contraband.
No wonder, then, that armed and political factions wrestle over its levers of power, sometimes with deadly results. And it was almost inevitable that the struggling youth protesting for a better future in October 2019 would collide with this bloody world, with terrifying consequences.
Early in the protest movement, demonstrators gathered around the headquarters of powerful paramilitaries and political parties, symbols of the forces that had grown rich at the expense of ordinary Iraqis.
Many were torched by protesters, and when hundreds began to move from Amara’s main square towards the office of Asaib Ahl al-Haq on 25 October, the fearsome Shia paramilitary faction began to prepare for the worst.
Wissam al-Ellayawi, a prominent Asaib leader, was stationed at the top of the two-story building with a group of his fighters. The demonstrators tried to storm the building, but Ellayawi and his men began firing in the air to drive them away, and later at their legs.
Suddenly, a group of fighters from Saraya al-Salam, Sadr’s armed wing, appeared. They wore black suits and black hats, and were travelling in Toyota pickups, carrying Kalashnikovs, RPG-7 launchers and grenades, eyewitnesses told MEE.