Iraqi authorities investigating killing of popular TikTok star shot dead outside Baghdad home

BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities on Saturday were investigating the killing of a well-known social media influencer, who was shot by an armed motorcyclist in front of her home in central Baghdad.

Ghufran Mahdi Sawadi, known as Um Fahad or “mother of Fahad,” was popular on the social media sites TikTok and Instagram, where she posted videos of herself dancing to music and was followed by tens of thousands of users.

An Iraqi security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said that the assailant opened fire as Sawadi parked her Cadillac in front of her house on Friday, killing her, then took her phone and fled the scene.

The killing took place in Zayoona, the same neighborhood where a prominent Iraqi researcher and security expert Hisham al-Hashimi was gunned down in 2020. Before the U.S. invasion of 2003, the neighborhood was home to military leaders and considered a prestigious area in Baghdad. In recent years, many militia leaders have taken up residence there.

Sawadi isn’t the first prominent social media figure to be gunned down in central Baghdad. Last year, Noor Alsaffar or “Noor BM,” a transgender person with a large social media following, was also fatally shot in the city.

A neighbor of Sawadi who identified himself only by his nickname, Abu Adam or “father of Adam,” said he came out to the street after hearing two shots fired and saw “the car’s door open and she was lying on the steering wheel.”

“The woman who was with her (in the car) escaped, and security forces came and sealed off the entire area, and they took the victim’s body and towed her car,” he said.

In Iraq, the role of social media influencers has broadened from promoting beauty products and clothing to government projects and programs. Official government invitations classify these influencers as key business figures at sports, security and cultural gatherings.

Videos featuring a prominent influencer during the 93rd anniversary on Thursday of the Iraqi air force’s founding sparked a backlash, with many criticizing the Ministry of Defense for allowing them to record and publish videos from sensitive military sites. The ministry defended itself, saying that in the era of social media, like defense ministries worldwide, it uses influencers alongside traditional media to communicate with the public.

Last year, an Iraqi court sentenced Sawadi to six months in prison for posting several films and videos containing obscene statements and indecent public behavior on social media as part of a recent push by the Iraqi government to police morals.

Separately on Saturday, the Iraqi parliament passed an amendment to the country’s prostitution law — widely criticized by human rights groups — that would punish same-sex relations with a prison term ranging from 10 to 15 years. A previous version of the law would have imposed the death penalty.

The law also bans any organization that promotes “sexual deviancy,” imposing a sentence of at least seven years and a fine of no less than 10 million dinars (about $7,600).

The acting parliamentary speaker, Mohsen Al-Mandalawi, said in a statement that the vote was “a necessary step to protect the value structure of society” and to “protect our children from calls for moral depravity and homosexuality.”

Rasha Younes, a senior researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said the law’s passage “rubber-stamps Iraq’s appalling record of rights violations against LGBT people and is a serious blow to fundamental human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and association, privacy, equality, and nondiscrimination.”

A report released by the organization in 2022 accused armed groups in Iraq of abducting, raping, torturing, and killing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people with impunity and the Iraqi government of failing to hold perpetrators accountable.