BAGHDAD — Troops and patrols deployed throughout Baghdad on Sunday following the failed assassination attempt with drones that targeted Iraq’s prime minister in his residence. The attack significantly raised tensions, sparked by the refusal of Iran-backed militias to accept last month’s parliamentary election results.
Seven of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s security guards were wounded in the attack by at least two drones in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone area, according to two Iraqi officials. The two Iraqi officials said they spoke only on condition of anonymity as they are not allowed to speak publicly.
An aide claimed that Al-Kadhimi had a slight cut. A few days later, Al-Kadhimi was seen on Iraqi television. The man appeared to have a light cut and was sitting behind a desk.
“Cowardly rocket and drone attacks don’t build homelands and don’t build a future,” al-Kadhimi said during the television appearance. He met later with Barham Salih, the Iraqi president, and led a meeting of government security officials.
From the Green Zone which hosts foreign embassies as well as government offices, the sound of an explosion and gunfire was heard throughout Baghdad. Handout photos showed the damage to al-Kadhimi’s residence, including smashed windows and doors blown off their hinges.
A video distributed later by security forces showed more damage: A van parked outside the residence badly mangled, a shallow crater near the stairs, cracks in the ceiling and walls of a balcony and broken parts of the building’s roof. The scene also featured two small, unexploded rockets.
While there wasn’t any claim that the attackers were responsible, suspicion quickly fell upon Iran-backed militias for publicly attacking al Kadhimi. They have been previously accused of attacking the green zone.
This attack occurred amid tension between security forces, pro-Iran Shiite militias and their supporters who had been residing in the Green Zone for almost a month. They gathered after rejecting the results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections, in which they lost around two-thirds of their seats.
“The assassination attempt is a dramatic escalation, crossing a line in unprecedented fashion that may have violent reverberations,” wrote Ranj Alaaldin, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a post on Twitter.
Friday protests became deadly when some demonstrators attempted entry to the Green Zone. Live ammunition and tear gas were used by security forces. One protester associated with militias was shot and killed in an exchange of gunfire. Dozens were hurt by security forces. Al-Khadimi directed an investigation.
Some of the leaders of the most powerful militia factions loyal to Iran openly blamed al-Kadhimi for Friday’s clashes and the protester’s death. A large number of faction leaders who are also known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Shaabi (in Arabic) converged at the funeral Saturday for the protester.
“The blood of martyrs is to hold you accountable,” said Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, addressing al-Kadhimi in recorded comments to supporters. “The protesters only had one demand against fraud in elections. Responding (with live fire) means you are the first responsible for this fraud.”
On Sunday, several leaders of factions dismissed the attempted assassination, suggesting that it might have been staged.
Al-Khazali claimed that the militias had been framed, and demanded an investigation.
Other PMF leaders who condemned the attack blamed it on “third parties” seeking to incite strife.
In the strongest criticism of the prime minister, Abu Ali al-Askari, a senior leader with one of the most hardline pro-Iran militias, Kataib Hezbollah, questioned whether the assassination attempt was really al-Kadhimi’s effort to “play the role of the victim.”
“According to our confirmed information no one in Iraq has the desire to lose a drone on the residence” of al-Kadhimi, al-Askari wrote in a Twitter post. “If anyone wants to harm this Facebook creature there are many ways that are less costly and more effective to realize that.”
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, spokesman for al-Kadhimi and Iraq’s commander in chief, told the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV that the drone flew in from southeast Baghdad at low altitude and could not be detected by defensive systems.
Influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won the largest number of parliament seats in the Oct. 10 elections, denounced the “terrorist attack,” which he said seeks to return Iraq to the lawlessness and chaos of the past. While al-Sadr maintains good relations with Iran, he publicly opposes external interference in Iraq’s affairs.
Al-Kadhimi, 54, was Iraq’s former intelligence chief before becoming prime minister in May last year. He is considered by the militias to be close to the U.S., and has tried to balance between Iraq’s alliances with both the U.S. and Iran. He hosted several round of talks with regional foes Iran, Saudi Arabia and Baghdad prior to the election in an attempt to alleviate regional tensions.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh condemned the assassination attempt on al-Khadimi and indirectly blamed the U.S. He said in a briefing to be aware of “the conspiracies that target the security and progress of Iraq,” without elaborating.
Khatibzadeh said such incidents “are in the interests of those parties that have invaded the stability, security, independence and territorial integrity of Iraq over the past 18 years.”
The United States strongly condemns the attack.
“This apparent act of terrorism, which we strongly condemn, was directed at the heart of the Iraqi state,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Facebook called on all sides in Iraq to “calm down, renounce violence and join forces to preserve the country’s stability.”
El-Sissi, French President Emmanuel Macron; Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati were among leaders who called al-Kadhimi on Sunday.
Saudi Arabia issued a statement of support for stability in Iraq and said it strongly condemned the “cowardly terrorist attack.”
United States, U.N. Security Council, and other countries have all hailed the peaceful election. There were no significant technical issues and there was little violence.
However, militia supporters set up tents in the vicinity of the Green Zone after the election. They rejected the results and threatened violence if they didn’t get a recount.
Voter fraud claims that are not supported by evidence have cast shadows over the elections. The standoff with the militia supporters has also increased tensions among rival Shiite factions that could spill into violence and threaten Iraq’s newfound relative stability.
Due to massive protests held in late 2019 that saw thousands of people in Baghdad (mostly Shiite) rally against poverty, corruption and unemployment, elections were held several months before schedule. They also protested against the heavy-handed interference of neighboring Iran in Iraq’s affairs through Iran-backed militias.
The 2018 election saw them make big electoral gains and the militias have lost some of their popularity. Many hold them responsible for suppressing the 2019 protests, and for challenging the state’s authority.
Zeina Karam (Vienna), Sarah El Deeb (Beirut), Jon Gambrell and Aya batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Samy Mady in Cairo were all Associated Press reporters.