Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt on November 7, 2021 when three explosives-laden drones targeted his residence in the heavily fortified Green Zone of Baghdad. Security forces shot down two drones while the third one struck the building, causing some damage and injuring some of Al-Kadhimi’s bodyguards. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack as of November 11.
The Iraqi authorities have opened an investigation to identify the launching point of the drones and to determine who was behind the attack. Regardless of the results of the investigation, the failed attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces raises many issues and questions about the future of the political and security situation in Iraq. These are particularly significant in the context of the outcome of the parliamentary elections held on October 10, 2021.
This paper aims to analyze the implications of the assassination attempt, related political and security circumstances and its likely impact, especially with regard to the relations between the state and pro-Iran armed factions known as loyalist factions or “Loyalist Mobilization”. These factions, especially “Hezbollah Battalions” and “League of the Righteous” are the dominant within the “Popular Mobilization Forces” which are legally part of the Iraqi Armed Forces.
There are many obstructions to the formation of a new government due to the bickering over the election results and disagreement on identifying which coalition has the largest bloc in parliament. Given these complications and contentions, some people suggest the possibility of choosing Al-Kadhimi again as a consensual candidate in order to overcome the state of heated political polarization over election results.
Thus, the assassination attempt also aimed to block the possibility of a second term for Al-Kadhimi as prime minister, or at least to send a message to Al-Kadhimi and other political elites in Iraq. The perpetrators of the drone attack wanted to prove their capability to strike the head of the government inside the high-security Green Zone, implying that they can easily strike against any other political opponents anywhere in Iraq.
However, several months ago, these groups started to use explosives-laden drones in their attacks. The use of drones to target the Green Zone has become a serious challenge to the Iraqi security authorities, as it has become easy for armed non-state actors to acquire these drones and deploy them, while it is difficult for conventional air defense systems to shoot down small-sized drones flying at low altitudes.
The “League of the Righteous” described the assassination attempt as something that was fabricated in order to distract public opinion and cover up the crimes of shooting the protesters who rejected the election results. Some loyalist factions accused a third party of involvement in the assassination attempt with a view to sowing sedition in the country, and called on relevant authorities to investigate the issue. This is in line with Iran’s position, which accused foreign parties of being behind the attempt. Even when some loyalist factions condemned the assassination attempt, their condemnation was conditional. For example, the leader of the “League of Righteous”, Qais Al-Khazali, condemned the attempt, but demanded the formation of a neutral committee to investigate the incident.
In general, the purpose of the visit was to try to contain the repercussions of what happened and clear Iran, even as the reported accusations point to the involvement of an armed group loyal to Iran in the assassination attempt. The fact that the drones used in the attack are Iranian-made adds weight to such reports. It is known that Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force, played a key role in establishing Iraq’s pro-Iran loyalist factions, supporting them with money and weapons, and supervising the training of their fighters in order to be used for strengthening Iranian influence inside Iraq.
The attempt to assassinate the Iraqi Prime Minister came in the backdrop of a political and security environment that is characterized by tension and congestion.
First, let us consider the dispute over the results of the legislative elections. Following the announcement of the results of the legislative elections, the Fatah Alliance led by Hadi Al-Amiri, and other forces that participated in the elections, announced their rejection of the results on the pretext of fraud and manipulation of votes. They demanded that the process of counting and sorting of all ballot boxes be repeated manually, or that the elections be cancelled and repeated. The Fatah Alliance obtained only 17 seats, compared with the 47 seats it had obtained in the previous elections in 2018. That result had enabled it to be the second largest bloc in Parliament, next to the Sairoon Alliance led by Muqtada Al-Sadr which won 54 seats.
The Fatah Alliance brings together political forces and wings affiliated with the pro-Iran Hashd (Mobilization) factions. Some of those factions issued threats to use force to prevent the election results from being passed, ignoring the fact that the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) had decided to manually recount some of the ballot boxes in response to electoral appeals. Supporters of the pro-Iran loyalist factions staged an open sit-in protest in front of some of the heavily-fortified Green Zone gates, and began threatening to storm the area to reject the election results as well as the results of the examination of appeals by the Electoral Commission.
Secondly, the attempt to assassinate Al-Kadhimi took place one day after confrontations erupted between the security forces and demonstrators in support of the Loyalist Mobilization factions, especially the Hezbollah Battalions and the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (League of the Righteous). The confrontations took place after the demonstrators tried to storm the Green Zone as threatened earlier. Those confrontations resulted in deaths and injuries among the demonstrators. The Prime Minister formed a high-level investigation committee to determine which sections of the military was involved in shooting the demonstrators. He also formed a military team with the participation of several security agencies, including the Popular Mobilization Security Department in order to secure the sit-in tents that were re-erected by the protesters against the election results.
However, the confrontations between the security forces and the demonstrators heightened the tension in the relationship between the Prime Minister and the pro-Iran factions. Some of the factions engaged in sharp criticism of the Prime Minister, to the extent of accusing him of being involved in issuing orders to shoot the demonstrators. This was accompanied by a systematic campaign of incitement against him.
