Earlier this week, assailants broke into the home of the Sunni Muslim cleric Radwan al-Hadidi. Al-Hadidi was one of the leaders of the Sunni Muslim anti-government protests in the area and several days earlier he had made a speech criticising extremist Sunni elements. He told media that it was easier to talk with a wall than it was to talk to Al Qaeda. Yet at the same time al-Hadidi was also firmly opposed to the policies of the Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad and had demanded that it be dissolved and that the Iraqi Constitution be re-written.
The men who broke into al-Hadidi’s house murdered him.
This was not an isolated case. Several of the leaders of the demonstrations in this area have been assassinated over the past year. The murders started after demonstrators started to carry guns - and they started to carry guns after the Iraqi army broke up a demonstration in Hawija, near the city of Kirkuk, in late April. In doing so, they killed around 40 demonstrators and injured hundreds of others.
“Rumours started circulating that there were now Shiite Muslim militias killing the protest leaders,” says Abdul-Salam Raouf, a local journalist. “Allegedly they were supported by Iran and they included the likes of the League of Righteous led by Qais Khazali and Hezbollah in Iraq led by Wathiq al-Battat.”
One of the first protest leaders to be murdered was Haitham al-Abadi who was attacked on August 19, 2013. The attack on al-Abad also saw another tribal leader, Ahmad al-Ramawi injured.
Later that month gunmen targeted Barzan al-Badrani, a prominent tribal leader who took part in the protests. He was murdered using a pistol with a silencer in central Mosul.
Another protest leader, Tharwi al-Kourz al-Shammari, was also killed in Mosul, next to his house by unidentified gunmen. Yet another protest leader Thaer Hazem Abed was killed by gunmen in September.
Then on October 11, cleric Ali al-Shamma was murdered after he finished his Friday sermon in Mosul.
The governor of the province of Ninawa, Sunni Muslim politician, Atheel al-Nujaifi, has his own theories on why the men were assassinated. Al-Nujaifi supports the demonstrations and is also opposed to the current government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And he believes the protest leaders could have been targeted by one of two groups – either Sunni Muslim extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda, like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, or one of the extremist Shiite Muslim militias like the League of the Righteous. Neither of these groups likes the Sunni Muslim protestors and they have their own reasons for wanting them dead.
ISIS, for example, wants to establish more of a base in the area and the tribal leaders, with their authority, are in their way. The Shiite Muslim militias support the Shiite Muslim government and are opposed to the demonstrators but in a more radical way.
Previously al-Nujaifi, who has narrowly escaped assassination himself, said the groups were targeting the protest leaders and clerics because they have influence over local opinion; in Friday sermons they advocate action and protest.
And sources from within the ranks of demonstrators told NIQASH that the protest leaders had publicly refused to yield to ISIS or follow their instructions.
The same sources say that a lot of the protest leaders have now left Ninawa for a variety of different reasons, including prosecution and persecution by government forces and death threats from ISIS.
“These groups of assassins may have a common agenda,” al-Nujaifi told NIQASH. “They may both be working toward weakening Sunni Muslims in Iraq, and toward keeping them in crisis and chaos.”
And there is another twist to the tale. Over the past few months journalists working in Ninawa have also been threatened by ISIS. They’ve been told to stop working in the media or leave town – in fact, many have left town. Some have been killed.
And it turns out that those who died were often the same journalists who had been covering the protests, broadcasting developments in the demonstrations daily. Some had complained to their chiefs that there were unidentified individuals taking pictures and videos of them outside and inside the demonstrations, as they went about their jobs.
Of course, it is hard to know whether this is a coincidence – after all ISIS have been targeting every journalist – but in the tense atmosphere prevailing in Ninawa, it’s hard not to be suspicious.