Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Wave of Anger at Killing of Hamas Chief

Anti-Coalition Sunni heartland sees biggest protests, but Shia protestors also call for retribution.
By Naser Kadhem

Iraq has witnessed nearly a week of demonstrations following the March 22 assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder and leading figure of the Hamas movement, in an Israeli air attack, with both Sunni and Shia protestors calling for retaliation.


Protestors in many Sunni towns compared the Palestinians’ campaign for independence to the anti-Coalition insurgency, while angry Shia recalled revered clerics killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.


The largest demonstrations were reported in the Sunni communities known as hotbeds of the resistance – the towns of Samarra, Falluja and Ramadi, and in Baghdad's al-Adhamiya neighbourhood.


A demonstration in Samarra on March 23 heard calls for retaliation against the Israelis for the attack on Yassin. "All the Arab countries must ask for jihad.… Israel has committed an ugly act, but the reaction will be stronger," said 17-year old student Mushatak Hussein.


Banners held aloft by protestors – most of them young – carried messages such as "Eternity and glory for the martyr", "You will remain the spiritual leader for the Hamas movement and the Arab nation", and "No to Israel, yes to peace".


In al-Adhamiya, demonstrators said Israel's attack would strengthen Arab unity, and called for retribution.


"The Arab nation must ask for jihad, because what is happening now in Iraq, in Palestine and in other Arab countries deserves jihad," said local Sunni cleric Mohammed Jumaa.


Hundreds of demonstrators also turned out in Shia areas – in the holy city of Karbala, and at the shrine of al-Kadhemiya in Baghdad – following denunciations of the attack issued by several senior Shia scholars, including Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.


Yassin's assassination was a "repulsive criminal act", Sistani said in a statement released on his website. He called on Arabs and Muslims to "consolidate their ranks and unify their word and work diligently to liberate the seized [Palestinian] land and reinstate the stolen rights".


Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Shia-led Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said Yassin's killing "will make us all reconsider our positions with regard to resisting the Zionists. It will also urge us to strengthen our unity, to know our enemies, and to stand beside the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause."


Iraqis – particularly Shia – used to voice occasional resentment against Palestinians living in Iraq, some of whom received preferential treatment from Saddam’s government. Others complained that the Arab world focused attention on the Palestinian issue while ignoring repression in Iraq.


But few such sentiments were expressed on the streets in the days that followed Yassin's death.


For some Shia, the death of the 67-year old cleric evoked memories of their own venerated clerical martyrs. Demonstrators compared Yassin to Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, murdered by the Saddam regime in 1981, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, assassinated by presumed Baathist agents in 1999, and Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who died in an August 2003 car bombing in Najaf.


In al-Kadhemiya, where demonstrators carried a symbolic coffin for Yassin, protestor Ali al-Hasani declared that "all the [Muslim] clerics in the world are exposed to assassination, and we are afraid that one day that Iraqi clerics who have rejected the presence of occupiers or who have opposed dealing with Israel will become targets."


The death of Yassin was also the topic of Friday sermons in both Sunni and Shia mosques on March 26. In the southern town of Kufa, radical preacher Muqtada al-Sadr – son of the much-respected Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr – accused the United States of complicity in the killings, and claimed that the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington were divine retribution for America's wicked ways.


"They have planned and paved the way for a long time,” said Sadr, “but it is God who is the real planner – and the fall of the American twin towers is the proof of this."


Naser Kadhem and Wisam al-Jaff are trainee journalists with IWPR in Baghdad.