For example, the Secretary-General of Kataeb Sayyid Al-Shuhada (Master of Martyrs Battalions) Abu Ala’ Al-Wala’i attacked Al-Kadhimi, writing: “I tell you (meaning Al-Kadhimi): You have to forget two things: first, repeating the farce of renewing your premiership, and second, you will not even be returned to your previous position (Director of the Intelligence Service)”. Hezbollah Battalions also issued a statement sharply criticizing Al-Kadhimi: “The issuance of orders to shoot unarmed demonstrators and shed the blood of innocent people in the arena of peaceful protest demonstrates the brutality of Al-Kadhimi and his team. This clearly reflects his tyranny and that of those that stand behind him . . . Al-Kadhimi’s criminal behavior towards our dear people began with the policies of starvation and corruption, and now it ends with repression and killing, all of which are manifestations of abuse of power.” Some leaders of the loyalist factions also demanded the trial of Al-Kadhimi, and even avenging the blood of the martyrs.
As the election results were a blow to the Fatah Alliance led by Al-Amiri, they accused Al-Kadhimi of being involved in rigging the elections on behalf of certain forces. For example, Abu Ali Al-Askari, the security official of the Hezbollah Battalions, accused Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and members of the Iraqi intelligence apparatus of manipulating the election results. He said: “We now know for certain that the godfather of rigging the Iraqi elections is the Prime Minister who is entrusted with the people’s votes; he dared, together with members of the intelligence service to change the election results in agreement with powerful political parties.”
The election issue is only one of the many disagreements between the Loyalist Mobilization factions and Al-Kadhimi. Other thorny issues include conflicting political orientations of the two sides. In his political speech, the prime minister focused on priorities such as: confining the right to possess arms to the state, restoring the state’s prestige, subjecting the Popular Mobilization factions to state control, sparing Iraq the dangers of being an arena for settling scores between Washington and Tehran, and strengthening Iraqi-Arab relations.
Such initiatives are not acceptable to the Loyalist Mobilization factions that wish for their loyalty to the Iraqi state to remain formal, so that they would continue to benefit from its resources and capabilities, and at the same time enjoy the independence that would enable them to challenge the government when necessary. Those pro-Iranian organizations move in a wide grey area between the state and the non-state, as they are with the Iraqi state and against it at the same time. Besides, they had previously accused Al-Kadhimi of being involved in the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, when Al-Kadhimi was heading the intelligence service. The loyalist factions reject any plans or attempts to restructure Popular Mobilization in a way that makes its subordination to the state real rather than just formal.
Implications of the attack
The possible ramifications of the Al-Kadhimi assassination attempt should be viewed in light of several factors.
In addition, it is important to consider the possible ramifications of the assassination attempt against the backdrop of his government’s experience in dealing with the loyalist factions. The government has tried a few times to decisively confront some of those factions, but the results were not as desired. On June 25, 2020, counterterrorism forces raided a site controlled by pro-Iranian Hezbollah Battalions in Dora, to the south of Baghdad, arresting 14 of its members on charges of targeting the Green Zone with rockets. This operation was the first to target a faction of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
Four days later, on June 29, 2020, the detainees were released by the PMF judge for lack of evidence. They were received in their PMF military uniforms at one of the premises of Hezbollah Battalions. On this occasion, they stepped on pictures of the prime minister, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. This was an insult to the Iraqi government. The government’s silence regarding the release of the detainees and such insults against the office of the prime minister and commander-in-chief gave the impression that the state was retreating in front of the loyalist factions.
On May 26, 2021, Iraqi security forces arrested Qassim Musleh, leader of PMF forces in West Anbar, pursuant to Article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Law. He was then referred for investigation on criminal charges before a joint investigation committee. In response, some pro-Iran factions surrounded parts of the heavily fortified Green Zone, performing a show of force using medium and light weapons in order to pressure the government to release Musleh or hand him over to the PMF security apparatus. Eventually, Qassim Musleh was released after a short period as the Supreme Judicial Council confirmed that the evidence presented by the authorities did not prove his involvement in any crime.
In assessing the ramifications of the assassination attempt, there are three possible scenarios.
The Al-Kadhimi assassination attempt has revealed once again some of the challenges and imbalances that affect the future of the state and the political system in Iraq. In this respect, the PMF, particularly its loyalist factions, should be restructured. The law regulating them should be modified in a way that forces them report to the Ministry of Defense and reintegrates them into the Iraqi armed forces based on individual capabilities and qualifications, rather than as ideological organizations with external loyalties. Unless this happens, the loyalist factions and other PMF units will remain far from the concept of a professional army. They will also remain capable of obstructing any efforts aimed at controlling arms and asserting the sovereignty of the Iraqi state. In addition, these factions will continue to act as a conduit for Iranian influence in Iraq, which is linked to Iran’s regional and international agenda. Things will get even more serious if the PMF turns into Iraqi Revolutionary Guard Corps, similar to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Will the next Iraqi government, whether headed by Al-Kadhimi or someone else, be capable of doing such restructuring? That is the real challenge for Iraq.
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