The murder of a prominent Iraqi journalist at a Baghdad checkpoint has heightened fears of ethnic tensions in the country, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad
Last Saturday, a presidential guard shot dead a senior Iraqi journalist during an argument in Baghdad and then fled, briefly sparking a standoff in which Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki demanded that he be handed over to the authorities.
According to official statements, Mohamed Bdaiwi Al-Shimmari, a professor of media studies at the Al-Mustansiriya University and Baghdad bureau chief of Radio Free Iraq, was shot dead close to a checkpoint that leads to the presidential complex in the upscale Jadriyah neighbourhood of the capital, an area where high-ranking members of the former Saddam regime used to live.
The reports said that Al-Shimmari had been on his way to his bureau inside the compound when the incident happened. He was stopped by the security forces despite wearing his badge, but why there was an argument and why he was shot dead is not known.
An eyewitness said in a TV interview that Al-Shimmari had been stopped and “one of the presidential guards put a pistol against his head and shot him in cold blood.” A journalist at Radio Free Iraq, who declined to be identified, was quoted as saying that “the peshmerga captain killed him after he stopped him from getting into the compound.”
As soon as the news of the killing was made public, hundreds of Al-Shimmari’s colleagues, friends, and students, many of them senior journalists or senior officials in the Iraqi government, came to the scene of the crime to pay their respects to the dead man.
The family of the victim refused to evacuate the dead body of the victim unless the killer was arrested first. Hundreds of Iraqis began publishing photographs of the victim lying in the street in the midst of blood on Facebook and Twitter, many of them demanding the arrest of his killer and that he be sentenced to death.
The dead body remained at the scene for five hours, and then it was announced that First Lieutenant Ahmed Ibrahim, believed to be the killer, had been arrested. By sunset, dozens of journalists were at the scene bearing candles.
Hadi Maree Jalou of the Iraqi Journalism Observatory, an NGO, said in an interview with Al-Fayhaa TV that “the peshmerga should leave Baghdad, and the Kurds in Baghdad should be dealt with in the same way the Kurds deal with the Arabs in Erbil.”
“Iraqi Arabs cannot enter Erbil without having an official permit from the checkpoint linked to the regional police and cannot live in Erbil without an official residential permit, while the Kurds are free to enter Baghdad and live there.”
However, despite such comments many Iraqis have refused to see the crime as a confrontation between Arabs and Kurds, though slogans appeared on the cement barriers at the scene saying “down with the Kurds.” Some have demanded that the killer should be sentenced according to Article 4 of the relevant law that deals with terrorists.
The Peshmerga Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying that the accused officer was not from the peshmerga, but was affiliated to the Federal Defence Ministry. Many Kurdish officials, while condemning the incident, have asked that it should not be used against the Kurds because it was a personal act and the accused has been taken into custody in Baghdad.
The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG) for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, learned with shock and dismay about the murder. “I strongly condemn this despicable crime and extend my condolences to the bereaved family of the victim, the media and the academic community and to the colleagues and friends of Mr Bdaiwi,” Mladenov said.
“The Iraqi authorities have reacted swiftly to obtain the surrender of the culprit. It is now up to the judiciary to prosecute him and to hold him accountable before the law,” he added, calling on the government “to do all it can to ensure that security forces personnel strictly abide by their rules of engagement for the protection of civilians, so that such tragic events do not happen in the future.”
“Circumstantial evidence indicates a random killing. However, this tragedy again highlights the vulnerability of people performing their duties in the media profession under the deteriorating security conditions of Iraq,” Mladenov said.
Journalists who returned to the scene of the crime after the funeral of Al-Shimmari demanded that the government take steps towards protecting them since more than 360 Iraqi journalists have been killed in the country since April 2003.
The well-known Iraqi novelist Warid Badr Al-Salim said that “our friend Mohamed was killed by a presidential guard of an unexciting president,” recalling the chaos that had reigned in the country after the US-led invasion in 2003 and establishing the power-sharing system that was responsible for the ongoing violence.