The killers of a 20-year-old protester in Iraq have been unmasked as members of a pro-Iran militia group named “Thar Allah”, in the latest sign that Tehran is using proxies to expand its influence in the fragile nation.
Thousands returned to the streets of Iraq this week to mount protests against the Iraqi government, as they demanded an end to corruption and Iranian interference in their country.
But within hours of the protests resuming, a 20-year-old was shot dead in Basra and several others were injured by gunfire.
A source in the Iraqi protest movement said the youth was killed by fighters from the Thar Allah movement, which they described as a “new Shia militia” seeking to advance Iranian interests in Iraq.
A second source in Iraq said Thar Allah was an Iranian proxy with links to the regime's intelligence services, adding that the group was more like a "mafia" than a militia.
Little else is known about Thar Allah, which means "God's Revenge" in Arabic, though according to news website Al-Monitor it once fought against Saddam Hussein and has been dismantled and reactivated several times since the 1990s.
The group has a political wing with an office in Basra guarded by militiamen, who according to some reports responded with gunfire because protesters had tried to attack the building.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new prime minister who hopes to restore stability to Iraq, confirmed that the office was raided by security forces after the shooting.
“With direct oversight by Commander-in-Chief PM @MAKadhimi, Iraqi security forces today conducted a dawn raid on a building in Basra Province from which bullets were fired earlier at demonstrators, killing one protester and injuring others,” a spokesman said on the prime minister’s official Twitter account.
Five members of Thar Allah were arrested in the raid.
Iran has long been suspected of using proxy groups to export its values to neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, such as hostility to the United States.
Two other prominent groups accused of being proxies for Iran are Lebanon’s Hizbollah, which last month was designated a terrorist organisation by Germany, and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Several pro-Iran militias in Iraq have clashed violently with US forces. In March, the United States bombed a PMF base in retaliation for a rocket attack on Camp Taji.
On Tuesday Dominic Raab, welcomed Mr Khadimi’s appointment as prime minister.
“The UK is a committed partner of Iraq. I spoke to new Prime Minister @MAKadhim today to congratulate him and pledge to work with his government to tackle coronavirus, counter Daesh and support political and economic stability,” he wrote on Twitter.