Homicide in the Holy City: Religion, Politics, and 13 Bullets Killed an Outspoken Iraqi Novelist
Assassins gunned down Alaa Mashzoub, a popular son of the Iraqi city that is revered by Shiites. Everyone suspects Iran-backed militias. No one expects justice.
KARBALA, Iraq—The novelist Alaa Mashzoub rode his bicycle home at dusk like he did every day. He turned from the bustling main street in central Karbala into the residential side-streets of his own neighborhood. He pedaled through the tall, narrow buildings and the dusky shadows, navigating the maze of alleys with ease. Then from behind him roared a motorcycle bearing three men with scarves wrapped around their faces. They raised the guns they held in their hands and shot at him more than 25 times. The men vanished, hurtling away up one of the side streets and vanishing into the city’s narrow alleys.
They left Alaa dead on the ground that afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 2, his body riddled with 13 bullets. Blood pooled slowly around him, soaking into the street. He had been only a few minutes away from his home.
His oldest son, Mostafa, was leaving the dentist when he got the call that his father had been shot. “I laughed,” he says, “I laughed. I said you are playing with me. There is no way this could happen in the world.”
Mostafa and Alaa’s family believe that he was killed by one of the many Iranian-backed militias that control Karbala. They believe his death was a targeted assassination because Alaa was not just a writer, he was a critic. He disparaged Iran’s influence over the city, sectarianism, religious leaders, the endemic corruption and even Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini. He criticized so much, that they are not sure which of his words got him silenced.
“The goal was to remove him from Iraq, and they were able to remove him easily,” says his older brother Qasem.
Iraq has grown safer since the civil war of the mid-2000s, and Iraq is slowly getting back on its feet after decades of war. But Mashzoub’s murder shows that even though the war is over, corruption and violence are deeply rooted in the country and show no sign of disappearing.
His death sent shockwaves through Iraq’s closely knit literary community. Rumors began flying that he was killed because he posted a critique of Khomeini on Facebook days before his murder. But some of his closest friends think that he was killed because of his relationship with Karbala, the city he loved and knew best, the city where he had the most influence and the city where he refused to stop talking.
“The people who don't know Alaa think he was killed because of his writing, I think he was killed because of his tongue, because he would not shut up,” says Bilal Mohsen al-Baghdadi, one of his publishers. “He talked. He was never silent, in cafes, in the social clubs—he spoke openly.”
Mashzoub’s signature style was a pale grey houndstooth newsboy cap, which he sported almost daily. At 50 he was a round man with a serious gaze and closely cropped white hair. He favored the rumpled button-ups, blazers and suits of an intellectual. He was a stocky man with an intense gaze and slightly shadowed eyes.
He had the same routine every single day. He would get up around 7:00 or 7:30, eat breakfast with his wife and five children, then go to his study, a narrow room lined with books that ranged from Russian literature to intensive works documenting the history of Iraq and Karbala. There he would sit at his desk and write for hours and hours. He wrote quickly, and had a seemingly endless fount of stories in his mind. He was legendarily prolific: in a five year period he produced 30 novels. Four more are written—although they are yet unpublished.
In the afternoon he would bike to meet his oldest friends—authors, thinkers and poets—in one of Karbala’s outdoor cafés. Under faded green columns they smoked nargila and drank sweet Iraqi tea on what they fondly deemed the “sidewalk of culture.” It was in this café that he would talk politics with his friends and openly criticize the role of religion in Karbala, which is one of the holiest cities in the world for Shia Muslims and one where the Shia mullahs of Iran feel they have a special, even proprietary interest.
“Alaa was never silent, he never shut up, he spoke, he opposed Iran's presence in Karbala, he always criticized the Islamists' behavior in Karbala, the fundamentalists and religious men. Most of his literary work spoke to these things he witnessed in Karbala,” says his publisher al-Baghdadi.
Hassan, an old friend who only wanted to give his first name, suspects that it was Alaa’s influence on the neighborhood that made him into a threat. “He would gather some students, in the cafe where he used to sit—he would gather some students from the university and talk about secular and religious ideas,” says Hassan, “Maybe that was the reason why he was killed, because he criticized religions.”
Sitting in that same café Alaa’s oldest friends are at a loss.
“I talk about Alaa and I cry for Alaa and I hope that others cry for Alaa. Because his death was a terrible thing,” says Ibrahim al-Shubany. “I look to his place and I feel shocked that he is not there. He was our friend.” He and Alaa’s other friends sit in the same place they always sat. Al-Shubany, 55, wears a long black thobe and has a worn round face. Across from him sits Ali Kindali, 75, in a light blue suit. His hands shake with age and his voice quivers when he talks warmly of Alaa’s works. His eyes are wet.
“We would discuss philosophy, and history,” says Kindali.
When asked if Alaa’s death was a message, al-Shubany hesitates. But next to him, another friend, the 55-year-old Hassan al-Massoub, jumps in with a quick “Of course.” Al-Shubany shoots him a warning look, and says he’s not sure. He says he’s not sure who murdered Alaa, but across the table Kindali shifts and grumbles, “The militias,” he says, “It was the militias.”
