A handout picture released by Iraq's Prime Minister's Media Office on November 7 shows Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi heading a meeting, hours after his residence was targeted by a drone attack, in the capital Baghdad. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: On Sunday morning Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt, when an explosive-laden drone targeted his residence in Baghdad’s ‘Green Zone’. Moments later, he tweeted: “I am fine, among my people,” calling for “calm and restraint”.

The attempted assassination comes as no surprise, given Al Kadhimi’s long list of opponents in Iraq, mainly among Iran-backed militias with whom he has been in direct confrontation for more than one year now. When bringing him to power back in May 2020, these parties thought he would be a weak leader whom they could manipulate, given that he is not affiliated with any of the major political blocs and nor does he hail from any of the big political families in the Shiite community, like the Sadrs or the Hakims.

Failed promises

Al Kadhimi was the first prime minister in post-Saddam Iraq who was never on Iranian payroll and had never lived in Iran, unlike Haidar Abadi, Nouri Al Malki, and Ebrahim Al Jaafari. When assuming office, he promised accountability for the 600 demonstrators shot dead during the era of his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mehdi, who were taking part in peaceful demonstrations staged in October 2019.

That was easier said than done, since many of the militias who had opened fire at the demonstrators were affiliated with the same Iran-backed parties that were in control of the Iraqi parliament, and who had helped bring him to power. He also promised to confiscate the unsolicited arms of these militias, and strengthen border control to deprive them of their access to cash and weapons streaming in from Iran. On both accounts, Al Kadhimi was unable to fulfil his promise. Here is a list of potential suspects who have an axe to grind with Mustafa Al Kadhimi.

Popular Mobilisation Units

Originally established with Iranian funds to fight Daesh, the PMU has grown into a full-fledge army, sponsored by and embedded with Iraqi officialdom. Under Abdul Mehdi, its forces were recognised as part of the Iraqi military.

The PMU had pledged to retaliate against the Americans after the January 2020 assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad, commander of the Iran’s Quds Force. They retaliated with a series of attacks against American targets in Iraq, prompting Al Kadhimi to arrest their commander Qasem Musleh on May 26 in the Anbar Province.

Originally established with Iranian funds to fight Daesh, the PMU has grown into a full-fledge army, sponsored by and embedded with Iraqi officialdom. Image Credit: AFP

Musleh was accused, among other things, of targeting civilians and journalists who were critical or Iranian influence in Iraq. He was also blamed for the murder of Ihab Wazni, a prominent activist who had led anti-Iran demonstrators in the city of Karbala, 100km southwest of Baghdad. And finally, he was accused of masterminding the rocket attacks on US forces after the Suleimani assassination.

The arrest raised eyebrows within the Shiite community, as PMU fighters surrounded the premier’s residence and threatened to storm it unless Musleh was immediately released. On June 2, Al Kadhimi threatened to resign, but he never did, and by June 9, was forced to sign off Musleh’s release after an Iraqi court set him free for “lack of evidence” on all the crimes that were attributed to him.

Musleh returned to politics, with vengeance on his mind. He has every reason to want Al Kadhimi dead — or at the very least frightened.

During his brief period in custody, the PMU staged a series of retaliatory attacks, one at the US Embassy in the Green Zone and another on the Ayn Al Asad military base in Anbar. Al Kadhimi never approved of the attacks, but was unable to stop them. The attacks were staged with small explosive-laden drones, identical to the ones used against Al Kadhimi’s residence on Sunday.

Kataeb Hezbollah

Kataeb Hezbollah was first among the militias on Al Kadhimi’s hit list. It had been founded shortly after the US invasion of 2003 and was modelled on its Lebanese namesake. Less than two months after he assumed office Al Kadhimi ordered a raid on its offices in a Baghdad suburb, confiscating crates of mobile Katyusha rockets that were to be used in attacks against US troops and Baghdad International Airport.

IRAN Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis-1613990770838
Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, was killed along with Gen Suleimani in a US drone strike on January 3, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Considered a terrorist organisation by the US, UAE, and Japan, Kataeb Hezbollah had been threatening major attacks against US forces in retaliation for the murder of its leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, who was killed along with Suleimani on January 3, 2020.

Fourteen members of the Iran-backed militia were arrested at Al Kadhimi’s orders on June 25, 2020, prompting their comrades to march on the Green Zone, threatening to unseat the Prime Minister. By June 30, all of them had been released, but the ordeal was never forgotten — nor forgiven — by Muhandis’ successor, Abdul Aziz Al Mohammadawi. They too have a score to settle with Al Kadhimi.

Fateh Alliance

So does the Fateh Alliance that is headed by Hadi Al Amiri, secretary-general of the Badr Organisation, another Iran-funded militia active since the 1980s. Badr was originally founded by Iran to fight Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Army during the Iran-Iraq War. The Fateh Alliance includes a large coalition of Iran-backed militias like the PMU, Badr, Asaib Ahl Al Haq, Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Imam Ali. It was created as a political coalition to contest the 2018 parliamentary elections, in which it won 48 out of 329 seats.

They ran for parliament against in October, expecting to more than double their share of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, up to 100. Instead, they suffered a stunning setback as their share was slashed from 48 to just 20 seats. Badr alone had 22 seats in the chamber of 2018, and they are now down to 5 while the PMU commands just 5 seats, explaining why the Hadi Al Amiri snapped: “We will not accept the fabricated results, whatever the costs.”

Hadi Al Amiri, secretary-general of the Badr Organisation. Image Credit: Reuters

After losing their parliamentary bloc, they will no longer be able to dictate who Iraq’s next prime minister will be, raising Al Kadhimi’s chance for re-appointment. Due to his track record ahead of the elections, and his standoff with the PMU and Kataeb Hezbollah, members of the Fateh Alliance had been planning to remove him after the parliamentary elections concluded on 10 October.

Amiri blames Al Kadhimi for the defeat of his Alliance, and has resorted first to the courts, and then to the streets, to challenge the results. Al Kadhimi insists the elections were democratic and refuses all accusations of fraud and/or manipulation.

To drive a point, the Fateh Alliance might resort to sending the Prime Minister a violent message — that either he complies with their demands, or suffers an ugly fate. They too stand suspect in Sunday’s failed assassination attempt.