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'Killing words': Anguish after Iraqi novelist shot dead in Karbala

Assailants on motorcycle shot Alaa Mashzoub with 13 bullets in front of his house and fled the crime scene, say police
Mashzoub was well known in Karbala and wrote several novels and short story collections that won local and regional literary awards (Screengrab)

Friends, family and literary organisations lamented the death of an Iraqi novelist and activist after an anonymous assailant shot him in front of his house in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala, according to reports.

Alaa Mashzoub, 51,  had published 20 books, including novels and short stories that capture life in his city, a destination for millions of Shia pilgrims who flock to visit the Al-Hussein shrine during the yearly religious festival.

Mashzoub is a father of four children and was an active intellectual among the Iraqi literary circles. 

His killing on Saturday, 2 February, by motorcycle gunmen in front of his home caused anger and frustration in Iraq's cultural scene. The number of assailants was not known.

'You really have to be a coward to fire a gun at someone who only has words and dreams'

- Ahmed Saadawi, Iraqi novelist

Iraqi police said it was unclear what the motive was and no group has claimed responsibility.

"This is killing words - free, honest and beautiful words," fellow writer Ali Lefta Said told AFP, in reaction to the murder.

His brother, Qassim, told the Associated Press that Mashzoub in his writings "spoke out against corruption and criticised neighbouring countries for their intervention in Iraqi affairs. Everyone knows Iran and Turkey are present in Iraq, this is not a secret."

On Sunday, intellectuals and artists from Karbala, which is around 100 kilometres south of Baghdad, staged a sit-in.

Men carried Mashzoub's coffin, draped in an Iraqi flag, along a busy main road in Karbala and others waved banners calling him a "martyr".

Ahmed Saadawi - whose novel Frankenstein in Baghdad has scored success beyond Iraq's borders - hit out at the culprits on his Facebook page.

"You really have to be a coward to fire a gun at someone who only has words and dreams," he wrote in a Facebook post.

"Shame on the murderers - and shame on the authorities, if they don't find and judge them immediately."

Last summer, the death of four high-profile Iraqi women, including model and social media star Tara Fares, whose fatal shooting was caught on camera, sparked anger.

Official investigations into those deaths have failed to yield convictions or any significant leads into who carried out the attacks.