Iraqi PM survives assassination attempt, ramping up tensions

FAN Editor

Seven of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s security guards were wounded in the attack by at least two armed drones in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone area, according to two Iraqi officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give official statements.

Al-Kadhimi was unharmed. He later appeared on Iraqi television, seated behind a desk in a white shirt, looking calm and composed. His left hand appeared to be wrapped in a bandage. An aide confirmed a light cut.

“Cowardly rocket and drone attacks don’t build homelands and don’t build a future,” he said. Later on Sunday, he received Iraqi President Barham Salih and headed a government security meeting.

Residents of Baghdad heard the sound of an explosion followed by heavy gunfire from the direction of the Green Zone, which houses foreign embassies and government offices. Handout photos showed the damage in al-Kadhimi’s residence, including smashed windows and doors blown off their hinges.

There was no claim for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on Iran-backed militias who had been publicly attacking al-Kadhimi and issuing threats. It came amid a stand-off between security forces and the pro-Iran Shiite militias whose supporters have been camped outside the Green Zone for nearly a month. They gathered after rejecting the results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections, in which they lost around two-thirds of their seats.

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.

“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.

Protests turned deadly Friday when the demonstrators tried to enter the Green Zone. Security forces used tear gas and live ammunition. There was an exchange of fire in which one protester affiliated with the militias was killed. Dozens of security forces were injured. Al-Khadimi ordered an investigation to determine what sparked the clashes and who violated orders not to open fire.

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.

“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.”

A funeral for the protester Saturday was attended by leaders of the mostly Shiite Iran-backed factions who together are known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic.

Al-Khazali, in a statement Sunday, suggested the militias were being framed, calling for an investigation and for the punishment of the perpetrators.

Other PMF leaders also condemned the attack, blaming it on “third parties” seeking to incite strife.

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. Prior to the elections, he hosted several rounds of talks between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad in a bid to ease regional tensions.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh in a briefing Sunday condemned the assassination attempt on al-Khadimi and indirectly blamed the U.S. He said 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 U.S. strongly denounced 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 also condemned the assassination attempt. Writing on Facebook, he 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 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 that targeted Iraq’s prime minister.”

The United States, the U.N. Security Council and others have praised the Oct. 10 election, which was mostly violence-free and without major technical glitches.

But following the vote, militia supporters pitched tents near the Green Zone, rejecting the election results and threatening violence unless their demands for a recount were met.

The unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud have cast a shadow over the vote. 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.

The election was held months ahead of schedule in response to mass protests in late 2019, which saw tens of thousands in Baghdad and predominantly Shiite southern provinces rally against endemic corruption, poor services and unemployment. They also protested against the heavy-handed interference of neighboring Iran in Iraq’s affairs through Iran-backed militias.

The militias lost some popularity since the 2018 vote, when they made big election gains. Many hold them responsible for suppressing the 2019 protests, and for challenging the state’s authority.

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Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Vienna, Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Jon Gambrell and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.

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