AFP is reporting that Ali al-Lami--the head of a committee charged with weeding out elements of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from Iraqi politics in a process known as "De-Baathification"--was assassinated in east Baghdad late on Thursday by insurgents using silenced pistols. The assassins followed al-Lami (pictured in a campaign poster above) and his brother in a car while they were driving home before intercepting them.
The circumstances of al-Lami's death suggest that the incident may be part of an alarming new wave of assassinations of Iraqi government, police, and military officials, as insurgents jockey for power just months before the U.S. is scheduled to withdraw from the country. Early this month, The Washington Post noted that there were 50 targeted killings in April--more than double the average in recent months. The killers are generally gunmen using silenced weapons (like al-Lami's) and occasionally masked men on motorbikes who place magnetic "sticky bombs" on motorcades. "The assassins strike quietly," the Post wrote, "often just after dark, as Iraq's political and military leaders speed home surrounded by armed guards."
While assassinations aren't new in Iraq, the Post added, this latest series of killings is "shaking Iraqis' confidence in their government's ability to protect them" and raising serious questions about the country's security. The AFP hasn't yet elaborated on who the "insurgents" were who killed al-Lami, and there's a debate about who is behind the broader trend of targeted killings. Iraqi officials told the Post that Sunni extremists, including al-Qaeda in Iraq and former Baath Party members, are behind the murders. But two weeks after the Post's report, Reuters ran a story citing Iraqi security officials as saying that the killings had been carried out by Shiite groups concerned about the Baath Party returning to power. Al-Lami was a Shiite, and a spokesman for Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi speculated to the AP today that al-Lami was killed by Baath Party loyalists. Either way, the trend has gotten so bad that Iraq's Interior Ministry has issued a pamphlet to governments workers explaining how they can avoid getting killed, according to Reuters. Officials should "forego daily habits and routines, rent houses close to work, avoid deserted roads and dangerous areas, do security checks on bodyguards and get self-defense training."
Back in 2010, al-Lami's Justice and Accountability Commission barred several hundred Sunni candidates from participating in Iraq's parliamentary elections because of their alleged ties to the Baath Party, even while al-Lami himself ran for parliament (unsuccessfully). AFP explains that the controversy "over the bans and the apparent conflict of interest dominated the election campaign" and stirred political tensions in a country that had recently emerged from severe sectarian violence.