Investigations are currently underway in Iraq on who tried to kill Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on November 7. An explosive-laden drone struck at his residence in the heavily fortified Green Zone of Baghdad, but he emerged unharmed, tweeting just minutes later: “I am fine, among my people.” He described the operation as a “cowardly attack,” and later said that he knew who launched the attack but would not reveal names—at least for now.
Behind closed doors, some Iraqis are saying that the drone attack was a great PR stunt in Kadhimi’s favor, hinting that it might have been staged to boost his popularity. That remains no more than bazaar gossip, which is always ripe in Baghdad since such claims are usually based on zero evidence.
Kadhimi could definitely use a boost, to be sure, as parliamentarians debate whether to keep him in office for a second round now that his term has expired with the election of a new chamber of deputies in October. And if a popularity boost was what Kadhimi wanted, then he seems to have gotten it. Indeed, he received an outpouring of support from ordinary Iraqis as well as Arab states like the UAE and Tunisia — including the Arab League — and US President Joe Biden.
Khadimi received an outpouring of support from ordinary Iraqis and Arab states like the UAE and Tunisia — including the Arab League — and US President Joe Biden.
A closer look, however, reveals that the assassination attempt scheme runs much deeper and is far more complex than a PR stunt.
Among Iraqi Sunnis, fingers are pointing towards Iran-backed militias within the Shiite community, who are furious with Kadhimi for trying to strip them of their weapons and influence since coming to power in May 2020. When bringing Kadhimi to office last year, these militias and the political parties with which they are affiliated thought that he would be a weak premier whom they could easily manipulate. He wasn’t backed by a political party, after all, and was not allied with any of the major Shiite political families that have ruled Iraq since 2003. Additionally, apart from a brief stint as intelligence chief, he had no political experience.
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Kadhimi proved them wrong, first by promising to disarm these militias and monopolize weapons in the hands of the Iraqi military, and then by taking jabs at Kataib Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Both are Iran-backed and Iran-funded parties who control the streets, are armed to the teeth, and command a strong parliamentary majority.
Kataib Hezbollah was founded by Iran shortly after the US invasion of 2003, and it was modeled on its Lebanese namesake to fight the Americans in Iraq. The PMU, also known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, is more recent, having emerged in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). It takes credit for expelling ISIS from major Iraqi cities like Mosul and was recognized as a branch of the Iraqi Army during the era of Kadhimi’s predecessor, Adel Abdul Mehdi. Its officers and militiamen remained above the law, however, operating a state-within-a-state in Iraq.
Kadhimi had also promised accountability for the 600 Iraqis shot on the streets of Baghdad during what has since come to be known as the October Revolution of 2019. Many of the militiamen who had opened fire on the demonstrators during that fatal month and its aftermath were affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah and the PMU.
On June 25, 2020, Kadhimi ordered a raid on the offices of Kataib Hezbollah in a Baghdad suburb, confiscating crates of missiles that authorities claim were going to be used against US targets in Iraq. The group did not hide its intention to strike at the Americans, promising vengeance for its leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed with top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad back in January 2020. Soleimani was commander of Iran’s Qods Force, to which all these parties swore allegiance.
The militias claim that Kadhimi took no measures to avenge the Muhandis and Soleimani killings.
The militias claim that Kadhimi took no measures to avenge the Muhandis and Soleimani killings and pledged to take the law into their own hands in seeking revenge. Fourteen militiamen were arrested at the Prime Minister’s orders, prompting Kataib Hezbollah fighters to march towards his residence in Baghdad, threatening to unseat him by force if he did not retract his orders. Kadhimi bent to their pressure and had all the militiamen released by June 30.
Kataib Hezbollah never forgot that incident and came out with a statement this week, shortly after the failed murder, shedding no tears for the Prime Minister. Its leader Abu Ali al-Aksari said: “No one in Iraq has the desire to waste a drone on the house of a former prime minister.” The message was clear that the Iran-backed militia no longer considers him prime minister and it seems almost certain that he will not receive a second chance at the premiership.
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The same bad blood exists between Kadhimi and the PMU. Last May he ordered the arrest of one of its top commanders, Qassem Musleh, who was accused, among other things, of assassinating Iraqi activist Ihab Wazni and muzzling critics of Iran. Musleh was also charged with the repeated attacks against the Ayn al-Asad military base where US troops were stationed, using low-flying explosive-laden drones, identical to the ones used against Kadhimi’s residence on Sunday.
Again, PMU militiamen came out with a show of force, surrounding the Prime Minister’s office with rocket launchers and tanks, demanding the release of Musleh. By June 9, Kadhimi had no choice but to have him released. Hours after the assassination attempt on November 7, Iran’s Qods Force Commander and Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, landed in Baghdad and visited Kadhimi in a display of solidarity, trying to brush off all accusations that his proxies were responsible for the attack.
The list of Kadhimi’s opponents does not stop there, however. Also upset with the premier is the Fateh Alliance, a coalition of Iran-backed parties that campaigned for last October’s election under the slogan “Al-Aqd al-Watani” (The National Covenant). In addition to the PMU and Kataib Hezbollah, this alliance includes the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Imam Ali. Its leader Hadi al-Amiri is also commander of the Badr militias, founded by Iran to fight Saddam Hussein’s army back in the 1980s.
During the post-Saddam era, the Fateh Alliance frequently controlled the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, which they used to settle old scores with the Baathists, Sunni Muslim community leaders, and fellow Shiites who did not adhere to their political program. These groups had all collectively voted for Kadhimi back in May 2020, only to discover that prime on his agenda was a campaign to disarm them.
We might never know who ordered the drones, since similar attacks have been allowed to pass before with no accountability.
During the parliamentary elections of 2018, they had won a sweeping 48 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, which they were planning to double last October after returning to parliament. High on their agenda was the unseating of Kadhimi. But election results were not in their favor, as their parliamentary standing dropped from 48 to 20. Badr’s share was slashed from 22 to 5 MPs while the PMU got no more than 5 seats, explaining why Hadi al-Amiri called the elections a fraud and demanded a recount. Kadhimi has defended the election results, triggering street confrontations between his supporters and those of Amiri, just days before the failed attack.
We might never know who ordered the drones, since similar attacks have been allowed to pass before with no accountability. In April 2005, unidentified militias tried to kill then-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi with a suicide bomb and in November 2011, a bomb exploded near Iraq’s Parliament, aimed at killing Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki. More recently in April 2014, militiamen dressed as soldiers tried to kill Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq in the Abu Graib area, west of Baghdad.
None of these crimes were accounted for, and they were often blamed on easy targets, either remains of Saddam Hussein’s regime or on al-Qaeda or ISIS. Furthermore, all of the region’s security services have agents in Iraq that are able and willing to stage similar operations. Iran is just one of them. Unless there is an international investigation into the failed assassination of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, it too might sink into oblivion, just like all of Iraq’s past plotted assassination attempts.