Iraqi Journalist’s Death Sends a Warning “To Whomever Listens”

Posted on Mon 09/26/2011 by

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By Lt. Colonel James Zumwalt, USMC (ret)

Hadi al-Mahdi, who was shot dead on September 8th.
He was home alone. According to the ominous entry on his Facebook page reporting his life was in danger, it was approximately 2:30 pm. He was right—he had but minutes to live. An Iraqi journalist,  Hadi al-Mahdi hosted a three-day-a-week radio program—“To Whomever Listens”—on which he voiced concerns that the fear and intimidation so much a signature of Saddam Hussein’s regime was returning under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s. Soon after Mahdi’s last Facebook entry, there was a knock on his door. He apparently recognized his visitor(s), inviting him/them into his house. He went into the kitchen to pour water for his guest(s). As he did so, someone came up behind him. The last sound Mahdi would hear in this life was the report of a small handgun as two bullets were fired into the back of his head. He fell to the floor, still clutching the water jug in his hand. His last worldly act of kindness towards a guest in his home was reciprocated with a cowardly, violent act to silence the journalist forever.
 
It was a bitterly ironic end for Mahdi as he always sought to preserve life and avoid violence, even by those supporting the concerns he voiced over the radio. In February, riots erupted in Baghdad over widespread corruption and lack of services. Demonstrators began throwing rocks at police who attacked them. Mahdi led an effort to form a human chain, interlocking arms with one another, to separate the two groups and restore calm. For his peaceful efforts, he was arrested, blindfolded, interrogated, tortured and threatened with rape. He was forced to sign a criminal confession and to agree not to participate in future demonstrations. 
 
Released the next day, Mahdi continued organizing and participating in weekly protests to focus the al-Maliki government on issues of social inequality. For these efforts, he began receiving numerous warnings, followed by threats. Despite these, he organized a major protest for the end of Ramadan, to take place on September 9.     
 
Mahdi’s last Facebook entry reveals his fear and frustration as well as his determination to give power to the people:
 
“Enough … I have lived the last three days in a state of terror. There are some who call me and warn me of raids and arrests of protesters…I will take part in the demonstrations, for I am one of its supporters. I firmly believe that the political process embodies a national, economic, and political failure. It deserves to change, and we deserve a better government…I do not represent any political party or any other side, but rather the miserable reality in which we live. … I am sick of seeing our mothers beg in the streets and I am sick of news of politicians’ gluttony and of their looting of Iraq’s riches.”
 
Mahdi was murdered September 8, the day before the demonstration he helped organize took place.
 
Iraq is proving to be one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist. A 2010 UN report indicated within a four year period, 77 journalists lost their lives while countless others were threatened or attacked. While some simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time, a concerted effort is now underway to silence those seeking to awaken the Iraqi people to groups trying to maximize their control at the expense of minimizing the freedoms of the people.
 
Another journalistic critic of the Maliki government, Emad al-Ebadi, suffered a violent attack in 2009. Despite three gunshots to the head and a fourth to the neck by unknown attackers, he miraculously survived the attempt on his life. 
 
Each time a journalist has been attacked or killed, a call has gone out for an investigation. However, just like in countries, such as Russia, where powerful people seek to murder their journalistic critics, the calls for investigation go unheeded or are undertaken without any intention of solving the crime.
 
Three groups benefit from Mahdi’s death and should be targeted for investigation. Interestingly, all share a common bond—Iran.
 
First, Maliki and his supporters should be investigated as possible suspects. As the Prime Minister looks to solidify his control, the last thing he needs are independent journalists spotlighting his lack of interest in the welfare of the Iraqi people. Stirring up social unrest with protests such as the one scheduled for September 9 ran contrary to Maliki’s interests.
 
Second, Tehran is not above suspicion. As the withdrawal date of all US forces from Iraq draws near, Maliki has drawn closer to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has unabashedly become his puppet for ridding Tehran of an Iranian opposition group—the MEK—residing at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Despite the fact MEK was disarmed by US forces in 2003, Maliki has launched several unprovoked attacks against the Camp, murdering dozens of Iranians. As majority-Shia Iran seeks to dominate majority-Shia Iraq through Maliki, any journalistic attacks against the Prime Minister run contrary to this interest. Special units of Iran’s paramilitary Qods force operate freely in Iraq, affording them the opportunity to coordinate such assassinations.
 
Third, also suspect is one of the most influential religious and political leaders in Iraq—Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr (the name “Sayyid” indicating he is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad). He is not a stranger to murder. Ever since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, al-Sadr has demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops, organizing a militia force that violently sought to achieve this end. After promoting instability in Iraq, al-Sadr suddenly departed for Iran in 2007. Allegedly, this was due to a lack of formal religious training and the opportunity to pursue same to “earn his wings” as an Ayatollah. However, a possible criminal prosecution also provided motivation for his four-year hiatus that followed. 
 
In April 2003, Imam Abdul Majid al-Khoei—a moderate Islamic leader who sought to mediate a sensitive issue involving control of the shrine of Imam Ali—was attacked by al-Sadr supporters. Bloodied and semi-conscious, he was dragged before al-Sadr who directed the mob execute him. They did. An arrest warrant was issued for al-Sadr and his lieutenants by an Iraqi judge in April 2004, only to be sealed by the Coalition Provisional Authority—undoubtedly as enticement for al-Sadr to lower his profile.  As al-Sadr later became active again in stirring up violence, he felt more secure directing it from the safe haven provided by Iran. 
 
In January 2011, with US influence waning in Iraq, al-Sadr returned again to ensure a complete US withdrawal by year’s end. He claims he wants foreign forces out and an “Islamic democracy,” similar to Iran’s, established. As we saw with Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei who made the same claim 32 years ago as he sought to replace Iran’s Shah, Islamic “democracy” is code for “theocracy.” Al-Sadr has been called “the single greatest threat to US military and economic control of Iraq.” As such, al-Sadr had no use for journalists such as Mahdi who sought to maximize the rights of the people at the expense of minimizing authoritarian control.
 
Next month, in Washington DC, a memorial will be dedicated to honor an American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, who embraced nonviolent resistance in the 20th century fight he led for social equality. Like Mahdi, King had a dream “to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.” Like Mahdi, King’s nonviolent push for equality met with an act of cowardly violence when he was gunned down in 1968. Perhaps the future holds a memorial dedication in Baghdad to honor Hadi al-Mahdi—a martyred hero who embraced nonviolent resistance in the 21st century fight he led for social equality. If so, it will be despite the violent efforts of Al-Maliki, Ahmadinejad and al-Sadr to ensure such a day never happens.  
 
Like the title of his radio program, Mahdi’s life and death sends an important warning “To Whomever Listens.”

Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (ret) is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam War, the US invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war.  He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields” and frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.