Karbala is run by militias, explains Qasem. Some are political, some are religious, and some a mix of both. There are about five or six major ones. The biggest militias in Karbala are linked to political parties within the Iraqi parliament. The Badr Brigades are led by Haider al-Ameri, a parliament member and prominent Iraqi politician. The Sadr militias are led by their namesake, the mercurial cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the largest block in the parliament during last year’s elections.
Since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, they have been the major power players in Karbala. “We don't have Christian or Sunni militias here, or Kurdish. In Karbala there are Shia militias. This means these Shia militias, are controlled by Iran,” explains Qasem.
He says that the militia that he believes killed Alaa is linked to a political party and because of this the investigation into his death will be limited. “The investigation will go to a certain level, they will discover the men who killed him,” he says, “but the people who sent them to kill him will still exist in the country.”
“The government exists and doesn't exist,” he says bitterly, “They have their weapons, their actions and their spoils. But they do not exist for the people. If you leave this investigation in the hands of the Iraqis it will not lead to anything.”
Karbala is a small city with a population of around 700,000. It is a holy place because it was the scene of the ancient battle where Imam Hussein—the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad—was assassinated. It’s crowded with tall breathtaking shrines with golden domes and minarets covered in delicately detailed blue tiles where believers make pilgrimages every year to pay emotional tributes to Imam Hussein. The city is more conservative than Baghdad, women generally only wear the black abaya and the population is almost all Shia.
Alaa loved Karbala with all his soul. He dedicated several books to painting intricate portraits its history, legacy and people. He grew up poor with seven siblings in the same neighborhood where he died. “He was a man of feeling,” says his younger brother Ghanam. “He felt more strongly than the rest of us.”
Since 2003, Karbala, like the rest of Iraq has gone through enormous upheaval. When the Americans invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein, they created a government that was divided along sectarian lines. By 2006 Iraq was embroiled in a bloody civil war that ripped apart cities and gave greater, and greater powers to militia groups. As power was determined by sect, the groups generally divided along sectarian lines. Corruption grew into an epidemic. All that opened the way for conquests by the so-called Islamic State in the largely Sunni west of the country, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell in 2104.
Now, even though the war against ISIS ended in 2017, the deeper issues still remain. They were what Alaa fought against in his city. He didn’t just write. He participated in protests in Karbala that demanded an end to corruption and to sectarianism. His older brother Qasem was a leader in the protests and was imprisoned three times for his work in them.
“He was with me in the protests,” says Qasem, “but his pen was stronger than my voice. The pen can affect countries—inside Iraq, outside Iraq—while my voice was just inside Karbala. I was making demands of Karbala's government. The Doctor [Alaa] was making demands for the rights of Iraq.”
Qasem says he knows that politics were behind his brother’s murder. “The evidence is that not one party has denounced his death. We have around 50 parties. Not one party came forward. We went on television and said we want the religious men to denounce what happened with Alaa. Only the American Embassy denounced it.”
Alaa was never rich. It’s one of the reasons why people were baffled when they heard of his death. Killings in Iraq often have their root in money. But Alaa spent the first decades of his life as a taxi driver and fruit grocer, despite the fact that he had a doctorate. He did not publish books during Saddam’s reign.
“I asked him why you were silent during the days of Saddam?” says Hassan. “He said, ‘If I wrote anything I will be executed by Saddam Hussein. I will be brought to death.’” But during those years his friends say he read constantly, books ranging from Greek philosophy to the Russian classics. He had a deep love of Dostoevsky.
When he finally set his pen to paper, he was overflowing with 20 years of suppressed ideas. The books seemed to run endlessly from his pen, combining philosophy, religion and history. He wrote without boundaries his friends say. His brother Qasem thinks this was why he was assassinated.
“What the Doctor published in Iraq can mean death, definitely. He did not have any personal problems, where citizens killed citizens. He didn't have these,” he says.
There are unspoken red lines in Iraq. Everyone can criticize corruption—but not too specifically. Everyone can criticize sectarianism—but not the actions of certain leaders. Alaa never paid attention to those red lines, his friends say. He felt safe in his city, which he knew like the back of his hand and where he was beloved.
“He thought that because he was from Karbala city, ‘I won't be shot, I won't be executed by my childhood friends. They will not shoot their friend.’ But he was wrong,” says Hassan.
When Alaa was killed, Qasem says there were many witnesses. But no one would come forward. “These people are poor. Essentially there is very little work in Iraq, which means that people are afraid to get involved. They say, ‘I have children, I have a wife, I have a house and if I get involved maybe they will kill me.’”
He says he has a good idea of who sent the men to kill Alaa, but does not want to say until he has enough evidence. “Karbala is small, the militias are known,” says Qasem. “We know them. From the officials at the civil office to the military officials. We know them individually. We are the children of Karbala.”
But until he has evidence, Qasem does not want to name the party responsible. He says he will call when he breaks his silence.
He sits with three of Alaa’s sons in their father’s old office. Their faces are haunted and tired. But when asked if they are afraid, if they like their neighbors will remain silent each family member glances up sharply. “Never,” says Mostafa, “We will continue.”