Mustafa al-Kadhimi last month. Photo: Khalil Dawood/Xinhua via Getty Images
On the 7th of November rockets dropped from several drones crashed onto the roof of the residence of Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. But in a country riven by nearly 20 years of sectarian conflict, the wildest part of the episode is that no one is brave enough to investigate what actually happened.
Kadhimi was not hurt in the Baghdad assassination attempt, but six of his guards were injured. Still, it’s clear that there is a lack of political will to investigate the powerful Iran-backed paramilitary groups that have been widely blamed for the attack. A sloppy investigation by a police force that fears the militias has so far led to no arrests or charges.
Iraq’s divided and corrupt government has struggled to contain several Iran-backed militias, which continue to refuse to accept October’s general election results. The political parties linked to the militias lost two-thirds of their parliamentary seats – a significant blow to their power and influence in the country. They have since claimed, without any evidence, that the historically low turnout polls were marred by mass fraud.
While the groups have denied any involvement in the incident, they have repeatedly used the same locally made drones in similar attacks in the past few years targeting US bases in Baghdad and Erbil, which they claimed responsibility under a number of made-up names. Despite the relative calm in the Iraqi capital since the attack, the militias continue to pose a threat to a fragile government that struggles to even name the groups that tried to kill its prime minister, and tensions are mounting.
Iran-backed militias fought foreign troops periodically from the US-led invasion in 2003 until 2011, when most US troops left.
Groups such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq enjoy Iranian funding and training and are among the more extreme branches that work as part of an Iranian proxy network of armed groups across the region under the flag of an anti-Western “axis of resistance.”
Members of an umbrella organisation – now known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an alliance of armed forces – the Iran-backed Iraqi groups have gained enormous influence over the country’s security and institutions owing to their help dismantling the so-called ISIS caliphate. The groups were technically drafted under the Iraqi national security apparatus in the battle against the Sunni extremists and even managed to form a strong coalition inside Iraq’s parliament and play a vital role in government in 2018 until the brutality they inflicted upon civilians lost them their popularity in 2021’s elections.
Iranian officials moved to distance themselves from the attack on Kadhimi, rushing to condemn it, and the country’s top general and foreign military strategist, Ismail Qaani, reportedly flew to Baghdad to try and defuse the situation.
The Iraqi security forces collected evidence from the aftermath of the attack that included parts of "locally made" drones shot down by the guards, and an unexploded rocket on the roof of the building.
Qais al Khazali, the leader of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, questioned whether the drone attack had even taken place in a televised address, saying: “Targeting of the prime minister’s house, if true, is serious and cannot be tolerated at all.”
Khazali also criticised Kadhimi for blocking two “factions” from the militia groups in the investigation into the attempted assassination. “We sent a message to the committee charged with the investigation. You must provide concrete evidence and real proof, not allegations,” he added.
But the investigation committee tasked with probing the attack is not exactly making progress: it is yet to officially identify any individual or party in connection.
Last week, Qasim al-Araji, Iraq’s national security adviser, held a press conference to present the evidence collected by an investigation committee. He showed footage from CCTV records showing the impact of the explosion on the house. Araji criticised the process of evidence-handling after the bomb squad detonated an unexploded projectile without collecting fingerprints from it first.
“We have launched an investigation into this matter and are asking for justification on the decision to not collect fingerprints,” said Araji, urging political parties to come forward and help the investigation identify the people behind the attack.
While Kadhimi came out right after the attack to say that “We will pursue those who committed yesterday’s crime; we know them well, and we will expose them,” the former spy chief is in a weak position: he is only serving in a caretaker role until a new government is formed, and is seen by many as a puppet of the US, which still has 2,500 troops stationed in the country to fight ISIS in what the US says is at the invitation of the Iraqi government.
US President Joe Biden met with Kadhimi in July this year in Washington, signalling his administration’s commitment to the Iraqi government. It was announced that US troops’ status would shift from deployment to an advisory role in Iraq by the end of 2021.
But the latest drone attack showed how far the Iran-backed militias are willing to go to push the local authorities after suffering a defeat in the latest elections. The Iraqi government inside the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad may have heard the message from the militias, but with a newly-elected parliament entering lengthy coalition government negotiations, it’s unlikely tensions will drop anytime soon.