For many Iraqis, the attempted killing of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi this week crystallised everything they have come to expect from their dysfunctional political system. In a country where militias routinely abduct and kill opponents and enjoy impunity for their crimes, no one is immune from lawlessness, not even the head of government.
But with the country now embroiled in one of its worst crises ever over allegations of electoral fraud and suffering from growing terrorist attacks by the Islamic State (IS) group, even a botched assassination attempt on the life of the prime minister could trigger widespread politico-ethno-religious violence.
Al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt with an explosives-laden drone that targeted his residence in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone overlooking the Tigris River early on Sunday, and he immediately appeared on social media to declare he was unharmed.
“Thank God, I am fine and among my people,” he tweeted on his official account.
“I was, and still am, a redemption project for Iraq and the people of Iraq. The missiles of treachery will not discourage the believers and will not shake a hair of the stability and determination of our heroic security forces to preserve people’s security, achieve justice and put the law in its proper place,” he tweeted.
While Al-Kadhimi appeared unharmed and in good health in a later video addressing the nation, several members of his security detail were reportedly wounded in the attack. Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior said that three drones were used, including two that were intercepted and downed by security forces, while a third drone hit Al-Kadhimi’s residence.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but a statement by the Iraqi cabinet blamed “criminal armed groups that have encroached on the state and its symbols” for an attack that ramped up tensions sparked by the refusal of Iran-backed militias to accept last month’s parliamentary election results.
The attack drew widespread condemnation both at home and abroad. Iraqi President Burham Salih called it a “dangerous transgression,” and the country’s political leaders joined forces to denounce it as a serious escalation. Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sadrist Movement gained most of the seats in parliament in October’s elections, described the attack as “an act of terrorism” and called on the army “to take charge of the matter”.
International condemnation was also swift and robust. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “strongly condemned” the assassination attempt, and EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell said the group “strongly condemns the assassination attempt” against Al-Kadhimi, adding that the perpetrators must be held accountable.
Leaders from the US, Europe and the Arab world expressed their dismay at the assassination attempt and voiced support for Al-Kadhimi, some in telephone conversations with the Iraqi leader. US President Joe Biden promised “all appropriate assistance to Iraq’s security forces” to help in investigating the attack and identifying those responsible.
Insinuations by Al-Kadhimi that they might have been behind the attack on his residence drew the ire of leaders of Iraq’s Iran-backed militias whose leaders have threatened him in the past with assassination, including most recently after violence between their supporters and the police over the disputed results of the elections.
Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, a militia group among those that lost seats in the parliamentary elections, called the attack an attempt to divert attention from the deadly clashes outside the Green Zone on Friday and blamed foreign intelligence agencies.
Kataib Hizbullah, another Iran-backed militia, also dismissed suggestions that the group was behind the attack. Spokesman Abu Ali Al-Askari accused Al-Kadhimi of “playing the role of victim” and said that no one in Iraq considered the Iraqi leader’s home worth losing a drone over.
“If there is anyone who wants to harm this Facebook creature, there are many ways that are less costly and more guaranteed to achieve it,” he said in a posting on Telegram.
Official Iranian reactions to the attack were meant to deflect blame from the Islamic Republic and point the finger at unidentified parties. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh condemned the attack and stressed Tehran’s support for peace and stability in Iraq.
Iranian National Security Chief Ali Shamkhani, who was quick to react to the news in an early morning tweet, accused “foreign think tanks” of being behind the attack. He condemned the attack, calling it “a new sedition.”
While the attack has raised fears of growing instability amid the continuing political turmoil in Iraq, people seemed to be generally shrugging it off. Life remained as normal after the attack, though more troops and tanks were deployed around Baghdad’s main intersections.
As supporters of Al-Kadhimi and his detractors exchanged contradictory responses, many Iraqis, including politicians, went on social media to question the account given of the failed assassination attempt or to describe it as theatrical or laced with political messaging.
Former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi cast doubt on the attack, which he described as “dubious” and a “card trick”.
Multiple questions remain, however, about who was behind the attack and whether it was an assassination attempt or merely a political message and what could have been the motive in wanting to get rid of Al-Kadhimi.
There is not sufficient evidence to determine who was involved in the attack or to explain its motives.
Al-Kadhimi has been threatened before by the leaders of the most powerful militias loyal to Iran, who blamed him for the assassinations of Iranian military leader Qassem Al-Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in US drone strikes in January 2020.
As recently as last week, some of these militia leaders accused Al-Kadhimi of being behind the clashes between their supporters and the security forces when the latter tried to storm the Green Zone to protest against the deaths of two of their members.
Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia, said his group held Al-Kadhimi accountable for the deaths and vowed revenge. Abu Alaa Al-Walaee, commander of the Kataib Sayyid Al-Shuhada militia, tweeted that Al-Kadhimi should now “forget about a second term.”
Sabreen, an Iraqi social-media outlet used by the militias to post their news and statements, went as far as to threaten Al-Kadhimi with assassination. In a post on Instagram, the outlet administrators admitted the killings of three officers in Iraq’s Intelligence Agency, which is headed by Al-Kadhimi.
There are fears that the long-feared confrontation between Iraq’s unruly pro-Iran militias and the Iraqi government has now come out into the open. If the aphorism that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is apt in Al-Kadhimi’s case, he might stop acting as a near-martyr and seize the opportunity to outlast a politically wounded opposition that has lost more than three quarters of its seats in the upcoming parliament.
Since he took office last year, Al-Kadhimi has resorted to a low-level confrontation strategy with the militias that has sometimes amounted to appeasement in the hope of avoiding a military struggle. Meanwhile, the armed groups have taken advantage of a declining state in which power is mingled with corruption to boost their own power bases and challenge the prime minister.
The brazen attack on Al-Kadhimi’s residence and the unprecedented escalation between him and the Iran-backed militant groups that have been trying to storm the Green Zone and overturn last month’s election results now provide the Iraqi leader with an opportunity to outmanoeuvre the militias and even to tear them apart.
However, Al-Kadhimi seems to be more focused on winning a second term in office, with this having been boosted by the assassination attempt. But many analysts believe he is unlikely to take bold steps to shred the militias’ political and military muscles once and for all.
It is true that such a project would need the backing of key Shia religious and political leaders and groups and that these are not keen to undermine the Shia united front. But it would be self-defeating were Al-Kadhimi to continue to be seen as a leader whose hand is unsteady on the rudder of the ship of state, even if this does help him to win a second term in office.