The Iraq Report: Botched assassination sparks fears of chaos

kadhimi basra
5 min read
10 November, 2021
While the prime minister emerged unscathed, the attack itself has been viewed as a deadly message designed to re-establish Shia militia dominance after they were trounced in elections.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has survived an attempt on his life after suspected Shia militias launched a drone strike on his official residence in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad early on Sunday morning.

While the prime minister emerged unscathed and later gave a public address decrying the attack and calling for dialogue, the attack itself has been viewed as a deadly message designed to re-establish Shia militia dominance after they were trounced in last month’s elections.

Meanwhile, the winner of the largest number of seats in the highly unpopular vote, Moqtada al-Sadr, continues in his attempts to consolidate his power. However, he does not have enough seats to rule alone, and has yet to clinch any deals which could usher in a government dominated by him and his allies.

"Shia militia groups are unwilling to wait another four years to win the changes they want via the ballot box, but will instead resort to force or the threat of force to extract concessions"

Kadhimi survives explosive drone attack

In the early hours of Sunday morning, three explosives-laden drones flew into Baghdad’s supposedly heavily fortified Green Zone on a collision course with the prime minister’s official residence. While two of the drones were shot down by Prime Minister Kadhimi’s detail, one of them managed to get through and wounded members of the security forces and caused damage to the residence.

However, Kadhimi himself escaped unharmed, and later tweeted a short video address to the nation denouncing the attack and stating that “cowardly rocket and drone attacks do not build homelands or futures”, while simultaneously calling for calm and dialogue.

The Iraqi premier did not indicate who he thought was responsible for the assassination attempt, and no group has yet claimed responsibility.

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However, analysts and experts have indicated that it is almost guaranteed that the attacks were planned by Shia militias linked to Iran, specifically those connected to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), known as the Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic.

The PMF was formed after an edict issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in response to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group in 2014, gathering dozens of mostly pro-Iran Shia militant groups. Since then, the PMF has expanded and has gained formal recognition as a branch of the Iraqi armed forces.

Like most Iraqi organisations and institutions, however, the PMF are not politically neutral, nor do they take orders from their commander-in-chief, the Iraqi prime minister. Instead, they have been known to deploy in Syria on the side of the Assad regime and under the command of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Following the October elections – where PMF linked parties lost a lot of seats to Sadr’s Sairoun Coalition of working-class Shia and communists – all Shia Islamist factions aside from Sadr denounced the vote as fraudulent. This added to the scandal of the already historically low turnout of 41 percent, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the elections.

In response, many of the militias organised protests and demonstrations in Baghdad that turned violent, including late last week. This caused senior militant commanders such as Qais al-Khazali – leader of the sectarian Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia – to openly threaten to punish Kadhimi on Saturday and to hold him responsible for the deaths of demonstrators loyal to his cause.

An Iraqi protester gestures the v-sign during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment at Tayaran square in Baghdad on October 2, 2019. [Getty]
The PMF and other allied Shia militias close to Iran have already shown a great propensity for violence. [Getty]

It would now appear that Khazali’s threat was followed through, either by his group or an allied organisation.

Only a few groups and organisations in Iraq field and operate drones. While IS has been known to deploy low-cost, primitive suicide drones packed with explosives that are flown into targets, there is no suggestion that the militant group is behind the attack.

Similarly, reports indicate that the drones used are not sophisticated, which largely rules out state actors such as the United States and the anti-IS coalition forces still on the ground, as well as Turkey which fields highly sophisticated autonomous weapons platforms.

This leaves the Shia militias, many of whom, like the Houthis in Yemen, enjoy logistical and military support from Iran, including the use of cheap and easy to operate drones. These are the same groups that have also launched drone attacks on Erbil International Airport or Ain al-Assad Airbase, believed to have been ordered by the IRGC.

While it is unclear if the IRGC ordered the attack, it could be a rogue element that was afraid it would lose the privileges and financial lifelines that come with election to public office in Iraq’s corrupt political system.

"Militant groups are more than willing to instigate the kind of chaos that could lead to a civil war and a total unravelling of the Iraqi state"

Political horse-trading takes on deadly proportions

What is clear is that these Shia militia groups are unwilling to wait another four years to win the changes they want via the ballot box, but will instead resort to force or the threat of force to extract concessions.

As part of the newly founded Shia cooperation framework – an ad hoc group of Shia Islamists angry at the election results – many parties have vowed not to accept the results of the election.

However, as International Crisis Group’s senior Iraq analyst, Lahib Higel, tweeted, the various angry Shia factions have not been united in how they intend to oppose the election results.

While some like former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim have decided to open channels of negotiations with Sadr to carve out their own sphere of influence, others have decided to hold protests or to attack Turkish military positions.

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In addition to the assassination attempt, this could be for the sole purpose of instigating chaos and instability in Iraq to force the authorities to accede to their demands of a greater role in public office.

These threats of violence must be taken seriously. The PMF and other allied Shia militias close to Iran have already shown a great propensity for violence.

In the name of fighting IS, they orchestrated sectarian cleansing campaigns against the Sunni Arab population, and continue to be involved in violence against Sunnis including late last month in the eastern Diyala governorate.

It is therefore highly likely that militant groups that are willing to raze entire cities, deport populations into displacement camps, and commit atrocities against unarmed civilians of another sect are more than willing to instigate the kind of chaos that could lead to a civil war and a total unravelling of the Iraqi state.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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The Iraq Report